Line in the Sand
Reporter: Samantha Hawley
The world is running low on sand. It’s a basic ingredient in construction – think skyscrapers, shopping malls, roads and windows – and cities are growing faster and bigger than at any time in history.
In India, where the government promises to build the equivalent of a “new Chicago” every year, the demand is insatiable. Its construction industry is said to have tripled its sand consumption since 2000.
Legal supply can’t keep up. So now organised criminals are hitting pay dirt, pillaging millions of tonnes of sand from the nation’s beaches, riverbeds and hillsides. Construction wants sand hewn by water, not by wind. So it’s waterways, not deserts, that face devastation.
“This is probably the largest scam ever in our country,” Sumaira Abdulali tells Foreign Correspondent. The activist was beaten and hospitalised when she blocked trucks taking sand from her local beach.
She at least has her life. The sand mafia is prepared to kill. Ask farmer Brijmohan Yadav. He took on illegal sand miners and was kidnapped and beaten. He now lives in hiding, away from his family, in fear for his life and theirs.
Or Akaash Chauhan, whose father was asleep at home when three men stormed in and shot him dead. He had complained about the sand mafia trashing communal land. Akaash’s brother died mysteriously a year later.
“My father’s fight has become my fight,” Akaash tells reporter Samantha Hawley. “Sand mining is ongoing – my father was against it, I am against it and so is my family.”
Akaash names the chief murder suspect, then bravely guides the Foreign Correspondent team to where illegal miners are working. As the team films, a tall man materialises and confronts them. His name is Sonu. He is the accused killer. The crew must decide - stay or go?
Despite a near-blanket ban on unlicensed sand mining across India, the sand mafia operates with near impunity.
“I have to give money to the inspector and the officer at the checkpoint,” says a tractor driver, adding that what’s left after the bribe is barely enough for food. He is one of the sand mafia’s many foot soldiers.
At best, officials are blind to the obvious. “No mafia… You are probably mistaken in believing that sand mining is going on here,” protests a magistrate in charge of an area where illegal mining is carried out routinely and brazenly in full daylight.
With authorities paralysed by inertia or corruption, it’s up to a small band of activists to take the fight to the sand mafia and expose the dirty secret at the heart of India’s construction frenzy.
Reporter - Samantha Hawley
Producer - Bronwen Reed
India Producer - Savitri Chaudhury
Camera - Phil Hemingway
Editor - Stuart Miller
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: It’s one of the most ambitious building drives in history as India fast tracks its way to prosperity. But the boom has spawned a vicious illegal trade.
[shining torch into the darkness] “We’re seeing someone there. We’re just a bit reluctant to… it’s a really kind of hairy situation and we’re not sure it’s really safe for us to go any further”.
Crime gangs specialising in environmental destruction.
[walking with Akaash at his home] “And the assailant came down from here yeah?”
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “This is the room and they came from this side and shot my father”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And prepared to kill anyone in their way.
TEX: LINE IN THE SAND
THANE RIVER, MUMBAI
REPORTER: SAMANTHA HAWLEY
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: These are the native fishermen of India’s biggest city. Koli men who have fished Mumbai’s Thane river for generations, long before the city became India’s financial hub. It’s so polluted, the fish stopped living here long ago, but the men have found a new livelihood – fishing for sand.
These days mining for sand is almost as valuable as mining for gold thanks to a massive construction boom. The men free dive for about two minutes at a time, as many as two hundred times a day. What they’re doing is illegal and dangerous.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “They don’t even have a safety rope when they go down and of course no diving equipment. They dive down 40 or 50 feet without equipment for eight hours a day. A lot of them die because they get swept away. These are tidal creeks. There are strong tidal currents”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Sumaira Abdulali is on a mission to expose the powerful people behind this black market trade, a network of organised criminals who run illegal sand mining across the country. This operation is a very modest example and Sumaira considers these fishermen not as criminals, but as victims of what they call the “sand mafia”.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “At the very lowest level they are people who are completely helpless and who are, for the sake of a livelihood, are suffering great hardships and human rights violations to execute the sand mafia’s agenda. This is probably the largest scam ever in our country”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: [walking along the coastline] “This is a part of India that not everyone gets to enjoy. More and more people are moving to the cities and the construction industry is booming. In the next ten years, it’s set to be in the top 3 in the world and that’s why sand is India’s new gold”.
