Illegal sand mining: Congress govt in Madhya Pradesh fails to address menace despite tall pre-poll promises; state rivers suffer

Editor's note: The issue of illegal sand mining has affected many states in terms of revenue, law and order and environmental hazards. Despite promises by parties and government alike, none of them has succeeded in uprooting the menace. Further, even the media hasn't been spared when covering the matter. In this four-part series, the impact of illegal sand mining in the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Bihar will be examined. The first part deals with Madhya Pradesh.

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Bhopal: Before the 2018 Assembly elections, the Congress went hammer and tongs after BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Madhya Pradesh government over rampant illegal sand mining in the state. But it appears that even after a change of guard — Kamal Nath promising to curb the menace and reform the mining sector, while taking charge as the chief minister — has done nothing to improve the scenario.

Though the new government has promised a slew of measures to tackle the problem, the ground reality is much grimmer.

A volley of allegations

Ajay Singh, Congress’ leader of Opposition in the last Assembly, had attacked Chouhan’s government alleging that the latter’s kin were involved in illegal mining. “[The] chief minister [Chouhan] must be aware that his nephew is illegally excavating sand in Jahajpura, without environmental clearances. Also, 450 out of 586 sand mines have been allotted to two companies. The information about who owns these companies must be made public,” Singh had said in his speech in the Assembly in March 2017.

Illegal sand mining on the banks of river Narmada. Image courtesy Manish Chandra Mishra

Illegal sand mining on the banks of river Narmada. Image courtesy Manish Chandra Mishra

Now, with the two parties swapping places, BJP’s Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Gopal Bhargav has alleged the same — the (Congress) government is involved in illegal sand mining. He said, “I don’t know whether or not the allegations against our government were true, but it is a fact that Congress-backed contractors are illegally digging at protected mining sites.”

He also raised concerns over the high price of sand. “Congress-backed sand mining mafia has hiked the rate, due to which many development works have stopped. This has impacted Centre-sponsored schemes, such as Pradhan Mantri Sadak Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana,” he claimed.

Killing the rivers, says Medha Patkar

Explaining the impact illegal sand mining has on the ecology, activist Medha Patkar, who has been waging the Narmada Bachao Andolan for years, said, “Any kind of excavation activity is strictly prohibited near a water source, like a river, as per a Supreme Court order. Permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is mandatory for sand excavation, irrespective of the scale of the work. The State Environment Impact Assessment Authority gives permission for sand mining if the site is less than 50 acres.”

Patkar accused the previous dispensation of violating norms for allowing mining activities. “That’s why rivers in Madhya Pradesh are nearly dead. If you excavate Narmada’s riverbed for sand, it will kill its water cycle. I’m at the banks of Ganga in Uttarakhand now, and the condition here is the same,” she said.

In 2012 and 2013, most of the anti-mining judgments the National Green Tribunal (NGT) passed were against the state of Madhya Pradesh. Patkar said, “Madhya Pradesh was the only state that challenged NGT’s August 2013 order, seeking an exemption from the ban imposed on the mining of minor minerals, including sand, without environmental clearance from the MoEF. Though the green court dismissed the appeal, despite the ban, the state government allowed illegal mining to flourish. The new government has a big and complex job on its hands if it wants to curb this menace.

“The sand mining mafia is divided into three sections — excavation, storage, and transportation. The government needs to introduce a stricter punishment, as, currently, the administration simply arrests the tractor drivers and imposes a nominal fine on the contractors. This is not enough.”

Of environment damage and revenue loss

Vinayak Parihar, a Madhya Pradesh-based activist who has been fighting for the Narmada for years, made an assessment of the loss of revenue. “The recent CAG report estimated a revenue loss of Rs 600 crore due to illegal sand mining. It’s just a sample report. The actual loss may be hundredfold. According to our assessment, the state has lost over Rs 2 lakh crore in the last 10 years, which is more than the debt burden on the Madhya Pradesh government,” he said, claiming that 90 percent of sand mining sites in the state is illegal.

From Amarkantak to Jabalpur, mining sites as shown in the picture are common in Madhya Pradesh. Image courtesy Manish Chandra Mishra

From Amarkantak to Jabalpur, mining sites as shown in the picture are common in Madhya Pradesh. Image courtesy Manish Chandra Mishra

As per the latest figures released by the government, in 2016-17, the state earned Rs 240 crore royalty from sand mining.

