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El Dorado for sand mafia

The blatant flouting of the law by the sand mining mafia in Madhya Pradesh is set to get worse with the state government coming out with an even more liberal policy. The nexus between the mafia, politician and bureaucrat is very strong, emboldening the sand mafia even more

THE coming days will be marked by hectic activity in the sand mining business in Madhya Pradesh since lease periods of a majority of the state’s 1,700 sand mines have lapsed in March. The state government’s liberal mining policy, announced on March 12, has ensured that the multi-billion-rupee sand mining business attracts more players to the bidding.

It’s going to be an exciting time for those who control, monitor and protect the sand mafias spread across the state. These include ruling party politicians and personnel of police, forest, mining and revenue departments. Their cosy nexus is geared up to jockey for the favourite ones for cutting the best possible deals in the nearly Rs. 70,000-crore sand mining trade. And the stakes are higher this time around. The state government has not only expanded the area of mining but has also set a highly ambitious target for revenue. To meet the target, significant changes have been made in the policy to facilitate mining in larger areas.

A taste of things to come is apparent in the alleged audio conversation between the BJP MLA from Bhind, Narayan Singh Kushwaha, and a senior mining officer. Kushwaha is heard demanding Rs. 1 lakh from the officer. The audio went viral on March 18. The BJP MLA is a protégé of Union Mining and Labour Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who is alleged to be the most powerful protector of the sand mafia in the Chambal-Gwalior region. Just how audacious the illegal sand miners have become under the political patronage in the region can be gauged by a recent coming to light of a temporary bridge built on the Sindh river to transport illegally mined sand. On March 20, the bridge collapsed due to the heavy sand traffic over it. It was only after this that the Bhind district administration woke up to the seriousness of the illegal mining. The Collector and SP with a large posse of police rushed to the spot. However, unsurprisingly, no one was arrested.

Madhya Pradesh has become a veritable El Dorado for the sand mafia in the last 10 years of BJP rule. The illegal sand mining business is estimated at Rs. 20,000 crore. The state government gets peanuts in royalty when compared to the stupendously huge profit the mafia manages to pocket. Sand mine contractors bid for mines by forming groups or companies and sometimes in individual capacity. Cartelisation of contractors is also a common practice in the Chambal and Gwalior regions. The cartelisation ensures that the auction process remains under the control of a group of contractors. The most controversial company in this field, whose name is often tossed around in political discourse on illegal sand mining, is the Bhopal-based Shiva Construction Company. This is because the company’s promoters are allegedly linked to the family of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

The company’s rampant mining operation in Nasrullaganj area—in the Budni assembly constituency of the chief minister—is frequently cited by the opposition as proof of the connivance of the sand mafia with the top administrative levels of the State.

The illegal sand mining business is estimated at Rs. 20,000 crore in Madhya Pradesh. The government gets peanuts in royalty when compared to the stupendously huge profit the mafia manages to pocket

In 2012, a Congress MLAs’ committee did a spot survey of the company’s operation. The panel found that in Sehore district’s Nasrullaganj area, Shiva Construction had illegally carried out activities in 10 villages even though permission was granted only in four villages.

The then leader of the opposition, Ajay Singh, alleged in the Assembly that Shiva Construction was granted permission for sand mining in 16 hectares in four villages, but it had carried out mining operations in 377 hectares, causing a threat to the course of the river and environment.

THE Congress committee’s spot survey followed a senior mining department officer’s report. Subsequently, a showcause notice was served by the mining department in December 2011 to Shiva Construction. The company was alleged to have illegally mined Rs. 378 crore worth of sand. Within days of the notice, the concerned officer was transferred. Shiva Construction, on the contrary, has thrived in the last five years even as the fine slapped on it for violation of lease terms remains unrecovered.

Sand mining is a relatively low-risk and low-capital business, compared to mining of major minerals. Therefore, there are no big players in this trade.

Big players are in mining of major minerals, such as coal, iron, bauxite and so on. The two most controversial mining barons in the state are Sudhir Sharma of the SR group and the BJP MLA from Vijayraghavgarh, Sanjay Pathak. Sharma is in jail since January 2014 for his involvement in the Professional Examination Board (PEB) scam. His transformation from a private school teacher to a billionaire powerbroker within a decade of BJP rule in the state bears inglorious testimony to the vice-like grip of the mafia over the government.

