UP: Sand in the Mouth

Armed criminals and gangsters, greedy real estate agents, powerful politicians, corrupt locals, and miscellaneous shady lobbies work in open synthesis with the ‘sand mafia’ a stone’s throw away from the capital 

Sadiq Naqvi Noida (UP) 

In Garbhara village, the contradictions are stark. They seem to hit you in the face. Swanky SUVs dot the roads and driveways of palatial houses where elders while away time smoking hookkahs on the charpoys. On the periphery of the sleepy village huge glass structures house big companies seemingly flush with wealth. “They made it big when the government acquired land,” says Harish, a local. “They are earning even more after the notorious sand mafia landed here. People have splurged on cars and big houses. Some are now finding it hard to repay the money they had borrowed from the banks. The gram pradhan’s car was recently taken away by the finance company after he defaulted.” He points to his own house --- there are two expensive cars parked next to it.

Situated adjacent to the new Gautam Buddha University in Noida, a few notches away from the Yamuna Expressway, it is mainly inhabited by Gujjars with Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits constituting the other communities. It falls in the middle of the illegal sand mining belt which spans Raipur Khadar to Jhuppa village, encompassing an area of almost 100 sq km.

The ‘sand mafia’ issue shot into prominance after the suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal, the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM), whose strict action against illegal sand mining had unnerved the local power centres and criminal groups. This story of illegal mining a stone’s throw away from the national capital mirrors the manner in which the mafiosi with powerful connections operate and how criminals are entwined with brazenly corrupt political parties and politicians who offer them protection and patronage.   

Locals say that almost 50 per cent of village households are involved in sand mining and allied activities. “We know it is illegal. But it is a good way of making money,” said a tea-shop owner. Interestingly, tractor trolleys are seen outside every house. “These trolleys are an important asset. They are used in the supply of sand,” he explained.

With political protection coming easy, the mafia has not spared even senior government officials. In 2010, Vishal Singh, SDM, Noida, had a lucky escape when his team was fired upon by goons of the sand mafia. Not long ago, mining department inspector Ashish Kumar managed to escape after criminals involved in mining shot at him

‘River’ Yamuna is a couple of kilometres away from the village. The river itself has been turned into a filthy, poisonous, toxic drain in Delhi and beyond. Dotted with affluent, ostentatious farmhouses on the flood plains, the muddy route with two feet water logged at several places shows signs of relentless activity. The entire path over agricultural land has been devastated by dumpers and tractors, routinely used in mining operations.

“It happens only in the night now,” says Bunty (name changed), a local who works as a caretaker in one of the farmhouses adjoining the riverbed. People narrate how sand mining has ravaged their land. “We can’t do anything. These are powerful people,” a local says, showing the deep ditches that have cropped up all over because of excessive mining. He explained how armed, gun-toting men supervize the loading of dumpers while JCBs carry out the ‘excavations’ at tremendous speed.

“You can’t say a word against them. They are dangerous criminals with sophisticated arms,” says Bunty. He recounted a chilly incident: a dumper owner from Mewat was shot point-blank by the mafia when he jokingly asked them if they ever used the arms they were carrying. “That man was openly murdered in cold blood — for no rhyme or reason. And nothing really happened. A compromise was reached after the victim’s family got some money.”

A solitary hut on the river bank is often used by the sand mafia. The police maintain a tacit distance. “They never come to this part,” Jitender, a villager, informed.

With political protection coming easy, the mafia has not spared even senior government officials. In 2010, Vishal Singh, SDM, Noida, had a lucky escape when his team was fired upon by goons of the sand mafia. Not long ago, mining department inspector Ashish Kumar managed to escape after criminals involved in mining shot at him.

“We had received a tip-off that these criminals had built a temporary bridge across the Yamuna to facilitate transportation of sand to Haryana which is on the other side of the river. I went there with a team of four people. We seized the JCB and other equipment. But when we tried to nab the criminals, they opened fire on us,” Vishal Singh, now SDM, Meerut, recounts.

Locals say Brijanand, the main ‘don’ behind the operations in the area, who hails from Haryana on the other side of the river, is directly involved in all these incidents. “We had approached officials in Haryana for help to stall the mining. But no help was forthcoming,” says Singh.

