Bolstered by political patronage, the sand mafia is wreaking havoc across the state's rivers and doesn't give two hoots about court orders. The suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal has only strengthened this belief.
The mafia's connections with politicians, policemen and bureaucrats have enabled them to spread their roots across Vindhyachal, Bundelkhand, Purvanchal and the Ganga-Yamuna plains. Illegal mining is widespread in all rivers - Ganga, Yamuna, Chambal, Ken, Betwa, Rapti and Gomti.
"It is a business without any regulations," says Ashish Sagar, an activist who has been taking on the mafia in Banda. And it's highly lucrative because, as Sagar puts it, "You sell something you haven't produced. You buy nothing, but sell it well because there's high demand."
The rise of many a sand miner has been meteoric. A small-time worker of the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in Banda (name withheld) entered the business six months ago. Not only has he gained financially - he owns an SUV now - but also politically as he has recently been made an office-bearer of the party's local unit.
Another case in point is the jailed former BSP minister Babu Singh Kushwaha, who was one of Banda's sand lords and went on to head the mining department in the Mayawati regime.
Activists point out that all sand mining in the state is illegal even if the state government has given them land. But their illegal jobs do not bother them; what does is resistance. And they know how to crush it.
On May 26 in Agra, a handful of musclemen employed by one of the sand miners attacked a checking team that was chasing a tractor carrying sand from the Yamuna riverbed. They tried to mow down the tehsildar and topple the team's vehicle when the woman sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) was inside it. While the SDM escaped unhurt, the tehsildar was injured.
Another alleged incident of muscle-flexing was the murder of whistleblower Pale Ram Chauhan in Gautam Budh Nagar on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, people continue to die due to unchecked sand mining. In Meerut region, over 20 children have died in two years when they got trapped in the trenches dug by the sand mafia in Yamuna's shallow areas.
Given the illegal nature of the business, most mining takes place at night, a fact Baghpat district magistrate Amrit Tripathi confirmed. And these miners brazenly use earthmovers though the use of machines is banned.
Recently, when the Allahabad district administration swooped down on illegal miners, it seized 40,000 tractor-loads of sand and four giant earthmovers.
In Banda alone, 940 hectares of riverside land is under a mining lease. The scale of the business is so large there that over 2,500 sand-laden trucks go out of the Banda segment of National Highway 76 daily.