t was the week after Vasant Panchami, the festival that marks the onset of spring. Lagni Devi stood in the middle of her green chilli farm. The lush peppers, amidst the sea of yellow mustard flowers and green shoots of young wheat, afforded her hope for 2021
She looked around for her granddaughter Babli—an eight-year-old with a soft face. She was drinking water at an irrigation tap, surrounded by children who brought lunch for their mothers and grandmothers working at their farms.
Lagni Devi returned to work. Squatting on her haunches, she resumed picking weeds around the chilli plants. A few minutes passed. Suddenly, children’s shrieks pierced the air. In the commotion, Babli ran towards her grandmother.
Babli’s forehead was bleeding; her frock drenched in blood. As Lagni Devi held her tight, her shawl and saree soaked in blood.
‘She’s been hit by a bullet… a bullet,’ the other children shouted.
She had heard gunshots, seemingly not far from her farm. However, she had ignored it. For people here, firings are far too regular to stop working or playing.
Now, Lagni Devi took a closer look at Babli’s face. Blood flowed from a raw wound on her forehead. Carrying Babli in her arms, she ran towards the village. Two men from the village took Babli on a scooter to a hospital in the next town. Lagni Devi waited at home anxiously. Several hours later, the men brought back Babli. Doctors concluded that a bullet had entered and exited Babli’s forehead.
What hit Babli was a stray bullet from a crossfire between sand mining gangs. But for many farmers here, the conflict is head-on. In the same village, on 12 August 2021, the sand mafia fired at 35-year-old Mahaveer Ram. They wanted to scare him off and extract sand from his land. A bullet hit Ram’s left arm.
Ram is under pressure to settle the case out of court, but he is unwilling. “If I settle it, the mafia will never stop; they will either kill us or force us to leave.”
These firings happened on the banks of the River Sone, a tributary of the Ganges. The Sone diara—floodplain wetlands—in India’s eastern state of Bihar holds vast expanses of sand. Sone’s construction-grade sand is highly prized. The high price and lack of regulations have led to rampant illegal mining. Sandy lands outside government control are free for all to loot. Several armed gangs are vying for control over these lands, leading to bloody clashes. In January 2022, a video of a gang fight at an illegal mine at Kamalu Chak went viral on social media. Two people were killed. Such firings are common.
The most infamous battleground lies in the middle of Sone—Amnabad Island. Here, over three days and three nights in September 2022, a ferocious gun battle broke out between two gangs to establish supremacy over illegal sand mines. The police recovered thousands of live and empty cartridges, rifles, pistols, and automatic firearms such as AK-47s.
What is not clear is how many people died. Initially, only one body was recovered. Three days after the shootout, two bodies tangled in wires were retrieved a few kilometres downstream. They were identified as Mukesh Singh and Laldev Rai, who had gone missing since the shootout.
The local media and political parties have questioned the body count, citing accounts from residents. In one such testimony, Laldev’s brother told reporters that many bodies were buried under sand after the shootout and if the police used a dog squad, more bodies would be recovered.
In interviews with Fountain Ink, residents make similar claims. (They wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the sand mafia).
“The death toll in Amnabad is higher than usual: At least 30 people were killed that day,” one resident tells us.
Other residents of the area put the number of deaths between 25 and 30.
Sandeep Saurav, an elected representative of the Bihar Legislative Assembly, who visited the site a day after the shootout, says he suspects more people were killed in the firing. A report published by his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation (CPIML), says: “(T)he exact number of people killed could not be ascertained because the mafias have buried many dead bodies under the sand with the help of earthmover machines.”
They are buried 20-25 feet under the sand, says one resident. “So deep their stench doesn’t reach you.”
This is what Shatrugan Rai’s family believes happened to him.
Since the shootout in September, the 50-year-old hasn’t come back home. His 25-year-old daughter, Sunita, says her father had gone to load sand at Amnabad island with Laldev and Mukhesh, whose bodies were recovered. She says that Rai and Laldev operated a boat to transport sand from the island.
