The making of a wastelandhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/punjab-illegal-mining-mafia-the-making-of-a-wasteland-5812543/

The making of a wasteland

On paper, mining is not allowed in the foothills of Shivalik, an area rich in stones and gravel. But as the government looks the other way, mining mafia goes about their work, unhindered, in villages, less than 25 km away from Chandigarh.

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Tractors at work on a mined field in Abhipur village in Mohali. (Express Photo by Kanchan Vasdev)

Villages situated on the foothills of Shivalik range, in the vicinity of Chandigarh, are turning out to be a goldmine for the mining mafia which is exploiting this land, as the Punjab government looks the other way.

Mining is not allowed in the foothills of Shivalik, an area rich in stones and gravel. The sites are not auctioned by the state government in the annual auction. But illegal mining of sand and gravel, a multi-crore business, is rampant in these villages, less than 25 km away from Chandigarh, Punjab’s capital and seat of power. The mafia makes a moolah out of the business, mining premium quality gravel, and selling it in the state capital region, having a good network of roads. On the other hand, the state does not get a single penny in revenue.

The illegal mining is also a curse for the residents.

Not only the ecosystem and environment of the area is affected, but the village residents also cannot live in peace. On any given day, the roads leading to these villages are cloggers with tippers and JCBs. Amid the cacophony of the crushers, tippers and JCBs, huge craters, mounds of sand and clouds of powdery sand, welcome the visitors to these villages. A team of The Indian Express witnessed many fields being levelled last week, a tell-tale sign that gravel was scooped out of those fields a night earlier. As the illegal activity went on blatantly, the mafia had posted a few youths, on the roadsides, armed with cellphones, eagerly waiting to inform them about any impending danger of a police raid or official action.

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An atmosphere of fear prevails in Abhipur, where no village resident is willing to comment on illegal mining. Nobody is willing to accompany anyone around in the village. “They come and attack. I do not want to come with you,” said a village resident, without disclosing his name.

There are a few agriculture fields that have not witnessed mining activity. “Almost all private fields have undergone this activity. Under the top layer of soil, the fields have 5 to 15 feet thick layer of gravel. The farmers allow the mining of the gravel for easy money. One gets anything between Rs 5 lakh and 15 lakh for mining of every acre of land. Later, we level it with sand. It requires a lot of work,” said Bahadur Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Abhipur village.

He added he had himself allowed mining in his field. “But I repented later. It took me six months to prepare my field again for agriculture.”

Besides the private land, acres of shamlaat land in these villages too have been exploited and mined up till 50 feet leading to huge craters that turn into deep ponds in monsoons.

“On any given day about 1,000 tippers cross the link road of our village. The road vanishes within a few days after it is laid. They carry 800 square feet of sand. In order to finish off with the illegal activity, they drive rashly. We do not allow our children to go out fearing accidents. What is their childhood if they cannot venture out of their homes? Women do not feel safe because the mafia has all kinds of men roaming around. The tippers leave a trail of dust that settles everywhere, in our houses, on our crops, and even fodder,” lamented Bhag Singh, (68) an ex-servicemen-turned-activist against sand mining.

He is one among a handful of village residents from Abhipur who has been spearheading a campaign against mining in Shivalik foothills. The village residents led by 43-year-old Ram Singh have now moved National Green Tribunal (NGT) to seek relief after having knocked the doors of bureaucracy, police and judiciary.

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Mining has already started on these hills while no activity is allowed there as per rules. (Express Photo by Kanchan Vasdev)

In their petition to NGT, the village residents have stated that their agriculture has been ruined. “The land has turned infertile due to scooping of earth, the water table has gone down at 350 feet as the crushers use huge amount of water to wash the gravel. As a layer of powdery dust settles on our crops, stopping the process of photosynthesis, our yields are getting affected. We have to wash fodder grown in our fields as even the cattle refuse to eat dust laden fodder. Just visit one of our schools after summer vacation to see how our children suffer due to dust. Everybody on the street is coughing,” said Bhag Singh.

He added, “Not just the fields and the shamlaat land, the next target of the mafia is forest land on hills, locked under Section 4 of PLPA. Mining has already started on these hills while no activity is allowed there as per rules.”

The petition in NGT is based on the plight of residents of Abhipur, Kubbaheri and Mianpur Changar villages in Mohali. The NGT sent a team for experts on May 29 after the petition and Bhag Singh was attacked on the same day with rods in his village.

