Sisters carry on slain brother’s fight
Sangam and Laxmi Mahato were very happy that their only brother, 24-year-old Om Prakash (Dilip) Mahato, was coming home after graduating from college in India.
The sisters got to spend barely two weeks with Dilip before he was murdered by contractors extracting sand from the Aurahi River by the village. They crushed him beneath a tipper truck.
Dilip had been protesting illegal sand mining and actively organising the local community to conserve the fragile Chure Hills. More than two years after his death, after being threatened by their brother’s killers, the sisters have brought their struggle for justice to Kathmandu.
Their father Ram Jiwan Mahato has also come to Kathmandu with his daughters and said in a resigned voice: "Our life isn't the same anymore. I want to see the criminals pay for their crime while I am still alive. We had to come to Kathmandu to make our voice heard.”
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In the last three years, the case against the seven perpetrators has been postponed more than ten times by the courts, while the contractors are still gouging out sand from the Aurahi. Acting on a case filed by one of the accused, the Dhanusa District Court has also issued an interim order forbidding the family from obstructing the sand mining operations.
But Sangam, 24, and Laxmi, 22, are not giving up without a fight. They have vowed to carry on Dilip’s struggle, to bring his murderers to justice, and to end the destructive extraction from their river.
“Our brother walked half the way,” Sangam said resolutely. “We will complete the rest.”
A month and a half after Dilip’s murder, the community in Shreepur village decided to stop sand mining. Barely two days later, dozens of tipper trucks arrived at night to transport sand.
As per Nepal’s Riverine Material Management Procedure 2019, the use of heavy equipment in sand mining of river beds is banned to limit the destruction.
When Sangam called the police, elected officials passed the buck to the local municipality. The local contractor Bechan Sharma and officers from the Dhalkebar Police Station reached the scene. But instead of apprehending the contractor, police inspector Tej Bahadur Karki threatened the sisters. The family continues to receive threats and is under immense pressure to withdraw the murder complaint. They are constantly followed wherever they go, while others have tried to bribe the family. None of this has stopped Dilip’s family from trying to prevent illegal sand mining from their neighbourhood.
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Before she travelled to Kathmandu with her sister, Laxmi took this reporter to the banks of the Aurahi. Two excavators and four tractors were busy extracting sand from the river against the 2019 guidelines.
When we called the Dhalkebar police that there was illegal sand extraction going on in the river bed, the person at the other end of the line dismissed it saying, “Even if we come, they will have left by the time we get there.”
The police did not show up for the next hour, but within minutes of our call, the trucks and the bulldozers were gone.
Since Dilip’s murder, the contractors have taken away sand from a 10 km stretch of the river. But every time they call the police, they immediately get threats from the sand mafia.
Last year, when Dilip’s cousin Aditya asked the proprietor of the Churimai Crusher Industry Binod Mahato to stop his illegal activity, goons came to his house and threatened to kill him.
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“After that, my mother did not let me stay at home,” recalled Aditya, who stayed away for six months.
Despite the risk, Ram Jiwan is proud of his daughters. “I lost one son, and my daughters continuously receive threats, but there is no fear in our blood.”
Before coming to Kathmandu, Sangam and Laxmi collected data on the activities of sand and boulder miners and quarry owners in the region. Even if the authorities don’t take any action against the perpetrators, they want the community to be aware of the issues. “If we teach the students about the importance of conserving the Chure, some of them may continue the fight,” said Sangam.
But Laxmi believes that, ultimately, change has to come from the central, provincial and local governments, with strict implementation of environmental protection policies.
When not fighting for the environment, or running around the courts, Sangam gives tuition classes to school children and Laxmi teaches at Janata Secondary School in Mithila Municipality. They earn barely enough to pay off the Rs3.5 million that the family owes money lenders.
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Sangam also heads the Om Prakash Mahato (Dilip) Environment Conservation Academy, an NGO established two years ago, and Laxmi keeps track of the ongoing court case.
The Dilip Academy has built a garden area, Dilip Chure Batika, after receiving Rs1.5million from the President Chure Tarai-Madhes Conservation Development Board. The family has also invested Rs2 million from the central government, and Rs500,000 from the Madhes government after Dilip’s death in the institution.
But what the sisters really want is justice, and the termination of the sand mining contracts. In a community which marries off daughters after Grade 10, it was Dilip who convinced their parents to let his sisters go to college.
With his support, the two sisters were preparing for the civil service exams when he was killed. Both sisters now want to go to university to study Environment Science.
Said Sangam: “If our brother were alive, the situation of not only our family but also the environment would have been better. We want to contribute however we can to fulfil his dreams.”
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