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Shifting sands in Andhra Pradesh: On Jaganmohan Reddy government’s attempt to regulate sand mining

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.   | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam

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Scrapping the free sand policy of the previous government, which is said to have boosted the mining mafia, the Jaganmohan Reddy government is attempting to regulate sand mining with a new policy. While industry and environmental activists have largely welcomed it, there are some concerns, reports Appaji Reddem

It’s 3.30 p.m. on a Sunday in November and there is hectic activity on the dry river bed of Nagavali. Labourers working for the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation, or APMDC, toil under the afternoon sun in Killipalem, Srikakulam district, to load long lines of tractors stationed there with sand. They arrive at 10 a.m. and wrap up at 5.30 pm, taking only an hour’s break for lunch. Konda, a daily wager, says he gets a decent pay for this job, “anywhere between ₹350 and ₹500 a day.” But lifting heaps of sand, enough to fill up 15 tractors a day, is back-breaking work.

Each worker fills a tractor with up to two tonnes of sand on an average every day. From the river bed, the sand is transported to a strictly monitored stock point about 600 metres away. The stock point, which abuts the main road, is managed by officials of the revenue department, officials of APMDC, and other government functionaries. Stock points are equipped with mobile phones and other gadgets. Orders for sand are placed online, delivery of stock is monitored online, and bills to customers are also issued online. Real estate firms form the bulk of the clientele for mined sand.

When sand is loaded onto a truck, the tractor driver is given a receipt by the official at the site. This receipt is collected by the contractor, who is paid by the APMDC once he provides proof that the sand has been delivered to the buyer. Apart from the purchase orders, which are processed through an online website of the government, a separate ledger is maintained at every stock point to register details such as amount of sand extracted, volume of delivery, the identity and details of the purchasing entity, and so on. A similar scene plays out in the Vizianagaram, Krishna, East Godavari, and West Godavari districts as well as other places where sand is extracted from different river beds by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

 

This careful procedure was designed by the YSR Congress government that came to power in the State in May 2019. Scrapping the free sand policy of the previous government, which is said to have boosted the mining mafia, the Jaganmohan Reddy government is attempting to regulate the mining of sand in the State with a new policy. However, environmentalists caution that this sand mining policy still has a long way to go from being “legal” and “scientific”, as the government claims.

Attacks by the sand mafia

In the free sand years of the previous Telugu Desam Party government, the price of sand had escalated to as high as ₹1 lakh per lorry. Anyone, whether a government official, activist or social worker, who protested against illegal mining of sand was attacked. In June 2015, for instance, D. Vanajakshi, Musunuru Mandal Revenue Officer, was attacked by the sand mafia. Speaking to the media about the attack, Vanajakshi claimed that Denduluru MLA Chintamaneni Prabhakar had come with 50 people, including gunmen, and attacked her for stopping illegal sand quarrying on the Krishna-West Godavari border. “I was attacked on the neck. There were injuries on my whole body. Later, some women who claimed to be part of a self-help group also tried to attack me. The police and revenue staff came to my rescue. I reported the incident to the Collector immediately. The local Revenue Divisional Officer was sent to the spot. While all this was happening, about 25 tractors of illegal sand passed in front of our eyes,” she said.

 

A similar incident was reported a few months later. A couple of Village Revenue Officers were attacked by the local sand mafia when they tried to stop lorries transporting illegal sand in Srikakulam district. Villagers and NGO workers have also been attacked.

Indiscriminate sand mining using excavators and poclain machines from riverbeds and environmentally sensitive zones also invited the attention — and wrath — of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). In April 2019, a ₹100 crore fine was imposed by the NGT on the State government for failing to prevent illegal sand mining.

