Sand and gravels forming riverbed materials hold immense ecological value for living and healthy rivers systems. The inbuilt water filtration capacity and absorbing characteristic of the minor minerals plays critical functions in groundwater recharge and in ensuring lean season flow in the rivers. However for over two decades the brazen illegal and mechanized mining activities across the country have been irreversibly affecting the rivers and riverbank communities. The state of Punjab is among leading states where state government has failed[I] to ensure sustainable sand mining practices. The 2019 overview the state shows strong clout of political parties over the illegal sand mining operations without sharing a thought for the rivers and public.
In the first week of January 2019, the Kakrali villagers complained about restarting of illegal sand mining[II] near Ghaggar river in Derabassi Sub-Division. The residents also alleged that the sand miners were operating at night, digging up the sand until the early hours of the morning and temporary kutcha roads had been made on the riverbed to transport the sand with tipper trucks. Villagers were also afraid of visiting the river out of fear of mining mafia.
The temporary bridges built to carry illegally mined sand were removed by the drainage department later in the month but there was no relief from illegal mining. As per villagers, the miners had then started ferrying sand with tractor trailers[III] using village’s ring road. There was not enough water in the river and tractors being light in weight were able to cross the stream without bridges. Rejecting illegal mining, the village headman said that removal of the bridges had adversely affected the farmers in the village.
On January 28, the Amritsar rural police arrested[V] two persons for illegal sand excavation and booked 12 persons in separate case under similar offence from Gumrah and Rorewall villages. The police also seized a truck and 400 cubic feet of sand.
Expressing concern over the extent of environmental damage caused by rampant illegal mining in Ropar district, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed government to take action against erring[VI] officials. The tribunal also directed Punjab chief secretary to appear before it along with an action taken report on March 7.
The orders were passed on the report submitted by the Joint Committee comprising Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), director mining, Punjab and the Punjab State Pollution Control Board (SPCB). The report of the joint committee had found several illegalities[VII] being conducted there. Mine lease area was not demarcated, mining was being done in unscientific manner and water sumps were being used. The committee also found that safety and stability of river banks was not being maintained, no plantation had been done as required and stone crushers were located near the river bed in violation of law.
The government was asked to conduct survey of river ecosystems, take steps for protection of such river stretches, which might be vulnerable, demarcate mine lease areas with pillars/ fencing with geo-referencing, the raw material be accounted for and the working of stone crushers duly regulated in accordance with carrying capacity of the area.
As per officials, of the 13 mines auctioned in Ropar, 11 were operational last year but now none was functioning officially. The Directorate of Sand Mining also mentioned that only 15 sand and gravel mines were carrying out operations[VIII] in the state. Still the prices had not increased hinting about the scale of illegal sand mining. As per the report about 75 % of the sand and gravel was being used in government’s development works.
Saying that monthly demand of sand and gravel goes down to 15 lakh metric lakh tonnes against 35 lakh metric tonnes during summer annual demand, the Minister of Mines Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria said that it was the main reason behind no increase in prices. He also stated that the annual demand of sand and gravel in the state was 4 crore metric tonnes. With only 15 mines operational, the production is less than 40 lakh metric tonnes.
The government had given a promise of providing sand at nominal prices, checking illegal mining and earning revenue for the state exchequer. During 2018-19, it was not able to auction a single mine. The 15 currently-operational mines were those auctioned last year.
In the first week of March the Panchayat members in Udhowal village under Nakodar sub-division, Jalandhar complained[IX] to authorities alleging illegal mining on panchayat land in connivance with the sand mafia.
On March 22, four persons were arrested[X] on the charge of illegal sand mining in the border village Mohar Khiva, Bhiwani of Fazilka district on the basis of a complaint lodged by a senior Army official. Three days before this, a person was booked for illegal sand mining on the complaint of another Army official.
Even though there was a ban on sand mining, at least two dozen crushers were seen active on the periphery of Chandigarh in the Majri block of Kharar and Mubarikpur area of Derabassi, giving a lie to the administration’s claims about cracking down on illegal mining. The illegal mining was taking place during nights and miners had dug up fields to a depth of 30 to 40 feet severely affecting the farming activities. The cost of sand had gone up from around Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 per tipper and even more, making it a lucrative business for the illegal miners.
