In Depth

Crisis in India

Report by New Delhi Station Exposes Illegal Mining Activities

“Mined to Death,” Sidharth Pandey’s investigation into three sites being illegally mined in India, is one of three television finalists for the SEJ’s Award for Reporting on the Environment.

Mr. Pandey, an investigative reporter for New Delhi’s NDTV 24x7, a live English-language station covering national and global news, was on his way to another assignment when his driver mentioned that local contractors were mining in New Delhi at night.

Mining of raw material such as sand and stone is illegal in the Indian state of Delhi, Mr. Pandey said, but with new construction flourishing, the state is “racing to modernize at the cost of our own environment.”

There’s a 5-kilometer forest buffer zone around Delhi, Mr. Pandey said, which is part of the Aravalli mountain range. “The Aravallis are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world,” he said, “and the trees take double time to grow because it’s a hard, rocky area.”

When the summer winds blow into Delhi from the desert, that buffer zone of forest blocks the wind and protects the area. The trees also help to control pollution, he said.

When contractors mine for sand to make concrete, they cut down trees to get to it. Even if trees are not cut down first, Mr. Pandey said, when contractors mine within the forest, “they go so deep the trees are killed [anyway].”

The Indian government has declared the area off-limits to mining, Mr. Pandey said, “but there’s a big building boom. And the 2010 Commonwealth Games are coming to Delhi, and that means construction for that as well.”

Contracts go to the lowest bidder, Mr. Pandey said, but “no one asks you where you’re getting your sand” for building. “To keep your profits high,” he said, “you might do your sourcing from the gray market.”

When Mr. Pandey mentioned to friends in the neighboring state of Haryana that he had found out illegal mining was going on in Delhi, “They said, ‘It’s happening here as well. We told the government, but they’re not taking any action. Some local people complained, and they’ve been attacked by contractors.’”

Mr. Pandey and his cameraman, Deepak Verma, decided to travel to the Kalesar National Forest in Haryana to find the illegal mining operation.

The area, part of the outer Himalayas, is composed primarily of low sandstone and rocky hills. “They go in, and their bulldozers scoop out tons of material. You can see huge pits dug out of the river bed—all of this is protected land—and there aren’t any real roads through the forest to get there.

After two nights of secretly filming the clandestine mining operation, Mr. Pandey said he went to the nearby office of the Forest Department and told them he had discovered there was illegal mining going on in the area.

“The [Forest Department official] said there used to be illegal mining in the area, but that it had ‘completely been stopped, it was absolutely illegal, people could go to jail for it.’”

When they aired that clip, Mr. Pandey said, “On the left side of the screen, the guy is speaking, saying, ‘It hasn’t happened for years,’ and on the right side we’re showing what we just shot the night before, with the sand being taken out.”

But the third site, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, revealed “the most brazen” of all the illegal mining operations, Mr. Pandey said. “[The contractors] had a couple of hundred trucks there in broad daylight, and we had to [figure out] how these guys got away with it.”

In the end, Mr. Pandey said, he pretended to be a contractor himself. “I went to these guys and said, ‘I need to get [my materials delivered] cheap and on time. How do you do it?’”

The contractor subsequently “showed us the entire mining site,” Mr. Pandey said, allowing Mr. Verma to film the whole operation.

“At that particular site,” Mr. Pandey said, “people got arrested” after the report aired on NDTV. Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s ruling coalition, demanded to know why and how the illegal mining had been happening under the noses of government officials, and the Supreme Court of India asked for all footage shot for the expose and has taken steps to shut down the mining operations.