The National Green Tribunal's stay on sand mining on river beds without clearance from the Environment Ministry has put a lid on the proposal by the Punjab government to auction at least 140 "in-stream" sites along Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers as well as the numerous seasonal streams.

In what was touted as an inter-departmental effort initiated by the Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and monitored by the CM's Principal Secretary S.K. Sandhu, a statewide survey of the river beds was conducted to identify these sites, where dredging equipment would have been deployed to excavate river beds.

While the Deputy Commissioners of the concerned districts were asked to identify possible sites along more than 275 km of riverbeds, the Punjab Pollution Control Board was requisitioned to frame guidelines for the in-stream mining.

The proposal to explore in-stream mining had its genesis in the plea from seven mining contractors in Bhagat Shaheed Singh Nagar district, whose sites came under water after the river changed its course. The DC had sought directions from the State government, as no regulations were available on the issue. It was also projected that in-stream mining of sand would contribute in de-silting the rivers and prevent floods in the monsoons.

The measure also projected an attempt to control the ever rising prices of sand and gravel, which apart of impacting the construction sector has lead to continuous litigation. The political circles are rife with accusations that the escalating prices were borne out of activities by a well-organised "sand mafia" which enjoyed that patronage of the ruling party's top leadership.

The NGT's decision would also have major bearing on another proposal mooted by Mr. Badal, who had sought to rope in the State's PWD to set up a special warehouse for sand and gravel at Ludhiana, which accounts for the 35 per cent of the State's consumption of the construction material. The State government had planned to use the material excavated from the in-stream sites to create a buffer that would keep prices under control.

Due to various court cases and restrictions on indiscriminate mining, prices of sand and gravel have reached record levels. Harish Chander of Morinda town, had to pay a whopping Rs. 15000 for 400 cubic feet of sand required for a domestic construction. The truck arrived after three days since placing the order and supplier was not prepared to provide him a receipt beyond Rs. 4000. Similar stories are abundant across Punjab.

According to officials in the Industries department the prices of sand began to rise after restrictions following numerous court cases, which created a scarcity in the State, while construction due to development projects by the government and housing or commercial projects in the private sector had created a major demand.

Following various directions from different courts, earlier this year Punjab government had auctioned non-contiguous sites of less than five hectares each, which was supposed to generate revenue of about Rs. 400 crore.

This was in contrast to an average Rs. 150 crore revenue during the 2007-12 tenure of the Akali Dal-BJP government and Rs. 50 crore during the 2002-07 Congress government. The auction of sites larger than five hectares awaits clearance from the Union government, while the proposal to go ahead with e-auctioning another 115 sites of less than five hectares had to be put off following another petition in the court, which has challenged the government's decisions and proposals.

Mining and supply of sand and gravel, has gradually become a lucrative business, explains Parminder Singh, who has been monitoring it for some years. For almost negligible investment and through patronage by the political bosses who ensure monopoly, the returns from this unorganised trade are phenomenal.

He worked out that with modern technology being in place, winching machines packed a truck in mere four minutes. Mining of sand and gravel continues day and night once the site is allocated, with the contractors violating the terms of volumes to be removed as well as breaching the five hectares boundary restrictions. Modest estimates indicated that after paying off the operations costs, each truck carrying 400 cubic feet of sand returned a profit of about Rs. 10,000.

Contrary to opposition tirade, the Industries Minister Anil Joshi, was quoted that as many as 869 cases of illegal mining were registered in the first eight months of the present tenure of the Akali Dal-BJP government. Of these 217 were registered in the eighth month alone. However, with reports of major discrepancies in these cases, which resulted in High Court taking note, the department officials chose to remain tightlipped on the issue.

Reports have indicated that scarcity and the rising prices of sand and gravel have adversely impacted construction activity. Prices of bricks and cement have witnessed a slide down. According to Mr. Badal, the State government would be forced to re-auction the four-lanning of the Patiala-Sangrur-Bathinda highways as delays in clearances from the Central ministries corresponded with the escalation in costs of inputs, rendering the project unviable at quotes three years ago, when it was allocated.