The SC mining ban may have saved the Aravalis in Haryana. But it’s getting blasted to bits in Rajasthan. Revati Laul tracks the illegal business that could be worth over Rs 50,000 crore
IF THERE is total devastation, the natural corollary is a total ban.” On 8 May 2009, a Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan and Justices Arijit Pasayat and SH Kapadia made this pronouncement as they banned mining in the Aravali hills in Haryana. So the mining mafia went around the other side of the hills, into Rajasthan. And continued like before, to plunder one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges that stretch from Pakistan to Delhi’s Raisina Hill. The Aravalis act as a natural barrier to the Thar desert in western Rajasthan. If they are removed, there could be a desert in place of our Parliament one day. This is the story of the beginning of that destruction.
Rajasthan is the second largest mineral-producing state in India: 37 major and 22 minor minerals come from here, including metals like copper, zinc and lead and also a large amount of marble, sandstone, soapstone and grit used in laying roads.
In 2010, 13,100 mining leases were granted and over 26 crore tonnes were mined. This generated a little over Rs 1,500 crore in revenue from both royalties and taxes. Royalties vary; for a bulk of the major minerals, it’s 10 percent of the sale price. For minor minerals, it varies from Rs 16 a tonne for masonry stone to Rs 400 a tonne for marble. The real math, of course, lies in the unaccounted-for minerals and stones being mined in quantities that are anybody’s guess. What is amply clear though is that the amount is large and all that is unaccounted for is a huge loss to the exchequer. However, the large-scale destruction of the mountains is taking place not so much from the mining of copper or zinc, but from cutting the rock face for stone.
While the Directorate of Mines and Geology (DOMG) admits that the Aravalis are being destroyed largely by illegal mining, no one has been able to quantify these claims. It became such a mess that it was referred in 2009 to a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) set up by the apex court. The CEC is a group comprising environmentalists, lawyers and two NGOs and it’s task is to monitor if the court’s orders on the environment are being violated.
When the CEC set out to map the scale of illegal mining, its first stumbling block was the almost complete absence of data. It found that the state government did not even know which part of the Aravalis fell within its boundaries. There were no maps. “It is not understood how the state government has been regulating mining activities in the Aravali hills in the absence of such information,” remarked the CEC.
The CEC had to apply for funds to have the mountains mapped. DOMG Director Ajitabh Sharma claims it will still take 7-8 months for the images to be ready.
However, poring through some of the official data, it has been possible for TEHELKA to arrive at some workable estimates of the size and shape of the mining problem.
According to official records, 5,332 hectares were leased out for stone mining in 2010. But mining math is not simple. Campaigners, activists and locals provide the closest estimate. For instance, how many trucks of masonry stone are taken out of a 1 hectare mine? 80-100 trucks a day, says Kailash Meena, 43, who is leading an anti-mining campaign in Neem ka Thana, Alwar. If we are to accept 80 trucks per hectare as a starting point and calculate how many tonnes of stone would be carved out of the mountains in a year, it would come to at least 140 crore tonnes of stone.
However, official estimates for 2010 suggest that only 6 crore tonnes were extracted. In money terms, the difference is massive: 134 crore tonnes in excess, sold at Rs 400 per tonne means at least Rs 53,600 crore worth of stone are unaccounted for.
The math is so starkly different in the official and unofficial estimates that we decided to do the same problem in reverse. If we go by the official data, it means that for each hectare mined, only 30 tonnes or three trucks’ worth were pulled out each day. But many experts beg to differ.
Most mine owners have some official leases. What makes a mining operation illegal is not the absence of a sanction or licence but the violation on the ground of its terms and conditions. Many dig much deeper and farther than they are allowed. Some who refused to give us their names were brazen enough to openly acknowledge this phenomenon. They also mine many years’ quantity in a matter of months.
Because many of the mines are quasi-legal, the government and the CEC have been unable to join the dots to the big fish — Rajasthan’s version of the Bellary brothers. However, they do exist, working via proxy companies and through an intricate web of complicit, corrupt actors. Senior IAS officers and a top government official told TEHELKA the people involved in this scam range from district-level officials to the police, to MLAs and even ministers, many of whom are mine owners by proxy.
DOMG director Sharma says 48 zones, especially in Alwar and Sikar districts that border Haryana, are where illegal mining is rampant. Nearly 400 Home Guards have been positioned here, but only 50 are armed. In addition, 1,000 men from the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary are about to be sent in to stop illegal stone crushers. GPS devices and CCTVs have been ordered. And Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has made statements declaring a zero-tolerance policy for illegal mining.
Government officials admit privately that the problem is so entrenched because there is not enough political will to stop it. A few illegal units may be routinely caught and made example of but that’s just about it. In the past three years, DOMG raids resulted in 1,200 cases being registered against defaulters. Significantly, the top three defaulters were all from Alwar (Dinesh Saini, who was fined Rs 74 lakh, Meema Sharma, Rs 44 lakh and Kishan Chand Saini, Rs 29 lakh). Who are these mine owners? We are told that the same owner could get an environmental clearance in one year and then violate the law the following year. Therefore, in one way or another, the big fish have continued to remain hidden and unimpeded.
