Sahar: With the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating the unemployment situation across the country, it is difficult for Umesh Prasad, a labourer, to get work in a hot and humid October afternoon. The most labourers make here is from sand mining, the most lucrative business for private companies in this agrarian rural belt on the banks of the river Sone.
“Humni ke daal-roti chalawe ke jugaad hona mushkil hai (It is difficult for us to arrange for food as of now.),” he said. Prasad was dismayed that it was already afternoon and he had not got any work during the day. “Sometimes we don’t get work for days on end,” he said, adding that everything was “uncertain”.
Umesh, member of a backward caste, lives in a nearby village and was seen sitting alongside nearly a dozen other labourers under a tree, hardly a few metres away from a big sand stock site. “This bright sand of the Sone river is a costly item, no less than a metal, because contractors and companies which are indulging in sand mining are minting money. But the poor like us struggle to earn a livelihood,” he said.
A group of labourers waiting for work near Balu Ghat. Image Credit: Mohd. Imran Khan
He says that dozens of sand mining operations, both legal and illegal, are a big industry in Sahar block in Bhojpur district. Sand mining provides work for hundreds of labourers. Aside from it, agriculture is the main source of income for people from the area. “There is no factory or industry in our region. There is high demand in the construction sector of sand from the Sone river for its good quality,” he explained.
Prem Ram and Ranjit Choudhary, both labourers, are resting under a tree with no work at hand at the sand stock site of Broad SON Commodities Private Limited, a controversial name in sand-mining, not just in Bhojpur, but also Bihar. “Today, 20 of us (labourers) loaded sand in two trucks. After that there was no work. Each of us will earn between Rs 100 and Rs 150 only. More work depends on the demand and orders for sand,” Prem, a resident of Peur village, said.
Ranjit, another resident of Peur, said there was money to be made in the business of sand, but not for labourers like them. “If we manage to earn Rs 300 a day after working for hours, it is a good day for us. There is no fixed earning. The increasing use of machines has also reduced our earnings and work hours,” he explained.
There are a series of baalu (sand) ghats spread along the bank of the river, visible from the state highway connecting Sandesh to Sahar. Trucks and different kinds of digging machines are seen along the way.
Image Credit: Mohd. Imran Khan
Three other labourers, who refuse to reveal their names, sit on a heap of sand close to a makeshift office of the sand mining company. The temporary office has a laptop and high speed internet, but the workers’ fate is less rosy with sand mining at a halt. They await the beginning of sand mining from next month. “Our dull work days will be over once sand mining resumes. There will be more opportunity for work as against now,” one of them said.
The state government had implemented the National Green Tribunal's order to suspend sand mining activity during the monsoon season. However, taking advantage of the situation, the sand mafia stocks up heaps of sand, creates an artificial crisis in supply and sells the stock at high prices.
Manoj Kumar, a trucker who has been ferrying sand from Sahar to different parts of the state, says that sand is the only expensive natural resource in Bihar. “Bihar is only left with sand now. During the sand mining season between November and June, nearly 300 trucks loaded with sand were sent out from these areas on a daily basis,” he said.
At Sahar Bazaar, about 1.5 kilometres from the ghats, Nagendra Singh, a readymade garment shop owner, said the legal and illegal trade is lucrative for the sand mafia, who run their business in a nexus with politicians, criminals, the police and officials from the mines and geology department. “The labourers get nothing as contractors exploit them. With no other work available, they silently work in sand mining,” he added.
In the last two years, the alleged involvement of district magistrates and senior police officers have cropped up during mention of the illegal trade of sand in Bihar.
Image Credit: Mohd. Imran Khan
Sahar is under the Tarari Assembly constituency, considered a stronghold of influential upper-caste Bhumihars. Its current MLA, Sudama Prasad of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), is popular and considered the favourite ahead of the BJP’s Kaushal Kumar Singh of the BJP. Criminal turned politician and former JD-U MLA, Sunil Pandey, is also in the fray as an independent candidate.
Though the CPI (ML) leader won with a tiny margin of a little over 250 votes in 2015, local party leaders hope for a better showing. “Unlike other MLAs in neighbouring seats and districts, who have been facing the people's ire, Sudama Prasad has the image of people-friendly leader who has worked for them,” CPI (ML) worker Neeraj Kumar said.
This time around, however, the CPI-ML is part of the Grand Alliance comprising RJD, Congress and other Left parties.
Sanjay Singh, a resident of Ekbari village, said: “We will not vote for CPI (ML); we will vote for Sunil Pandey.” He is not alone as many upper-caste folk are tilting towards Pandey.
Sanjay Singh. Image Credit: Mohd.Imran Khan
The area has witnessed violent struggles between the upper castes and different left wing outfitson issues like land and atrocities against Dalits.
According to an environmental activist Ranjeev, the sand mafia is powerful in the area and it operates freely in several districts, including Bhojpur, Saran, Vaishali and Patna. The four account for over 50% of the sand mining in Bihar. “The government has failed to check the illegal sand mining which is rampant and being done on a large scale. The Sone river in Bhojpur has been badly damaged by the sand mafia,” he said.
Ranjeev said that police acts against the mafia almost in a ritualistic manner, once in a while. The mines and geology department has also suspended and dismissed nearly two dozen employees over the last three years for helping the sand mafia. “There is a need for large-scale action against rampant illegal sand mining. It has to be stopped because it has caused severe damage to river channels and has resulted in losses worth crores of revenue,” he said.
Ashok Ghosh, the chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board did not deny that sand mining was rampant. He said it was causing damage to the river bed as the mafia is digging deep for more sand.
A few years ago, the Bihar police had submitted to the Patna High Court that the sand mafia was a nexus between the local police, sand miners enjoying political clout, and officials of the mines department. It further pointed out violations made by sand mining companies that were given sand mining leases, particularly in Patna.
In 2019, the state government approved the Bihar Sand Mining Policy 2019, which allowed the artificial bifurcation of homogenous stretches of river bed for sand mining. The policy resulted in many raised many eyebrows as it was seen to be against sustainable sand mining.