While the petition in NGT refers to these three villages, the situation is no less bleak in several others. In Khizrabad village, a few kilometers away from Abhipur, Sher Khan, a flour mill owner, rues his failure to have got the land of his village saved from sand and gravel sharks. “In my over five-year long fight, there is not one officer that I did not meet. But nothing happens. Our village shamlaat land has been dug deep up to 50 feet. It is a huge crater now. But nobody listens. I have met everybody starting from the SHO to the Vigilance Officers. They have now ordered an inquiry. Let us see what comes out of it,” he says.

He said there were about 35 crushers in these 7-8 villages and half of those were illegal. “Shocking fact is that the cream of these villages is also involved in the trade, and enjoys political patronage. That is why nothing happens,” he rues but praises Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) local MLA Kanwar Sandhu for not buckling down under any pressure and raising the issue tirelessly.

“Many people came with me to oppose the illegal trade. After five years, I am alone. The rest are also involved in the trade. But there is a silver lining now. A few youths have come with me. They organise dharnas and do not let the tippers pass. They have lent me some hope,” said Sher Khan.

Village residents recall how the area, rich in stone and gravel, attracted sand sharks. They say it was about nine years ago when a few crushers set up units in these villages after the government auctioned eight sites in Ghaggar river. The crushers were given permission by the government. Soon after they started mining from shamlaat land in connivance with panchayats. Later, even the farmers started allowing the mafia to mine their fields. Lalach pai gya sab nu. (Everybody became greedy).” said Bhag Singh.

For a few years, villagers just kept quiet till 2014 when Ram Singh and others started raising a voice. “I was asked to shut up. I was offered a partnership in the multi-crore business. But I told them they are thieves and I cannot be one of them. I am going strong. They attacked me with rods. But I have taken a vow that even if I am destined to get killed by the mafia, I will continue with my fight,” added Bhag Singh.

He said out of 90 families in the village, about 10-15 are involved in the trade directly, claiming: “The massive mining operations gave a big boost to the economy of these villages. The area that was known for being poorly developed saw mushrooming of big houses, expensive cars and mining machinery. People started getting rich and the village started turning poor.”

Not only these families, but people from poor strata too are dependent on mining. “Somebody has a small pedal cart to ferry sand, others supply oil to the tippers, many have found a way to earn their bread through mining. That is how we become their enemies and the trade flourishes because of the involvement of locals. All those who were with me earlier fighting against the menace have a crusher each,” said Sher Khan.

Mohali Deputy Commissioner (DC) Girish Dayalan, when contacted, said that if anything wrong was going on he will check it. He added that he shall meet the people regarding the issue.

Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, Minister of Mines, said he was not aware of illegal mining going on in these villages. “It is not in my notice. There are some crushers there that are supposed to get their material from legal mines in Ropar. I will get this checked. If the illegal activity is going on, I will order a crackdown,” he said.

New mining policy: All dressed up, but nowhere to go

Nailing the illegal sand mining was a pre-poll promise of Congress party in Punjab. Two years and three months after the party came to power, the Congress government has not been able to do anything. The illegal sand mining goes on unabated not only in the Kande area but the entire state.

The government, after taking over, faced a challenge of not only checking the illegal mining but also running the business smoothly so that the sand could be made available to the public at affordable prices.

But even after formulating two policies, one in 2017 and another in 2018, the government has not been able to achieve its goal. During the entire last fiscal, it was not able to auction any sand mines for want of a proper policy.

After coming to power, it adopted a progressive bidding policy, in contrast with the previous government’s reverse bidding policy. But the incumbent government’s first auction of mines got surrounded in controversy when former employees of the then sitting Minister Rana Gurjit Singh, bagged mines at exorbitant bids. The controversy died down only after Rana Gurjit ended up resigning from the cabinet.

During the last fiscal, the government started formulating a new policy under which the entire state was divided into seven clusters or blocks. The government lost a number of months after the policy was challenged in the High Court which later upheld the policy and gave a go-ahead to the government to stick to it.

But the new policy too has its own drawbacks. It is being alleged that the policy only favours the big fish as the reserve price of huge clusters is beyond the approach of small traders. Also, farmers are not allowed to mine their own land.

Amid all these allegations, the government has not been able to evince much interest for its clusters. Out of seven clusters, three have not received any bidders depositing earnest money. Another one has got just a single prospective bidder. Internally, the issue is a cause of concern for the government.

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Minister for Mines Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria told The Indian Express that the new mining policy was aimed at checking the illegal mining. — Kanchan Vasdev