On a micro scale, some data has become available. The CEC zeroed in on Gwalda, a block in Tijara tehsil, Alwar, where on any given day, more trucks carrying stone are visible than people. In this block alone, mining leases were sanctioned for 5 hectares in 2010, but as much as 83 hectares were being mined. In the same tehsil, Udhanwas is ostensibly a protected forest area, where no mining leases were sanctioned. But the CEC has found that not only is illegal mining widespread here but has increased with each passing year (12.94 hectares in 2005 to 51.72 hectares in 2010).
Mining leases granted for major and minor minerals in 2010
Hectares leased out for stone mining the same year
Rs 1,500 cr
Revenue generated from both royalties and taxes
(crore tonnes) of stones mined in 2010, according to official records
(crore tonnes) of stones mined, according to unofficial figures
Cases registered against defaulters in the past three years
Is the maximum earned per trip per truck, depending on the tonnage
THE NUMBERS don’t tell the story of the people involved in illegal mining and those who are at its receiving end. For that, TEHELKA travelled through Alwar and Sikar, mapping the human side of the story. In Alwar, we were warned in particular about Udhanwas. Just three months ago, the CEC team decided to go there, but were forced to turn back. The road was blocked with boulders and even the police and district administration were unable to get in.
“Don’t go into Udhanwas. If the DM and SP couldn’t get in, what chance do you stand?” the villagers warned. After crossing many denuded hills, blazing red in the April heat, we decided to leave our photographer behind, just in case, and pose as members of an NGO. A teacher at the primary school, the only one in the village, took us to Udhanwas, narrating to us en route how everyone here is armed. They have all invested in the mining business.
We reached his school and asked to meet whoever was available. Three men, three women and six kids turned up. But the one person who explained the villagers’ point of view was Ayub, 45, who has also invested in the mining business. This is a village of just 45 households or 300 people. It is also widely acknowledged to be in one of the most under-developed parts of India. Girls here barely study beyond Class V.
Until mining shifted here, agriculture was their primary source of income and was yielding less and less over time. Now, almost everyone in the village has put their money on mining. They have bought tractors and trucks on loans for which they pay Rs 30,000 a month in EMIs. Their main profit then comes from powering the arteries and veins of the mining mafia.
“We have collectively decided not to let the mining stop,” says Ayub. “We know the hills and grazing land will disappear, but we don’t care. We want money now.” His neighbours smile and nod in agreement.
When TEHELKA brought up the story of Narendra Kumar, the cop in Madhya Pradesh who was tracking the mining mafia until they rolled a tractor over his face, killing him, Ayub and the others sat back and laughed. “We do that kind of thing all the time. We hurt and kill cops if need be. Anyone who gets in our way.”
Later, when we narrated this account to local SP Mahesh Kumar Goyal, he dismissed these claims as complete rubbish. But a CEC member said the team had recorded instances of cops being injured and threatened on the Haryana side.
Avtar Singh Bhadana, who used to be one of the largest miners in the region, says he has heard of similar stories. He claims to have given up his mining business ever since he joined politics. He’s the Congress MP from Faridabad now. However, there are many in Rajasthan who don’t believe these claims, especially since there is a road, cut through the Aravalis from Rajasthan to Haryana, built by Bhadana using MPLADS funds. He says this was a much-needed connecting road and does not violate any rules. Activists say the road is laden with trucks from illegal mines, so who was it really built for? The name ‘Bhadana’ features on the backs of many trucks ferrying stone, including a few that have no number plates. Are they the same Bhadana? “No,” is the MP’s answer. There are others with the same name, he says.
ONCE YOU exit Udhanwas, the other side of the story becomes evident. At a nearby village called Deota that was opposed to the destruction of the mountains, people say stray boulders from crushers too close to their village regularly smash their homes. Village elder Ram Swarup, 70, looks into the sand-filled sky and asks: “The hills belong to all. So why is only one person earning from it? And if mining is the only way out of poverty, then how do people who don’t live in the hills survive?” His village has now taken its battle to court.
The scale of operations is so large in Alwar and Sikar because protesting villagers like those in Deota are in a minority. For instance, in Gwalda, similar sentiments were echoed. The same willingness to sell the mountains for money. “Who cares what happens in 10 years’ time?” asks 81-year-old former sarpanch Kallu Haji, grinning. “We need money for the present.”
The hills of Alwar are home to many stone crushing units. The stone is crushed by day. But the boulder itself is broken free from the mountainside by night. Miners in the vicinity of protesting villagers such as Kishangar Bas say the police instruct them not to operate their illegal mines in the day. But with some greasing of the palm, the mining process is undertaken through the night.