“Brijanand has several people working for him from within the village who are involved in these incidents,” says a local. The firing incident was hushed up and Singh says that he can’t recall if the police even filed an FIR. 

Barring a lease of 150 acres of land in the Raipur Khadar village which the government has officially marked for mining of sand, environment activists say that a total area of around 100 sq km is under the control of the sand mining mafia, feeding the insatiable needs of the construction industry in Noida and adjoining regions of the National Capital Territory (NCR). All the other leases have expired.

“It is unfortunate that the land which was being utilized for growing vegetables is now being mined for sand. This is not only depriving people of cheap vegetables but has also wreaked havoc in this eco-sensitive zone,” says Dushyant Nagar, a farmer rights activist.

A three-member team of the Union ministry of environment and forest which recently surveyed the region, noted: “It is evident that rampant, unscientific and illegal mining has been going on at various locations in Gautam Buddha Nagar district along the Yamuna. This is in violation of the environmental regulations, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the directions given by the Supreme Court, High Court of Allahabad and National Green Tribunal, New Delhi.”

“The mafia is meeting the relentless demands of those in the building industry,” says lawyer Ritwik Dutt who recently filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal against illegal sand mining. Says an activist: “The demand is huge. All these transporters mine and dump sand on the sites of the big builders. They are never refused because of continuous construction. They get a slip for every dumper they unload; at the end of the month they get a cumulative payment.”

Strict enforcement by SDM Durga Shakti Nagpal, later suspended after a row over the demolition of a wall of a mosque, had resulted in filing of FIRs, arrests and seizures of several vehicles used in the transportation of sand. She pushed the mafia onto the back foot. This led to the widespread belief that she was punished for taking action against the sand mafia. The price of sand has also soared to almost double. “There is no doubt that she was taking action. But most of the people who have been caught are petty drivers. There was no action against powerful people,” says an activist (See Box).

Even in Noida, officials and police point to the role of an organized syndicate which was carrying out mining in the area during the BSP regime. Many point to the invisible hand of Ponty Chaddha, the liquor and real estate baron who was killed in a gunfight

Illegal mining is a big wealth generator in the area. Many households who have land holdings of more than 40 bighas have bought tractors after mortgaging their land. All these tractors are used in mining operations. Those who have more money have invested in JCB machines and dumpers. “It’s a great way of getting rich,” says a local activist. “If you have a tractor, you get around Rs 1,500-2,000 for every round. And you can easily do ten rounds in a day. So, after deducting the royalty and digging charges paid to the mafia, one can easily earn Rs 3,000-4,000 every day.” A JCB machine earns more money. “They pay twice the market rate of Rs 600 per hour for the JCB machines. Not only this, there is also the assurance of getting the operator and the machine released if they are caught by the police or the administration,” the activist explained.

Locals estimate that there are close to 1,000 dumpers which have been pressed in service. Many of these dumpers are sourced from Haryana on a six-month lease. “A dumper full of illegally mined sand sells for Rs 10,000 in the market,” says a local.

“The money involved is humungous,” says Munqad Ali, BSP MP in the Rajya Sabha. It has also changed the local political dynamics. The money earned in this illegitimate trade has helped many to increase their clout in local politics. “These people now have the money to pass on to local legislators or the MP. They also contest elections and manage to win panchayat polls,” says an activist. “This new influence and wealth guarantees them patronage and protection.”

“When the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was in power, the local MP ensured that all these local powerful men were able to get contracts from the government so that they could keep making money. Now, with a new government in Lucknow, the same people have entered into illegal sand mining,” says an activist. “Hence, the assertion that Narendra Bhati, the local Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA and cabinet minister, has total control over mining, is not entirely true. He is no doubt giving protection to the people involved in it, but he doesn’t have any other option. He is forced by the compulsion of votes. All these people involved in illegal mining have huge influence on local voters.” 

With the SP government coming to power, sand mining has become disorganized. “It’s not just one Narendra Bhati. There is a Narendra Bhati in every village adjacent to the river now,” says a local. “Earlier, it was not done illegally. People had to get a lease to carry out mining,” says Surendra Nagar, MP, Gautam
Buddha Nagar.