Pathak had won the 2008 Assembly election on a Congress ticket. At that time he had declared his assets as worth Rs. 34 crore. In 2013, he showed assets worth Rs. 141 crore while filing his nomination for the Assembly poll. Within six months of winning on the Congress ticket, the 43-year-old politician-businessman from Katni district resigned from the party. He had wisely anticipated the BJP was set to form the government at the Centre under Narendra Modi’s leadership. He returned to the assembly on a BJP ticket.

Trade goes inter-state

UNDER the Congress rule, sand mining used to be controlled by village panchayats. Also, mining was not such a big money spinner. The BJP government made it a billion-rupee business by authorising collectors and the MP State Mining Corporation to control bidding for sand mines. The procedural change transformed the business as ruling party politicians started encouraging organised mafias to indulge in sand mining in connivance with the officers in the mining, revenue, police, transport and forest departments. With the growth of business and ill-gotten wealth of the nexus, sand mining beckoned mafias from neighbouring states, particularly Uttar Pradesh. In the last two years, mining in Madhya Pradesh has become an inter-state organised crime. The Chambal and Sindh riverbeds in the Gwalior-Chambal region adjoining UP and Rajasthan are easy prey for inter-state mafias.

Sand illegally mined from the Chambal river is one-third in price compared to legally procured sand. That is why sand from Chambal is illegally transported for construction works in cities of UP and Rajasthan. Recent police action in the villages on the MP-UP and MP-Rajasthan borders has revealed massive transport of sand to the neighbouring states. The growing demand for Chambal sand has turned mining into a veritable cottage industry in the region. Villagers, who earlier used to collect sand from riverbeds for small profit, have now been roped in by big mafias as commission agents. The villagers collect sand and store the consignment at their farms, only for mafias to transport it to cities in UP and Rajasthan besides towns in Madhya Pradesh.

In recent joint actions, the forest and mining department sleuths detected many such collection centres of sand in Nayakpura and Piprai villages in Bhind district. Illegal sand storage at farms is relatively less risky and more profitable for villagers. As part of the big network of mafias, villagers prefer to clandestinely collect sand at their farms. Henchmen of the mafias load the stored sand in trucks or trolleys for transport beyond the state’s borders, often in the dead of night. Demand for such illegal sand comes from as far away as Dholpur, Agra, Sawai Madhopur, Gwalior, Sheopur, Guna and Shivpuri.

Sand mined from the riverbed of the Sindh is also in high demand in the adjoining states. But Chambal sand is much cheaper. While one trolley of Sindh sand costs Rs. 8,000, that of Chambal costs only Rs. 1,400. When the sand reaches its final destination, its price shoots up by nearly four times the price paid by the mafias to the agent-villagers.

Divisional forest officer (DFO) of Morena Vincent Raheem says the department has curbed local sale of illegal sand to a great extent but checking transportation outside the state is still a big challenge. With the government further liberalising the mining policy, more inter-state mafias are likely to join the bandwagon.

Mining department sources say illegal sand mining is largely a politician-controlled trade. In almost all districts, ruling party MPs, MLAs and other leaders handpick their acolytes to bid for mining. In some cases, family members act as the front for elected representatives too. Sand mines are among the chief minister’s most potent instruments to win loyalty of local BJP leaders across the state. That is why the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) virtually controls the bidding process through the chief minister’s most trusted IAS officer, SK Mishra. He is the secretary to the chief minister as well as public relations commissioner. Till 2012, Mishra was the Secretary, Mining. But the nationwide outrage in the wake of the murder of IPS officer Narendra Kumar Singh on March 8, 2012, forced the chief minister to shift Mishra from the mining department. The raging controversy had brought to the fore how the then mining secretary favoured a chosen few in giving mining contracts at the behest of the chief minister.

However, Mishra still holds sway in the mining business. Although the incumbent Mining Secretary, Shiv Shekhar Shukla, has sought to bring transparency in the bidding process, sand mafias are confident that it is Mishra who still calls the shots in contract allotment.

Shukla, another trusted IAS officer of the chief minister, is hopeful that the e-auction process introduced in the new sand mining policy will curb the practice of illegal mining to a great extent. On March 21, Shukla told prospective sand mine bidders through videoconferencing that “through the new technique, the auction will be open to all and the entire process will be transparent”.

However, those in the know of government functioning are sceptical of Shukla’s claim. Right to Information (RTI) activist Ajay Dubey, who has brought to the fore many a wrongdoing in the mining business, says the mafias are too well-entrenched in the business to be weeded out through e-auction unless the chief minister shows strong political will to clamp down on them.

