A Hindi proverb goes: “Akela chana bhaad nahi phod sakta hai”. A lone gram cannot bust the oven. In the context of journalism, to take on the powerful, reporters need backing, which they often do not have. This perhaps explains why most journalists in Bundelkhand, the arid region straddling Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, remain silent spectators to the illegal mining of sand and stone in the area. Some even take money as a reward for their silence.

This is an open secret, with few willing to talk about it. But the unnatural death of journalist Sandeep Sharma, who was investigating the sand mafia in Madhya Pradesh, has jolted members of the fraternity. Last month, Sharma was run over by a truck in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind, which adjoins the Bundelkhand region. The police are investigating his death.

A few journalists spoke to Khabar Lahariya on the condition of anonymity about how the system of payments works. They say the money paid to journalists in the area as hush money related to illegal sand mining comes from various sources – the police, which is said to collect the money from the mafia; the owners of the trucks that ferry the illegally mined sand; and even officials of the mining department.

Hush money

Bundelkhand is a largely arid region spread over 13 districts across two states – Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba, Banda and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, and Datia, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Sagar and Damoh in Madhya Pradesh.

In March, an audio recording went viral on WhatsApp in Mahoba district. It was purportedly a drunken conversation between two reporters and a police guard, with the reporters complaining that they had not received the monthly payout from the police station the guard belonged to. The reporters were charged with putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt in order to commit extortion, assaulting or using criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty, intentionally insulting a person with the intent to provoke breach of the peace, and criminal intimidation. But the complicity between the police and administration was ignored. At a press conference where the police superintendent of Mahoba announced the charges against the reporters, no journalist raised any questions about the lopsidedness of the investigation or why no action had been taken against the police.

The fear is understandable. In Badausa village in Banda district, Kamal Sahu, a reporter with India TV 24 Total, was detained by the police along with his cameraman in January. Their identity cards, phones and camera were seized. A first information report was filed against them, and they were charged with criminal breach of trust. They say their crime was to happen to be in a village where a truck overloaded with sand was passing through. They say that the village head was drunk, and disturbed by their questions on the lack of development in the village, whisked them off to the police station and filed a case against them.

Sand mining plague

Sand and gravel is an essential part of construction, providing bulk and strength to concrete.

Illegal sand mining has denuded the riverbeds of the Ken and Yamuna rivers in Banda and Chattarpur districts. The hilly areas of Kabrai and Charkhari in Mahoba district, as well as Chitrakoot district, also have new ravines where stone has been quarried till dangerous depths.

In Uttar Pradesh, a month after the Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in March 2017, it announced a major crackdown on illegal sand and stone mining in the Bundelkhand region. In December, it passed the Uttar Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act, which aims to crack down on organised crime, including land grabbing, illegal mining, the illegal sale of medicine and illicit liquor, wildlife smuggling, extortion and abduction syndicates, as well as white-collar crime.

But Khabar Lahariya’s reporting over the last year has shown that the state government’s campaign has targeted the poor, while leaving untouched the larger nexus that enables illegal mining.

For instance, on January 10, fifty furious farmers gathered at the collectorate in Banda. About two weeks before that, on December 23, the police had seized some of their carts and buffaloes that were being used to transport sand from the banks of the Ken river. On January 6, a few of their cycles, being used to carry a few sacks of sand, were seized as well.

The farmers insist that the sand was being taken to build toilets in Khaptiha village, but the police claimed that the village residents were trying to extract something from the sand contractors in the area who were already being monitored by the local administration.

Shivkumar, one of the farmers from Khaptiha village, told Khabar Lahariya that the police turned a blind eye to the passage of 60 or 70 truckloads of sand in the area every day because it was paid off by the sand mafia. “[But] they can only see our carts and our buffaloes,” he said.

Usha Nishad, a social worker in Banda district, tried to help the farmers get back their carts and buffaloes, but failed. “When the sand mafia is so active, why catch these poor farmers?” she asked.

A truck loaded with sand in Banda. (Photo credit: Khabar Lahariya).

‘Everyone’s involved’

In a region where employment is scarce, illegal mining provides work to the poor, often at a severe cost to their health and safety. But despite the ecological and social damage, it thrives because there is something in it for everyone – the administration, the police, politicians and the media. Journalists are rewarded for participating in the conspiracy of silence and punished for exposing it.

A print and broadcast journalist with 15 years of experience explained how it worked. He said that once journalists find out that illegal mining is taking place, they visit the area, and then release details of the story on social media, along with their phone numbers. “If we post actively on groups where the administration is also active, it is only a matter of days before the administration or contractors in the area we are writing about reach out to us,” said the journalist. “The negotiations are usually all over the phone, the contractors say, ‘Don’t write about this anymore, we’ll take care of you.’”

The journalist said that members of his fraternity were not the only ones being paid. “We know that every police station in these areas is also paid a monthly amount according to the number of trucks that pass through their jurisdiction,” he said. He also alleged that the regional transport office was paid Rs 5,000 a month so that these trucks are not obstructed. “If, by chance, a truck is seized anywhere, the contractor is never held or charged,” he said.

A police guard, who was stationed at a post on the sand mining route between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh but has now been transferred, agreed that payoffs were an integral part of the illegal mining ecosystem. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said everyone was involved. “The money collected is divided between the superintendent of police, the commanding officer, and the constable of the police station, the guard and reporters in the area,” he alleged. “Some payment is also made to district-level journalists.”

He said that the police did not collect the money itself, but used private agents for the job. “If they [agents] have a problem in collection, then we intervene,” he said.

The guard added that reporters were paid to ensure the police did not get into trouble. “The journalists are paid so our names or [the names of our] police stations do not appear in any media,” he said. “If they do, then the SP [superintendent of police] is obliged to carry out an investigation. And when there is an investigation, our jobs and our promotions are at stake.”

The journalist justified being part of this ecosystem. “We have no salaries to fall back upon, so we take their money,” he said. “It is a form of livelihood for us.”

A digital journalist with five years of experience agreed. “Money is paid directly by the mining department to journalists to keep quiet,” the journalist said. “But journalists take it because it is their source of income…This is a chain that the lowest officials and the highest are linked and implicated in. If you push too hard, you are killed off. So we know and we see, and yet we do what we do.”

A third journalist, a veteran, said all this could not possibly happen without the support of local politicians. He said: “Of course, there is no proof, but it isn’t possible that the local MPs and MLAs and political parties are not involved in this cover up, because without political complicity, the administration would not be able to pull this off.”

At the same time, it was also difficult to remain aloof from the payoffs, said the police guard. “If we refuse to be involved in the collection of money, there is a lot of pressure from above,” he said. “We have to turn in a certain amount of money a month. Between Rs 5 lakhs and Rs 10 lakhs is sent to the SP [superintendent of police] and CO [commanding officer] every month. Journalists are paid different rates, ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 a month.”

The complete picture: The over excavated quarry in Kabrai. (Photo credit: Khabar Lahariya).