A year after DSP’s murder, illegal mining down but not out in Aravallis

By, Gurugram/sohna/nuh
Jul 19, 2023 12:19 AM IST

A year after a senior cop was murdered by the mining mafia in Nuh, HT takes stock of measures taken to combat the menace in the Aravallis

A year ago, when deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Surinder Singh was run over and killed by a dump truck allegedly driven by illegal stone miners in Nuh’s Panchgaon, the gruesome murder prodded the government into launching a series of measures to curb illegal mining, which was taking place for decades in the hillocks of the Aravallis in Nuh and Gurugram districts.

The plundered remains of a hillock, in Pachgavan in Nuh district. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo)
The plundered remains of a hillock, in Pachgavan in Nuh district. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo)

Much was said, and done, to bring down the mining mafia that was slowly eating into the protected mountain ranges. The initiatives included marking the hillocks, night patrolling, setting up of check posts, launching a toll-free helpline number for reporting mining related complaints, a dedicated police station, digging trenches on forest roads to deter trucks, drone surveillance and random surprise checks. While all these measures have significantly reduced illegal mining, they have not fully eliminated it.

We're now on WhatsApp. Click to join.

Haryana Forest minster Moolchand Sharma said cases of illegal mining has drastically declined in Nuh after all the measures taken by them. “All vehicles carrying illegally mined stones are auctioned and penalties are huge -- equal to the value of their trucks. We have formed committees in each district which hold weekly meetings to get a ground report. There is no commercial illegal mining taking place; locals are collecting stones for construction of their houses. Police, forest and mining department have worked very hard to curb this menace,” he said.

Check posts in Aravallis

None of the 51 forest check posts set up in the Aravallis zone of Gurugram and Sohna in 2016 exist anymore, an investigation by HT has found, underlining the vulnerability of the eco-sensitive region which has suffered irreversible damage over the years due to the plunder by the mining mafia.

HT could find no check posts on Monday, even in areas from where the police receive regular complaints of illegal mining.

Mohan Rathee, 55, a resident of Gairatpur Baas, said forest officials visit the area only once a week. “Daily, at least 20 tractor trolleys carry away illegally mined stones from the area. No one bothers to check the hillocks,” he said.

Mange Ram, 38, a resident of Raisina village, said, “Forest officials visit once in a while to mark their attendance. There is no fear among illegal miners. They know that there is no surveillance,” he said.

HT on Tuesday also spotted fresh truck tyre marks in Raisina, Gairatpur Baas, Sohna, Kadarpur and Ghamroj in Gurugram pointing to the movement of heavy vehicles in these parts to transport stones.

The mountain spot in Pachgavan where DSP Surinder Singh was killed allegedly by illegal stone miners on July 19, 2022. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo)
The mountain spot in Pachgavan where DSP Surinder Singh was killed allegedly by illegal stone miners on July 19, 2022. (Parveen Kumar/HT Photo)

Forest officials said they had hired locals for manning check posts, but they quit after remaining unpaid. “We are short-staffed and cannot spare our personnel. Even the last remaining six posts have shut,” said Karambir Malik, Gurugram forest range officer.

Launch of helpline number

On March 10, on the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Haryana’s mining department launched a toll-free number -- 1800-180-5530 -- for the public to report illegal mining activities 24/7. Although 14 complaints have been received on the helpline so far, only eight were found to be correct, said Anil Kumar, Gurugram and Nuh mining officer.

He said a majority of the calls turned out to be fake. “Also, night patrolling teams are constantly at risk as miners always carry weapons with them,” he said.

On June 14, an eight-member squad headed by Kumar was allegedly attacked by a dozen men carrying sticks when they went to Sancholi village in Sohna to check illegal sand mining.

Police said the mining officer suffered a fracture to his hand. Although all suspects were arrested two days later, the incident once again highlighted the grave risk to personnel who go patrolling.

Jyoti Raghavan, managing trustee, Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, said, “When officials go on raids and patrols, they must go with adequate police protection. Illegal miners cannot be allowed to get away with beating up or murdering officials as it happened last year in Nuh.”

Data from mining department shows that between January 1 and July 13 this year, penalties of 2.38 crore were slapped on suspected miners in Nuh and 207 vehicles were impounded . In Gurugram, 49 lakh was recovered in penalties and 51 vehicles were seized.

HT spot checks 16 sites

From the Kundli-Manesar-Palwal Expressway flyover, the Aravalli hills stand 4km away on the outskirts of Malhaka village in Nuh district. A cursory glance at the hillocks, covered in lush monsoon green, is enough to spot the ugly brown patches created by decades of battering by miners.

It is only when one moves closer to the hills – about 500 metres further from the last brick stone house in the village located about 37km from Gurugram -- that it becomes obvious that the battering never ceased.