A mining officer claimed[XII] of 27 crushers feeding on illegal mining in the Majri block alone despite a stay on mining activities by High Court (HC). The official further said that the crushers were making a mockery of the entire system and getting the gravel illegal from unscrupulous elements, who were digging up gravel from the seasonal rivulets. As per villagers, the local police had not registered a single case of illegal mining in the area in the last three months. In Mubarikpur located on the banks of the Ghaggar the situation was equally bad.
It was on Dec 20, 2018, that the Punjab and Haryana HC stayed proceedings under the Punjab State Sand and Gravel Mining Policy-2018. While staying the e-notice for auction of sand mines in the state, court had made it clear that any proceedings in furtherance of the auction notice, dated October 31, and the policy, dated October 26, would remain stayed. The court had not lifted the stay.
On April 23, the Punjab and Haryana HC upheld[XIII] Punjab government’s 2018 mining policy but with a condition that the state would first identify the mining areas before going for the auction. While quashing the e-auction notice issued by the state in August 2018, the court directed that a fresh auction notice after defining the mining areas be issued within a period of three months and the auction process be taken forward. The court also said till the time the new auction notice was issued, the contractors who had mining contracts earlier be permitted as per the terms of the old policy so as not to “stall the infrastructural projects and the people at large are not inconvenienced”.
Stating that the e-auction notice only reveals that blocks for mining had been created but there was no specified area of mining, the Court added, “Such a vague description of the mining area is an invitation to ravage. It is difficult to comprehend how a mining contractor would make a bid in an open auction for mines that have not been identified or described by any revenue record or other means”.
Observing that the State was not without the resources or technological means to identify the stretches or quarries available for mining and to pre-determine the quantum of available minerals, the bench further said there would be nothing wrong in creating blocks but “the identity of the mines/quarries stretches existing therein would not only make it functionally viable but would also obviate chances of exploitation of mineral resource”.
The main ground of challenge against the auction was that there was no identification of the mining sites, due to which it would be difficult to assess the mineral wealth and also no impact assessment study could carried out to understand the impact with regard to the environment. The State had argued that it was within the policy that the mining operations begin only when the contractor has identified mines in the blocks allotted to him, obtained the consent of the landowner, arranged for all infrastructural requirements like a right of way etc. and obtained all clearances.
State’s new mining policy, under which 7 clusters comprising 13 districts were set to be auctioned for a whopping reserve price of Rs 22 to 76 crore, was being criticised[XIV] by miners and farmers who claimed it was solely aimed at benefiting “the big fish in the trade and cartelisation.”
As per the eligibility criterion set under the policy, it invited the bidders that were registered companies, partnerships, societies including cooperative societies, sole proprietorship, individuals and consortia of up to three such entities. The annual turnover of the bidders should not be less than 50 per cent of the reserve price of the mine. The directorate of mining had already floated tenders for the upcoming e-auction, which according to Mining Minister Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, will be done on July 1.
The farmers’ grouse with the new sand mining policy was likely to take centre stage as the community was already at loggerheads with the government over a host of issues, and was also looking for alternative avenues to earn their bread and butter. The impending ground water crisis had also added fuel to the fire.
Farmers also said they should be allowed to conduct mining operations themselves instead of the government auctioning their land to a contractor for mining. They said that if farmers were allowed to do their own mining it could help at least 50,000 small farmers, whose earlier cultivable land has turned infertile over the years and is just sand.
However the mining minister said that government could not allow farmers do mining on their own because there was no provision in mining bylaws. He further said that farmers were entitled to royalty for the first three feet of sand in their fields and anything below that belonged to the government as per the law of the land.
The policy was only expecting a revenue of Rs 350 crore for the state exchequer. The government was already late in getting its policy rolling as for the last one year, it was challenged in the HC. The court only recently allowed the government to go ahead with it after some tweaking.
In the first week of July, the government’s sand clusters auctioning did not invite many takers[XV] even after extending the date of e-auction, with three out of seven clusters not invoking any interest among the bidders, one cluster witnessing only single bidder depositing Earnest Money Deposit (EMD) and the rest three getting a lukewarm response. Unable to attract many bidders, the state government was mulling extending the last date of depositing the EMD.
