NOIDA, UTTAR PRADESH: India’s sand mafia is wounded, but not fatally. And fingers are being pointed at Bhukya Chandrakala, a 38-year-old bureaucrat, who was once described by her friends and colleagues as Miss Clean. Many called her Female Dabbang, the title borrowed from a Salman Khan blockbuster revolving around an honest cop. There are enough stories about Chandrakala floating in the corridors of government offices in Uttar Pradesh about the way she would scream in anger if someone tried to bribe her at office or home. And how she routinely took on influential politicians and cash-rich corporate captains keen to break rules, and sleazy cops seeking dubious cash. Chandrakala told everyone she never tolerates corruption.
And then she had a fall like the proverbial Humpty Dumpy. Now, many are saying her high talks were a mere smokescreen. Chandrakala worked like a Silent Buddha, who sees all but does not react, almost like the silent character from Leo Tolstoy’s epic story, God Sees The Truth But Waits. Chandrakala, claim officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), knew everything, rarely argued about something, and let happen many things. Chandrakala is being charged by the premier investigating agency for her alleged involvement in the billion-dollar illegal sand mining business. Last week, the CBI officers raided a number of places across Uttar Pradesh, including Chandrakala’s residence; whirring television cameras captured images of her estranged husband, A. Ramulu, trying to evade pesky reporters.
For the last couple of years, state governments of both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh boasted that the sand mafia had been expelled from its main bastions in the states. But the indictments tell a different tale—most allege that bureaucracy in both states worked behind corrupt dealers and their band of badass truckers. And helping the corrupt do their work silently was Chandrakala and her officers.
The CBI says Chandrakala helped more than 50 sand traders acquire licence through illegal means. The alleged scam dates back to 2012-16 when the Samajwadi Party was in power under Akhilesh Yadav. The former UP CM, who is expecting to play a lead role in a post-poll government, claims that the CBI is acting out of political motives.
Sand mining brings in tremendous profits. Contractors take permit for one truckload of sand then bring ten trucks on that one single permit. Many politicians, bureaucrats and police officers are involved in this and there is a lot of money at stake. As a result, there is no one who is able to put a stop to these activities. It assumes gargantuan proportions before monsoon because swollen rivers make extraction extremely difficult during the rainy season. Hence, mine owners and hoarders try to dig out as much sand as possible, mostly through illegal means, in the pre-monsoon months.
Not unusually, the mining mafia is capable of extreme violence, especially so in states like UP, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Hundreds have been killed every year in turf wars between different criminal gangs in the past five years because the stakes are high. Last year, the Congress government in Punjab found itself in the middle of a multi-crore rupee scam when the state Power and Irrigation Minister, Rana Gurjit Singh allegedly granted mining leases to his acquaintances, including his former cook, Amit Bahadur. In another case from UP, Nishank Tripathi, son of sitting Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Subhash Tripathi of Payagpur constituency in Bahraich, was accused of burying two children alive while illegally mining sand. In UP, the business is worth a whopping Rs 10,000 crore. Worse, the state government does not even earn even 10% of it. Expectedly, everyone was alarmed when the CBI conducted raids at several locations in UP and Delhi in connection with the illegal sand mining, the fourth most mined minor mineral as per data from Bureau of Mines.
It is not immediately known how much cash she is charged as having earned through illegal means; the CBI officers are checking details of her bank accounts, and that of her family members, including Chandrakala’s mother, B. Lakshmi, an entrepreneur. They say there are chances that some cash may have landed in the mother’s kitty, and also in the accounts of Chandrakala’s sister, who ran a beauty parlour in Ramagundam in Telangana, claim CBI sources. CBI officials have indicated that they would be interrogating her father as well; B. Krishnan retired as a senior technician from the state-owned Fertiliser Corporation of India (FCI).
