Recent heavy rain in the region has resulted in deposition of heavy gravel material in Sutlej river flowing through Harsa Bela village in Ropar. A part of the river bank in this village is a gravel and sand mine.
During this time when the mine would have been abuzz, it is lying silent. It was three months ago when the district administration sealed the mine holding the contractor responsible for digging beyond the stipulated depth. Later, in January, National Green Tribunal also ordered an action against the contractor.
Harsa Bela is not the only mine in Ropar which is non-functional. Of the 13 mines, known for good-quality gravel, auctioned in Ropar, 11 were operational till six months ago. But, currently not a single mine is functioning officially, said an official of the mining department praying anonymity.
Not only in Ropar, most of the sand and gravel mines are not functioning in the entire state. As per the Directorate of Sand Mining, only 15 sand and gravel mines are carrying out operations. These include three mines in Ferozepur — Gatta Badshah, Changali Jadid and Gillanwala — one in Fazilka’s Amir Khas, two in Moga’s Chak Singhpura and Chak Bhora, two in Jalandhar’s Sailkiana and Gag Dagra, two in Ludhiana’s Majara and Rattangarh, Chharbarr in Mohali, Bairsal in Nawanshahar and Balarwal and Rurewal in Amritsar.
Interestingly, the price of the commodity has not skyrocketed. “A truck carrying 700 sqaure feet of sand and gravel each, costs the supplier Rs 4,000 to 5,000 and Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 respectively. This is not much,” says a contractor from Gurdaspur, preferring anonymity.
He adds this is not just indicative of illegal mining, but also that there is not much gap between demand and supply. “Illegal mining cannot be stopped. There are crushing units on the banks of rivers. Those who live on the banks of the rivers could mine a truck or two easily every day. At the same time not much construction activity is taking place in the state. About 75 per cent of sand and gravel is used in government’s development works,” says the contractor.
Back in Harsa Bela, a few villagers say the illegal mining was going on till a few days ago, “But now it has rained and it becomes difficult for JCB and poclain machines to enter the riverbed.” They did not want to be identified as the village sarpanch’s husband also has a crushing unit, which is currently sealed.
But the sarpanch’s husband Surjit Singh has his own tale of woes: “If a crushing unit is sealed, this means the owner has to pay at least Rs 6 lakh as installments of trucks and poclains. It is a difficult business,” he says adding that there is no chance of illegal mining.
Minister of Mines Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria confirms 15 mines are operational, but now they have received environment clearance of a few more. “There is an annual demand of around 4 crore metric tonnes of sand and gravel in the state. This turns out to be 35 lakh tonnes every month. But in winter, the demand goes down to 15 lakh metric tonnes per month as no construction activity is taken up. This is the reason that the prices are usual and not skyrocketing,” he says.
As per the government, the total demand for gravel in Punjab is 2.4 crore metric tonnes, while for sand, the demand is 1.6 crore metric tonnes. With only 15 mines operational, the production is less than 40 lakh metric tonnes.
The government had come on a promise of providing sand at nominal prices, checking illegal mining and earning revenue for the state exchequer. During the current fiscal year, it has not been able to auction a single mine. The 15 currently-operational mines are those auctioned last year.
After taking over, the government had, in its first round of auctions in May 2017, invited bids for 102 mines. At that time 89 received high bids, but 39 bidders never deposited the ecurity amount.
Of the remaining 50, two mines, Mehadipur and Saidpur Khurd in Nawanshahar, were cancelled by the government following Justice J S Narang probe into allotment of mines to the employees of former irrigation minister Rana Gurjit Singh.
Another mine in Behloor Khurd, also linked to the former minister’s employees, is not operational. The government has not given its consent for operations.
In the second round of auctions in July 2017, 43 mines, including those not auctioned in May, were auctioned and only 29 bids were received.
In the third round of auctions, only 12 bidders showed interest in 39 mines. Similar was the case in a fourth round of the exercise in February when only 16 out of 51 mines received bids.
Of a total of 107 allotted in the four different rounds, only 15 are carrying out mining operations as of now.
The government policy of auctioning mines has been challenged in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.