It had previously planned the auction on July 1 but had to postpone it to July 5 as the last date of deposit of EMD was extended from June 20 to June 28. Earlier, only one bidder had shown interest for mining block in Pathankot.
With not many contractors showing interest, the new sand mining policy of government under which seven clusters of sand were to be auctioned, instead of small quarries, too had come under a cloud. While the policy was already being scoffed at as it discourages small contractors, the lukewarm response was set to reduce competition and reflect on the high bids thereby causing a further loss to the state exchequer.
The government was not able to auction any quarry during the last fiscal year losing on the revenue. Even during the 2017-18 fiscal, when Congress government took over, it was not able to make even Rs 50 crore from sand mining trade despite having criticised the previous SAD-BJP government accusing them of causing a loss to the state exchequer. The incumbent government had changed the reverse bidding policy to progressive bidding policy in its first year but the result had not been encouraging.
As per local sand mining traders, that they were staying away from mining in Punjab and were looking at other states. They said a local liquor baron, two parties from Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir were trying their luck in the business.
The government decided to go ahead[XVI] with e-auctioning of sand clusters in four blocks for which it had received nine bids despite the fact that it failed to attract any bidders for other three mining blocks. The e-auction was to take place on July 5. A government functionary said the department decided to go ahead with the auction of blocks for which interested bidders had deposited EMD. He said the government would invite bids for the rest three blocks at a later stage.
It was the first auction of sand clusters after 2017, when the state auctioned its mines earlier. During the last fiscal year it could not auction any mine, earlier for want of formulating a policy and then the policy was challenged in the HC.
Only July 5, expecting a target of Rs 350 crore, the government auctioned sand mining in seven identified clusters. But the bids were received only for three reportedly earning Rs 700 crore. However, the highest bidder of block 6 (Pathankot) later clarified that he mistakenly[XVII] put an amount of Rs. 600 crore against reserve price of Rs 60.03 crore. He also asked government to cancel his bid.
Claiming that the government had achieved 90 percent target in earning revenue, the Mining and Geology Minister on July 29 said that the Department had earned record[XVIII] Rs 274.75 crore against a target of Rs 300 crore from e-auction of six clusters of mines. He said the amount was the highest ever earnings for the Government from the mining business. The state was divided in seven clusters and the auction of Mohali cluster was still pending.
While the government was boasting of[XIX] earning record revenue, the 7th cluster in Mohali found no takers whereas illegal mining was rampant in the district. Mohali offered a reserve price of Rs 39.47 crore for its six sites in the cluster with an annual quantity of 45.90 lakh metric tons.
On July 28, many villagers of Dulma Khadri, led by sarpanch had staged a dharna on the village link road to protest against blatant illegal mining in the area. The villagers also seized illegal mining trucks loaded with sand and gravel. As per the report, the Kharar Vidhan Sabha constituency had no legally auctioned mining site, despite this, the area abounded with more than 25 licensed and unlicensed stone crushers.
The government had stopped digging sand from riverbeds for the next three months from July 1 onwards. With the result, the rates of sand increased[XX] by Rs 2,000 in just two days from Rs 13,000 per tipper with 950 ft of sand to Rs 15,000. And in days to come, it was expected to reach anywhere up to Rs 25,000. People who are constructing houses/office premises were finding it difficult to buy sand at such exorbitant prices. The government agencies had stopped digging sand but illegal digging would continue as ever.
As per a retailer, during monsoon, illegal sand traders would get maximum returns. Illegal miners continued with the digging of sand even from the beds of rivers. During raids they flee leaving everything behind. Once everything is settled, the digging resumed from some other point. Then the sand was stocked and sold to retailers/customers at hefty prices.
According to a report of July 15, the illegal mining was seen playing havoc with groundwater table[XXI] in the Ropar district, with the riverbed being dug up to more than 40 feet. As per experts the unchecked digging up of the riverbed was also causing groundwater pollution.
Agriculture Department officials also confirmed that complaints of illegal mining activities had increased manifold since the mining had been noticed in the rivers, especially in the Sutlej, during the last decade. As per Geologist Jaswant Singh digging up of the riverbed to deep levels had punctured the aquifer due to which one could notice groundwater emerging at mining spots.