Sand is the key to the construction industry which employs more than 35 million people here. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has promised to build the equivalent of a new Chicago every year. That will take colossal amounts of concrete and for concrete, you need sand. It’s not just a problem here, globally demand far outstrips the legal supply of sand – but India is one of the worst offenders. With so much money to be made, riverbeds and beaches are being plundered with the mafia stopping at nothing, including murder, to get the sand.
Sumaira Abdulali became aware of the problem more than a decade ago when she discovered sand was being stolen from her local beach, a boat ride from Mumbai.
“Ah yes so you can see where it’s just, the land’s gone. This is where a major sand mining was happening right here was it, yeah?”
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “Yes, yes. So you can see that the beach itself used to be at the height that that land is now and the whole level of sand has dropped by about 10 feet”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “10 feet!”
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “10 feet or more and they would take away sand in trucks. They would cross this creek which you can see at low tide - and bullock carts, tens of bullock carts at a time every day. And now it’s just gone”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Yeah, they’ve really destroyed. You can see the destruction can’t you?”
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “They’ve really destroyed it. Yes”.
SAMANTHA ABDULALI: “There’s loads of sand in the desert but this is the sand that they need for construction isn’t it? So this is a special sand. This is the gold?”
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “This is the special sand because when you look at the sand, I mean if you look at it closely you know it sticks. You see this?”
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Yes”.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “It sticks and the reason is that this sand has an uneven particle size and that’s what makes it stick and gives strength to a building. If you take desert sand and do this, you will see that it flies apart because it’s very rounded, the edges are rounded”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Sumaira was told she’d have to catch the culprits red handed for authorities to take any action. So she did. She used her own car to stop a truck driving out from the beach.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “They bashed up the car, broke everything. They hit all of us. They broke my teeth. I still have headaches after that I was, my hand got paralysed and I had to be in hospital for a bit”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Taking away large amounts of sand can have catastrophic consequences, destroying farmland, causing floods, landslides and contaminating ground water. We’ve come to Bundelkhand, a drought stricken region in central India. Life’s a struggle here at the best of times, let alone when your land is being destroyed by greedy sand miners.
Local famer, Brijmohan Yadav, has been fighting them for years. His first encounter with the sand mafia was when they came onto his land in the dead of night to reach the riverbed.
“And the trucks just come straight through here?”
BRIJMOHAN YADAV: “The public road was here before it was washed away in the monsoon. So the sand miners then dug through my land to create another road”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “So how has this river changed over time with all this sand digging, this mining?”
BRIJMOHAN YADAV: “This river didn’t flow through our fields like it does now. When they mined that part of the river, it completely changed its course. It used to flow straight, now it goes through our fields. As soon as the rains come it will most likely overflow onto my land and wash it away. This was also happening to many other farmers but no-one said anything because the mafia is so influential. They have police and local authorities on their side”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: And so began a fight first for his land and then for his life. He was contacted by people from a nearby village who he thought wanted to help him. Instead they ambushed him.
BRIJMOHAN YADAV: “These people kidnapped me and took me to an isolated place. They beat me up and threatened to kill me if I did not stop all this. They tortured me for three days. Then they let me go and said that if I continue, they’ll catch me and I won’t survive”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Brijmohan is in hiding from those who want to kill him. He has a High Court order protecting him but for the safety of his family, he can’t go home. It’s a long, lonely battle.