But the CBI spotlight remains on Chandrakala. The 2008-batch IAS officer, now on study leave, worked in a very individualistic style. CBI officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Chandrakala would clear highway projects and then land up on the spot to supervise. On most occasions, she found contractors had not used the standard material for laying roads; she threatened to sack them, put them on the blacklist. There are widely-circulated videos in which she is seen on surprise inspections during her stint as the district magistrate of Bulandshahr, pulling up civic officials over lack of quality in building material or poor sanitation. Was this a smokescreen? Police say that once the inspection was done, her coterie allegedly called contractors and demanded cash to settle the dust. As a result, the CBI found a large number of contractors continued to operate despite completing contracts with substandard material. This is a charge and the CBI officers are confident of proving it in the courts, notwithstanding claims by former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav that the raids were politically motivated.
The IAS officer started interacting with the sand mafia during her stint as the District Magistrate of Hamirpur. What is interesting is that while the average tenure of a DM in Hamirpur was for a year, Chandrakala remained for three years from 2012 to 2015. And eventually, she was shunted out of the district amid allegations of illegal mining under her watch by a mining syndicate allegedly headed by a powerful Samajwadi Party legislator, Ramesh Mishra. The MLA could walk in and out of her residence without appointments, and it was the legislator who slowly used the IAS officer to spread his mining dragnet. Realising her Hamirpur stint could stain her career record, Chandrakala quietly worked on an image makeover. She had been picked up by the NDA government as director of Swachh Bharat Mission under the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in 2017. Eventually, she was repatriated to her parent cadre and posted as Secretary, Madhyamik Shiksha Vibhag.
Vijay Trivedi, on whose PIL the Allahabad High Court ordered a CBI inquiry, alleged, Chandrakala was known as a very powerful bureaucrat who did everything to help the mining mafia in the criminally sensitive district. Trivedi highlighted two aspects in his PIL—issuance of 41 leases of mines and unabated illegal mining. The leases, following the CBI inquiry, were found to be issued against rules, and in many cases, dubious means were employed to issue the leases. “The High Court quashed the leases, and immediately ordered a CBI inquiry,” Trivedi said in a telephonic interview.
Around the time the CBI was called in, the then ADM, Ramesh Prajapati filed an affidavit in the court claiming no illegal mining ever took place in the district. Prajapati had filed the affidavit on behalf of the DM, SP and Mining Officer, all asked by the court to do so. But within days after the affidavit was filed, Trivedi submitted evidences that Rs 75 lakh were deposited as fine levied by the administration on a person for illegal mining. The local administration was found collecting Rs 19 lakh as fine for confiscating trucks illegally transporting red sand.
Eventually, the CBI was able to establish a money trail allegedly leading to Chandrakala, proving her alleged association with the mining mafia. More interesting details started surfacing once the CBI took over: in one case it was conclusively proved that days before a handful of mines were leased out to a member of a mining syndicate, a large chunk of cash was transferred to an account in the State Bank of India which belonged to a relative of Chandrakala. “She was increasingly getting into trouble.”
In UP, CBI claims, Chandrakala fully exploited the loopholes in the state government rules. Strangely, the state government—under new rules—banned sand mining across the state for July, August and September but, at the same time, issued 200 leases to allow mining in all districts for six months. Now, if there is no mining, there is acute shortage of sand and prices go high. Sand, normally sold for around Rs 5,000 per 10 cubic feet (1 cubic feet equals 0.3 cubic metres), can reach right up to Rs 10,000 per 10 cubic feet.
And it is here the mafia moves in with tremendous ease. Every day, thousands of trucks travel across the sand mines in Uttar Pradesh to collect sand. The cops, who are meant to oversee the process, remain silent because of obvious reasons.
Chandrakala was a very powerful officer. She knew sand is important for construction activities. In a rapidly urbanising India, the demand of sand—knew Chandrakala—will rise, rise and rise because sand is the main ingredient in making concrete and cement. Government schemes like Swachh Bharat Mission—of which she was an integral part—and Housing for All by 2022, are likely to cause a resurgence. The demand for sand in India will be 1,430 million tonnes by 2020, Chandrakala knew it very well.
She is claimed to have pushed her agenda through the roof.
Chandrakala is not talking, her handset is switched off. She has not even told her family members what she is busy with during her much-publicised study leave.
Shantanu Guha Ray is Special Editor, Investigations, at BTVI, a business channel.