Illegal sand mining Part 2: Gujarat government's claims of drone surveillance deterring mafia fall flat

  • The 45-year-old activist was pushed into a car and kidnapped by criminals last May

  • Two Gujarat Congress MLAs have claimed a nexus between various government departments

  • The allegations are backed up by a local journalist in a far-fling district

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, Bihar and Karnataka will be examined. This, part two of the series, deals with Gujarat.

Ahmedabad: “All I wanted to do was to stop the uncontrolled sand mining near the weir (a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow) in river Ozat,” said Nayan Kalola, sitting on a hospital bed. Kalola, a local farmer cum RTI activist in horticulture-rich Vanthali town of the Junagadh district of Gujarat is still bedridden after being kidnapped and brutally beaten by the sand mafia eight months ago.

The 45-year-old was pushed into a car last May when he was heading to his farm. It was the day when locals were to observe a dawn to dusk bandh in Vanthali town against the illegal sand mining in Ozat river. He recalled how after he was forcefully pushed into a car, he was taken to a nearby village where around a half dozen people beat him with iron rods. They warned him of dire consequences and told him "not to interfere" with the illegal sand mining.

 Illegal sand mining Part 2: Gujarat governments claims of drone surveillance deterring mafia fall flat

RTI activist Nayan Kalola was kidnapped and brutally beaten by the sand mafia. Image courtesy: Rajnish Mishra

“The weir constructed almost a decade ago by the state played a big role in turning the area prosperous,” said Kalola. “It not only assisted in improving the drinking water supply to a population of more than 50,000, but it also helped improve the underground water level and checking soil's salinity: a problem caused by the sea. The area transformed into a huge horticulture region with famous kesar mango, banana, sapota (chiku) and jamun (blueberry) production in abundance. The then district collector allowed a sand mining lease near the weir, flouting the 2003 guidelines of the Gujarat High Court that prohibit such activity. Those handed the lease were digging into the riverbed far deeper than they should have. Had it been up to three metres, as limited by the court guidelines  for sand mining anywhere in a river, we would have tolerated it. However, they were utterly without restraint and it could have caused our doom.”

“There are many adverse effects of uncontrolled sand mining in the riverbed. It changes the flow pattern and causes severe floods. If it happened, our lives would have been ruined. We depend on the river for our livelihood. The sand mafia cares only about money,” he added.

Kalola's is just one story among many in Gujarat who have tangled with the sand mafia. In Gujarat, as in many other parts of the country, two types of illegal sand mining are rampant: illegal mining in the legally leased areas in more than 60 rivers across the state (flouting the rules and taking out more sand than permitted by digging deeper than allowed) and sand mining without permission.

Jawahar Chavda and Lalit Vasoya, two Congress MLAs in Gujarat, have alleged that the illegal sand mining is the result of a nexus between various departments of the government, including the police, the mining and geology department and the road transport wing. “Despite the government claiming steps have been taken to curb it, nothing is done on the ground. It is going on all around,” Chavda, the MLA from Manavadar in Junagadh district said. Chavda was detained by the police for participating in the protests against the attack on Kalola. He was also instrumental in getting the lease near Ozat river weir cancelled.

“From the local police to the higher-ups in government, everyone has a share. The sand mafia gets full protection at all levels. All they have to do is to pay a fixed sum for otherwise 'free of cost' sand to some mining officials, who in turn, distribute the shares of others, including police from lower rung to higher ones, for protection to the illegal business,” Chavda alleged.

Vasoya, the MLA from Dhoraji in Rajkot district, who is running a campaign against pollution and illegal sand mining in Bhadar river — an important water resource in the area for the public and industries — said that despite raising the issue in the state Assembly and on other forums, the menace was going unabated due to nexus between police and other departments and the sand mafia. “From Bhadar alone as per our estimates at least 400 trucks loaded with at least 40 tons of sand is illegally mined and transported every day,” he alleged.

Illegal mining in the Bhadar river. Image courtesy: Rajnish Mishra

Illegal mining in the Bhadar river. Image courtesy: Rajnish Mishra

The allegations by the RTI activist and two MLAs are backed up by a local journalist in the far-flung tribal dominated Chhota Udepur district. The journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed illegal sand mining is rampant in Orsang river. “The sand mafia is very powerful. They can do anything. Even local journalists fear them. They threaten those that oppose them with death or implicate them in legal proceedings, including cases under Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act. They have hired people from this community and bring them forward against the opponents. They have full police protection as they pay them,” he alleged.

“They have so much of money as they don't need to pay any royalty or price for the sand. They also overload vehicles. They lift the sand from the riverbed and sell it to the market. Nobody speaks against them because the police hardly ever does anything. For a tractor load of sand, they pay roughly Rs 2,000 and earn between Rs 5,000 and 6,000. This costs the stage government hundreds of crores.”

The state mining and geology department, on the other hand, claimed several measures taken by the state government recently, including drone surveillance-based raids against illegal sand extraction are yielding good results. DM Shukla, Additional Director in the Sand and Geology Department, said the Trinetra Drone Surveillance System — inaugurated by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani — which began with four rivers Sabarmati, Tapi, Orsang and Bhadar last May has been extended to the Narmada, Mahi and Bhogavo rivers, among others.

“Task forces have been assembled in all districts to curb the menace. Illegal sand mining is down by roughly 50 percent. The drone-based raids have caused fear among illegal sand miners,” Shukla said. Elaborating on how the system operates, Shukla said drones operated by a third party are flown to the sites based on information provided by sources. “These help us collect evidence against the illegal miners. At a height of around 120 meters, they look like small birds to anyone on the ground and are not easily detectable. Earlier, the illegal sand miners would flee when the police and teams rushed to the spots. It was also harder to convict them due to lack of evidence,” Shukla added.

Rajnish Mishra is an Ahmedabad-based freelancer and a member of 101Reporters.com

Read Part I of the illegal sand mining series here

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2019 19:48:31 IST