Police make arrest over Indian journalist’s ‘sand mafia’ death

Amid growing outrage over the latest murder of a journalist in India, police have arrested a truck driver accused of killing Sandeep Sharma over his investigative reporting into the country’s ‘sand mafia’.

The television journalist was mown down by a truck as he rode a motorcycle on Monday — the second hit and run killing of a journalist in 24 hours.

Sharma had reportedly told local authorities he feared he would be a target of the gangs that traffick sand for the construction industry.

Activists say the networks are helped by police and political patronage. The journalist had reportedly exposed links between a police official and the mafia.

Police in Bhind in the central state of Madhya Pradesh confirmed to AFP that a truck driver had been detained. They did not give an identity or say whether he was suspected of carrying out a contract killing.

CCTV footage of the attack early Monday showed Sharma riding his motorbike when the truck swerved and crushed him.

According to journalist groups, Sharma is the latest of many victims of sand gangs.

Sand, often dubbed “India’s gold”, is crucial for the booming construction industry. The criminal networks provide sand illegally sourced from the coast and marine and wildlife reserves, often causing major environmental damage.

With a growing urban population clamouring for housing, demand has soared in recent years and given rise to a surge of black market dealers ready to use violence against anyone blocking their way.

The Reporters Without Borders group noted that journalists “who cover India’s sand mafia are often the victims of violent reprisals”. It particularly highlighted cases in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“The shocking manner in which Sandeep Sharma was murdered is a terrible warning to journalists who investigate the sand mining mafia phenomenon,” the group said in a statement.

It said two journalists covering the illegal sand trade were killed in 2016 in Uttar Pradesh.

In 2015 two other reporters were killed while one was beaten and dragged behind a motorbike for 100 metres in the same state.

The death of Sharma came less than 24 hours after another journalist, Navin Nischal, and an associate were run over and killed by a former village chief in Bihar state over a different issue.

Forty-four journalists have been killed in India since 1992, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reporters in the world’s largest democracy often face harassment and intimidation by police, politicians, bureaucrats and criminal gangs, while scores work in hostile conditions in conflict-ridden pockets of the country.

Reporters Without Borders ranks India 136th of 180 countries in its world press freedom ratings.