However, some residents, police and media offer a different version—that Rai was the leader of the Fauji gang. That he took over after the murder of its founder Shankar Dayal Singh alias Fauji in 2019. The police have registered 15 criminal cases against Rai, ranging from unlawful possession of weapons and extortion to murder, according to one report in the Hindustan Times. It also mentions that the conflict broke out when Rai’s group attempted to replace the rival Sipahi gang from the sandbanks. The police have registered an FIR against 24 people, including members of both gangs.Fauji and Sipahi have a long history of bloody clashes over Amnabad island. In August 2016, the two gangs fought a pitched gun battle, after which the police arrested 30 people from both gangs and seized 24 earthmovers and four boats. Since then, their rivalry has intensified, culminating in the September shootout. In the runup to the shootout, the two gangs had skirmishes and burned down 30 earthmovers used for mining sand. Sunita mentions this feud. “Sipahi’s gang killed my father out of long-standing enmity. Their leader instructed his men from the jail to kill my father.” But later in the conversation, she says that her father had nothing to do with the gangs. “He was a mere sand worker killed by the Sipahi gang during their battle with the Fauji gang.”
The diara dwellers are used to gunfire across sand mining sites. A resident of Pachrukhia village says his village has witnessed up to three clashes in a single day.
Prabhunath (name changed), a resident of Amnabad village, says that gunshots are common two-three times a week, sometimes forcing people in a nearby settlement to flee at night.
Subhash Rai, a resident of Haldi Chhapra, says, “At least a thousand people have died in sand mining accidents and gunfights in the last five years.”
But, most of these incidents don’t come to light, says Prabhunath. “Even people in Patna, the state capital barely 40 km away, don’t know how many people actually die here.”
It is because the bodies don’t come out of the murder sites, says an 18-year-old boy from Maner. “The administration just needs to dig sand mines; the skeletons will make a mountain.”
Approaching the police in these cases is uncommon. The absence of a body is a hindrance. No eyewitnesses step up to corroborate their complaint for fear of the mafia. Labourers hesitate to admit their presence since these sites are illegally run; they fear the police would incriminate them.
There is a deep suspicion of the police: “What do you think the police will do: inform the mafia that pays them regularly, or help us?” asks Bharat (name changed), a resident of Amnabad. Bharat says he was in the sand mining business earlier but has quit.
The mafias have ‘managed’ the police, says Krishna Paswan, deputy head of neighbouring Sikandarpur village. “Bihta police station (which has jurisdiction over Amnabad) is known for being a very expensive posting,” says Paswan. He explains that police officials pay bribes to get posted here to earn illegal income from sand miners, traders, and goons. “The head of Bihta police station made too much money, even by local standards; he has now been suspended.”
Many government officials have been accused of involvement in illegal sand mining. Several have faced departmental action and penalties for it.
However, the biggest reason for hushing up the killings is the fear of retribution from the sand mafia. “We can’t run away from them; they are vengeful people,” says a 35-year-old man from Haldi Chhapra. “We also need employment from them, or we would starve to death.” There are no other jobs here, adds another man who works at a sand mine. The mafia sometimes compensates a victim’s family by offering a job at a sand mine.
For a region steeped in poverty, working as a labourer at an illegal sand mine is more lucrative than farm labour. The bulk of these labourers are either Dalits or others low in the caste hierarchy.
In Bihar, the sand mining business is dominated by Yadavs—a community classified by the Indian government as an Other Backward Class that sits in the middle of the caste hierarchy and forms the largest population in the Sone diara. But mining wasn’t always controlled by Yadavs.
In the journal American Ethnologist, Jeffrey Witsoe writes that upper-caste Rajput landlords used to control all the sand mining along the Sone river. With the election of Lalu Prasad Yadav as chief minister in 1990, the Yadavs emerged as a powerful force in state politics. “This regional context provided a catalyst for caste empowerment within local sites, as many lower-caste people now had access to muscle and protection that, previously, only upper castes had enjoyed,” writes Witsoe.
Yadavs’ increasing power led to a battle for control over the illegal sand-mining trade, and caste-based gangs turned murderous in their pursuit. The price for this battle is primarily paid by the labourers. A gang looking to snatch control of a mine opens fire at the labourers. A few people die, and the survivors are frightened away from the site. “This is the easiest way of stopping mining at the site without killing a rival gang member. That would provoke an all-out war,” says Prabhunath.
