Rafiq, 70, a retired schoolteacher from Mayureshwar in Birbhum district, West Bengal, is a self-confessed superstitious man. He talks about all the times he has seen trucks scooping sand off the dried Mayurakshi river bed, and how he had told the labourers off: "This river has swept us away in the past, and if this is the disdain you have for her, she won't spare us. She will hit back sooner or later."
The labourers laughed. Rafiq kept his apprehensions to himself. He didn't think it was the best idea to anger the Mayurakshi, which has a history of devastating floods.
The Mayurakshi hasn't hit back, at least not in the way Rafiq thought it would. But the sand of Mayurakshi has become something of a political manna, mostly for the ruling Trinamool Congress. This sand is expensive, and helps finance many individuals and parties. Truckloads of it are illegally carried away by a dangerous mafia, with whom the party allegedly has links, which has created in an ecosystem of violence in Bhirbum, Burdwan as well in places like Kanksa, Galsi and Khandaghosh.
In Birbhum, it is a fight between the Trinamool district president Anubrata Mondol and the party rebel Sheikh Kajal, who is now tacitly supporting the Left in many pockets of the district. Their supporters factions have regularly squared off, often violently, over control of sand mines, much to the suffering of the local people. And if it isn't political violence, there's always the police to cause damage.
Sambhu Das, 30, of Mayureshwar, recalls that he was at his small tobacco shop the January afternoon he heard about mason Sheikh Shaju's accident. "A truck trying to escape from the police mowed him down. The police were chasing the truck as it was carrying sand." The truck was taking a shortcut through Mayureshwar, Das says, because if they take the National Highway or other broad lane routes, they would have to pay huge amounts as tax or fine depending on how much extra sand they have hauled.
After the accident, the villagers vented their anger at the cops; they mobbed and stoned the police station and set fire to two police jeeps. Das laughs and says the police were chasing the trucks because they had not received their commission, not because they were enforcing the law. The police regularly take bribes from the truck drivers in return for turning a blind eye to their activities.
What followed the protest was worse, says Dola Kumar, a teacher who owns some land in Mayureshwar. "The police had CCTVs footage and they made a list of the suspects." Raids followed. Nightly. "They would bang on the doors looking for the suspects. They could have done it properly but they just wanted to intimidate us."
Tricks of the trade
The only people the police can't seem to intimidate are the sand mafia. It's been reported that Anubrata Mondol and Kajal "manage" the sand mines in Birbhum, with the control skewing slightly in Kajal's favour. Mondol denies this. "Are you talking about the sand lifting? That generates revenue for the government legitimately. What's the problem?" When told that the questions were about illegal lifting of sand, he said, "To my knowledge, no such thing happens and there is none of this factionalism over sand that you speak of."
Yet, Nanoor has seen bullets exchanged for control of the sand. Again in January, Nanoor saw Kajal and Mondol's men engage in a six-hour-long gunbattle in a field separating Bahiri and Jogyinagar villages.
Rajib Banerjee, the state's irrigation minister claims that the menace of sand lifting has declined. "There's so much being said about sand mining, a lot of it's inflated. We do random checks and raids and despite that it's possible that a truck or two overload or slip away. It takes time to rein in things."
Banerjee says under the previous CPM regime, long-term mining leases were granted. But the TMC government has introduced a new system of short-term quarry permit. "With STQP, we review the mining that is carried out every three months or so, which helps us keep track of illegalities better."
Banerjee argues that the royalty the government has collected is an indicator of how much fraudulent mining has come down. "Under the Left regime, the royalty collection used to be about 8-10 crores in a year. We have managed to legalise the process and have collected 75 crores in royalty."
He adds, "100% tax is applicable on the amount of sand you load. This is for all vehicles using the National Highway for the purpose and the tax rate is Rs 78 per 100 cubic feet. Six-wheel vehicles can carry up to 300 CFT sand while 10-wheel vehicles can carry up to 450 CFT. We have fixed this ceiling."
The ceiling doesn't seem to be very fixed, going by the accounts of the local villagers. Santosh Hazra, a doctor, has set up a small shop outside a cluster of villages between Nanoor and Mayureshwar. A little distance from his shop, a ghat of the Mayurakshi is crowded with trucks carrying off sand. "It happens all the time, the whole day. One tractor will sell the sand for Rs 800 or so in the market and a truck might get Rs 10,000 or more." Who does he think is running this trade? "I don't know."
At all ghats, there are usually some security guards to keep a tab on illegal mining. The ghat near Mayureshwar has three people lounging around it as trucks are loaded with sand in the background. "Nothing illegal happens here. It's mostly in Burdwan. All this is perfectly legal," one of the men says, and refuses to talk anymore.
Asked whether TMC leaders like Mondol are involved in this trade, Banerjee says, "Wherever there is income to be generated, everyone is responsible, not one person or group. I don't believe in theories and I don't think Anubrata is associated. I also don't think it has anything to do with the TMC. A certain kind of businessmen do this sort of thing and we are looking into it."
"If people are levelling accusations that Anubrata Mondol and Kajal are controlling sand mines, they have to come to us with specific cases and concrete evidence," he adds. "No one has come to me with such specific complaints."
Rule of lawlessness
The violence brought about by illegal sand mining is only one concern for Mayureshwar. The villagers have another axe to grind against the Trinamool. Says Dola, "Most of the police stations have TMC dalals in them. They work under one of the senior officers and address whatever problems the people have. All problems usually need money to be resolved and it is the dalaal who takes the money."
If a person doesn't have a "TMC contact", Dola adds, his grievances are not likely to be addressed at all. In fact, he says, the list of "suspects" prepared in the wake of the violence at the police station had names of people who were not even present on the scene. If you happened not to be present - and even if you were present, pelting stones with the others - all you had to do was pay some money to the "TMC contact" at the station to get your name off the list.
Indeed, just a few days ago, the Election Commission transferred several senior police officials from Birbhum, Burdwan and other districts, citing concerns over their impartiality. Notable among them are Birbhum SP Mukesh Kumar, Burdwan SP Kunal Agarwal and the Officers In-charge of Bolpur and Mayureshwar.
So, who is Mayureshwar voting for in this election?
The village has traditionally voted Left. Ashok Kumar Ray won the 2011 election, defeating the TMC's Jatil Mandal. In 2006, CPM's Sadhu Bagti was the victor. This year though, the villagers are rooting for the BJP's Locket Chatterjee, a popular actor. Gopa, a TMC worker in Mayureshwar, says the village panchayat is controlled by the BJP, which has a member more than other parties, and the people have not had anything major to complain about the party. So, they might well vote for the BJP in the assembly polls as well.
Arup Bag, the CPM candidate, would be hoping for the history to repeat itself. Not recent history though: he was beaten up by alleged Trinamool workers at a rally in Mayureshwar last year.