For lakhs of residents of the Trans-Yamuna regions of Allahabad, Kaushambi and Chitrakoot districts in Uttar Pradesh, life depends largely on the river ecosystem, in particular sand mining.

However, over the years this traditional livelihood has been marred by the extorting means of the sand mafia, who use political intimidation and administrative apathy to openly rob locals of their sand. While the use of illegal machines has been banned under the UP Minor Minerals Act (1963) and by various Government Orders, they are in open use. In fact, many JCB machines, which are used in drilling out sand, are owned and controlled by MPs and MLAs of the major political parties, including the BSP and the SP.

Also, the process of allotment of leasing of mine beds is suitably adjusted so as to provide majority of them to the mafia and big contractors.

Notably, in various orders both the Supreme Court and the Allahabad High Court have observed how besides ruining livelihoods, unrestrained mining disturbed the marine ecosystem, upsetting the ability of natural marine processes to replenish the sand, destroying vegetation, causing erosion, polluting water and weakening river beds.

In UP this also transcends into the sand mafia's control over the entire river economy, through extortion of 'goonda tax' on fishing and river bed farming. It is not uncommon for gun-totting goons to displace local miners.

Ashish Mital, secretary, CPI-ML (New Democracy), who is active in highlighting the ills of illegal sand mining, said instead of a blanket ban on mining, machines should be banned. "They ruin the ecosystem. The locals have been engaged in mining since ages. A blanket ban will only leave loopholes," he says.

A September 27, 2002, Supreme Court order directed the government to seek clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests before issuing any pattas (mining lease). However without administrative checks on the ground, the ‘ravannas’ (permits) are duplicated by influential persons. The ‘thekedaars’ or contractors also forcefully seize sand and auction it at two to five times the government rate, says a member of All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha.

The workers are then extorted to pay ravannas much higher than that fixed by the government. The government rate is Rs. 33 per cubic metre.

In the Trans-Yamuna region of Shankargarh in Allahabad, silica mining is also widespread. The fine quality silica found here is one of the best in the country. Therefore, the stakes are high.

The boating community has on various occasions demanded mining leases should be given only after the registration of boats and that the issuing of permits would somewhat curb illegal mining. However, their voice has gone unheard by the administration, who the miners allege, are often hand-in-glove with the mafia.

The Allahabad High Court had recently rapped the State for the transfer of IAS officer Himanshu Kumar as Divisional Commissioner of Allahabad, over what the Court referred to as nexus between the sand mafia and State officials.