Harsa Bela sarpanch Surjit Singh stands on the Sutlej banks, looking at his eroded field and cursing the officials who overlooked complaints against illegal mining downstream and upstream.
The Sutlej and its tributary, the Swan, scare villagers every monsoon. The mining mafia has bled the two rivers so much in Nurpur Bedi and Anandpur Sahib blocks of Rupnagar district that their courses keep changing. “Last year, they dug up the riverbed at Harsa Bela, too,” said Surjit Singh. “You see how the river has meandered to the fields, all due to illegal mining.”
The villagers’ greed also costs them. Bakhshish Singh’s standing maize crop over 6 acres was washed out last monsoon after he gave 2 acres on contract to the mining mafia for making a quick buck. “I didn’t know the consequences,” said the farmer, “but now I want this (mining) to stop.”
Mining-affected villages Sansowal, Sawara, Saidpur, Chandpur, Bein Hara, and Shahpur also face the wrath of a swollen Sutlej during rains.
BRIDGE IN PERIL
A kilometre downstream Harsa Bela, the Agampur bridge has visible cracks in one of its pillars. Mining has exposed its foundations. “When trucks overloaded with sand and gravel run over it all night,” said a cop, “the bridge shakes.”
“They (the trucks) start at about 8pm and go on till morning,” the cop deployed there said. “The PWD (public works department) inspected the bridge many times but never started any repair.”
On November 7, 2015, then Rupnagar deputy commissioner Tanu Kashyap wrote to the senior superintendent of police (SSP): “We have four-five crushers in the vicinity and so much illegal mining that there is a danger to the bridge. I need cops on the bridge to keep a watch, and a weekly report.” The cops hold their post and do their duty — of just watching overloaded trucks come and go.
Two years ago, the Anandpur Sahib subdivisional officer (SDO) of the public works department (PWD) had raised the alarm. Rupnagar general manager of industries Chaman Lal acknowledged the plundering of the riverbed and said his department will fence the riverbanks up to half a kilometre.
This July 27, present DC Karnesh Sharma signed a contradictory inquiry report stating: “There is no danger as such to the (Agampur) bridge.” This after the Punjab and Haryana high court had told him on July 20 to visit the site in 48 hours and reply by August 3. The court is hearing a petition against a Bein Hara quarry notified in November 2014.
The report quoted the Bein Hara sarpanch as having “no objection” to the quarry upstream of the bridge.
Another bridge, over the Swan at Algran, has stone crushers both upstream and downstream, with heaps of construction raw material lying unaccounted for. The mandatory green signs at each crusher site are blank, with no detail of the source quarry and the amount of stone crushed in a day.
The paperwork is a mere formality to please the Punjab and Haryana high court. “This is old stock,” a crusher owner said, when pointed to a heap. He avoided further queries on documentation. “Ask contractor Billu,” said Lakhwinder Gill, when asked from where the material had come. He said he owned this Neelkanth Stone Crusher “in partnership with (Congress legislator) Balbir Sidhu”.
A BRUSH WITH MAFIA
The search for Billu led the HT team to an illegal checkpoint where some boys collected “royalty” from passing truck drivers. “They take Rs 300 for every 100 cubic feet (of load),” said a driver, as he came out with receipts collected from the boys.
Their boss arrived in an SUV and after making certain that there was no camera around, said with piercing eyes: “Why are you asking all these questions?”. “Billu could be in Chandigarh,” he replied to another query, “we are going to stop illegal mining”. He didn’t give his name and replied with a stare to what the “royalty” was about.
The site is the office of Balwinder Billu, whose Akash Stone Crusher growls all day, its heaps of sand and gravel the biggest of all units.