The saving grace in Malhaka village is the absence of mining activity in broad daylight, thanks primarily to the region’s proximity to the National Capital Region. “Someone or the other has been constantly visiting the quarries since the incident (DCP’s murder),” Iqbal Khan, a cattle grazer, said, referring to police, mining officials and the media.

But move deeper into Haryana, away from the eyes of the authorities, and the ground reality changes. In Jhimrawat, a village in Nuh, about 75km from Gurugram, the time of the day doesn’t matter, as long as outsiders are not around. The din of the tractors being loaded with stones rend the air through the day, and labourers keep chipping away till they tire.

Occasionally, when an outsider’s vehicle approaches, the village’s information network kicks in and the miners scatter; the tractors go silent.

Night patrolling

According to reports by the Nuh’s mining and pollution department, the two villages -- Jhimrawat and Tigaon-- are home to at least 16 sites where illegal mining has continued over recent years.

HT visited these 16 sites on July 16 (Sunday) where mining was taking place at a commercial scale until the murder of the DSP last year. Since then, the scale has reduced to domestic use.

Labourers at mining sites in Jhimrawat say the police team visits only once a day. In the wake of the DSP’s murder, they used to visit twice a day but after a few months,the visits dwindled. Unsurprisingly, the police appeared unaware of the mining still going on.

Local police claim that there are hardly any case of illegal mining. The “rare instances” are of locals gathering stones for personal use.

Varun Singla, Nuh superintendent of police, said they have tried to curb the menace as much as possible. “After the murder of DSP Singh, a mega operation was launched and a lot of vehicles were seized. The Nuh police followed it up by marking illegal mining pits and taking regular photographs of these pits to ensure that there was no fresh activity. Campaigns were launched in affected villages to sensitise villagers against resorting to such activities and also to alert police of any illegal mining,” he said.

Singla said they have registered nine cases this year between January and June 30 and arrested 32 persons but none of the cases was actually of illegal mining on the spot. “Most cases registered are of panchayat dispute where they had removed soil from one area while constructing road and, in another case, while constructing a mosque. We have not found a single person illegally mining stone this past year,” he said.

Jawahar Yadav, officer on special duty (OSD) to Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, said illegal mining has reduced. “The stones are majorly brought from Rajasthan now. During surprise checks, we found that vehicles carrying stones are not from Nuh. Only a few areas are still resorting to illegal mining and we are in the process of reviving check posts. We are also undertaking drone surveillance to keep a check on these activities,” he said.

Yadav said the government will form an Aravalli Task Force this year for regular patrolling to curb illegal mining, poaching of wildlife/birds and felling of trees.

New spots emerge

Police said miners have moved away from spots which were legally mined until 2002 to “secret spots” just 100-200 metres away.

“These alternative sites have allowed them to camouflage their activities,” said Sayed Khan, a villager from Tauru.

One such site is in Pachgavan village where DSP SIngh was killed on July 19 while responding to a tipoff about illegal mining. The illegal miners abandoned the old quarries in favour of a site nestled in the hillocks.

But in the year since the DSP’s murder, mining activity has stopped completely at the Pachgavan site. The route leading to the quarries has been blocked by large stones that fell off the dumper which killed DSP SIngh. Grass has taken over the path, a visible indicator that the area remains untouched.

“If there is one place where illegal mining won’t resume in Haryana, it is Pachgaon,” said villager Mohammas Ismail.

At some other spots, locals continue to chip away at the old quarries for constructing their houses and boundary walls.

“We take what we need, but not for selling. These are our natural resources over which we have a right,” insists Firdous Biwi, a woman from Silkho, a Nuh village, on the outskirts of which mining has continued rampantly even after it was banned in 2002.

The mining site outside Silkho borders two other villages, Dhilamki and Noorpur and the entire site spans a little over 1.5km with roots jutting out from impacted trees.

Small and large stones, enough to fill at least six trucks. remained abandoned at several spots in these quarries. Illegal miners said these stones were abandoned in the wake of the DSP’s murder. “Now, we are collecting them in small loads at night,” said Sahil Khan, a villager.

Miners said they use bulldozers and earth movers to create multiple rough and bumpy paths so as make sites accessible only to dumper trucks and tractors.

“To make access difficult for vehicles belonging to authorities, miners deliberately put stones and boulders on the path,” said mining officer Kumar.

Large tyre marks were visible on many such paths in mining sites in Silkho, Chila and Malaka , made by trucks arriving to collect the leftover stones.

Mining at the three sites ceased after the DSP’s death, said Kumar.

At one of the mining sites near Pipaka village in Tauru, the quarry resembles a ravine over 300 metres long, nearly 40 metres deep, and 40 metres wide at some points. The site is accessed by a narrow tar road. The quarries wear a weathered look, the naked stones are dark-brown, with vegetation between the broken rocks with blunt edges.

It has been six years since mining ceased here,” a cattle grazer said, possibly in a bid to prevent any further exploration.

