mid-day special: How mafia turned the humble sand into a goldmine

With construction taking place 24X7 in Mumbai, sand-hungry developers fall back on the sand mafia to get cheap, timely deliveries, fuelling a thriving black market

Illegal sand mining is one of the most brazen rackets being run an open secret not only in Mumbai, but across India. The main reason the racket is growing and flourishing is simple sand is the building block for the construction industry and the mafia keep feeding off the growth in the real estate sector.

Thane: Fearing crackdown, sand miners move from Ulhas creek to Mumbra

Sand dredging going on between Kalwa and Mumbra. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Sand dredging going on between Kalwa and Mumbra. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

mid-day has been consistently reporting on the activities of the mafia and its possible links with those holding influential posts. On July 14, mid-day reported on the Sewri police arresting Gyaneshwar Pokde, a clerk from the Pen taluka tehsildar’s office, for manipulating paperwork to aid the mafia.

The police had said that more arrests of top tehsildar officials were imminent (‘More heads may roll in Pen tehsildar office after Sewri sand seizure’).

Feeding the beast
With Mumbai’s hungry real-estate industry feeding the construction boom, sand-hungry developers depend on this mafia to give them quick deliveries at rates that are cheaper than the legal sources , giving it access to a huge market.

Also Read: Sand mafia destroying mangroves in Dahisar belt

Around 3,000 people, including truck owners, boat-owners and sand suppliers, squatted on the road near the Khareigaon toll naka, near Thane city, on Monday, demanding that the restrictions imposed on sand transportation be revoked by the government, and to protest against Thane District Collector Ashwini Joshi. The protesters were of the view that the ban on extraction of sand from the Kali river would create circumstances leading to flooding of low-lying areas in the area, besides depriving hundreds of families of their source of livelihood. Pic/Sameer Markande
Around 3,000 people, including truck owners, boat-owners and sand suppliers, squatted on the road near the Khareigaon toll naka, near Thane city, on Monday, demanding that the restrictions imposed on sand transportation be revoked by the government, and to protest against Thane District Collector Ashwini Joshi. The protesters were of the view that the ban on extraction of sand from the Kali river would create circumstances leading to flooding of low-lying areas in the area, besides depriving hundreds of families of their source of livelihood. Pic/Sameer Markande

Being the most essential raw material in the construction industry, sand is in huge demand not just in Mumbai, but all across the country. Over 100 trucks are loaded from Vasai, Virar, Vaitarna, Bhayander, Mahad, Rev Danda, Raigad, Kalyan, Dombivli, Mumbra, Bhiwandi and Thane, and transported to Mumbai and its outskirts daily.

The sand is usually sold per brass (a unit of measurement; 1 brass = 4,528 kg). Sand consignments brought from different parts of Maharashtra are kept at various reti bunders (sand godowns), from where they eventually make their way to construction companies.

Requesting anonymity, a person from the construction business added, “Sand is not brought to the construction site in the raw form as transporters have to get several permissions and documents to be able to do so. Nowadays, ready-mix is directly brought to the construction site. In some places, however, raw sand is still taken to the construction sites and mixed with cement there.

Also Read: Maharashtra to invoke MPDA Act against sand mafia, black marketers

Sand is very important for the construction industry as it is also used in making bricks and roads, apart from buildings.” He added, “Earlier, legally mined sand used to be brought to the city from the Konkan region, Gujarat and Goa, but it costed a lot. Delivery of sand on time is also a huge problem and, therefore, builders prefer to buy sand from the mafia .”

What the law says
Depending on the quantity of sand to be dredged, an NOC is issued by the Maharashtra Maritime Board (MMB), and auction price of the sand is fixed. The auction is conducted by issuing a public notice, duly published in newspapers, as per the guidelines of the Mines and Minerals Act.

All these activities are controlled by the revenue authorities, and the MMB. The order for extraction of the sand is issued only after entire cost of the extraction of sand is paid by the contractor. In areas where it is necessary to remove sand for clearance of navigation channels, the MMB survey is the basis for identification of the slots reserved for the dredging.

The permission of the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority is required for extraction of sand for mechanical dredging and it is sought on basis of an Environmental Impact Assessment study, after obtaining permission of the MMB.

A few years ago, sand mining was completely banned, but the ban was lifted due to loss of government revenue and demands and pressure from construction giants. Illegal sand mining is also expressly prohibited along coastal areas, which fall under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). Punishment for sand mining without permission is imprisonment up to two years and fine up to Rs 30,000.

Of late, the state government has been taking measures to curb the sand mafia and take tough action. Maharashtra will now charge the sand mafia under the stringent Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities Act and repeated offenders will be charged under the draconian MCOCA.

The rot at the bottom
Gyaneshwar Pokde (29), a clerk from the Pen taluka tehsildar’s office, allegedly did all the paperwork for the sand mafia.