In 2001, when a Yadav gang killed 11 labourers at a mine run by an upper-caste Bhumihar ganglord on the banks of the Kiul river, the workers were all Dalits.
In Sone diara, besides the Yadav gangs Fauji and Sipahi, a Bhumihar gang led by Satyendra Pandey is also powerful. They were involved in the February 2022 firing at Kamalu Chak sand ghat, which killed two people. Pandey’s son was also charged with collecting illegal weapons after the Amnabad shootout.
At least 76 people lost their lives, and 103 were injured in sand mining related accidents and violence in 16 months between December 2020 and March 2022 in Bihar, according to an April 2022 report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). The sand mafia is unafraid to attack government officials, including the police.
Meanwhile, Amnabad is far from peaceful. A day after the shootout, three suspects fired at the police as they fled Amnabad. Two weeks later, an all-night shootout was reported close by, at Chaurasi Ghat.
As the September incident recedes in the background, the pressure on the government is easing, and police presence is waning, says Bharat of Amnabad.
“Another massacre isn’t very far. What’s doubtful is whether you will hear about it.”
Amnabad island spans over 323 acres in the middle of the Sone river. An Audit report in December 2022 says “trend of illegal mining was increasing”. Between November 2018 and March 2020, the area under illegal mining near Amnabad nearly doubled. The area under illegal mining is four times higher than legal mining area. The report establishes that illegal sand mining is rampant in Sone for its entire length in Bihar, covering three districts—Patna, Bhojpur and Rohtas. It’s been submitted to the state government.
The video below shows the sand mines leased by the Bihar government in this region in 2014 for 10 years, and the extent of illegal mining. Satellite images reveal clear evidence of mining outside the legal area—earthmovers, queues of trucks, and excavated land.
After the shootout, the government deployed paramilitary and police forces to stop mining at Amnabad. Farmers who own land on Amnabad island have avoided tending to their crops. But even when mining went on, they would leave before nightfall, says one resident.
A sand ghat comes alive at night, says Prabhunath. “It’s like a bustling township, much bigger than the village itself.”
He reconstructs the mining frenzy: Bright lights, workers milling about, munshis (accountants) with wads of cash held between their fingers as they go over receipts. The whirring of excavators scooping out sand fills the air as loose sand piles up next to pits. Anchored boats wait to be loaded with sand.
Some boats extract sand directly from the riverbed. Suction pumps draw river water on a boat; water drains out, leaving a heap of sand on the boat.
Sand extraction from land (riverbank or island) is usually done by a big, organised mafia, who dig land by force of money and muscle. Riverbed extraction is done largely by unorganised groups of boatmen. An armed gang of goons extorts a ‘tax’ from the boatmen to be ‘allowed to load sand’ from the land they claim once was theirs. Another gang collects ‘toll’ at checkposts they have set up on the riverway.
From here, boats cross the river to carry sand to several spots on the riverbank. Men, knee-deep in water, carry sand from boats in small baskets and dump it on vehicles that transport it further by land.
The stretch from Koilwar to Haldi Chhapra, where the Sone River meets the Ganges, is one of the largest hotspots for illegal sand mining in India. To avoid road checkposts, sand is smuggled in boats. Most sand boats from Sone traverse the Ganges to reach the town of Doriganj. From here, sand is transported by road to markets in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
While residents are unable to give an exact scale of the operation, they offer a few anecdotes. Prabhunath recounts how the most recent Vishwakarma Pooja—a festival in which machines and tools are worshipped—had over a hundred earthmovers, costing over $100,000 each, line up the village road. Another Amnabad resident says mining is so profitable that a vendor who sold nimki (a ribbon-like crispy snack) to mine workers is a rupee millionaire today.
However, the most sinister feature of illegal mining is the constant presence of heavily armed gangs. Men ready with sticks, double-barreled rifles, pistols, and semi-automatic and automatic weapons stand all around illegal mines, on the lookout for trouble. Anybody not involved directly in the business is considered trouble, says Bharat of Amnabad.