[driving along road at night] We want to film illegal sand mining but it won’t be easy. There’s a near blanket ban on unlicensed mining across India imposed by the Supreme Court. But in remote, rural areas like this, it continues with impunity and is often the best paid job going.
We move under cover of night because as a foreign TV crew, we really stand out. We’re taken to an area where the locals say there has been sand mining recently. Suddenly we see lights up ahead.
“Oh I think it’s right there. Is someone coming? There’s a car coming yeah?”
[truck with trailer passes] “So that was just a truck load of sand that’s just gone past us which is almost the proof that we need that there is illegal sand mining going on here, whether or not now we push forward and go further deeper in here, which could be quite dangerous, we’ll have to now have a talk about and decide whether it’s safe to actually push on into here. We can see the lights - that’s where the mining’s going on”.
RAJA: “These vehicles are taking sand out of the river. They steal the sand like this through the night. They trucks can’t get in here so all night they tractors run like this, taking sand out of the river”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “They’d know by now that we’re here, right?”
SABI: “They’ll know”.
RAJA: “We’re inside their citadel here, an area that’s been fortified with lookouts. But we’ve managed to get past them”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Is it safe for us to go further on in here?”
It isn’t. The car won’t make it so we go in on foot.
[walking down in the dark] “Is there someone there? There’s someone there. Just come back to the car, closer to the car. We’ve seen someone there. We’re just a bit reluctant… it’s a really kind of hairy situation and we’re not sure it’s really safe for us to go any further and so I think it’s safer for us to go back to the car and see if they approach us”.
[walking back to car] “There is another one coming yeah? Is this a tractor coming?”
Now aware of our presence, the workers begin to scatter.
[tractor and trailer go past] “It’s empty”.
It’s time for us to get out too.
“So the motorbike is following us now is it?”
SABI: “Yes, there’s a motorcycle following us and there was a point where they were sitting…”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “As a lookout?”
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “… and they’re waiting for us”.
SABI: “I think they’re probably trying to make sure that we are really leaving”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: When they’re sure we’re on our way, we lose our escort.
SABI: “There’s no number on the bike”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: We can film no more tonight. The next morning we’re back. The sand thieves can be brazen enough to work even at this time. And sure enough… we catch one red handed.
The tractor driver calls his boss who arrives with an entourage.
At first neither man is keen to talk. Eventually they tell us they know what they’re doing is illegal, but they don’t have much choice.
TRACTOR DRIVER: “I feel bad that I do this job, but there’s no other work I can do. I get a little extra money. That’s why I do it. Everybody does what they do for their stomachs”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: We’re told that each night there are approximately 20 to 25 tractors like this one loaded with sand making up to 3 trips per shift. By the time everyone gets a cut, there isn’t much left.
TRACTOR OWNER: “I have to give money to the inspector and the officer at the checkpoint”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: It’s clear these men aren’t the big money makers, they’re from the lower rungs of the mafia. The extent of illegal mining in this district can’t be hidden. Day after day these trucks line up ready to take away tonnes of sand. We count about 35 and we’re told this is routine. The central government leaves it to local authorities to enforce. We decide to pay a surprise visit to the District Magistrate in charge of the area.
[entering room] “I’m Samantha Hawley from ABC Australia. We’ve come here to do a story about sand mining, the rampant sand mining that is taking place across this district”.
DISTRICT MAGISTRATE: “There has been a directive from the High Court. They have put a stop to mining in the whole state. So at this time there is no more mining in this area”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Why are you saying there’s no sand mining when there’s clearly sand mining?”
DISTRICT MAGISTRATE: “It’s possible that there is some illegal sand mining going on. But if we hear there’s sand mining going on then we take the necessary action against it and try to stop it. You could be mistaken in thinking there there is sand mining going on here”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: But what about the sand mafia, the farmer told us about?
DISTRICT MAGISTRATE: “There’s no need to be scared. The land order situation is quite good. Nothing mafia. No mafia”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Many of those who’ve been drawn into the fight are reluctant activists. Akaash Chauhan lives with his family in the place they’ve called home for generations. Four years ago his father was shot dead here as he took an afternoon nap.