Similarly, villages situated on the foothills of Shivalik range, in the vicinity of Chandigarh, were turning out to be a goldmine for the mining mafia which was exploiting[XXII] the land. Mining was not allowed in the foothills of Shivalik. The sites were not auctioned. But illegal mining of sand and gravel was rampant in several villages. The mafia was earning huge profits but the government was not getting a single penny in revenue. At the same time, the illegal mining had become a curse for the residents.
As per the detailed report, under the top layer of soil, the fields had 5 to 15 feet thick layer of gravel. The mining was happening in large farming lands with the support of local farmers who were getting between Rs 5 lakh and 15 lakh for per acre of land. After mining farmers were levelling the fields with sand and soil which was proving a difficult task as the land was taking around six months to become cultivable.
Apart from farming lands, the shamlaat (common) land of the area was also affected and mined up till 50 feet leading to huge craters turning into deep ponds in monsoons. The land was fast turning infertile. Groundwater table was lowering as the crushers were using huge amount of water to wash the gravel. About 35 crushers had come up in 7-8 villages and half of those were illegal. The layer of powdery dust was damaging the crops and fodder. The dust emanating from the crushers was also affecting the health of villagers and children.
Witnessing the damages, the local residents started a campaign against mining in Shivalik foothills. They also moved NGT to seek relief after their pleas were not addressed by local bureaucracy, police. The also claimed that after fields and shamlaat land, mafia was targeting to forest land on hills, locked under Section 4 of PLPA. The report also mentioned that the NGT had sent a team for experts on May 29 after the petitioner was attacked on the same day with rods in his village.
On July 17, a large number of Communist Party of India (CPI) activists blocked the Fazilka-Ferozepur highway for two hours to protest[XXIII] the alleged illegal sand mining. As per Hans Raj Golden and Surinder Singh Dhandian unit CPI secretary the sand mafia in connivance with officials concerned had been swindling the government exchequer and amassing huge amount by excavating sand from different parts of the district.
They alleged that the sand mafia had been digging quarries much deeper than the stipulated 10-ft depth causing damage to the natural resources and posing threat to nearby agricultural and inhabited area. Golden said the activists had warned the police and civil administration last week about blocking the highway, but nothing was done. The dharna was lifted when senior police officials reached the site and assured the protesters of suitable action against illegal trade of white sand.
In a separate incident, a police team, led by Haroli (Himachal Pradesh) DSP Dhan Raj Singh, was allegedly threatened by illegal miners[XXIV] from Punjab on the Swan riverbed near Santoshgarh where the police had gone to check the illegal mining. In a complaint to the Una SP, the DSP alleged that the miners were supported by a Punjab Police party, which was seen on the spot along with their official vehicle.
As per report, the government had leased pockets of the Swan for scientific mining, but large-scale illegal mining of sand, gravel and stone continued unabated in the Swan river and its major tributaries with the help of heavy machinery. The SP said he had requested the Deputy Commissioner Una to direct Santoshgarh Revenue Department officials to demarcate the border in the Swan river between Himachal Pradesh and Punjab so that the Himachal Police do not stray into the Punjab part of the Swan to check illegal mining.
On August 7, a team of mining department while on a raid on illegal mining was attacked by the mining mafia[XXV] at village Kharak of Ladhowal area in Jalandhar. The team escaped from the spot to save their lives while the attackers vandalised their vehicles to stop them. The incident occurred in the presence of Ladhowal police who also escaped from the spot.
An artificially created scarcity[XXVI] of mining material, including sand and gravel, had forced the company engaged in building the 4.5 km-long Kartarpur corridor to halt construction even as the October 31 deadline was approaching.
Due to unauthorised tax collection of around Rs 4000-Rs 5000 per truck, sand prices had skyrocketed, adversely impacting demand. Subsequently, a majority of the crushers had reduced their capacity. Many of them were even finding themselves on the verge of closure. Teams of goons, allegedly backed by local politicians, were gathering at exit points of quarries to collect “goonda tax” issuing a “receipt” that neither carried any signature nor an official stamp.