During Mayawati’s regime in UP, the mining activity was divided amongst a few people said to be close to the people in power. The list of leases on the state government’s website shows how a few people exercised control over the mining operations.  

Even in Noida, officials and police point to the role of an organized syndicate which was carrying out mining in the area during the BSP regime. Many point to the invisible hand of Ponty Chaddha, the liquor and real estate baron who was killed in a gunfight near his farmhouse in Delhi. Insiders claim that Chaddha was actively involved in illegal sand mining since 1996 when he came to the area at the behest of then chief minister Kalyan Singh’s son, Rajveer Singh. He made it really big after the construction boom post- 2007, flourishing under the patronage of Mayawati and her mining minister,  Babu Singh Kushwaha. “Kushwaha was at the helm of mining operations, providing protection to those involved in mining,” says a BSP MP. “He was the mining minister. So, it came naturally.”

During the BSP regime, the mafia was well-organized and flourished under the government’s protection. “I was once called to Lucknow by the director, mining, who told me that the minister is unhappy and I should take no action against illegal mining. It was almost like a threat,” says an SDM, earlier posted in Noida.

Kushwaha has now joined the SP. “He was inducted at the behest of the mining lobby. It happened when Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was out of the country. It was Shivpal Yadav who convinced Mulayam Singh Yadav,” says a source close to Akhilesh. Shivpal is the brother of Mulayam.

“Almost half of the people who were involved in illegal mining during the BSP government are active even now. It’s just that many of them are doing it on their own because there is no one big mafia,” says an activist.

“It reflects the manner in which the SP and its government are functioning in the state. People say Akhilesh wields no control over most issues. Then, how can you expect him to control this lucrative illegal industry,” asks an SP functionary. 

Box: One Double Game Too Many

The suspension of SDM Durga Shakti Nagpal led to a huge national uproar. She was transferred after she ordered the demolition of an ‘illegal’ wall of a mosque in Kadalpur village. There were claims that she was transferred at the behest of the mining lobby. The assertion gained currency after Narendra Bhati, the local SP legislator and a prominent minister in Akhilesh Yadav’s cabinet, openly claimed that he got her transferred in “10 minutes”. He reportedly has multiple stakes in the illegal sand mining operations and was unhappy because Nagpal was enforcing the laws.

Her drive against the sand mafia earned the state government revenue of Rs 7 crore plus. Interestingly, the mosque was being built with support from local leaders across the political spectrum. Bhati had promised Rs 50,000, Congress spokesperson Dhirendra Singh promised bricks, while local BSP MP Surendra Nagar pitched in with a promise of Rs 1 lakh.

However, informed sources close to the chief minister in Lucknow told Hardnews that the action had little to do with her enthusiasm against illegal mining. “It was done in haste. The leadership took the demolition of the wall of the mosque way too seriously,” says a source. “They were afraid that it might upset the minorities for they constitute a major vote bank of the party. How can you explain the fact that the order was faxed at 1am in the night? If it was being done to appease the sand mining lobby, they could have waited till the next morning.”

It is learnt that Akhilesh Yadav, who was constantly in touch with the district administration and party leaders in the area, was made to believe that it may have a big impact on the Muslims. Local Congress leader Dhirendra Singh issued a press statement which not only called the demolition an act of deceit against the minority community in the month of Ramazan, but also said that the same district administration which was behind the demolition was aiding the illegal sand mining and construction lobby.

The statement was contrary to the position taken by the Congress leadership when Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Akhilesh Yadav, asking him to reinstate Nagpal. A source close to the chief minister also claimed that it was Dhirendra Singh who approached a young member of the Union cabinet who later called up the district authorities asking them to take strict action against the illegal construction of the mosque. Singh, in a double game, also mobilized the panchayats in the area ‘against’ the demolition. A BSP leader from the area who, many claim, orchestrated the assumption that Nagpal was punished because of pressure from Bhati, claims that it was Bhati who got in touch with the district administration to demolish the wall and later went to the village, promising that he would get permission from the state government for the mosque in a month’s time.

Meanwhile, Nagpal has apparently been promised reinstatement by the state government. Indeed, only time will tell if she will come back or if the cash-rich sand mafia with entrenched political connections will ever be controlled.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2013