Illegal sand mining Part 3: Bihar govt's attempted crackdown sends prices soaring; officials face axe as rivers in ruin

Ramashankar Mishra | Feb 2, 2019 | 7 min read


Ramashankar Mishra

Patna: Sand in Bihar is being sold like the precious yellow metal. While gold has almost had a fixed market price since the 2008 global economic meltdown, sand in Bihar is being sold at premium pricing, which has gone as high as Rs 15,000 to Rs 18,000 per truck load after the state government turned stiff against the nexus operating the illegal trade in the state in last two years. This illegal trade is a lucrative activity for the mafia who operate it in connivance with politicians, police and officials of mines and geology department.

A well-knit syndicate of sand smugglers are active in at least a dozen districts of Bihar, including Patna, Saran, Bhojpur, Rohtas, Aurangabad, Banka, Lakhisarai, Gaya, Arwal and West Champaran, which are among the worst hit. Illegal sand mining across rivers of Bihar has led the state government to incur losses running up to Rs 600-Rs 700 crore every year, according to officials of the department.

The mines and geology department in Bihar has so far had 11 employees dismissed from service and 22 others who have been put under suspension after their involvement in illegal sand mining was established since July, 2017. In addition, pension of three retired employees has been stopped for their alleged nexus with sand mafia. Transfers of sincere administrative officers cracking down on the sand mining mafia has been a regular affair across districts.

Sky high price, but state sees loss

While the mines and geology department levies a meager Rs 400 as tax per 100 cubic feet of sand, apart from the Rs 100 per 100 cft levied as loading charge (goes to contractor) and Rs 20 per 100 cft as Value Added Tax (VAT), sand is at present being sold at a fluctuating price of Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 for 100 cft, claim private sand dealers. This makes a truckload (which amounts to 200 cubic feet (cft) in case of a tractor trolley and 400 cft in a truck, which are both used for transporting the minor mineral) cost between Rs 12,000-Rs 24,000. Even if a truck carries 400 cft, a truck load of sand would cost the contractor not more than Rs 2,080, including Rs 1,600 as tax to the department, Rs 400 as loading charge and Rs 80 for VAT. The market price varies according to the distance sand is ferried for delivery. The loading contractors never sell the consignment at the riverbed rather from a stockyard.

Bihar has over the last three years registered a fall in target achievement in terms of revenue collected from sand. Against a target of Rs 1,000 crore as revenues from sale of sand set in 2015-’16, the state government collected Rs 971 crore (97.10 percent of target), in 2016-’17, they collected Rs 994 crore against target of Rs 1,100 crore (90.37 percent) and while the target in 2017-’18 went up to Rs 1,350 crore, the department could fetch only Rs 1,082 crore (80.20 percent). The rising gap between set target and collected revenue is attributed to ban on sand mining in the wake of instructions issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to issue mining leases of minor minerals only after getting environmental clearances by ministry of environment and forests. Crackdown on illegal business of sand and its resulting scarcity has largely affected the ongoing construction work rendering hundreds of daily wagers jobless.

Private sand dealers say that before July 2017, sand was available in the market for Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per 100 cft.

“The rates have fallen after the state government launched crackdown on illegal mining ghats and those involved in the lucrative business. The department officials are monitoring the prices,” says Bihar minister for mines and geology Vinod Kumar Singh, probably unaware of the three-time increase in market price of sand.

Axe on active officials

IAS officer K K Pathak, known as a 'no nonsense' administrator, who was appointed 2016 to check illegal mining as principal secretary, mining and geology department, had a short stint, as the government had to allegedly remove him under pressure.

Minister Singh, however, believes the government is “serious about illegal mining of sand” and “strict rules are on the cards to curb activities of sand smugglers”.

Another case where an official acting against sand mafia had to face the music was that of Deepak Anand, who during his tenure as Saran district magistrate had sent a detailed report to the Bihar government on involvement of some bigwigs, including then Saran Superintendent of Police, Pankaj Kumar Raj, in the illegal trade of sand.

A couple of months later, Bihar police’s anti-corruption wing raided Anand's official residence in Patna and native place in Sitamarhi, and lodged a disproportionate assets case against the young IAS officer. However, no action was initiated against the IPS officer in question, Raj, who was said to be close to Muneshwar Choudhary, the then mining and geology minister in Nitish Kumar's cabinet.

“If an IAS officer is not spared, then who will dare to take action against the well-knit syndicate of sand smugglers,” says an official with the mines and geology department, seeking anonymity.    

Anand, a 2007- batch IAS officer, had unearthed a racket involved in sand smuggling and in 2017, he had impounded over 200 sand-laden trucks on Doriganj-Chhapra road under the jurisdiction of Mufassil police station in Saran district. The sand was being transported from Chirand stockyard.

In his report submitted to the government, Anand claimed that most truck drivers alleged that the money collected from truck operators went to the district police chief, Raj, a charge denied by the latter. Anand had also recommended a high level probe into the sand mafia-police nexus in the district.

While Anand refuses to comment on the issue at present, his only comment to this writer: "Everything is in the knowledge of the government."

Environmental impact

In Saran district, Chirand village, situated on the confluence of Ganga and Saryu rivers, is smugglers’ favourite as it also connects with the National Highway-19. Sand mined from the nearby Sone river in Patna and Bhojpur districts is shipped to Chirand in boats to be smuggled to north Bihar and neighbouring districts of Uttar Pradesh. According to locals, around 90 percent of population in Chirand village are engaged in sand smuggling.

Ashok Ghosh, a noted environmentalist, says illegal sand mining also causes erosion leading to shifting of villages on river banks. “There have been instances where rivers changed their course due to illegal sand mining. The government should ensure that guidelines issued by the NGT are implemented in toto.”

An example of such ecological imbalance was witnessed in West Champaran district, when several villages were washed away due to flash flood, an unnatural phenomena in the region bordering Nepal, caused by illegal mining in Kataiya river.

Sone river is completely ruined with heavy machines digging up its banks right from Koelwar in Bhojpur to Arwal, Aurangabad and Rohtas in south-central Bihar. On December 30, 2018, Patna district authorities issued a show cause notice to Broadson Commodities Pvt. Ltd for damaging the Sone canal under Paliganj subdivision to pave way for transportation of sand from the ghat.

Sand mined from the Sone in Rohtas, Aurangabad and Bhojpur is smuggled to UP. Assistant manager at an integrated check post at Mohania in Kaimur district, Nishant Singh, says that on an average 1,475 overloaded trucks carrying sand cross the check post everyday. However, only 15 to 20 such vehicles were impounded, he adds.

The state government has deployed five officials of transport and mines and geology department to check overloaded trucks on the 70-km long stretch of the NH-2. “Their negligence is causing a huge loss to the state exchequer every day,” Singh says.

An e-challan process to check irregularities in issuance of fake challan (receipt) to truck drivers has also  been planned.

While the state government, after a previous NGT ruling suspending mining activities ended on September 30 last year, had introduced new Bihar Minor Mineral Rules, through which it wanted to clear mining activity across 10 districts, the Patna High Court in November 2018 had stayed any amendment to mining laws in state.

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