The firm engaged by the authorities for the Kartarpur corridor was procuring material from suppliers, who was getting it from mining contractors. The firm and suppliers had initially agreed on a fixed price. But the supplier, owing to the ‘goonda tax’, wanted the firm to pay the difference resulting in a halt of work.
Stating mounting complaints and revenue losses, the Mining and Geology Minister on August 8, ordered to register[XXVII] case against those indulged in the illegal mining practice. This was not for the first time that the Minister had issued such strict directions to the official to act against those indulging in illegal mining. His predecessors had also issued similar directions but the successive governments failed to crackdown on the illegal mining business in the state.
Meanwhile, the indefinite protest[XXVIII] by residents of several villages in Majri block, SAS Nagar against illegal sand mining in the area entered day twelve on Aug. 11. Demanding closure of even legal stone crushers in the area, residents alleged that the gravel was being dug up from the fields in their villages. The villagers were keeping a vigil in the area and were not allowing the tipper trucks to operate. Around 22 stone crushers were operating in the area. The district administration had reportedly sealed 10 crushers a week earlier after it was found that the crushers were being run without taking any permission from the district administration and the mining department.
Two persons were arrested[XXIX] for illegal sand mining at Mahal village, Amritsar on August 22. The suspects were driving a tipper carrying the illegally excavated sand. The police also impounded a tipper involved in the mining.
Fazilka MLA Davinder Singh Ghubaya on August 26 conducted a surprise check[XXX] at a sand quarry in Lamochar Kalan village of the district and found mining violations. Ghubaya, along with his supporters, visited the site and found that the quarry was being dug up to 60-70 feet against the stipulated depth of 10 feet. He said a large number of villagers had complained him about the illegal trade of white sand following which he visited the quarry. Meanwhile, tractor-trailer drivers present on the spot alleged that the contractors had been charging Rs 16.5 per square feet against the government price of Rs 9 per square feet from the buyers.
Around August 23, several villages in Ropar district alongside Sutlej river and its tributary Swan were inundated. Holding illegal mining responsible for the flooding[XXXI] the villagers said that the rampant mining had weakened the Dhussi Band and leading to flooding.
The district was in news whole last year due to illegal sand mining. Through the year, various activists against illegal mining had repeatedly signalled to miners creating huge craters in the river bed, encroaching the river bed and using Dhussi Bandh for transportation of sand through by heavily loaded tipper-trucks. As per villagers it was waiting to happen as Sutlej was changing its course due stone crushing units ravaging the riverbed.
As per another report, several villages of Lohian area were flooded due to a breach in bundh[XXXII] near Phillaur which villagers claimed was caused by illegal mining activities. Following this, a 15-member delegation from Rame and Bamniyan villages had gone to the Shahkot police station to complain about tippers and trailers picking up sand illegally from the bundh that protected their villages against Sutlej river waters. The affected villagers had also held a protest against illegal mining months ago. Villagers even wrote to the CM on the issue in March 2019. They claimed that the bundh had not breached if administration had acted timely to stop the illegal mining.
Notably it was the same area about which CM Amarinder Singh had tweeted on March 6, 2018,: “Was on my way to Kartarpur when I saw some JCB machines evidently engaged in illegal mining on the Sutlej banks in Phillaur (Jalandhar) and Rahon (Nawanshahr). Immediately ordered probe and asked the DCs and SSPs concerned to seize the equipment. Responsibility will be fixed.”
Even more surprisingly, Hardev Singh Ladi Sherowalia who had faced allegations of illegal mining in the Shahkot constituency was relieved of the charges within three weeks of his being elected an MLA from the constituency.
As per another report, the ruling and opposition parties blamed the BBMB[XXXIII] for causing floods in the state by releasing excessive water from Bhakra dam. However officials attributed the local factors like lack of adequate maintenance of embankments, rampant illegal mining and reduced carrying capacity due to deposition of silt that made things worse.
According one more report, the large-scale Illegal mining, the encroachment of riverbeds along the Sutlej river, wild growth and farmer growing crops or trees in dried-up riverbeds led to large heavy flooding[XXXIV] in the six districts of Punjab. Over 4,000 ha of crops were completely destroyed by these floods and more than 300 villages were badly affected.
