The dangerous sand mafia stops at nothing. It kills, runs over men in uniform, kidnaps and, in Uttar Pradesh, even molests and rapes. Its impunity stems from the fact, as an HT investigation found, that complaints lodged with police often remain confined to files.
Shivpal Singh, gram pradhan of Bansariya village, testifies to the mafia’s dominance .
“In March 2014, the musclemen of a kingpin sexually assaulted two women while they were working in a field,” he said. “Their families own land near the banks of Betwa and had refused to give up the land for the construction of a temporary road linking the riverbed to the main road.”
The women lodged a complaint at the local police station but no action was taken.
In another instance, a woman was abducted in November 2014 when she opposed the development of a temporary road near her hutment. She was beaten up and dumped at a desolate spot.
A few days later, a truck rammed into her hut and she was forced to flee. “Neither the district administration nor the gram panchayat helped me when I was attacked by the sand mafia,” the victim told HT.
Sand is precious to the real estate industry and the mafia is known to ravage riverbeds and land with heavy equipment to dredge up tonnes of earth and sell it at steep discounts to builders.
Despite a National Green Tribunal, NGT, order in August 2013 restraining all sand mining activities without environmental clearance, illegal quarrying continues unabated along the rivers of UP. Mighty water bodies like the Ganga, Yamuna, Son and Betwa are dying a slow death.
A mining department official said the illegal quarrying in UP fetches up to thousands of crores a year and the figure is set to rise despite restrictions imposed by the NGT and the apex court.
In the first three months this year alone, the mining department registered 314 FIRs and filed 219 petitions in court against members of the mafia.
Department head Bhaskar Upadhyay says they have launched a drive against illegal mining but HT hit ground zero to find the mafia flourishing, as its kingpins are quick to find political allegiance even when governments change.
Bundelkhand’s Karan Singh Rajput, a close aide of former BSP mining minister Babu Singh Kushwaha, is a case in point. No one dared to challenge his might as his private militia grew in size: around hundred armed men, 400 trucks and dumpers and 100 JCB machines.
They were active under the BSP till 2012, and continue to hold sway with the SP in power, along the Betwa and Ken rivers that flow through Jhansi, Jalaun, Hamirpur and Banda districts.
Rajput was supervising illegal mining in areas bordering Hamirpur and Jalaun when this reporter went there posing as a researcher. “I did not have a problem during the BSP’s government, nor do I have a problem now that the SP is in power,” Rajput said.
The mafia dons not only use muscle and money power to grab mining tenders but also provide arms and ammunition to gangs involved in illegal quarrying.
“UP Special Task Force (STF) had prepared a list of gangs supplying weapons and ammunition to the sand mafia. But no action has been taken against them,” said a senior police officer.
In Hamirpur district, the mafia have constructed private roads and bridges to transport sand from Betwa near Beri, Jalalpur, Indrapuri, Chandaur and Jigni villages. Agricultural land has been usurped and sand-laden trucks frequently move through the fields.
The plunderers have a network of informers in villages. Many opposed to their acts have been forced to seal their lips. “It is better to be silent than dead,” says Jagat Pal of Indrapuri village.
Armed men guard the route and outsiders are not allowed. This reporter found two dozen men with guns watching over the mining activities.
“Even the cops do not dare to inspect the spot,” says Mahesh Sikarwar, the “munim”, or clerk, of illegal mining baron Dileep Singh. “Hafta” (bribes) are delivered to police personnel at the police station, he added.
Gunny sacks stuffed with cash are dumped in a tent ringed by half a dozen guards carrying weapons.
“This is our bank” says Sikarwar. “The transporters, contractors and real estate businessmen who purchase sand send cash through truck drivers. Later the money goes to politicians, mining officer, policemen, forest officers, regional transport officer, irrigation department officials, environment department babus and district administration officers.”
To escape raids, temporary bunkers have been set up along the riverbank where weapons and money are stored.
“Gang rivalry is common in the area and gunmen take position in the bunkers to repulse attacks,” Sikarwar says. He turns down a request for a photograph. “I am wanted in eight murder cases.”
That Sikarwar hasn’t been arrested demonstrates the compelling politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus. These ties were probed by the state lokayukta and the investigation points a finger at the minister in charge of mining in the Akhilesh Yadav government: Gayatri Prajapati.
Lokayukta Justice (retd) NK Mehrotra found that the estate department allotted rooms in a VVIP guest house to members of the illegal mining syndicate who were working as intermediaries between the mafia and the minister. The contractors were called to the guest house to finalise a mining deal and deliver payment.
In its report, the forest department informed the lokayukta that 18 mining “pattas”, or licences, were allotted by the mining department in forest area without clearance from the environment department. Even the forest department was not asked for consent and contractors were told to start mining. As the order came from the minister, the mining mafia had its way.
When contacted by HT, Prajapati said “The investigation against me was started because of political vendetta.”
Brijmohan Yadav, a resident of Banda, moved a petition before the NGT regarding illegal sand mining in Ken and Betwa rivers. The commissioners appointed by the tribunal visited the spot and found the allegations to be true.
In January, the NGT issued notices to the mining department and district administration officials, but no action was taken.
Instead, Yadav says he was harassed by district police and arrested on false charges . He was been released on the orders of the Allahabad high court and is now receiving threats. “I have urged the district administration to provide me security, but they have left me out in the cold,” he told HT.
The powerful and the mighty are evidently on the side of the mafia.