The area around Raipur Khadar used to be mostly agricultural—wheat and vegetables growing in the Yamuna River floodplain. But Delhi, less than an hour's drive north, is encroaching fast. Driving down a new six-lane expressway that cuts through Gautam Budh Nagar, the district in which Raipur Khadar sits, I pass construction site after construction site, new glass and cement towers sprouting skyward like the opening credits from Game of Thrones made real across miles of Indian countryside. Besides countless generic shopping malls, apartment blocks, and office towers, a 5,000-acre "Sports City" is under construction, including several stadiums and a Formula 1 racetrack.
The building boom got in gear about a decade ago, and so did the sand mafias. "There was some illegal sand mining before," says Dushynt Nagar, the head of a local farmers' rights organization, "but not at a scale where land was getting stolen or people were getting killed."
The Chauhan family has lived in the area for centuries, Paleram's son Aakash tells me. He's a slim young guy with wide brown eyes and receding black hair, wearing jeans, a grey sweatshirt, and flip-flops. We're sitting on plastic chairs set on the bare concrete floor of the family's living room, just a few yards from where his father was killed.
The family owns about 10 acres of land, and shares some 200 acres of communal land with the village—or used to. About 10 years ago a group of local "musclemen," as Aakash calls them, led by Rajpal Chauhan (no relation—it's a common surname) and his three sons, seized control of the communal land. They stripped away its topsoil and started digging up the sand built up by centuries of the Yamuna's floods. To make matters worse, the dust kicked up by the operation stunted the growth of surrounding crops.
As a member of the village panchayat, or governing council, Paleram took the lead in a campaign to get the sand mine shut down. It should have been pretty straightforward. Aside from stealing the village's land, sand mining is not permitted in the Raipur Khadar area at all because it's close to a bird sanctuary. And the government knows it’s happening: In 2013 a fact-finding team from the federal Ministry of Environment and Forests found "rampant, unscientific, and illegal mining" all over Gautam Budh Nagar.
Nonetheless, Paleram and other villagers couldn't get it stopped. They petitioned police, government officials, and courts for years—and nothing happened. The conventional wisdom says that many local authorities accept bribes from the sand miners to stay out of their business—and not infrequently, are involved in the business themselves.
For those who don't take the carrot of a bribe, the mafias aren't shy about using a stick. "We do conduct raids on the illegal sand miners," says Navin Das, the official in charge of mining in Gautam Budh Nagar. "But it's very difficult because we get attacked and shot at." In the past three years, sand miners have killed at least two police officers and attacked many others, as well as government officials and whistle-blowers. Just this March, soon after I returned from India, an assault by illegal sand miners put a television journalist in the hospital.
According to court documents, Rajpal and his sons threatened Paleram and his family as well as other villagers. Aakash knows one of the sons, Sonu, from when they were kids in school together. "He used to be a decent guy," Aakash says. "But when he got into the sand business and started making fast money, he developed a criminal mentality and became very aggressive." Finally, in the spring of 2013, police arrested Sonu and impounded some of his outfit's trucks. He was soon out on bail, though.
One morning Paleram rode his bicycle out to his fields, which are right next to the sand mine, and ran into Sonu. "He said, 'It's your fault I was in jail,'" according to Aakash. "He told my father to drop the issue." Instead Paleram complained to the police again. A few days later, he was shot dead.
Sonu, his brother Kuldeep, and his father, Rajpal, were arrested for the killing. All of them are currently out on bail. Aakash sees them around sometimes. "It's a small village," he says.