Green to brown: Rampant destruction of hills on city borders
Come the annual rainy season and the city authorities seem to turn a harried lot claiming to be taking tough decisions against environmental crimes like encroachment, tree felling and smuggling, earth cutting and smuggling and other such issues because these are the obvious major reasons for urban floods. Government departments specialize in playing the blame game while talking big about responsibilities. While the rains are still months away, G Plus in this issue, with the hope that timely action might just be taken, unearths a huge nexus of illegal earth cutting and smuggling within the city’s periphery and under the very nose of the forest department and the police. Where does filling earth come to city from for construction purposes? Does the state government earn any kind of revenue? What is the situation of the hills around Guwahati, especially along the Assam-Meghalaya border? What are the rates of the by-products from this earth cutting and how is it transported to the various parts of Guwahati? G Plus tries to find answers to many such questions.
A few kilometres beyond BasishthaChariali there is a place under GMC jurisdiction called Ganeshnagar.After crossing Ganeshnagar, according to locals,is Meghalaya -Longkhuli specifically where a dirt road moves upward even as the hillsstart. On the left side, according to the locals, is Assam; Meghalaya falls on the right. A G Plus team visited the area only to find the hills there totally shaved off its green sheen. At the foothills there are two timber shops owned by Arup and Hemanta from Guwahati where, according to the locals, timber comes from Assam and Meghalaya legally and illegally. The point of interest was earth cutting.It was informed that earth cutting majorly happens in areas like Lotakata, Patharkuchi, Umtrenga and Maikhuli. The G Plus team then visited Patharkuchi(within Assam) which is around five kilometres from BasishthaChariali lying beyond the Manosa Temple. A local of Patharkuchi said that just after crossing the GMC area (Patharkuchi) we could reach Maikhuli which falls under Meghalaya where all construction materials like filling earth including red earth (RangaMati), stone chips (3/4 and ½ inch Gitti), fine earth (Jaammati) and stone dust could be purchased. The G Plus team, posing as customers, entered Maikhuli - an area having huge hills that were being cut rampantly (see pics). To the right, the hills fall in Meghalaya (Maikhuli) and at the left, was Assam (Patharkuchi). Rampant destruction of the hills was being carried out even as we “customers” watched. There are bamboo hovels amidst the hills occupying around a square kilometre area where the labourers of the stone quarry and earth cutting reside with their family. A stone chip labourer, Rameez Ali, who hails from Dhubri and has been working in the quarry since the last three years, talking to us, said, “We have many merchants of our earth products and almost all of them live in Guwahati. The earth and stone chips are supplied only at night except on Sundays and if you wait here the whole day you might meet some owners.” Ali gets Rs 1,100 for breaking 4 cubic meters of big stone pieces into stone chips. This takes him around two to three days. Thereafter, we met a JCB driver who earns Rs 11,000 per month for filling up red earth and other materials onto delivery trucks. The JCB is also used for hill cutting making life easier for the stakeholders. The driver initially did not want to talk to us, suspicious as he was about our identities, but eventually thawed out when we assured him that we were customers. He gave us the number of AtulBordoloi who is a “matimalik” (earth owner would be a reasonable translation) living in Beltola. As we were having tea in a small shop which runs without any trade license or other documents in Maikhuli and yet have to bribe the Meghalaya police on a weekly basis, AtulBordoloi suddenly entered the shop and asked us about our requirements. We told him that we have a plot of land in Guwahati and require red earth and other construction materials. Bordoloi responded, “All the materials go out only during the night; the materials get transported without any challan.” He further added that there are many matimaliks (earth owners) who supply earth and other materials depending on the area they have their networks with. As we told him that our plot of land is in the Lal Ganesh area, he said he does not have any networking in place with the Odalbakhra police station and so cannot supply earth there. He said, “There are certain police stations I have networking with and there are other matimaliks who have networking with other police stations. If the earth needs to be transported to Lal Ganesh then the person who has managed the Odalbakra police and the Fatasil Police has to transport the earth.” He said that in the evening all the matimaliks gather at BasishthaChariali and so, we could contact the person who can transport the earth to Lal Ganesh. He asked us to come to BasishthaChariali even as we persuaded him to give us the rates of the earth products. He said that these vary according to the area of delivery and the number of police stations and forest check gates falling en route. He said that approximately Rs 40,000 is given to one police station to work freely for a month. Similarly, the forest people also get their cuts. We asked him to give us an approximate price range of the earth materials and the prices, according to him, for supply in Guwahati are as tabulated:
Rangamati (Red Earth) – Rs 2300 – Rs2500
Gitti ¾ (stone chips) – Rs 1350 per cubic metre (CM) (A dumper can carry approximately 10 CM)
Jaammati (Fine earth) – Rs 4000 to Rs 4500 per dumper
Stone dust – Rs 500 per cm
Gitti ½ inch – Rs 1000 per cm
After Bordoloi left we stealthily managed to click some photographs of the brazenly shaved hill and met a labourer who takes the contract of cutting the hard hill to extract stone. His remuneration is calculated feet wise. He was suspicious and visibly irked with our photography. He said, “We cannot work in my hometown because we are not allowed to cut hills there. This is the only place where we can work and you are taking photos.” We pacified him saying that we were customers seeking to buy earth. The photos were for Facebook as the place is beautiful. We even invited him to join us in the shoot but he refused; his suspicions constantly writ large on his face. We gradually started our vehicle and left the place.