There are chalk marks on the hillocks, made by the mining department, to ensure no one takes a pick axe to the hills. But illegal miners have their ways.

A clear off-road trail, possibly left behind by plying vehicles, lead to the deep ravine a few hundred metres away. “The mine is several kilometres long,” Nasir Khan, a grazer wielding a seemingly expensive phone, said, in an effort to dissuade any further exploration.

Officials said grazers in these regions are often used as informers. “In exchange for a fancy smartphone and monthly recharges, they alert the miners of any government or police movement,” said a former mining officer.

Miners find a way around trenches

At least 30 trenches -- 2.5 metres wide and 4 metres deep --were dug in 15 villages to prevent illegal miners from accessing the Aravalli hills on July 22, three days after the DSP’s murder.

Tree were also planted on the routes -- in Tapkan and Rehna villages -- and police barricades were put up on the path outside Chajjupur village.

Bur miners found a way around the trenches. “At night, they used earth movers to fill up the trenches with mud, transport illegally mined stones, and then dug up the trench all over again by morning to fool the authorities. Now we have deployed a team to keep guard round the clock. For the past many months, the trenches have remained untouched and illegal mining has reduced drastically,” said Vijender Singh, district forest officer (DFO), Nuh .

Singh said earlier, they used to send over 100 cases annually to the special environmental court in Faridabad but now that has reduced to 24 annually.

“It took us a while to identify the trick with the trenches. Since August last year, our teams are keeping a close watch and night patrolling has been stepped up to keep the criminals away.The routes now have greenery all over it,” said a senior forest officer, asking not to be named.

Patrolling, video recording by sleuths

Nuh district administration had formed a six-member team in August last year to carry out night patrolling in 15 villages of Tauru. “Our prime concern is prevention and we have planned several strategies to curb the menace. The locals mine stones for domestic use and then they get involved in the illegal trade,” said a senior district administration official, asking not to be named.

Officials said they have stepped up security in mining sites and villages are under the police scanner. They also keep a check on 95 operational crusher units, and 41 others that have been shut but are still operating illegally.

But the biggest worry for officials has been the strong information networks disrupting their efforts. Tractor drivers in Jhimrawat keep their earphones plugged in for phone calls from informers. “The police hardly come our way, but if an outsider is spotted, we are prepared to handle it,” said Mohammad Javed, another villager.

Police are countering this with their own network of informers. “We have activated our informers who are keeping a close watch on the hillocks and people involved in extracting stones and transporting them. They are visiting all villages and meeting village chiefs to spread awareness,” said Nuh SP Singla.

Also, drone are being used for taking high definition videos of the mining affected areas and for regular monitoring. “The government machinery needs a pat on the back for doing their best to curb illegal mining. When you compare the vast expanse of area where illegal mining could happen, it’s commendable that we were able to stop it to this extent. There is no criminal nexus nor organised mining anywhere in our district to my knowledge,” he said.

However, a few residents feel the police were not doing enough. K Yadav, retired chief town planner, Haryana, and a resident of Manesar, said he wrote to the chief conservator of forests and the mining department regarding the illegal activity in Bisar village but nothing was done to stop the miners.

“The locals are involved in illegal mining and they are making a temporary route to the hillocks so that they can easily transport the mined stones,” he said.

Vaishali Chandra Rana, a city-based environmentalist, said what was needed was a dedicated Aravallis task force and drone monitoring of the entire Aravallis falling within the districts. “We have been demanding this since 2018, but nothing has happened. It is very strange that all enforcement agencies are patrolling the hillocks and conducting regular raids and yet, they have never found any illegal mining, but others have,” she said.

In the last order passed by the National Green Tribunal on April 28, 2023, in the ongoing case of Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement against illegal mining in Gurugram, Nuh and Faridabad, the bench had directed the Haryana government to give its response on how they are incorporating suggestions given by the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement to stop illegal mining.

Suggestions put forward by Aravalli Bachao include use of drones to monitor the Aravalli hills on a weekly basis and putting up the data on a public website; having 50% independent experts in the Aravalli Rejuvenation Board being set up by Haryana as a result of the legal case; and use of alternative building materials such as fly ash bricks and materials made from construction waste in building activities. The group have also submitted an ecological restoration plan given by leading conservationists and ecologists for reclamation of illegally mined Aravalli areas.

Jyoti Raghavan, managing trustee, Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement, said, “Many from our group have reported on locations of active illegal mining in Gurugram and Nuh. But when we call on the toll-free number, we are not given a complaint or reference number. So it is very difficult for citizens to track the complaints. We have highlighted this before the NGT as well,” she said.

"Exciting news! Hindustan Times is now on WhatsApp Channels Subscribe today by clicking the link and stay updated with the latest news!" Click here!

    Leena Dhankhar has worked with Hindustan Times for five years. She has covered crime, traffic and excise. She now reports on civic issues and grievances of residents.

Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, October 04, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals