Ecological issues have delayed the start of river-bed mining, an idea propagated by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal with the aim of extracting enough sand not only to meet the growing demand but also to control its skyrocketing rates in the market.
The plan may not be implemented immediately as the proposed quarries would require clearance from the state environment impact assessment authority. Also, environmentalists fear that excessive digging of river beds in the state could play havoc with the ecology and may lead to change of course of river waters.
"You have seen the devastation in Uttarakhand. Punjab has been largely known for its choes (seasonal rivulets). These rivulets provide an outlet to water which flows from the hills to the rivers in the plains. If we choke the choes, this would immediately lead to flooding during heavy rain. Excessive digging of river beds can also prove environmentally hazardous, unless rivers refurbish themselves during the monsoon when desilting takes place," said Madhu Sarin, an environmentalist.
SK Sandhu, principal secretary to chief minister, who is overseeing the implementation of river-bed mining, said the entire procedure required utmost caution before being put into practice in letter and spirit.
"First, we have to identify the mining area and prepare revenue papers to demarcate the sites as per khasra and hadbast numbers. If the mining area is more than 50 hectares, the permission has to come from the state environment impact assessment authority of the union ministry of environment and forests," Sandhu said.
The process of getting the green signal from the Centre is very slow. "We got the permission for 27 mines only a few days ago, nearly seven months after sending the request," he added, while claiming that the state government was committed to addressing the environmental issues.
Recent studies show that the level of river beds in Punjab is rising due to excessive soil erosion from hilly areas. This rise can lead to changing of the course of water at many places. "In order to bring uniformity in river beds, mining is required to be undertaken from time to time. This will not only smoothen the flow of river waters, but also provide sand to the people at affordable rates, Sandhu added.
Sources in the state industries and commerce department said stringent measures were adopted by the state environment and impact assessment authority before giving the go-ahead to mining sites.
Recently, the authority gave the go-ahead to quarrying on the Sutlej river bed at Parjian village in Biharipur area near Ludhiana, but the government has still not issued orders as it would require reassurance from environmental experts.
Moreover, mining has to be kept away from rail and road bridges, railway tracks, highways, overbridges and important installations.
Skyrocketing rates of sand and gravel and scarcity of such construction material had forced the Punjab government to decide in June on digging river beds to provide the material at controlled prices. Government officials were of the view that the open availability of sand under government control would bring down its rate by nearly 50%.
Environmentalists had advised the government to finish off the quarrying of mines before the monsoon so that the river beds got refurbished in time.
The plan was finalised in pursuance of the cabinet decision on May 28, when it was decided to provide relief to the common man by making sand and gravel available at much lower prices than the market rates.
The SAD-BJP government has often drawn flak for its inability to rein in the sand and gravel mafia, which is selling these commodities at highly inflated rates at will.
River waters are a national resource, but mines and minerals come under the direct control of the state.
According to a preliminary survey conducted by the state industries and commerce department, the total length of all river beds in Punjab is about 260 km, including Beas, Ravi and Sutlej.