“Mafia’s men openly carry automatic firearms,” says Paswan, the deputy head of Sikandarpur panchayat. “They work in a team of up to 50 men.”
Gang members at the lower levels bring their own weapons, often procured in the black market. Remuneration is fixed based on the calibre of the weapon—a member can get paid ₹2,000 a day with a pistol, ₹1000 with a rifle, and ₹500 with a lathi (a bamboo baton with an iron tip). On the other hand, advanced automatic weapons are carried only by the top rung.
Police seizures of arms in recent years corroborate these accounts. In 2015, the leader of the Fauji gang was charged under various sections of the Arms Act after semi-manufactured rifles, double-barrel guns, and cartridges were recovered from his possession. More recently, in April 2022, a police raid involving 32 sand smugglers from Amanabad netted one rifle and 21 live cartridges. In a similar case in July 2022, a person accused of killing three people and running an illegal sand mining gang was arrested with a pistol and cartridges.Police seizures have also traced the supply chain of arms to sustain illegal sand mining. In August 2017, the police seized a pistol of foreign make (Beretta), a regular rifle, a double-barrel gun, and ten live cartridges from a person involved in illegal mining. He was also wanted in 12 cases of murder and extortion. The police said he confessed his gang possessed two AK-47s and named a member of the Bihar Legislative Assembly Arun Yadav as his weapons supplier
In August 2022, New Delhi police seized 2,200 live cartridges, which they claimed were on their way to the sand mafia in Bihar. In a statement to the Times of India, a Delhi Police officer claimed that consignments of thousands of live cartridges, along with six rifles, have been supplied to the sand mafia four or five times in the past.
On a December morning, as we drive to a village on the banks of the Sone, five young boys, armed with canes, stop trucks on the highway. Two stand in front of the truck with their canes aimed menacingly at the windshield while two others barricade the road with canes on the co-passenger side. Another boy speaks to the driver, who mutters as he passes some cash to him.
Vishal Kumar, a member of CPIML who accompanies us, says that these boys are collecting rangdari—extortion money—from trucks carrying sand. He points at a boy and says this 17-year-old was picked up by the police for doing this, but released without any charges. “They extort ₹500 from each truck. Not everyone pays. But they collect up to ₹60,000 a day,” he says.
For children and young men in this region, the sand mafia is someone they aspire to be.
A political operative who works in the region, who did not want to be identified, explains that for a sand miner to be feared, he needs his “bhaukaal tight”. This expression has entered the local lexicon meaning to exhibit swag.
“In sand mining, being important isn’t enough. You have to look important,” he says. “It’s about flaunting how wealthy you are, how people fear or respect you, how many musclemen you have in your control, how advanced your weapons are, and how close to politicians you are,” he says.
The glorification of violence and gun culture, an important part of bhaukaal, attracts youngsters.
Residents of Pachrukhia village, a village by the Sone river that sees large-scale mining, are witnessing the impact on their children.
Not only young men; even children are posing with guns, says Pappu Kumar, a resident. “What’s worrisome is that they are actually picking up guns.” He says that he wants his children to study, but the environment that they are in pulls them in a direction where they idolise goons.
It’s evident in the fact that more girls are in school than boys, adds Nirmal Yadav, another resident of Pachrukhia. “Girls don’t work in the sand business, so they study at least until they are 18. But boys start dropping out in middle school when they are 13-14. Even if they don’t officially drop out, they don’t attend classes.”
Teachers at Rajapur High School (which caters to Pachrukhia) confirm this, though they decline to share enrollment numbers. They say this trend started four-five years ago when the village saw a sudden spike in wealth. One teacher says: “It comes from the family; a child sees easy money flowing into the family. He knows he needn’t finish his studies. He can instead pick up a gun and make quick money.”
In the last four years, there has been a sudden and visible spike in the wealth of this village, and sand is the main source of it, says Baijnath Yadav, a 70-year-old from Pachrukhia.
Earlier, only about 5 per cent of houses owned any vehicle, he says. “Now, almost every house has a vehicle. Over 80 per cent of houses own tractors which are engaged in the sand business. The houses, which used to be thatched, are now all concrete.”