Both the Patharkuchi and Maikhuli Hills have been razed severely; the working conditions of the labourers are perilous. Later in the evening, we visited BasishthaChariali and met some people who claimed that they can provide earth but were willing to talk only if we cut a deal on the same day. This being the fact where rampant earth cutting on the city’s borders is being carried out with impunity and the same is being smuggled into the city in nightly forays in brazen collusion with the police and forest department, what keeps the authorities so inert?
A source in the forest department, talking to G Plus, said that it is not that illegal earth cutting does not happen but, from time to time, the forest department also seizes the vehicles which transport such items. The source said that earlier the check gates used to take bribes but since May 2016, the check gates have been withdrawn and now only patrolling happens which keeps tracking illegal transportation of forest items. The source said that the smugglers have their own routes which they keep changing but smuggling per se has decreased. It is a different matter that such patrolling parties can be “managed” for allowing entry into the city. Kamrup East District Forest Officer RanjitKonwar said, “Time to time the forest department catches these vehicles and detects the offence and since May, after the check gates were withdrawn, 211 offences were detected; these included illegal transportation of sand, stone, stone dust, earth, timber, silt and charcoal.”
Number of offences detected under KamrupEast Division from 31/05/2016 to 30/11/2016
Konwar further admitted that illegal earth cutting does take place and is smuggled but the forest department does not allow any such activity in Guwahati. But when it happens in another state they cannot stop such activities. G Plus also tried to talk to OCs of some city police stations regarding the money received by them from the illegal earth suppliers, but they denied any such allegations and said the forest department is supposed to check such illegal activities. DCP East Manish Mishra, talking to G Plus, said that he is not aware of any such incident but will check into the report provided. Commissioner of Police HirenNath said, “It is the primary responsibility of the forest department to stop such kind of illegal activities and the police is ready to provide all the support.” He further said that strict instructions have been issued to all the police stations not to become part of any such nexus and if anyone was found to be involved will face strict action. For all the claims of these senior police officials that they are not responsible for stopping such activities, the earth suppliers at Maikhuli maintain that all the police stations are “managed.” Did we talk about a blame game at the head of the article?
Kamrup Metro ADC PulakMahanta, talking to G Plus, said that they do not allow any permission for earth cutting except to some government departments and that also is done after a review by the environmental committee. He said that the administration has, many a time, approached the Meghalaya government but that illegal earth cutting takes place on Meghalaya border remains an undeniable fact.
While the authorities excel at their blame game (add passing the buck game as well) the city continues to lose its green cover. This is an impervious threat to the 20 lakh residents as they are the ones who face those serious problems during the monsoon. City based environmentalist and CEO of Aaranyak, Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar said that all the reserve forests in and around the city should be protected under forest conservation laws as urban floods is the consequences of earth cutting of the hills. 15 to 20 years ago the hills were not encroached, cut and smuggled. The BJP government, before coming to power, made tall claims of protecting the environment and finding solutions for tackling urban floods but this nexus clearly shows that nothing much is happening.
Illegal earth cutting rampant on city’s border areas like Longkhuli,Lotakata, Patharkuchi, Umtrenga and Maikhuli
Maikhuli Hills bordering Patharkuchi witnesses rampant destruction of hills
Earth suppliers say all police stations and forest check gates are “managed” on a monthly basis
The suppliers say that they also manage the forest department people
The transportation of earth materials from borders into the city only happens at night
Forest department says they keep detecting such offences time to time but the culprits keep changing their routes
Senior police official says forest department is responsible for stopping such activities and police will provide all required support
Also sends strict instructions to all police stations not to be part of any nexus
District administration says Meghalaya government has been approached many times to little effect
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