Minor mineral sector in Odisha riddled with illegalities

Balasore district administration has been cracking down on sand smugglers after the recent attack on IAS officer Kunal Motiram Chavan 

Published - February 11, 2023 02:45 am IST - BHUBANESWAR

Representational file image.

Representational file image. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Over the past five days, the Balasore district administration in Odisha has gone overboard in tightening the noose around minor mineral smugglers, seizing 138 vehicles, and clamping prohibitory orders under Section 144 of CrPC at 28 places while putting Divisional Railway Manager of Kharagpur on notice.

The crackdown on part of the administration encapsulates the magnitude of illegalities prevailing in the sector.

The administration was propelled into action in the tiny district bordering West Bengal after Kunal Motiram Chavan, a 2020-batch IAS officer, was attacked by sand mafia earlier this week. Multiple cases were lodged against mafias dealing with minor minerals; brick kilns were demolished.

As per order of National Green Tribunal, minor mineral sources were not auctioned to lessees. However, steep demand for critical components in infrastructure development and housing has forced operators to go for extraction of minor minerals, especially sand. Emboldened by slack enforcement and little to no surveillance by revenue officials, smugglers have had their way around the district.

Long before the present drive — Sandstorm — was launched, the State government had identified Nilagiri block of Balasore as extremely prone to minor mineral theft. In June last year, it decided to keep police force deployed in Nilagiri to stop smuggling.

The State government had fixed the revenue collection target at ₹1,500 crore for the fiscal 2022-23. Due to illegal mining and non-auctioning of minor mineral sources, only ₹512.62 crore was collected in the first eight months of the current financial year. More than 65% of annual target remains to be achieved.

While the illegal mining of sand does not affect the State’s revenue collection, it has had an adverse impact on local ecology and riparian community.

“There is no monitoring by pollution control board, considering sand mining poses a threat to the embankment, [leads to] loss of revenue, [is a] violation of mining plan and standard environment clearance conditions, and damages the riparian ecology,” Shankar Pani, an environmental lawyer, notes.

Mining of minor minerals is allowed only if the District Survey Report (DSR) is finalised. Balasore is yet to get its DSR. While there is a provision for mining of sand using only manual method, the use of mechanical methods with earthmovers — in violation of mining plan, environmental clearance and consent to operate conditions — is visible all across the State.

The two major rivers flowing through Balasore — Subarnarekha and Burhabalanga — have suffered much because of it. According to Mr. Chavan, the Burhabalanga’s riverbed is particularly worse in the Dahapada and Balighat areas. “Sand acts as a sponge in riverbed. Machines were used to extract sand beyond its permissible limit. If sand is taken out, river water will flow down at much faster rate. In the event of flood, there is every possibility of water entering newer areas,” he explains.

An expert committee comprising scientists from Central Pollution Control Board, IIT-ISM, Dhanbad, West Bengal Pollution Control Board and Odisha State Pollution Control Board appointed by NGT also pointed to this problem, saying, “Sand mining takes place over a stretch of about 26.1 km of Subarnarekha River. About 12.3-km stretch lies on the inter-State boundary of Odisha-West Bengal and remaining stretch of about 13.8 km is in Odisha. Extensive erosion has been noticed of the river.”

The total area permitted by Odisha and West Bengal for sand mining came to 109.185 hectare in 2019. This was only 35% of the total area in which mining takes place.

Massive stone and morrum (laterite soil) quarries were noticed in 12 blocks of Balasore. District police also seized two railway wagons filled with morrum being transported from the district. Vast stretches of government wasteland were misused to manufacture bricks. The soil required for brick-making used to be extracted illegally. Odisha is now toying with the idea of tracking vehicles smuggling minor minerals through usage of GPS and i4MS, an online system, for managing minerals.

Meanwhile, a woman revenue inspector was allegedly attacked by villagers after a laterite stone-laden tractor hit a boundary wall of a temple on Friday. She had been chasing the vehicle.

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