Mining department sources say illegal sand mining is largely a politician- controlled trade. In almost all districts, ruling party MPs, MLAs and other leaders handpick their acolytes to bid for mining

MADHYA Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president Arun Yadav says the policy is fundamentally flawed as it allows the government to cherry-pick prospective bidders.

Mafias, in connivance with ruling party politicians and bureaucrats, have been mercilessly plundering the state’s riverbeds. Rampant sand mining has posed a crisis for over a dozen rivers in the state. The state’s biodiversity is in serious danger. Concerned over the alarming degradation of environment due to untrammelled sand mining, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 2014 ordered a blanket ban on sand mining. The Madhya Pradesh government cried foul over the NGT verdict, arguing that this will badly hit the construction industry. The state government’s plea against the NGT ruling is under the consideration of the Supreme Court.

Now the state government has come out with a new sand mining policy which not only subverts the NGT ruling but also invites mafias to dredge and transport sand from across the state’s rivers with greater impunity.

The state Cabinet on March 12 approved the Sand Mining Policy 2015, notifying an additional 3,000 hectares of area for quarrying to bring down market prices of sand and make it available at cheap rates. The Chouhan government has given free rein to rural inhabitants to obtain and use sand free of cost, meaning that persons from rural areas need not purchase sand anymore.

Health minister and government spokesman Narottam Mishra says that under the new policy, the State Mineral Development Corporation will undertake sand mining throughout all tehsils of 18 districts.

“The mining corporation at present is engaged in sand mining from only 53 tehsils of those 18 districts. New policy gives the corporation excavation rights in all tehsils of the districts,” Mishra explained. “In the remaining 33 districts, collectors will auction sand mines through e-auction.” The corporation will also give quarrying contracts through e-auction. Bidders for this process will have to deposit only 10 per cent as security deposit—as against the earlier 25 per cent—under the provisions of the Sand Mining Policy. “E-auction and rationalisation of security deposit amount will simplify bidding process and bring transparency,” Narottam Mishra claimed.

The new policy has abolished the provision which earlier prohibited another sand mine within a 10-km radius of the mine sanctioned to the state mining corporation. The provision to charge royalty equal to that charged by the corporation has also been abolished on the grounds that this will make sand cheaper for the consumer.

ALTHOUGH environmental clearance is still mandatory, the policy provides for optimum mining of sand in the state. The government argues this will make more sand available at affordable rates in the open market and bring more revenue to the exchequer.

As of now, district collectors auction, operate and control 1,237 sand mines in an area of 2,677.554 hectares. Of them, 1,181 mines in 2,070.01 hectares are of less than five hectares while 55 mines are of more than five hectares.

The state corporation operates, auctions and controls 450 sand mines. Of them, 285 sand mines are of less than five hectares while 165 are of more than five hectares.

Under the revised plan, the sand mines will be of five hectares or more with a total area of 9,570 hectares across the state. However, the number of mines will be 1,009. The collectors will now operate 586 sand mines, while the corporation will run 423 mines in 5,033 hectares.

The government has envisaged revenue of Rs. 880 crore against the existing Rs. 180 crore from the auction of 2.28 crore cubic metre of sand each year.

The dying rivers

PAHANBARRI was a small village of 3,000 people in Hoshangabad district. Situated on the bank of the Tawa river—a tributary of the Narmada river—the 200-year-old village was known for its fertile soil. On August 1, 2014, the river changed its course, broke its bank and entered the village. A thick layer of sand, up to four feet in height, enveloped the thriving paddy and vegetables sown in 500 acres of its agricultural land. About 100 acres of land, which were fields earlier, is a part of the river now.

Residents of Pahanbarri submitted a memorandum to the district authorities to relocate them as there was no hope of return to normalcy. They say that sand mining in Maroda village, upstream of Pahanbarri along the Tawa, had caused this damage. They fear that if the mining continues, they will have to face more instances of flooding like this.

This is just one example of devastation the rampant sand mining is causing to the rivers and land in the state. Like Tawa, a dozen other tributaries of the Narmada river are facing crisis. Sand mining has reduced half a dozen tributaries of the Narmada in Narsinghpur district to muddy culverts. Two decades ago, rivers such as Shakkar, Sher, Sitarewa, Dudhi, Umar, Barureva, Pandajhir, Majha and Hiran used to flow majestically. The riverbeds would be used to produce watermelons and muskmelon. The sand mafias’ insatiable greed has today almost killed the rivers. The three-tier layers that shored the rivers have been destroyed due to illegal mining. Narmada, a lifeline of Madhya Pradesh, is also pockmarked at many places along its 1,000-km course through the state with shallow swamps.

