For ages has the Yamuna brought/ From mountains high the golden sands/ And we did make a living bare/ From the bounty strewn on the submerged lands/ But now the minerals have been leased/ To people who have better means/ They use machines to suck the stream/ And employment for us a wishful dream/ While they get richer day by day/ Our right to live has been snatched away/ Oh injustice and thine serpent 'hisss'/ We won't bear thee but strike against this.

The livelihood crisis faced by the Nishads could not be expressed more accurately. For lakhs of them, spread across the banks of the Yamuna from Chitrakoot to the Sangam in Allahabad, life depends largely on boating, fishing and sand mining, with little farming during summer. However, as quoted above by the Allahabad High Court in 2008, their traditional living has been compromised by the extorting means of the sand mafia. Coupled with political intimidation and administrative apathy, the sand mafia is openly robbing the Nishads of their sand.

The thekedaars or contractors forcefully seize the sand and auction it at two to five times the government rate, says Suresh Nishad, zonal president of All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha. The workers are then extorted to pay ravannas (mine permits) much higher than that fixed by the government. The government rate is Rs. 33 per cubic metre. “Even when the sand is not auctioned to them, they lift it and sell it for huge profits, while the workers are denied their dues. The goons also extort illegal taxes from the fishermen,” says Mr. Nishad.

The most visible objects of exploitation are the large loaders and heavy machines installed by the thekedaars, in clear violation of regulations. Notably, many of these JCB machines — as they are popularly called here after the British manufacturer — are owned by MLAs, MPs or anyone with some political affiliation.

At the spot where Suresh Nishad spoke, there was only a small pickup truck waiting. The rest had gone to the mines where the loaders and machines operate. “We can manage two trips if we start really early,” he says. But that “compares nothing to what the machines can do”.

Not surprising, given that the machines extract sand at a faster and cheaper rate. However, the threats to the environment caused by their use are as alarming as ever. Government orders have acknowledged that the machines have an adverse effect upon the natural flow of the river, while also causing damage to river banks. Consequently, 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).

In 2011, the apex court noted that since the demand on sand as a construction component was growing immensely, mining activities were going on illegally, without any restrictions. The mining disturbed the marine ecosystem, the court said, upsetting the ability of natural marine processes to replenish the sand, destroying vegetation, causing erosion, polluting water, undermining the safety of bridges, weakening river beds, affecting fish breeding and migration, and harming conservation of many bird species.

These are dangerous signs for the Nishads, whose subsistence rests upon the river ecosystem. Unfortunately, there has been no interest shown to check environmental damage and prevent the use of machines, says Ashish Mital, secretary, CPI-ML New Democracy. The desperate workers have on various occasions submitted memorandums to the district administrations, demanding that ravannas be given to them at government rates to ensure their safeguard and that the rates be printed on them. Moreover, they should be issued to boats only after they are registered. The issuing of permits would increase revenue and curb illegal mining and taxing, Dr. Mital reckons.

However, despite assurances from the administration, no action has been initiated. The workers live at the mercy of the mafia.

In a recent incident in Kaushambi district, hired goons disrupted a peaceful gathering of sand workers campaigning against the use of machines, injuring two and leaving others in terror. “On the banks, they live under constant fear of the goons,” says Dr. Mital. While the workers alleged police complicity in this case, they fear political influence will mean that the culprits go scot-free, like in most cases. 

In the past, the Allahabad High Court has held that the district administration’s timely intervention to prevent machines from functioning could have stopped an incident of violence between protesting sand mine workers and thekedaars. Such is the clout of the mafia, that gun totting goons in SUVs have been even known to intimidate journalists enquiring about the mining activities. Dismayed by such developments, the workers are once again mulling over a direct form of protest.

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