Cutting across party lines, politicians have made major inroads into the mining business over the past decade-and-a-half. In the process, they have cared two hoots about environmental degradation. The escalating prices of sand and gravel is another issue of concern
Ruchika M. Khanna, Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, August 26. After liquor business, it is sand mining that has turned out to be the latest money-spinner for Punjab politicians. That sand and gravel prices have risen by about 50 per cent in the past one year alone is enough to gauge why mining is such a lucrative business.
A year ago, sand used to sell at Rs 1,300 per 100 cubic feet; the same quantity is now available for Rs 2,200. Similarly, gravel at present is selling at Rs 3,100 per 100 cubic feet, against Rs 2,400 in 2011.
Armed with muscle power and with government officials under their thumb, leaders cutting across party lines have been indulging in the practice to the hilt, often unmindful of the fact that excess of it can lead to large-scale environmental degradation. Due to illegal sand mining, the lower ‘kandi’ (marshland) hills in Ropar have already vanished while the Sutlej has started changing its course in Nawanshahr and a few places in Ludhiana.
Charging illegal royalty
Mining, on an average, yields Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 3 crore a day as illegal royalty for politicians who now control mining operations across the state.
Until 15 years ago, sand mining in Punjab was not really on the radar of politicians as they were dabbling in liquor trade. It was in 1997 that a cousin of a Cabinet minister, who himself happened to be a close relative of the then chief minister, got into the mining business as partner of a Ropar-based sand mining contractor.
The next to follow suit was the son-in-law of a former Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president and former MLA from Dera Bassi who along with the brother of a senior Congress MLA from Gurdaspur district joined hands with sand mining contractors in Ropar, Mohali, Ludhiana, Patiala and Moga.
A former Akali Dal MP started controlling operations in Moga while a brother of a then SAD minister, who was also into liquor business, took over the reins in Ludhiana.
Cashing in on realty boom
By this time, not just politicians but even bureaucrats in the state had realised that with realty boom in Punjab as well as neighbouring states, sand mining was the latest jackpot. Thereafter, politicians and ‘babus’ (enjoying political clout) started forming an unholy alliance to control mining.
The menace began to grow leaps and bounds after the son of a Congress MLA caught the fancy of the trade in 2003. He is said to have suggested politicians to keep their party differences aside and join hands to maximise their profits by throwing local contractors out of the trade. With this began centralisation of the illegal activity under the command of ruling politicians.
By 2007, the exercise was complete and ruling politicians had gained complete control of the sand mining operations across the state. In fact, those controlling the trade would also charge illegal royalty from stone crusher owners, builders or whosoever needed the gold dust. As such, rates of sand and gravel increased substantially over the past five years.
High Court cracks the whip
It was only recently that the Punjab and Haryana High Court made environment clearance mandatory for sand mining in quarries less than five hectares in area. The order, which may extend up to eight months (the time needed to get an environment clearance), has temporarily brought the illegal activity to a halt.
Government all set to auction 25 quarries in September
With economic interests overshadowing everything else, politicians have reportedly again joined hands to ensure that 25 quarries spread across the state on 10,800 acres (for which the state government has obtained environment clearance) are auctioned at the earliest. Sources said the auction of these quarries was already in progress. The auction notice is expected by the month-end and auctioning will take place in September. This means, mining operations will again resume after remaining suspended for five weeks.
Sand used to sell at Rs 1,300 per 100 cubic feet a year ago; the same quantity is now available for Rs 2,200. Similarly, gravel at present is selling at Rs 3,100 per 100 cubic feet, against Rs 2,400 in 2011.
DyCM orders action
Government officials claim they have taken several steps to curb illegal mining in the state. “Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has told deputy commissioners and top police officials that they will be held responsible if they fail to check the illegal practice. Apart from this, sites where illegal mining is on will be identified and regularised as quarries, if environmental clearance is accorded. The issue will again be discussed with general managers of district industries centres and mining officers in a meeting in September,” said AR Talwar, Principal Secretary (Industries).