“And the assailant came down from here yeah?”
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “This is the room. So they came from this side and shot my father and ran away, this way”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “So he was lying in this room, asleep yeah? Or he was sleeping”.
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “He was sleeping in this room”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Three men known to the family entered their home and shot Paleram Chauhan three times. The 52 year old had dared to complain to the police about the local sand mafia who were destroying communal land.
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “When I reached the hospital and saw my father’s dead body I’ve never been able to forget that sight. Even today it flashes in front of me. He was shot in the chest, cheeks, forehead. There are certain things I can’t forget. They keep going around in my head”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Akaash is prepared to name the accused master mind, a man who we’ll soon encounter at uncomfortably close quarters.
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “He threatened my Papa – that he either back down in a week, or he and his family would be killed. And a week after that, Papa died”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: A year later Akaash’s brother, a witness to his father’s murder, was found dead near some train tracks. Police have refused to investigate. Akaash is adamant he was murdered too. A simple Google map search reveals the extent of the destruction. The white patches mark where the land has been stripped of sand. Akaash agrees to take us there.
“Why are you doing it if it’s so dangerous for you?”
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “I’m doing this for my father”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “If we start filming there, will they try and stop us?”
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “Definitely, definitely”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: Akaash takes us as far as the fields his family own, but it’s not safe for him to come any further. We go on and find the sand mining. We film openly. We have an audience but they seem harmless. But before long, a more threatening figure appears.
SONU: “This is not allowed here”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “What isn’t allowed?”
SONU: “It is illegal”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Oh this? Oh is it?
SONU: “Yeah, yeah”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Why is it illegal?”
SONU: “It is not allowed”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: We have come face to face with the alleged murderer of Akaash’s father. This is Sonu, the man we’re told runs this illegal operation. He comes from the same village as Akaash and he makes it very clear we’re not welcome.
SONU: “He will not attack you. I am standing here, so he will not attack you”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Attack me?”
As foreign journalists we’re unlikely to face any violence from Sonu, a protection not enjoyed by his fellow villagers.
AKAASH CHAUHAN: “My father’s fight has become my fight. I am pursuing this case. The illegal sand mining is still going on. My father was against it, I am against it and so is my family”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: The problem is that no one knows exactly how much illegal sand mining is taking place and how much money is being generated. Conservative estimates put it at more than $250 million a year, others, go much higher and if anyone does get caught, the fines are negligible.
Sumaira Abdulali, the woman we met earlier on Kihim Beach, spends her time trying to gather as much data as possible. It’s a dangerous job. After photographing illegal dredging, she was almost run off the road by someone she thinks was trying to kill her.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “You can see that this, this boundary isn’t very secure”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “No I can see a part of it was missing there, yeah”.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “And we were both driving, he suddenly accelerated and he tried to hit me from the side, just about here in the middle of the bridge”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Yeah there’s a really long drop there”.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “Yes a really long drop so I just very sharply braked and he hit me on the side and the front rather than straight on the side which would have toppled us over. I mean in the heat of the moment you don’t feel terrified but now I feel terrified when I think about it”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: “Yeah”.
Nearly 7 years later, Sumaira is still fighting to have the people who attacked her that day brought to justice. Illegal sand mining is the dirty secret at the heart of India’s booming economy, but there’s little political appetite to deal with it. There’s strong evidence that police and other officials are often paid off but Sumaira believes that if the government wanted to do something to control the sand gangs, it could.
SUMAIRA ABDULALI: “The answer would be so simple. All it requires is to gather data as to how much sand is required for construction and to figure out where it’s coming from and to make sure that there are declarations of this raw material in every building project”.
SAMANTHA HAWLEY: It would also help if the Indian government enforced its own laws and protected the ordinary people trying to uphold them. But the future looks bleak and the sand is running out.
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