The illegal sand mining in both rivers of Sutlej and Ravi seemed to have weakened dhussi bundhs, especially in Ropar district. Due to this, huge craters were formed in river beds which changed the course of the river and heavily loaded tipper-trucks carrying sand. Thus, the dhussi bandhs got damaged and breached flooding villages and farmlands.
The report also revealed that the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) had time and again written to the authorities and pointed out that sand mining was a serious issue. Earlier, the World Bank had refused to fund a project for channelizing the seasonal rivulets that flow into the Sutlej due to the mining activities. Not only illegal mining, but approximately 1.47 lakh acres of the Sutlej floodplain (land adjacent to the river) was encroached upon near Ropar and as a result, the river was now just 20 feet wide instead of 100 feet. Cultivation of popular trees in riverbed, growth of wild vegetation along river were other reasons adding to flooding problems.
Meanwhile, having failed twice, the Mohali administration on September 2, managed to auction[XXXV] the cluster of 6 sites for Rs 31.94 crores against reserve price of 30.19 crore only after slashing the reserve price by 30.7%. Earlier, the reserve price was listed at Rs 39.47 crore which failed to attract even a single bidder. Mohali district is the seventh cluster in the state offering legal mining sites at Bhagwanpur, Sarangpur, Bahourhi, Bhankarpur, Jhajon and Chadiala villages.
A person of Fatta village in Muktsar district was arrested[XXXVI] for illegal sand mining from a seepage drain Tarewala village of Fazilka district on September 26. The police also impounded tractor-trailer.
As per September 30 report, a group of people allegedly involved in illegal sand mining, thrashed a farmer[XXXVII] and his uncle at Butahari village, Ludhiana. The farmer alleged he had objected to several times against a group of persons stealing sand near his fields and taking their vehicles thought his agriculture land.
Explaining the political patronage[XXXVIII] to illegal sand mining in the state, an informative report highlighted that the illegal sand mining, allegedly controlled by Akalis during 2008-14, and high prices of the basic construction material had led the people to reject the “Panthic” party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Though this was a wake-up call and the then SAD-BJP government went into course correction by fixing cap on the prices of sand, they had shown the way on how to control this business of extracting and supplying sand and aggregate (mixture of sand and gravel).
In 2017, immediately after the Congress came to power, party MLAs declared that now they would control the entire mining business. The alleged incident of former Irrigation and Power Minister Rana Gurjit Singh taking mines of sand and gravel in the names of his employees, was the first major controversy to hit the government. It ultimately forced CM to accept Rana Gurjit’s resignation.
This, however, did not deter the politicians, mainly from the ruling party, from taking control over the mining business. Political circles were abuzz with talk of certain ruling party MLAs being shareholders in the trade. With certain liquor contractors funding these politicians, the recent auction of blocks of quarries had seen a completely new breed of contractors taking over. Earlier, politicians and traditional mining contractors were involved in both legal and illegal mining of minor minerals. These contractors, at most places, had now been thrown out of the business, and politicians cutting across the political spectrum had taken over the trade.
Only last year, an internal report prepared by the Department of Mines (now merged with the Irrigation Department) for the CM had alleged that at least 30 MLAs of the ruling party were involved in mining business directly.
Interestingly, the legal mining was taking place at only 16 quarries out of nearly 100 that have been auctioned by the government in the last two years. The 52 quarries that were auctioned in May 2017, using progressive bidding technique, mining contractors could not deposit high quarterly instalment for the amounts they bid for, and withdrew from the contracts for 36 quarries. This meant that the money that the cash-strapped state had to recover from auction of mines never materialised.
Then, a stay was imposed by the HC on the auction of quarries as a cluster. The stay was vacated recently and the quarries were auctioned. But most of these had yet to get environmental clearance. Despite this, the demand for sand and aggregate remained the same and the legal quarries were closed. But there was no shortage of material nor had the prices of sand and gravel gone up. Though the common man is so far not affected by the high prices, the day is not far when the politician-mining contractor-official nexus could become an Achilles heel for the government.