New sand mining policy

When the YSR Congress government assumed power, it appointed a committee to recommend modalities for affordable pricing of sand while ensuring stable revenue for the State government. The committee, which comprised a Group of Ministers, drafted regulations, some of which were implemented as part of the new policy. The policy came into effect from September 5, 2019. It curbs the hoarding, black marketing and illegal mining of sand, and brings down the price of mined sand. Under the new system, sand stockyards are managed by the APMDC, and all mining is done by the government. The price of sand is now ₹370 a tonne at government-run stockyards. In addition, ₹4.90 is charged per km as transport charges.

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.   | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam

The policy says that the State intends to regulate sand extraction and consumption in a scientific manner by prescribing operational guidelines to APMDC and District Collectors. Some of the key guidelines are as follows: The APMDC will extract sand on behalf of the government and comply with environmental regulations while ensuring affordable prices. It will also work on raising public revenues to the state exchequer. Sand excavation in river streams of I, II, III order will be regulated by the district administration, and excavation will be done manually, not through mechanical means. The stream order is a “bottom-up” hierarchy that allocates number I to the river with its mouth at the sea; number I or II to tributaries depending on the river or stream into which they discharge; and so on. Sand excavation in river streams of IV, V and higher order (bigger river streams) is permitted subject to the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Concession Rules of 1966; the Environmental Protection Act of 1986; the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2006; and all the applicable rules. The irrigation department is to take up desiltation of dams, reservoirs, barrages and large lakes directly or through the APMDC.

Above all, the APMDC will put in place an online system for registration of end consumers and transporters; receipt of orders directly from end consumers; collection of payments and remittance to the treasury account of the State government; and maintenance of stockyards, disposal of sand from the stockyards, and real-time tracking of sand-carrying vehicles. The policy also seeks the installation of weighbridges at stockyards and CCTV cameras at sand reaches and stockyards to monitor sand operations and vehicular movement.

For those in the construction industry, this is a welcome move as anyone can book sand through the APMDC website by paying the specified price online or through Mee seva (translated as ‘at your service’) centres and get it delivered. The Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India says the policy ends uncertainty over price and supply to a large extent.

 

Each sand reach and stock point works under a team of APMDC officials who monitor the extraction, stocking, and loading of sand for supply. A contractor is engaged for two or more sand reaches for the purpose. “We are paid ₹120 per tonne for extracting and transporting sand to the stock point nearby. This is decent pay,” says P.R. Kumar, the contractor working on the site in Killipalem.

While the Nagavali and Vamsadhara riverbeds are the major sources of sand, there are other smaller ones too. In the Srikakulam and Vizianagaram districts, there are about 90 reaches that have been identified by the State government. The other major sources of sand are the reaches along the Godavari and Krishna rivers.

Srikakulam District Collector J. Nivas says the new system has made life easy for everyone. “Things are running smoothly as far as extraction and supply are concerned. The revenue, police and APMDC teams are closely watching to arrest any possible leakage. We will also be fixing GPS tags to the transport vehicles and arrange CCTV cameras in and around the sand reaches,” he said.

Sand scarcity

The genesis of legal sand mining in the State lies in the crisis that the construction industry faced in the State a few months after the new government assumed power. Availability of sand was less than one-fourth of demand, which was close to one lakh tonnes. As a result, the price of sand shot up.

The State government attributed the crisis to heavy rains and abundant water in rivers and rivulets which had halted extraction of sand. For instance, the Srisailam Dam gates had to be lifted during the rainy season (June-September) to release floodwater eight times, which is very rare. Such a shortage of sand was not seen during the Telugu Desam Party government’s rule as rainfall was sparse then and sand could be mined from riverbeds at any time of the year. This led to rampant illegal mining of sand.

Shifting sands in Andhra Pradesh: On Jaganmohan Reddy government’s attempt to regulate sand mining
 

However, TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu holds the YSR Congress responsible for the scarcity and illegal transport of sand in the State. “The police have arrested our party workers for exposing the illegal transport [of sand]. Sand is a commodity that is available for free and it is unethical to fix a price on that. We demand that the government bring in a free sand policy. The government should also pay ₹10,000 compensation for building workers who have lost their livelihoods. The problem was created by the government and it’s also their responsibility to fix it,” he stated.

