Mining continues despite a Supreme Court ban. Neha Dixit goes undercover to find out who is doing it, and why they are getting away with it
SAVE THE Aravallis: a slogan that like so many others stirs little response until the cost of ignoring it hits home: no electricity, no water, no construction material and, worst of all, no rain and the daytime temperature perpetually above 50 degrees Celsius.
The Aravallis are the oldest mountain range in the world and they are all that stands between Delhi and the desert, buffering the National Capital Region (NCR) against the advance of the Thar and holding down the monsoon as it sweeps over the northern plains. However, indiscriminate stone quarrying and illegal construction in forest area are ravaging the range every day. If matters proceed on their present course, Delhi will be a desert in 40 years.
Litigation against mining in the Aravallis has been heard in the Supreme Court for the last 14 years, but it was on February 5, 2009 that the court ordered a ban, until the next hearing, on mining, stone crushing, construction and land sale in the area.
TEHELKA, in its visit to the range, found that all these activities were continuing unchecked, with the police hand-in-glove with the violators.
The Central Empowered Committee (CEC), a group of eminent environmentalists, bureaucrats and experts, procured high-resolution satellite images of the Faridabad district Aravallis during January and May 2008. This was done to ascertain village-wise land use and to assess the hills’ greenbelt. Out of 23 of the district’s villages, 15 lie in areas notified under the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA). As for the greenbelt, the CEC found that 134 mines, notified by the Supreme Court under the PLPA, were operating within it or in its vicinity. Ways, however, are found of circumventing inspection even by satellite imaging. TEHELKA found huge stretches of land around the Sirohi mine covered with green cloth — in satellite pictures, the area looks like it is in the greenbelt.
VIOLATION 2: ILLEGAL CONSTRUCTION AND SALE OF FOREST LAND
The CEC found a large number of colonies, farm houses and public buildings ranging from banquet halls to schools and ashrams in the notified area. Construction here has not only meant the decimation of forests, but it also interferes with the natural passage of rain. The CEC recommended the demolition of all illegal structures, and sought to have the rehabilitation of the area taken up by the state of Haryana in a timebound manner, with no sale of land permitted and permissions revoked for all non-forestry use of notified land.
TEHELKA has a copy of a letter dated August 29, 2007, written by Forest Conservator South Block RP Balwan to Deputy Forest Conservator G Raman that makes note of the gross violation of the Forest Conservation Act and the PLPA in the Aravallis. It also lists various groups that have razed forest cover for construction purposes. These include RPS Colonisers, Kenwood City, Lakewood City, MLA Kartaar Singh Bhadana, Anandvan Colonisers, the Muthoot Group and Green Valley. Omaxe Group, the owner of ‘The Forest’ colony, has been accused not only of felling trees and carrying out construction despite the court order, but also of illegal quarrying and usurping forestland. The letter also says that since the Punjab and Haryana High Court had directed the Haryana Urban Development Authority to return the money to all plot owners in Sectors 44 and 47 in Faridabad, the area was forestland and construction here was illegal. No action was taken on the complaint.
At this point, it must be noted that according to a court order dated May 10, 1996, there should be a 200m greenbelt near Surajkund and Badkhal lakes. These were the area’s only natural water bodies; both are even found mentioned in the Mahabharata. Unchecked mining in their vicinity resulted in their complete disappearance last year.
Posing as a potential buyer, TEHELKA visited colonisers in the prohibited zone and found that there were no signs of a greenbelt. Instead, unabashed land sale and construction continues.
TEHELKA: I like the apartment. What are the rates?
Dealer: Here is the rate list. Bank loans are also available.
TEHELKA: What about the Supreme Court ban?
Dealer: Supreme Court mentions [land under] Sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA as notified area, which is forest area. This area does not fall under those sections.
TEHELKA: But now the Supreme Court has asked for construction to be stopped.
Dealer:That is for areas under Sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA, not this. See the area around this place is notified. Here you can do anything.
TEHELKA: Okay, this is not.
Dealer: This has a proper address: Faridabad Sector 43. Don’t worry.