Crimes like eve teasing, hooliganism and extortion have risen among youngsters because many people are drunk on money and power, he says. He laments about families fighting with each other over sand, land, and money. He mocks how everybody wants to wear thick gold chains and rings.
“For sand money, we are killing our culture and values,” he says.
“As Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) blessed us, Saraswati (Goddess of wisdom) has forsaken us.”
On this mid-December evening, Virendra Kumar Rai is sipping chai from a steel cup. He is sitting outside his two-storey house in Mana Chak village, overlooking an array of tractor trolleys. This is a luxury he can indulge in after a long gap.
Virendra was faraar—absconding—for three years until October 2022. “I’m an accused in 26 cases,” he says. “All the charges relate to sand mining, including murder, attempt to murder, and illegal mining.”
There isn’t a single family in this Yadav village which doesn’t face at least one case of illegal mining, says Vakeel Rai, another resident of Mana Chak. “Several families have multiple cases slapped against multiple members. Our village of 45-50 houses must be facing over 500 cases.”
There are times when you hardly see a man in this village, Vakeel adds. “Often, men are all on the run, leaving behind only women and children here.”
Virendra says he fled when the police were looking to arrest him. He kept moving places and lived in hiding until he secured bail in all the cases. Fearing the police would trace his mobile phone, he barely spoke to his family. “Sometimes, I’d borrow a phone from a stranger at a bus station and call my family. I’d leave that place immediately after the call. I can’t tell you how I endured those days.”
Virendra says his enemies fired at his house while he was away. “It scared my wife and other women in the house. Police often came and harassed them, asking about my whereabouts.”
Virendra accuses a neighbour of wrongly framing him in these cases. “Since I was absconding, the police conveniently piled up more cases against me so that they didn’t have to look for the real culprits.”
Many people in his village are involved in sand work, in jobs like managing sand ghats, issuing tokens and receipts, and managing cash, Virendra says. “All of us also own vehicles that are used to transport sand, as you can see,” pointing at the tractors and trolleys parked nearby.
“But, I’m an honest man,” says Virendra, pointing at the sun as a witness to his innocence. “People of Mana Chak are not criminals.”
However, several residents of a neighbouring village referred to Mana Chak as a “sand mafia village”.
In any case, for Mana Chak, this isn’t the last generation of faraar men. Virendra’s son Arun is also an accused in several criminal cases. “He is home right now, on bail,” says Virendra. “But, who knows for how long.”
At her house in Semaria village, Babli keeps staring at the ground. She barely tilts her head up when spoken to. The only time she stirs is when Devi holds her head to show the scar on her forehead, dislodging her hairband. She promptly adjusts it but still doesn’t look up.
Babli’s mother Sunita Devi nudges her to join the children outside in goli (a game with marbles). Babli doesn’t move an inch.
It’s been two years since the incident happened. She wasn’t the most lively of children earlier, says Sunita. “But after getting shot at, she has been sapped of all energy.”
There have been a few complications. Babli repeatedly complains of dizziness. “I feel like my head is spinning,” she says. Gently tapping on the scar, she adds: “It hurts”.
The bullet has left two scars—an entrance wound on the left side, and an exit wound less than an inch away. The family took Babli to a clinic in a nearby town. “In recent follow-ups, doctors have done multiple tests. They said her blood count is low and she is very weak,” says Sunita.
While the family worries about the long-term impact on Babli’s health, they are also financially stressed after her treatment. Since they don’t own land, they lease a small parcel of land to grow vegetables. Babli’s father Nanhku Bind brings in ₹300-400 a day whenever he can find work on someone else’s farms. When the sand mines are operational, he makes a little more.
For Lagni Devi, this means continuing to work in the fields under threat of gunfire.
The sand mines next to her fields are closed for now. But, she doubts they will stay shut. They will be back for sand soon. And so will be the guns, she says.
“Site band ta goli band”
When mining stops, the firing stops.
“Site chaloo ta goli chaloo”
When mining begins, the firing begins.
(This article was produced in partnership with the Environmental Reporting Collective.)
This story is second in a series on illegal sand mining in Bihar.