Sindh river in the Gwalior-Chambal region is probably the most heinously raped river. On the banks of the river in Chandpur and Raipur ghats, sand worth billions of rupees has been dredged with the help of submarines and boats. The mafias have drilled as deep as 70 to 80 ft in the riverbed to dredge sand. Specially built crude submarines are brought from Uttar Pradesh for drilling. Mafias are not afraid of using even dynamite to break stones in the rivers.

Environmentalists say the explosions by dynamite have caused massive damage to the Narmada, Chambal, Betwa, Kel and Banganga river areas. The stone quarrying has not only disturbed the course of the rivers, but has also damaged biodiversity along the banks. This is because mafias fell trees along the rivers. These are then used for fires to heat the stones on the riverbeds. The heating softens stones and renders them easier to break. Quarrying along the Son river in the Vindhya region has seriously endangered the ghariyal sanctuary.

Environmentalist Rajiv Chouhan of For Conservation of Nature says that if this continues unchecked, rivers will die. Sand acts as a filter in a river. If sand is dredged out without any checks, it will not only result in a fall in the water level but also lead to pollution of the rivers.

Expressing concern over illegal sand mining from the Narmada riverbed, the central bench of the National Green Tribunal has asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to examine the impact on rivers in the last 10 years.

The bench’s directions came while hearing a petition filed by an NGO, Paryavaran & Manav Sanrakshan Samiti, in August last year.

“The MoEF must come forward with a practical policy, taking into account the present nature and the pace at which the development is taking place and also taking into account the negative impact it is going to have on the ecology of various rivers as sand is generally extracted from the riverbed,” the order stated.

The bench also directed the state government to file an affidavit regarding how many cases had been registered against those persons on whose behalf unauthorised extraction or transportation of mineral had been carried out in Madhya Pradesh.

The corporation will levy Rs. 125 per cubic metre as royalty and administrative expenses while collectors will levy equal royalty from an expected quantity of 6.80 crore cubic metres against the total available quantity of 2.28 crore cubic metres earlier.

Insiders in the sand mining business contend that the state government’s extraordinary generosity towards sand miners will make competition in the business more violent. On an average, two persons reportedly get killed per day in violence related to illegal sand mining activity in the state. In 2013-14, as many as 715 persons lost their lives in clashes among mafias and with police. In 2014-15, the death toll till December 31, 2014, is already at 457.

The brutal killing of IPs officer Narendra Kumar Singh in Morena district on March 8, 2013, had caused a nationwide uproar. Singh, who was SDO (Police), was run over by the driver of a tractor-trolley laden with illegal sand. His death brought illegal sand mining in Madhya Pradesh into the national focus, but the outrage petered down with the passage of days. Incidents of attacks on police, forest and revenue officers and personnel are quite frequent in the state, particularly in the Gwalior-Chambal region. But they seldom attract the attention of the national media. In December last year, a police constable was injured when the sand mafia attacked a mining inspection team after it seized tractor-trolleys, allegedly carrying sand without valid documents, near a village in Hoshangabad district.

The team, led by mining inspector Archana Choudhary, spotted the sand-laden vehicles and stopped them for checking. As the team was taking the tractor-trolleys to Dehat Police Station, the attackers pelted stones, causing injury to constable Hemant Raj. Such violent attacks on government personnel are more frequent in the Chambal region but are highly underreported.

News reports on the nexus of mafia-politicians-bureaucrats are rare. The nexus is so well-entrenched in the political life of the state that it has ceased to shock people.

The new policy is likely to add more violence to the gory business of illegal sand mining because notorious dons from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi are reportedly eyeing the lucrative business. Coming days are crucial as fresh bidding for mines is set to start after April.

MADHYA Pradesh Congress committee president Yadav says the new mining policy will further strengthen the grip of the nexus on the mining business.

“Sand mafias influence the bidding process and the government succumbs to their pressure. Since ruling party politicians provide protection to mafias, the government does not act against them. As a result, the state exchequer suffers revenue loss to the tune of hundreds of crores of rupees,” he alleges.

Staggering figures of non-recovery of fines on the sand mining companies corroborate the PCC chief’s allegations. In two of the 51 districts in the state—Sehore and Mandla—the administration has failed to recover Rs. 1,300 crore as fines slapped on sand miners for violating the lease terms. In almost all districts, 50 to 100 cases each are pending against sand miners but the nexus of mafia-politician-bureaucrat manages to scuttle punitive action against the offenders.

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