TEHELKA: The Supreme Court has also banned mining, isn’t it?
Dealer: That is for commercial use. Not here.
TEHELKA: What is the rate of land here?
Dealer: Depends on the location.
TEHELKA: Where is land available?
Dealer: [Sectors] 21A, B and C
TEHELKA: And here in 46 and 47?
Dealer: There are a few in 46. There is one 100-yard plot available in Sector 47.
TEHELKA: How much will it cost?
Dealer: Around Rs 40-45 lakhs. The rate here according to the government is Rs 6,000 per yard so according to that Rs six lakh will be required for registry and the rest in black.
TEHELKA: Okay. And the Supreme Court banned construction and all in the area. That isn’t a problem, is it?
Dealer: See, the place where you are sitting right now was also prohibited. But we built it very recently. There is no problem in Sectors 46 and 47 — even though it’s prohibited, nothing will happen.
Dealer: Earlier also, the Supreme Court had banned construction near Badkhal Lake. But construction took place. See, the thing is even if the court orders, nobody comes for inspecting anything. What will they do? Will they demolish these big apartments?
TEHELKA: You are sure there will not be any Supreme Court problem, because we are in a hurry to build our house.
Dealer: There is no problem anywhere, except in the part you are sitting in right now.
TEHELKA: So people have started staying in apartments nearby in spite of the ban?
TEHELKA: Isn’t that a problem?
Dealer: Nothing will happen. Banks are also giving loans for these properties.
TEHELKA: I read in the papers that some supervisors came for inspection recently.
Dealer: See, there is ban on Omaxe also, but construction is still on. Nothing can happen to those who have power. The supervisor banned some 164 places but construction is still on. All can be managed with money. The administration itself is facilitating all this.
TEHELKA: Are you the owner of this place? Dealer: No, I work here. The owner is JM Vashisht. He was the SHO at the Badkhal Lake Police Station. He has retired now.
According to the Supreme Court order of February 3, 2009 all crushers were to be removed from the crushing zone by February 5, 2009. When TEHELKA visited the Sirohi and Khori Jamalpur mines, which have been operating in defiance of the apex court’s 2002 order, we saw overloaded trucks carrying stones from the mines outside. Crushers were at work in the crushing zones. Blasting in the mines was also on. Speaking to a crusher agency owner, a nexus of the authorities and the mining leaseholders was revealed.
DD Gupta, M/s Shiv Grit Udyog, Sirohi Crushing Zone
TEHELKA: We are doing a campaign on how labourers have lost their jobs following the closure of the mines. Some alternative should be provided by the government. How much loss are you incurring everyday?
Agency owner: See, even if the government has imposed a ban, we have to pay for the basics, electricity, maintenance etc.
TEHELKA: So, how much loss will you incur per month?
Owner: At least two lakh per month. Moreover, we have a bank loan and used our personal money also. Apart from that, if the crusher zone is banned, our machines will be stolen.
TEHELKA: How long have you been operating here?
Owner: Five years.
TEHELKA: So you didn’t know that there could be a problem here — the first Supreme Court intervention was in 2002.
Owner: No. The Haryana Government should have thought about the future while making this the crushing zone. The CM should have warned us, not fooled us. This zone was planned in 2001, plots were given out in 2003. When the SC had already intervened, why did they allot plots for crushing? But who will fight with the government, one individual can’t do it.
TEHELKA: What about the bid that didn’t happen?
Owner: They have increased the bid amount to such an extent. Earlier, it was Rs four crore for seven years. Now it’s Rs 110 crore for two years. Who will bid for such an amount?
TEHELKA: What can be the reason for this? Could it be that since minerals here are close to exhaustion in the next two years, the Haryana Government is trying to earn as much as possible?
Owner: Then why did they give it for so little last time? The mining leaseholder here, Sethi, is earning at least a crore daily from here. Where this money is shared, only they know. A single person was given the contract for the entire mining area. He had his monopoly.
TEHELKA: Sethi has a lot of support from the Haryana Government.
Owner: Anyone who has money can manage. He can control the SC order also. He has bribed the Supreme Court judges also. They should ideally have divided the mining area into four blocks and given it to four different people. There would have been competition, which would have lowered the cost of stone and therefore the construction cost. Now it’s his will. He decides the rate. If you want it, take it at his rate. Moreover, the royalty he takes is Rs 160 per tonne, much higher than the government rate. The other thing is why didn’t the Supreme Court think about the groundwater when the water was pumped out round the clock and wasted to extract silica? Everybody accepted bribes in crores and kept quiet then. Now there is a hue and cry.
TEHELKA: There were deputy commissioners involved also.
Owner: There was one deputy commisioner. It was in her time that all these builders started colonising. When you acquire land, you do it with the help of the commissioner, isn’t it? Her husband is also a builder, I don’t know much about him.
It is crucial to note that apart from being in contempt of court, the state government is suffering a loss of revenue. Mining lease holders collect arbitrary charges — the present rate of royalty they pay is Rs 24 per tonne, but what they collect can go up to Rs 140-160. If multiplied by the number of trucks crossing the check post daily, the figures run into several crores.
As per the Supreme Court’s orders, no transportation of stones is to be allowed. TEHELKA caught trucks on spycam regularly crossing the tax collection point. Although people in the area knew that their movement was banned, the police insisted that there was no such restriction.
Tax collection point, Khori Jamalpur
TEHELKA: The Supreme Court has stopped mining activities, so why are the trucks passing?
Tax collector: Illegal activities are still happening. Truckers with minerals just run past the tax collection point.
Ishwar Singh, Asst. Sub-Inspector, Khori Jamalpur police station
TEHELKA: Truckers are constantly passing even when they are banned by the SC. Why?
Ishwar Singh: Who said? It’s allowed by the Supreme Court.
The Aravallis are composed of nonporous rock. Since it cannot hold water, ground water collects in cracks and joints in the rocks. Keeping this in mind, the apex court ordered that the depth of mining be restricted to three metres above the water table. Silica, or bajri, which is in great demand for construction, is found under the water table. To extract it, miners pump out ground water until they can extract the mineral. The water, however, is left abandoned, leading to the evaporation of 8,86,891 cubic metres of ground water every year. According to NGO Shakti Vahini, there are 68 exposed water bodies in the range; in the area TEHELKA visited, we found such water bodies at every 20 feet.
The Central Ground Water Board categorically states that the ground water table in the Aravallis is falling dangerously. It is already at a critical stage in Faridabad, where its over-exploitation rate is at 89.02 percent; the figure for Gurgaon is 124 percent. Since the area’s surface water potential is not promising, ground water is the only source of drinking water here. If its depletion is not controlled, the situation will lead to a survival crisis.
According to a Supreme Court order of May 10, 1995, each mining lease-holder should follow an Environment Management plan that includes afforestation, reduction of noise and pollution and the rehabilitation of mines after they are exhausted. TEHELKA has a copy of the reply of the Haryana Control Board and the Central Pollution Control Board, which clearly states that the mine lease holders do not need to follow an Environment Management Plan, since they are minor mines. Something that is false.
Government complacency and its impact
Says RP Balwan, Forest Conservator, Gurgaon, “Illegal mining in the Aravallis is depriving poor farmers of their employment by denying them natural sources of water for farming.” Over the last three years alone, the mineral reserves of five stone mines in Mewat have been exhausted. The only two mines left in the region will be exhausted in the next two years. Haryana Environment Minister Kiran Chowdhary chooses to pass the buck. She says, “I am only concerned with forest land and environment. Checking illegal mining is not under my department. If there are violators, we will take action and inform the Supreme Court about it.” Despite the enormous evidences of illegal mining practises, visible to the naked eye, the mining lease holder of the only two mines in the range, Somdutt Sethi, is confident. “I haven’t flouted any rules. I will prove it in the Supreme Court,” he declares. Consequently, the CEC, which had given some very strong recommendations to the Supreme Court, has also gone into helpless mode. Says ADN Rao, counsel, CEC, “If the SC does not take strong steps, the Aravallis will be gone. What can be done? We all will face the consequences of an irreversible man-made disaster.”