Suraj, 13 (name changed) lives under a thin thatch with 10 others, mostly minors from Bihar. He lives and works in the mines. His yellow eyes tell their own story of a life lived in fear. If indeed camping with 10 people in a mine, leaving your home in Bihar at the age of 13 to break the mountainside in the dark can be called a life. “At home, even if things were bad, at least I came back to my mother and she’d make me her rotis,” he says. “I miss my mother the most.”
Alwar Collector Ashutosh Pednekar admits the scale of illegal mining is huge. He believes that the armed constabulary, GPS and CCTVs could curb it. And a Rs 2.5 crore skill deployment programme has been started to give alternative jobs to youth in the factories coming up in Mewat. An ITI is being set up for technical training.
Given the scale of mining and the largescale support of local villagers, Pednekar’s task is a tough one. Dealing with the mining mafia, armed and fearless on one hand, and enticing people with alternative jobs on the other. Jobs that even he is aware will not pay even one-fifth of what they now earn through illegal mining.
DOMG director Sharma echoes these sentiments but denies that there is political complicity at the top. A Congress leader disagrees. It’s precisely because so many people are benefiting from this Rs 50,000 crore illegal operation that the dots don’t join back to them, says the politician, who holds a top position in the government.
Rajasthan Lokayukta GL Gupta is probing several claims of illegal mining, including one against former minister Bharosi Lal Jatav, who has been accused of misusing his position to get mining leases for his sons on forestland. Gupta says his findings are confidential. Only if a member of the state Assembly chooses to make these findings public, can they become public knowledge. Which has not happened yet.
But some evidence of political complicity is there to see. In Sikar district, pockets of resistance against the mining mafia have been building up over the past two years, especially in Neem ka Thana. As a result, Kailash Meena, the man spearheading the resistance, spent many weeks in jail last year. And protests by villagers were brutally crushed last April.
Dabla village resident Shanti, 70, describes how she was dragged to the police station in Patan block and then beaten up with lathis till she could not move or even relieve herself properly for the next month. The villagers were protesting the taking over of common grazing land for carving out a road to service five stone crushing units in the area. Since then, the protests have only gotten bolder.
Civil rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) galvanised its forces behind the growing protests in Neem ka Thana and submitted a dossier of illegal mining, police brutality and stories of mine workers’ injuries and deaths to Chief Minister Gehlot’s office last October. Like the story of Shaudan Gujjar, whose son Chintar, 25, was standing on the terrace of their home when a boulder from a nearby stone crusher landed on his head, killing him instantly. The mine, Baba’s Stone Crushers, paid Gujjar Rs 11 lakh as compensation and also to keep quiet.
Among the documents on illegal mining that the PUCL produced before the Rajasthan government was a reply filed by the Neem ka Thana tehsil to an RTI request (No. 1711, dated 25 May 2010). This revealed that 12 cement washing plants that consume large quantities of water were in operation in a portion of Neem ka Thana that has been declared to be in the severely parched zone of Rajasthan. PUCL also claims the cement washing plants and large-scale sand mining in the area has destroyed two rivers: Dabla and Kasavati.
MEENA’S BATTLE with the mining mafia began in 2005, when dust from the stone-crushing units nearby ended up killing his goats, ruining his career as a pastoralist. Unlike Udhanwas, where profits from agriculture were dwindling and the spin-offs from illegal mining were much more lucrative, Neem ka Thana was a village of moderately successful pastoralists. Now, Meena has sold most of his livestock and plunged into a battle with the mining mafia. “Why doesn’t the state just change the law? Tell us that the cities are everything. That for the sake of building a flyover so that one burra sahib’s car can move one minute faster, three villages will be destroyed?” he asks.
He then shows six FIRs detailing how cops had caught trucks and a tent full of explosives meant to blast rock, being stored and transported without any official documents. In each case, the district magistrate let off the drivers with fines of Rs 500-Rs 1,000. No mention was made of attempts to track the owners of these explosives.
This has also earned Meena the ire of local MLA Ramesh Khandelwal, who likened him and his “band of protesters” to the Taliban. “They are playing a disruptive role,” he says. “Look at the development and jobs mining has brought with it. As the representative of the people, it is my duty to create jobs for the unemployed.”
As the destruction of the Aravalis lands jobs to some and death for a few others, it raises one disturbing, ironical question. Was the mining ban in Haryana the right way to protect the Aravalis? The CEC is now making the case that it is not.
In its report to the Supreme Court in January, the CEC said it is the gap in demand and supply resulting from the ban in Haryana that has fuelled illegal mining in Rajasthan. The CEC suggests that mining leases should be granted in proportion to the prevailing demand for raw materials. The answer to violation of law is better regulation of mines, not their absence.
While this is being debated in courtrooms in New Delhi, the mountains that rose out of the earth millions of years ago are being ripped out and blasted illegally. And most of it is being done in connivance with the lawmakers.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.