The CPI again started an indefinite dharna[XXXIX] in poll-bound Jalalabad segment on October 4 to protest “inaction” against the sand mafia by the state govt. Earlier in July, over 100 activists had burnt the effigy of CM Capt Amarinder Singh for inaction against the sand mafia operating in Fazilka district. They alleged that the sand mafia, in connivance with the officials was minting crores from the trade of white sand and residents were forced to pay exorbitant price for sand.
The former MLA Amarpal Singh Bony of Ajnala town in Amritsar was reportedly attacked[XLI] by people carrying out illegal mining in Ravi river while on a visit in the area on October 11. He said that five to six gorges dug around 40-50 feet deep by mafia in connivance with politicians and police. As per the MLA, the sand mafia with political patronage had encroached upon 15 acres of forest land, 10 acres of Punjab government’s land and 20 acres of local residents’ land.
The report also mentioned of a similar attack[XLII] on a family for raising their voices against illegal mining. The Ravi river embankment was reportedly eroding fast in Ajnala town area due to rampant illegal sand mining.
The residents of Khijrabaad, Abheypur and some adjoining villages again alleged[XLIII] that illegal sand mining was going on in their area for the past few days. As per them despite the protest, they noticed the movement of tipper trucks in their area.
Even as the collection of “goonda tax” by mining mafia in the district continued for the last two months, two allotters of quarries at Diwari and Panjola villages in Ropar alleged[XLIV] that sand was illegally being lifted from their sites. Holding a press conference, Balwinder Singh and Amarinder Singh Babby levelled allegations against Rakesh Kumar Choudhary, new mining contractor in the district.
Balwinder said he was allotted a quarry in 2017 at Diwari village for three years. He alleged that though he could not operate the quarry due to unavailability of environment clearance, it was noticed that sand was being lifted from his quarry at the behest of Choudhary, who had been allotted nearly 10 quarries in the district a few months ago. On the other hand, Choudhary claimed that he was authorised to operate five quarries as he had already procured environment clearance for the same.
According to a detailed report, the successive regimes in Punjab had not penalised a single officer, despite prolonged litigation and allegations of political patronage[XLV]. On 26 January 2018, over thirty ministers in the state government had been found to be involved, either directly or indirectly, in sand mining. Kanwar Pal Singh, the speaker of the state legislature, was the most recent example of a high-profile politician coming under the scanner for patronising illegal mining.
Technically, not a single quarry in Punjab is functioning legally, because the 2017–18 auctions were annulled by the beginning of this year. The quarries for which e-auctions were notified on 30 May 2019 still await the environmental-assessment reports required by the Punjab Minor Mineral Rules, 2013.
With the large potential for mining and the scale of illegal excavation—trucks carrying illegal consignments move freely across the state—the question that arises is why the state government has not auctioned more quarries or identified those running the mining mafia.
The illegal mining was continuing in Ropar district[XLVI] with mafia even setting up nakas on all major roads near main crusher zones to charge protection money. As per report, the mafia was charging Rs 4 per cubic feet for sand and gravel as protection money. Person paying the amount were allowed to carry on mining in the Sutlej, Swan and Sarsa rivers.
The mafia had reportedly collected over Rs 20 crore as protection money since the nakas were set up on August 21, while sand and gravel worth over Rs 80 crore had been shipped illegally from the district. Interestingly, in the last auction, 10 quarries fetched merely Rs 49 crore. The work in these quarries was yet to start due to the lack of environmental clearance.
The rivers were being dug at several locations round the clock posing threats to infrastructures. But the officials accepted that they were unable to take action due to political influence. Many of them confirmed that the mafia had set up nakas after a senior politician visited Ropar in August.
The district was in the grip of mining mafia which was ruling the roost during the SAD-BJP regime and had become active again during the Congress rule since August. The mafia had even “threatened” a reporter[XLVII] by sending pictures of a revolver and cartridges on his phone on November 24 for raising the issue in the newspaper. The police had booked an Amritsar resident in this regard. The AAP MLA Amarjit Sandoa claimed that district administration had virtually handed over rivers to the mining mafia which was posing damage to a bridge on Swan river.
The month of December was full of ruling and opposition political parties accusing each other[XLVIII] of patronising illegal sand mining trade and mafia in the state. On December 7, there was half an hour interview of the CM on NDTV in which a whole range of questions were asked on various issues. However, not a single question[XLIX] was about sorrow state of affairs of illegal sand mining in the state.
