A proposal to decontrol sand mining business in the state and make sand a resource free for all is under active consideration of the Punjab government with several MLAs of the ruling Congress pushing for the move. The government has now sought legal opinion to check implications of such a decision if it is implemented. According to sources, CM Amarinder Singh is in favour of the move. The government, however, has to take into account that it had auctioned sand clusters last year and earned a revenue of over Rs 300 crore. Going ahead with the decision to decontrol sand would involve cancelling those contracts.
When the matter came up for discussion during Monday’s Cabinet meeting, most ministers were on board with the proposal. Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal is learnt to have said that the Finance Department would refund Rs 300crore to contractors and also pay any penalty if required. The issue, sources said, was also discussed in the Congress Legislative Party meeting on February 25.
Amid demand by ministers and MLAs, Minister of Mines and Geology Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria is learnt to has sought a legal opinion as it is his department that would have to pay back the contractors, who bagged seven sand clusters in an auction in July last year. Also, the department wants to know the legal ramifications of going back on its word.
As the discussion gathers pace in government corridors, there are some reservations being expressed. Sources said the main issue was how to get the system working. Earlier, the demand was less. Also, now Environment Clearances are mandatory. “All this would have to be considered,” an official from the mining department said, adding: “If sand is to be decontrolled, it cannot allow the miners to dig injudiciously as it may pose threat to the environment. It will become difficult for the government to check if digging goes deeper. As per the rules, digging beyond three feet is not allowed.”
A state government functionary said: “It is too early to say anything. We have done a calculation. Let us see if it is done. We have to hold a meeting in this regard. I will let you know then.”
But Congress leaders are insistent as they see it as a way to correct Congress’s perception among the masses about being soft on the mining mafia. Taking action against the sand mafia was a pre-poll promise of the Congress. Also, sand prices have skyrocketed in the state in the past several years.
The matter was also raised in the Assembly on Tuesday. Congress MLA Amrinder Singh Raja Warring minced no words in the Assembly Tuesday when he urged on the Chief Minister to make sand free for all. “You (Captain) may sleep at home for next two years of the Congress’s tenure and may not do anything, people will still be thankful to you. Do not delay this. Sadi badnami ho rahi hai (We are earning a bad name). I beg of you with folded hands,” he said while making a case for decontrolling sand.
Amarinder, later in his speech, indicated that the government was preparing a new sand mining policy. “We are planning to come up with a new mining policy. We will make an announcement around March 16 when the government would complete three years. I am committed to end mining mafia in the state,” he told the House. A few MLAs were even expecting that the CM will make an announcement on Tuesday itself.
Later talking to The Indian Express, Raja Warring said, “There has been a demand. Our government is working things out. We want that the old system that prevailed in the state before 2007-08 should be restarted. I remember when I was constructing my house in 2005-06, we would pay Rs 1100 per trolley of sand. This included Rs 200-300 on labour, and rest was transportation cost. We used to get good quality sand from Pathankot also. Whosoever needed sand could go to any river and take it. Later, the state started taking the royalty for sand and finally a system of auction of mines came,” he said.
Warring added, “When we are taking Rs 300 crore from contractors they will charge the consumer the price they want. We should make the consumer comfortable. Now, they are getting sand at a very high price.”
About the ground rules that will be needed for such a system to work, he said that the rules can be taken care of.
“The government has the entire machinery to work these out,” he said.
Meanwhile, sources close to some contractors said they too were also preparing to go to the court.
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