As many as 170 villages along the mighty Chambal river in Madhya Pradesh have been taken over by the flourishing sand mafia, turning the vast swathe into a veritable fortress that even police dare not breach.
To protect the lucrative trade worth about Rs 30 lakh a day, HT discovered, people in these parts of Morena district are ready to kill anyone, be it a commoner, a constable or a senior police officer.
The murder of policeman Dharmendra Singh Chauhan this month who tried to stop a sand-laden truck is the latest example of the clout the syndicate wields.
India’s construction boom and the spiralling demand for sand needed to build offices, factories, malls, high-rises and highways spells good business for the mafia but the rampant excavation is taking a toll on river systems and the environment.
The mafia has developed such a strong network in this out-of bounds region in MP that it can stop police from reaching the riverbanks almost every time there’s a raid, thanks to tip-offs from local villagers.
“Whenever police makes a plan to search the banks of the river, the villagers unite and attack the team. Clearly they get advance information,” said district forest officer (DFO) Vincent Raheem.
On the rare occasions when sand-ferrying vehicles are seized, an army of villagers on the payrolls of the mafia is always at hand to even storm police stations where confiscated trucks are parked.
The mafia-babu-politician nexus works like a well-oiled machine in Madhya Pradesh and the illegal trade has now spread beyond borders.
“Now, miners have also started interstate supply of sand to builders at a cheap rate. In selling a dumper full of sand, they make a profit of Rs 9,000-10,000,” said Ram Swaroop, a sand dealer in Morena.
Given the substantial revenues, the syndicate doesn’t mind shelling out kickbacks of Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 to policemen, said a resident of Essah village on condition of anonymity.
During police questioning, the owner of the dumper truck that crushed constable Dharmendra Singh Chauhan said he had support from local politicians. However, superintendent of police Navneet Bhasin said, “Police never support illegal work. They work independently.”
Politicians have found ingenious to back the mafia. Sand mining from Chambal was stopped in 2006 after the Supreme Court ordered a ban to protect endangered gharials, or fish-eating crocodiles.
Soon after, Congress and BJP legislators started demanding that a portion of the river that doesn’t affect the gharial sanctuary be legalised for mining.
“The problem of illegal sand mining is getting worse by the day,” said chief conservator of forests (CCF) Rajesh Kumar. “I have been seeing this illegal mining since two decades, when I was posted as district forest officer in Morena.”
While the mafia has shown its violent ways in the Chambal area, it operates silently along the banks of the Narmada, a river that is revered as “mother” by villagers.
The Narmada flows through chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s ancestral home of Sehore and here too the administration has failed to stop the plunder.
Mining secretary Sheo Shekhar Shukla said the state’s new sand mining policy, announced last month, will bring in transparency through an e-auction process and ensure there is no dearth of supply. But the unlawful trade has found silent social acceptance.
HT visited various parts of Sehore where illegal sand mining was going on with impunity under the nose of authorities, but most district officials were not forthcoming when questioned on the issue.
In 2012, when Sehore’s joint collector Girish Sharma started taking action against such violations and imposed a penalty worth crores of rupees on a sand mining company, he was simply transferred from the position.
The hunger for sand is so great, trolleys and dumpers are loaded far above sanctioned limits and the quarrying goes on beyond allotted boundaries.
HT found thousands of trolleys and dumpers transporting sand to Sehore’s Ichhawar region and storing it there, as the area resembles a desert with countless sand dunes.
“We are exploring how we can use advances in various technologies to help us monitor or keep tabs on the sand mining activities across the state. We are checking possible technologies, be it satellite imagery or GPS-based technology,” said chief secretary Anthony de Sa
At Pangri Khadi Jodey village near Ichhawar, hillocks of sand, each over a 100-feet-high, were clearly visible. Local sources said over 50,000 dumpers of sand were stored there with hundreds more coming in.
Local authorities said there was nothing wrong with the storage process, but sources told HT the quantity cannot exceed 200 dumper trucks for each contractor.
According to area collector Sudam Khade, sand mines are spread over 136 hectares in the district. “In the last seven to eight months, we have taken action in 280 cases of illegal sand mining and collected penalty amounting to Rs 77 lakh,” he said, when asked what action had been taken.
Khade said lack of manpower was a key handicap in monitoring and cracking down on mining violations.
The penalties are clearly not much of a deterrent. Penalty of Rs 77 lakh over an entire year is a small speck in the ocean of the illegal sand mining business in Chambal worth Rs 30 lakh a day.
(Additional reporting by Mahendra Thakur and Mahesh Shivhare)