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Friday, August 07, 2020

In Punjab’s Mukerian, mindless mining turns fertile farmland into ditches

Surinder Singh, Block Samiti member of Kullian Lubana village, said that those with land adjacent to the widening pit were virtually forced to give it up for mining as cultivating this land was becoming increasing hazardous.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Updated: July 27, 2020 10:22:42 am
Huge pits have come up on the Agricultural land of Kullian Lubana village in Mukerian where a JCB machine was working at the bottom 70-80 feet down from main land level on Friday despite mining being stopped by the govt. due to monsoon.(Express Photo by Anju Agnihotri Chaba)

Sham Singh, the Sarpanch of village Kullian Lubana in Hoshiarpur’s Mukerian subdivision, is a worried man due to his 8-acre farmland getting eroded inch by inch every day. He blames this menace on a giant pit — 70-80-ft deep and nearly 300 to 500-ft wide – abutting his farmland. The pit, a result of illegal sand mining, exists on land that mostly belongs to panchayats of three villages — Kullian Lubana, Sandhwal, and Sibochak.

“The excavation of this panchayti land began over a decade back on around 10-15 acres (panchayati land) of our village and adjoining villages. Earlier, the digging was 10-12 feet deep and farming was possible. In the past 4-5 years, the digging has been so rampant that now the same pits are over 100 feet deep,” said Sham Singh, adding that already two kannal (1/4th of an acre) of his land has got eroded.

“Due to erosion of my land it has become a life hazard for me as I cannot even ply a tractor on half of my fields close to the deep pit,” said Singh, adding that several cultivators of the panchayat land that has now turned into a deep pit were former Revenue Department employees, village numberdars and farmers who were cultivating it till 5-6 years back.

“Then they fell in the prey of stone crushing industry and started getting it mined to earn an easy buck,” said the Sarpanch, adding that several complaints to the Revenue and Mining Departments could not check the menace.

A visit to the site revealed that excavation was still on at a depth of around 70-80 feet from the main farmland. Also, a big stone crusher could be seen along this huge pit.

Surinder Singh, Block Samiti member of Kullian Lubana village, said that those with land adjacent to the widening pit were virtually forced to give it up for mining as cultivating this land was becoming increasing hazardous.

At a distance of around 2-km, similar deep pits were seen in the middle of fertile agricultural land at several places in village Jeewanwal. In Jeewanwal, even the water supply pipes of Punjab Tubewell Corporation could be seen hanging in the air due to excavation of earth underneath and all around them.

Even poles supporting power supply lines at the edges of these pits looked precariously positioned and ready to give way anytime.

“These hanging water pipes laid down by Punjab Tubewell Corporation for irrigation purpose are enough proof that agricultural lands are being converted into a quarry,” said farmer Budh Singh of Jeewanwal village.

Dharminder Singh, an activist who mobilised people of 35 villages of Mukeraina, Hajipur and Talwara blocks to protest against this mafia under the banner ‘Khanan Roko Zamin Bachao Sangharsh Committee (KRZBSC)’ along with fellow activist Deepak Thakur, said: “How can a quarry come up in the middle of fertile agricultural land? Even a blind man can tell that farmland has been exploited by the mafia but entire Mining Department and district administration is sitting silently on this loot of nature.”

“I have been fighting to stop this because my fields have already fallen prey to this. Deep trenches on the way to my fields have made it difficult form to reach them,” said a farmer, adding that to take his tractor to his own fields, he has to plead with other farmers to give him way. Another farmer said that he was ready to give his land to “mining mafia” because it was difficult for him to cultivate it in the absence of way to reach his fields and due to broken water supply pipelines, which were the his only source of irrigation.

Nearby villages Sibo Chak, Saryana too have deep pits on agricultural land measuring 7 acres to 15 acres.

Around 20-km from here in Talwara even the hillocks in Shivalik ranges and natural quarries (Khadds) have not been spared by the sand mafia in Sukhchainpur village. Here the hills are cut to bigger sizes to excavate sand, boulders, and gravel.

Apart from this similar pits were visible in villages Naushehra Simbli, Bela Saryana, Hajipur, Tote, Handwal, Chak Meerpur, Kothian, Budhabar, Kanjupeer in around 30 km area in Hajipur, Mukerian and Talwara blocks of the Mukerian subdivision.\

People of around three dozen villages in Talwara and Hazipur had launched a protest in 2015 under the banner of (KRZBSC) in their respective villages, but it only led to the sand mining shift to other villages.

“The Mining Department is supposed to keep a check on illegal activities, but ill-equipped department with lack of staff failed to do it and a parallel private system (sand mafia) has been running which is controlling everything with the connivance of the government departments,” said a senior officer in the State Geology Department, alleging that “bigwigs are behind all”.

“There are layers of workers in this business and it is difficult to reach the real culprits but if the government develops a foolproof system, this circle can be broken easily,” he added.

WHAT IS THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM?

Flourishing stone crushing industry in the entire Mukerain subdivision, particularly in the last decade is the main reason behind exploitation of farmlands for sand mining. Around two dozen stone crushers were set here and most operators were outsiders, with political contacts. When stone crushers, which separate different sizes of sand, gravel, stone to be used in the various construction works, were set up here around 15 years back, the purpose was to crush the material procured from adjoining Himachal Pradesh.

A stone crusher in Shivalik Foothills at Sukhchainpur village at Talwara(Express Photo by Anju Agnihotri Chaba)

“But gradually by 2008-09 when the sand mafia raised its head in the state and crushers saw a huge potential of raw material in farmlands, choes (seasonal streams) and canals, this resulted more crushers being set up,” said a senior officer of the Geology Department, adding that several sarpanches earned huge profits from mining on the panchayat lands and by convincing the farmers of their villages to give their land for mining to earn huge profit.

Deepak Thakur, an activist, said, “Earlier stone crushing industry was limited to Ropar and Pathankot districts but when the agents of crushing industry started alluring villagers in every village to get raw material, this industry started coming up in Mukerian subdivision.”

Most stone crusher operators excavate land during the night hours and also engage musclemen to keep a vigil on strangers moving around.

“Violations have been committed while setting up these highly polluting crushers. Due to dust particles they produce, several infants have lost their eyesight. This is what led us to launch our struggle in 2015,” said Dharminder Singh. He added that as per norms such crushers must be encircled with a layer of trees grown over a strip of land wide enough to minimize the impact of emanating dust – a condition that is openly flouted.

WHY FARMERS OFFER LAND FOR MINING?

Lucrative offers given by the sand mafia are a major reason. “I was not able to earn more than 70,000 to 80,000 per acre annually by doing farming but from the mining of my fields, I am getting Rs 8-10 lakh per acre if I allow mining up to 30 to 40 feet of my field, which will also remain on my name,” said a farmer, who allowed his 3-acres to be excavated up to 30-feet in Mukerain.

When questioned that after mining the land would become unsuitable for agriculture, he replied, “What are we getting from agriculture now!”

A senior officer in the Mining Department revealed that mafia is earning 10 times more from what they are paying to the farmers from their fields.

“Some farmers are giving land due to their addiction to alcohol, some to send their wards abroad and some are forced to give up land due to deep ditches left after excavation of the adjacent farmlands,” said Dharminder Singh, adding that around 1,000 acres farmland in around a dozen villages has turned into deep ditches.

WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY ABOUT MINING OF FIELDS?

Environment clearance for mining is mandatory and, as per norms no agricultural land can be excavated beyond 3 metres and that too after procuring Environment clearance certificate. If this rule is flouted then an FIR must be registered against the owner of the land, panchayat (if it is panchyati land), forest officer (if the land belongs to the Forest Department), and Block Development and Panchayat Officer (BDPOs) or any other owner.

But officials of the Mining Department informed that they needed proper staff and police protection to stop this menace.

SDO Rajiv Kumar, who is mining officer, Hoshiapur, told The Indian Express that they take action whenever they find illegal activities.

Since 2018 to date, 176 FIRs, including 22 in Mukerian and Dasuya subdivisions, have registered under the Mining Mineral Act 1957, but a closer look into these FIRs reveals that in most cases, the drivers of tractor-trollies or the tippers carrying the sand have been booked. There are some cases in which the landowners were booked for illegal mining in their farmland and in some cases the operators of JCB machines were booked. But there is not a single conviction in any case as 95 per cent cases are under investigation.

HOW BAD IS IT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?

Dr O P Chaudhary, Principal Soil Chemist and Head of the Department of the Soil Science, Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, said that excavation of farmland means destroying soil head, which is the most fertile. And this destruction is “forever”, he argued, “as its takes hundreds of years to form even in single inch layer of the soil”.

“All the important nutrients of the soil are available up to 60 cm till the root zone layer of the crops, and after the top one-metre excavation means we have killed its fertility completely,” said Dr Chaudhary, adding that not a single-feet mining should be allowed at any farmland for urbanisation or any other purpose.

“People who are involved in the mining of farmland are causing a huge damage to our environment,” he stressed.

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