Talking about the ecological loss, Parihar said, “Sand mining has destroyed the Narmada. There are over 20 spots in a 15-20-km stretch where the river dries up for a few months. We are demanding a CBI probe or a state-level SIT from the new government.”

He is, however, not hopeful of any action from the new government, and suspects that its ministers and MLAs are involved in the illegal activity.

In the grip of ruthless sand mafia

Authorities and activists aren’t blind to the influential sand mafia either, well aware of their brutality to ensure no one stands in their way.

As per a reply given in the Rajya Sabha by the government on 7 February, 2018, Madhya Pradesh saw the highest number of attacks on media persons in 2015 and 2016, recording 19 and 24 cases, respectively. And most of the attacks were related to illegal sand mining cases.

In December 2017, at least six journalists were attacked and injured in Chhatarpur district while they were covering illegal sand mining. In March 2018, a journalist investigating the same in Bhind district was run over by a truck in broad daylight. And in the most tragic incident, the charred body of Sandeep Kothari, a Madhya Pradesh-based journalist who frequently investigated the illegal activity, was found in Nagpur, Maharashtra.

Talking about the challenges in dealing with law and order issues, retired DGP Nandan Dubey said, “The biggest challenge is vested interests of local administration at ground level. If the administration and local police had the will to solve the problem, they would have been able to do it. The police have been facing all kinds of pressure, including political, to stay away from the sand mafia. A single agency can’t fight this; a joint operation involving all stakeholders is the most effective solution.”

Sehore superintendent of police Rajesh Singh Chandel said, “We have carried out a few successful raids this month with the help of other agencies. The most challenging part in such an operation is coordination, as sand mines are open from all sides and spread over a large area. But with help from the district collector, we have been able to ban the transportation of sand at night to deter illegal miners.”

Another senior IPS officer, who has been working in a crucial sand mining area, revealed the challenges in fighting it, on condition of anonymity. “The sand mafia is so influential that if an officer wants to take action, mafia members deploy a spy to keep tabs on him/her. They are aware of every police move and flee from the spot before or during the raids,” he explained.

“Apart from excavation, the mafia also plan transportation very precisely. If they come to know that the police plan to set up checkpoints along their route, they generate invoices via ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) online at the last minute in a bid to legitimise it. It is very difficult to prove a case of illegal mining in court and impose the penalty.”

However, a driver working for a transportation company gave his side of the story. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he revealed the risks and hazards involved in the activity. “I worked in the Chambal region, where there’s a perennial danger of fights erupting between two contractors over territory. Due to heavy machines used for excavation, very few take up this mining nowadays. Drivers are the ones who face problems at every step, what with the police stopping them anytime, and then, having to face legal hassles in case the vehicle is seized. As contractors want to stock as much sand as possible, drivers and labourers are forced to work an average of 18 hours per day,” he said.

Construction industry unhappy too

“Although sand mining is a lucrative business, it becomes impossible for common businessmen, due to the risks involved in excavation and transportation,” said Mahendra Tyagi, a Sehore-based construction material supplier. Tyagi, for years, was a sand supplier but has now shifted to other construction material.

“Paying royalty is not the issue. From policemen to mining officers to local goons, everyone has a share in this work. A businessman has to pay at every step to get sand from the mine to the godown. If the government can make the process hassle-free, the industry can create more jobs.”

New government’s plan of action

The new Minister for Mineral Resources Pradeep Jaiswal agreed that illegal sand mining is the biggest challenge for the government. “A few big companies enjoy a monopoly in this activity. We plan to focus on eliminating that along with illegal mining. We are planning to empower the local bodies and strengthen them to give permits for excavation of sand.”

Jaiswal added that he is working on a new policy, to be named ‘Navin Khanij Kar Evam Ret Niti’ (New Minerals and Sand Policy), which will be implemented soon. Also, to create employment for the local youth, control over sand excavation will be given to village-level societies.

“The government is trying to double the revenue from sand mining by minimising the role of middlemen. We are also planning to restore the powers of mining officers to make the system simpler,” Jaiswal said.

The author is a Bhopal - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.

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Updated Date: Feb 02, 2019 19:46:46 IST

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