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal on December 1 alleged that the civil and police officials in Mohali district were helping local minister[L] Balbir Singh Sidhu and other Congress leaders to indulge in illegal mining as well as collection of ‘goonda tax’.
As per Sukhbir the prices of sand had increased while government had not collected a single paisa from the miners for last two quarters where Rs. 80 crore was to be collected per quarter from them. SAD MLA from Dera Bassi, N K Sharma alleged even ‘shamlat’ land had been dug up in the district and sand mafia had not even left the Chhatbir Zoo area where excavations had been made up to depth of 60 feet.
The workers of the ruling party also expressed that government had failed[LI] to control the sand mafia. On December 12, there was report of re-induction[LII] of Navjot Singh former Chairman of Cabinet sub-committee on mining and Rana Gurjit Singh former irrigation minister in the cabinet. Rana Gurjit, was forced to quit in January 2018 after his name was surfaced in controversies related to the multi-crore rupee benami sand mining auctions. However, the party high command seemed not in favour[LIII] of Rana Gurjit induction in state cabinet.
In an interview[LIV] the mining and geology minister Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria on December 18, termed the ‘goonda tax’ as royalty and blamed the opposition for playing politics. Further clarifying he said that it must have been imposed at the time when Punjab was not earning revenue from mining during SAD government.
“When the new contractors had got permission, why would they allow illegal mining from their areas. We have asked them to charge Rs 9 per foot of sand. This includes landowner’s charge, digging charges, Re 1 goes to the contractor and state government gets Rs 4. If stone crusher owners take material from the mining site owner, who has environment clearance, they will be charged Rs 5 per foot. So, they call this Rs 5 per foot ‘goonda tax’. If they will not even charge this from crushers or trucks, from where will the mining site owners give money to the government. They will take royalty for their material.”
On the question of government plan of a dedicated force around rivers to check illegal mining, the minister said that government decided not to allocate any site with possibility of damage to the area adjoining rivers. He also stated that government including CM was thinking of desilting and straightening of rivers and to use sand extracted from the exercise.
As per December 25 report, the contractors who were allotted six clusters in July month through e-auction were still waiting for environment clearances (EC) from Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). According to the rules the allotted mines for a period of three years are considered officially functional after four month of the allotment. Seeking concession from the rules, the representatives of the miners also met the mining department after which the government was reportedly considering their plea. Though an amount of Rs 70 crore of signing agreement had been given to the government, however due to delay in ECs the miners were not submitting the quarterly instalment against mines allotment.
Summary The overview of River sand mining in Punjab in 2019 shows how the brazen riverbed mining activities are resulting in twin water disasters. On the one hand it has impacted groundwater table in several villages in Ropar and Mohali & on the other hand, it led to breaching of embankment along Satluj in Ropar and Jalandhar districts causing large scale flooding.
Quarrying is legally banned. The demand for the quarried minerals has remained same which is 4 crore metric tonnes. Around 70 per cent of the mined sand is consumed by government projects. Only 15 mines allotted in 2017 are officially functioning which fell below 40 lakh metric tonnes production. Clearly indicating that the rest of the demand is being met through illegally mined sand.
The new policy has discouraged the regular contractors, small traders in the state who have not shown much interest in auctioning processes. The farmers are also demanding direct mining permission from their fields which is a legitimate demand however the present mining rules do not permit this. While state government has managed to allot six mine clusters in July, they have still to get the requisite ECs.
The previous regime of SAD-BJP had patronized the sand mafia and plundered the rivers of sand and gravels. It was ousted. The new Congress Government had promised to rein in illegal mining operations. It has now been more than two years since it came into power. But not much has changed. The CM initially had shown some interest in controlling the mining activities. However now that stands as hollow claims as most of the politicians of his party are involved and benefiting from illegal sand trade. The reports of Goonda Tax collection since August in the state are quite shocking. The attacks and threats to government officials, reporters, farmers and villagers have become routine affair.
The Sutlej, Beas, Swan and Ghaggar rivers have been facing large scale illegal mining and in turn are affecting the riverbank communities and dependent people. However, the prevailing scenario suggests business as usual approach even in 2020.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)