Gyaneshwar Pokde
Gyaneshwar Pokde

The mafia would let their illegal sand be caught by the police, and later, they would buy it off when the illegal consignment was finally auctioned.

Pokde was involved in manipulating the auction proceeds in such a way that he would allow the mafia to get away with even more sand than what the fraudsters should have ‘received’ through the auction.

Activist speak
“A large number of people from the sand mafia are indulging in business which is causing damage to the environment, ecology and the flora and fauna. Sand mafia gangs have encroached on various spots of the creeks, tidal water, estuaries and stretches of seabeds for the purpose of sand mining and dredging, as well as transportation thereof.

Godfrey Pimenta
Godfrey Pimenta

Unabated sand dredging/mining activities will lead to damage to mangroves, marine life, interference with natural tidal flow of seawater on and along creeks and back water/estuaries. And therefore, it is essential to stop the illegal sand mining/dredging business,” said activist Godfrey Pimenta, who is also an advocate by profession.

Further, NGO Awaaz Foundation had filed a petition before National Green Tribunal, Pune, alleging illegal extraction of sand from the seabelt in blatant violation of CRZ Notifications of 1991 and illegal dredging activities in the coastal and river areas of Maharashtra.

This was due to inaction on part of the authorities to control the illegal activities of sand mining and dredging of sand and subsequent transportation.

Fatal flaw
Senior police inspector Rajendra Trivedi of Sewri police station, who recently arrested a number of people involved in the scandal, told mid-day, “Officials and the mafia are hand-in-glove. Once the sand is caught and kept for auctioning, the person whose sand is seized himself comes and buys the consignment.”

The barge captured by the Sewri police on July 2
The barge captured by the Sewri police on July 2

Though the entire auction process and that of granting of permission is computerised, the amount of sand is handwritten on the documents. These documents are given to party and officials of the tehsildar’s office, but the police do not get to peruse them.

In the auction, the sand sold to the party is prescribed at, say, 50 brass, which is jacked up to 150 to 250 brass by the officials, and a receipt is made for the same amount. Interestingly, sand is never picked up by the people, instead armed with the receipt in hand the sand mafia heads to the deep seas.

A police source said, “With the receipt in hand, the mafia people start extracting sand in middle of the sea, if they are caught by officials they show the receipt. With the help of the receipt over 1,000 brass of sand is extracted daily, and the same receipts are used over and over again for several months. The sand is docked at the reti bunders at several places and transported to various parts of the city.”

There goes the neighbourhood!
How illegal mining of sand has a devastating impact on the ecosystem:

>> Dredging can create disturbance in aquatic ecosystems, with adverse impact.

>> Dredging may unearth toxic chemicals that may have an adverse effect on the disposal area. The process of dredging often dislodges chemicals, residing in the substrates and injects them into the water column.

>> The activity of dredging can create the following principal impacts on the environment: Release of toxic chemicals (including heavy metals) from bottom sediments, into the water column.

>> Short-term increases in turbidity, which can affect metabolism of aquatic species, and interfere with spawning.

>> Secondary effects from water-column contamination of uptake of heavy metals, DDT and other persistent organic toxins, via food chain uptake and subsequent concentrations of these toxins in higher organisms, including humans.

>> Possible contamination of dredge spoils (sediment) sites.

>> Changes to the topography by the creation of “spoil islands” from the accumulated spoil.

>> Oil and chemicals discharged by the barge at the time of sand mining have an adverse impact on the environment.

How the mafia oils itself
According to police officials, the sand mafia steals diesel from foreign vessels at sea; at times, the captain of the ship sells diesel to the sand mafia for lesser amounts. An officer said, “Foreign vessels have a quantity of diesel with them. Captains sell some of the diesel to the sand mafia, as it gives them extra income.”

Legal vs Illegal

Rs 15,000
The cost of one brass of sand

Rs 50,000
The amount a builder pays for one truck of sand

Rs 8,000
The cost of one brass of sand

Rs 35,000
The amount a builder pays for one truck of sand

How mining is done
>> Members of the sand mafia take a barge into the waters and, using a foot-wide suction pump, extract sand from the seabed.

>> At one time, the barge can carry up to150 brass of sand.

>> This extraction takes up to two hours

>> The sand is then brought back and stored at reti bunders

Sand changes hands
>> The Sand mafia sells 150 brass of sand (approx 35-50 trucks) for R7-8 lakh to a middleman

>> The middleman then sells the load of sand to the builder for Rs 15-18 lakh

>> The middleman adds the transportation cost to the consignment if it is to be delivered at the site. When the sand reaches the builder it costs him roughly Rs 35,000 per truck.

100
Number of trucks carrying illegal sand that arrive in the city daily from the outskirts

Brass
Sand is an essential raw material and is always in high demand with builders. The mafia sells sand per brass (1 brass = 4,528 kg)

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