Scarcity of sand has always been an issue for governments in the State. In 2014 and 2015, the TDP government too felt the acute scarcity of sand, especially when Chief Minister Naidu was planning to build Amaravati with nine themed cities within it. According to a top government functionary, the shortfall was so acute that there was a plan to import sand from Vietnam and Myanmar through the Krishnapatnam Port to meet the requirements. The idea was to elevate the entire Amaravati region, which predominantly has black cotton soil, with imported sand. Black cotton soil is reportedly not suitable for high-rise buildings. But the plan was temporarily shelved and the government’s focus shifted to designing the city.

Environmental concerns

Not all is not well with the new policy, though. While appreciating the move, environmental activists point out that there needs to be a scientific study on the availability of sand in different river beds, which will determine the extent to which sand can be mined and the impact of such mining on rivers. They say the current policy violates the Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines of 2016.

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.

Sand mining at a sand reach in Killipalem village of Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, on November 26, 2019.   | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam

 

Quoting the violations by thousands of contractors in the river bed of Krishna, former Union Power Secretary and environmental activist E.A.S. Sarma says the State government needs to conduct a scientific study of how much sand is deposited in each river and how much can be mined. “The contractors made thousands of crores of rupees through illegal sand mining, and the YSR Congress had protested the same when it was in the Opposition. The previous government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court against the ₹100 crore penalty imposed by the NGT. We expected the new government to change the clauses of the affidavit. In the affidavit, the previous government dubbed the illegal sand mining as desilting and dredging of the Prakasam Barrage, which is not true. But to our surprise, the government officials have approached Supreme Court with the same argument,” Sarma told The Hindu.

Water rights activist Rajendra Singh, along with activists Vikram Soni, Anumolu Gandhi and Bolisetty Satyanarayana, wrote to the NGT and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change about the illegal mining and violations in the Krishna riverbed in April 2019. The NGT learnt that illegal mechanical sand mining was happening in a big way near the residence of former Chief Minister Naidu as well as in other places in the capital of the State. The NGT later ordered the Pollution Control Board and the then Chief Secretary to take steps to stop the mining. It also found fault with the free sand policy of the previous government.

According to the NGT report, 34,650 tonnes of sand were mechanically excavated from river Krishna’s eight locations per day. At three locations, sand was being loaded into 400 lorries and 100 tractors by using mechanical excavators and proclain machines. Each lorry had nine tonnes of sand.

According to Sravan Kumar, an advocate representing Rajendra Singh and other NGO members of the petition, under the pretext of desilting and dredging, large-scale illegal mining was being carried out.

 

The NGT also emphasised the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Accordingly, it directed the Chief Secretary of the State to prohibit all sand mining that did not follow the procedure prescribed in the Supreme Court judgment in Deepak Kumar v. State of Haryana (2012), and judgments of the tribunal. The Chief Secretary was also asked to evolve a mechanism to assess and recover the cost of sand mining already incurred in the last three years and initiate steps to recover compensation to meet the cost of restoration of the environment.

Further, the Chief Secretary was asked to initiate prosecution against the persons responsible, including officers, apart from any other action. The tribunal further directed the constitution of a committee comprising the Central Pollution Control Board; the Environment Ministry; IIT Roorkee; the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad; and the Madras School of Economics to undertake environment damage assessment within three months and furnish a report to the tribunal. Pending further consideration in the light of reports from the Central Pollution Control Board and the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, the NGT directed the State to deposit an interim amount of ₹100 crore with the Board within one month.

Nagavali is among the river beds in the State which meet the full requirement of the industry and people as of now. Yet, to claim that sand is being mined legally, the State government has a long way to go, say activists. Only a scientific study on the actual availability of sand in river beds, specifying the volume which can be mined and from which parts of the riverbeds, can help the government counter allegations of violations.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 3:15:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/shifting-sands-in-andhra-pradesh/article30118547.ece

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