Sand mining: Experts remain wary as Bengal govt centralises auction
- The West Bengal Mineral Development and Trading Corporation will henceforth hold the auctions online that was earlier done by the district magistrates.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on July 22 announced that her government was coming up with a sand mining policy to put in place a centralised system for the auction of sand quarries. But experts say it isn’t just an administrative move but a political one, too, to rein in local leaders to keep the party’s image clean at the grassroots level with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
The West Bengal Mineral Development and Trading Corporation (WBMDTC) will henceforth hold the auctions online that was earlier done by the district magistrates. But those earlier auctions only covered a tiny portion of the sand mining activity, according to Biswajit Mukherjee, the former chief law officer of West Bengal Pollution Control Board.
“Illegal mining of sand from the riverbeds and riverbanks is rampant in several districts and the business runs into thousands of crores of rupees. There exists a nexus between local politicians, the mafia and the administration,” Mukherjee added.
Clashes over the control of dry riverbeds, which form the bedrock of the thriving illegal sand-mining industry, are not uncommon in the districts such as Birbhum, Bankura, West Midnapore, Hooghly, Burdwan and Howrah among others. Sometimes, these prove to be fatal. The chief minister, while announcing the policy on July 22, acknowledged having received complaints about illegal sand mining and promised not to spare anyone, “even if he is an officer or a politician”.
The CM had also complained about the state losing out on revenue due to the local mafia. A senior officer of the state irrigation department put this into perspective: in December 2015, when there was a crackdown on sand mafia, the state’s revenue earning from sand mining went up from around ₹25 crore to ₹300 crore.
“There have been crackdowns in the past but the menace goes on unabated with the help of local politicians, mafia and a section of the administration because huge money is involved. In an auction done legally, the bids can go as high as ₹2-3 crore. Imagine the profit from illegal sand mines,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.
The TMC has tried to rein in local leaders. “As much of the sand mining business is illegal, there is huge corruption involved in it. This has sometimes led to factional feuds. It was also taking a heavy toll on the party, as corruption among a section of the local leaders was ruining the party’s image. The party leader had on many times warned such leaders. The decision was based on a year-long survey made by Prashant Kishor and his team,” said a TMC leader requesting anonymity. He addedthat more than the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the decision would affect the 2023 panchayat polls because those are contested on micro and very localised issues.
However, not all political watchers are pleased with the idea of centralised auctions. “Experience has shown that whenever such steps are taken to centralise an auction, the cost of the product increases because businessmen have to pay cut money at various levels instead of just the local politicians,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, another political commentator. “Unless the local administration undergoes a change, corruption will never go,” said state BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya.