It is a battleground which announces its existence from a distance. Layers of sand on the narrow road leading to mining pits, rows of empty trucks parked on the sides, groups of drivers and helpers chatting away about cessation in the mining work – all give an indication about the unease that has now befallen the banks of the Yamuna here that has been in the news for the recent activities of the sand mafia.

Mining starts barely a couple of kilometres downstream from the Okhla barrage. It witnessed an exponential rise with a boom in real estate business in the region about a decade ago. While villagers in the area have often complained about loss of revenue due to damage to their crops because of illegal mining, the operators, having established strong links with the politicians, have each time overcome “administrative hurdles” their own way.

The affected villagers allege that the brutal killing of 52-year-old Paleram Chauhan only goes to show the brazenness with which the sand mafia operates today.

On condition of anonymity, police officers conceded that illegal mining required attention as it has impacted over a dozen villages along the river. Locals claimed nearly 20 villages falling under the Noida and the Greater Noida authorities are affected.

“We have been fighting against the mining mafia for the past several years,” said a Raipur village resident in Sector 126 where a sleeping Paleram Chauhan was gunned down on Wednesday.

Sifting through his father’s documents hours after his murder, Mr. Chauhan’s son Aakash discovered that he had launched a campaign against land grabbers and illegal sand extractors several years ago and then other villagers joined in. In a recent letter to the District Magistrate, the village head had reminded the administration that about 280 bigha of gram sabha land had been grabbed for illegal mining and the vacation order, dated February 24, 2011, had not been executed.

Reports about land grabbing had started surfacing in 2004. “The business saw a sudden rise about five years ago with those involved making huge profits -- up to nearly Rs.3 lakh per day per operator,” said another villager, adding that Mr. Chauhan had himself lodged a complaint with the Gautam Budh Nagar administration in March 2010 seeking action against them. The letter, while mentioning that a vacation-cum-land restoration order granting Rs.25 lakh as compensation to him had been issued in 2007, alleged that illegal mining, unauthorised sand processing and stone crushing works were being done by criminal elements along the river and such activities harmed the crops standing in his fields. However, his son alleged that no action was taken.

Hoping for a reprieve, the villagers also wrote to the then Chief Minister Mayawati, but illegal activities continued unabated. “In the dead of night, they would excavate sand for supply to builders in and outside Noida.”

The hapless villagers finally knocked at the doors of the Allahabad High Court last year, seeking action through a PIL. “The court had issued a notice to the area DM to file a report. However, there is no further development and the case is pending as the petitioners have not pursued it since then,” said advocate S. K. Tyagi.

While the villagers allege police connivance and inaction, a senior police officer maintained that action was indeed being taken. “This year so far we have registered 102 cases and arrested 121 people. In all, 124 vehicles, including four excavators, have been impounded,” he said.

The police said the issue fell under the jurisdiction of the mining department. “However, it does not have enough manpower and the unit is also not well equipped. On most occasions, they require our assistance,” said the officer.

Stating that sand extraction had become a well organised business, an official said it fed the large-scale construction activity in the region with roughly 3 lakh residential units coming up in Noida and Greater Noida. Instead of bricks, a large number of builders use pre-cast concrete blocks which are constructed using sand. The officer said an area like Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh has about 450 brick kilns, but it was perhaps a costly affair for many builders to get supplies from there.

“Those into illegal mining operate at three levels. While there are several independent small-time players, those who can afford trucks, tractors and excavators are into large-scale operations. There are also some who manage a network of independent operators. Over a period of time, they also get involved in other criminal activities. They could well have political links,” the officer said, adding that excavation stops during monsoons as the water level in the river rises.

Demanding action against those involved in Mr. Chauhan’s murder, Raipur villagers claimed that Gautam Budh Nagar Sub-Divisional Magistrate Durga Shakti Nagpal, an IAS officer, was also removed as she had launched a drive against the sand mafia.

“She had constituted a flying squad for the purpose,” said a resident.

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