“Fenk debe, khadaan mein gaad debe [We will throw you, bury you in the sand mine].”
That’s what a mining contractor told Mathuriya Devi, a resident of Khaptiha Kalan village. He was furious with her, she says, and some 20 other farmers who had gathered to protest on June 1 against the killing of the Ken – one of Bundelkhand’s major rivers.
That day, the villagers stood for two hours until around noon, in a jal satyagraha in the Ken. The river originates in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, and flows 450 kilometres through MP and Uttar Pradesh – merging with the Yamuna in Chilla village of Banda district. Mathuriya Devi’s village – home to around 2,000 people – is in Tindwari block of this district.
But the stretch of the Ken that passes through a small group of villages here has been shrinking – because a band of locals is quarrying its banks on both sides. This mafia functions, the farmers allege, on behalf of two sand mining companies. The quarrying is illegal, says 63-year-old Mathuriya Devi – who holds a little over 1 bigha or roughly half an acre near the Ken – and it is destroying their farms and livelihoods.
“They have been massively digging on our lands – up to 100 feet deep – using bulldozers,” she says. As she spoke to me by the river on June 2, two young men, not known to her, were shooting her on video. “They have already killed our trees, now they’re killing the river which we once used to draw our water from. We even went to the police, but no one listens to us. We feel threatened….”
The resistance to the quarrying has seen an unlikely alliance of Dalits like Mathuriya and small Thakur farmers like Suman Singh Gautam, a 38-year-old widow with two children. The miners have extracted sand from part of the single acre she owns. “They have even fired in the air to intimidate us,” she says.
The farmers of Khaptiha Kalan village mainly grow wheat, gram, mustard and lentils. “My sarson [mustard] crop was standing in the 15 beeswa land I own, but they dug it all this March,” said Suman.
Over the years, the villagers say, they have learnt to guard their crops. “Sometimes, we have been able to save the crop till harvesting time,” says Mathuriya Devi, “and in unlucky years, we lost the crops to the quarrying.” Arti Singh, another farmer from the village, adds, "We can't only depend on farming on that mining land. We have also been farming on the small plots we own in different locations."
At 76, Seela Devi is the oldest farmer who participated in the jal satyagraha. Her land was once full of babool trees: “We had planted them together, me and my family. Nothing is left now,” she says. “They have dug everything, now they threaten to bury us inside when we speak against them, asking for compensation for our own land.”
Sand quarrying on the banks of the Ken picked up after a massive flood in 1992. “As a result, moorum [the red sand found in the area] got deposited on the banks,” says Ashish Dixit, a rights activist from Banda. The quarrying activities have picked up over the last decade, he adds. “The response to an RTI [right to information application] that I filed says the heavy machines which I have seen being used for years now are prohibited. People here have had raised their voice against this earlier as well.”
"Most sand mining projects are granted based on the district mining plan. The irony is that these plans do not factor in wider catchment areas,” Prof. Venkatesh Dutta of the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, who is an expert on rivers, told me on the phone. “The miners usually resort to channel mining, which devastates the natural design of riverbanks. They also destroy the aquatic habitat. The environmental impact assessments do not look into cumulative impacts of large-scale mining over an extended period. I know of many mining projects in the Yamuna that have changed the course of the river.”
After the jal satyagraha on June 1, the additional district magistrate, Banda, Santosh Kumar and the sub-divisional magistrate Ram Kumar, came to the site. The SDM later told me on the phone, “Those whose lands have been dug up without consent are eligible to get compensation from the government. But if they have sold their lands for money, we will take action against them. An enquiry is in process on this matter.” The compensation is specified under the the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957 (revised in 2009).
“Earlier this year, we had got a complaint of illegal mining on this gram sabha land against one of the companies which has the land on lease, and they were found guilty,” Ram Kumar adds. “Following this, a report was sent to the DM [district magistrate] and the company has been given a notice. Illegal mining in Banda has been happening for a long time now, I am not denying that.”