The trucks were groaning with the weight of sand that excavators had loaded onto those, as the vehicles made the difficult climb from the banks of the Brahmani river to a high-metalled road.
The truck drivers will pay hafta (bribe) to local leaders and the administration, the amount of which is based on the weight these heavy goods vehicles carry before speeding away to construction sites in Bengal and neighbouring states.
Welcome to Birbhum’s world of illegal sand mining, which has spawned rivalry, murder, a culture of adversaries storing guns and illegally manufactured bombs, and of course, corruption.
The latest victim of this was local TMC strongman Bhadu Sheikh, who was killed allegedly for his unwillingness to share the spoils that the excavators were bringing up from the river beds. Eight people, including women and children, were burnt to death in a suspected revenge attack.
“Illegal sand-mining has been flourishing under the patronage of powerful people since a long time. For the local mafia and the powers that be, it’s a team game,” said Krishnapada Pal, a local who lives near the Baidhara bridge on Brahmani river, around 15 km from Rampurhat town.
Some 80 illegal sand mines are scattered along the Mayurakshi, Ajay and Brahmani rivers in the district, from where local toughs operate with the backing of influential strongmen.
Along with illegal sand mining, the other illicit industry in Birbhum famed for the Visva-Bharati set up by Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, is quarrying for stones.
The red stony soil of the area that has produced artists like Ram Kinkar Baij, whose statues adorn the gates of Delhi’s Reserve Bank of India, has also brought forth a vicious mafia, which runs the twin illegal industries with a ruthless, iron grip.
According to Baneswar Ghosh, a retired government school teacher and resident of Kenduli, around 48 km from Rampurhat, the pattern of unlawful sand mining has changed from small scale “business” to a far larger, more organised affair over the years, as a real estate boom in the state and elsewhere led to heightened demand for sand.
"The smugglers' raj started in a small way during the Congress rule in the 1970s and boomed during the Left Front’s tenure and now the TMC regime. Islets were systemically dug up. They have now exhausted sand in the islets and moved to mining along the banks of rivers (bali ghats)," Ghosh said.
A long queue of trucks, laden with either sand or stone stand parked on the National Highway-14 en route to Brahmani, where drivers could be seen paying money to a group of people.
"This is nothing but a ‘fee’ these transporters pay... We are giving them receipts for that. The charges vary depending on the size of the truck," Angur Alam, in-charge of the unofficial "check-point", told PTI.
Everyday, "permits" are given to over 700 trucks "overloaded" with sand or stones to pass through the area, he said, adding, each need to pay Rs 2,200.
Sand is "smuggled" from these areas to North 24 Parganas, Durgapur and Asansol in Paschim Bardhaman district, and Behrampur in Murshidabad district as well as to neighbouring Jharkhand and sometimes to Bihar, Alam said.
As per the the West Bengal Minor Minerals Rules, 2002, “no mining operation shall be done within a distance of 5 km” of a river.
"Forget such rules. Those are for legal miners… here we have dreaded criminals backed by political heavyweights," claimed BJP leader Subhasish Chowdhury.
He alleged that most of those who have been arrested, including Anasur Hossain and Newton Sheikh on suspicion of being involved either in Bhadu Sheikh’s murder or the alleged revenge attack, were engaged in illegal sand mining.
Chowdhury said this unlawful practice and racket of extorting money have aided the rise of people, whose names now figure in the Birbhum tragedy.
When contacted, a senior official of the West Bengal Mineral Development and Trading Corporation Ltd (WBMDCL) told PTI that miners are given legal permits to mine sand at identified sites on a “first-come-first-serve basis".
Local MLA Ashish Bandyopadhyay, however, rubbished allegations of rampant smuggling, and blamed the erstwhile Left Front government for such illegal practices in the region.
He said that soon after the Trinamool Congress came into power, the administration controlled and eradicated illicit sand and stone mining as well as its smuggling.
"Our administration has ended all such illegal smuggling, which was unrestrained during the Left rule. All these are false allegations of the opponents to malign the state," Bandyopadhyay said.
The local police though feels that countering this culture will require a massive effort.
Incidentally, last year, the state police had set up a joint action team, with personnel from Purba and Paschim Bardhaman, Bankura, Birbhum, Purulia districts as well as from Hooghly to control and eradicate the menace.
"We ought to have specialised teams to handle these criminals. And, we have to be backed up by the administration when a crackdown occurs,” a police officer said.
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