Sand mining: Experts remain wary as Bengal govt centralises auction

Published on Aug 01, 2021 11:35 PM IST

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”.

Sand mining: Experts remain wary as Bengal govt centralises auction
Sand mining: Experts remain wary as Bengal govt centralises auction
By, Kolkata

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had 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 pundits 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.

In June 2015, at least three people known to be close to a local Trinamool Congress leader were killed in clashes while in April 2017, two rival gangs with alleged links to the TMC clashed in Birbhum district with bombs and guns, killing at least eight people. The TMC had rubbished the allegations then.

But CM Banerjee, 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 on illegal sand mining. 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. At Goghat in Hooghly district, TMC candidates had to sign a pledge before the 2018 panchayat polls that they would not indulge in the private contractor business, toll booths or sand mining. Stern warnings were also issued to the local leadership of the party but to no avail.

“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 (CM Banerjee) 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 also said that 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.

In the 2021 assembly elections, TMC returned to power for a third time by bagging 213 of the 292 seats. “But it lost in some of the assembly constituencies where such illegal activities were rampant: Arambagh, Khanakul and Goghat in Hooghly; Indas, Kotulpur, Bishnupur and Onda in Bankura; Ghatal in West Midnapore; Kashipur and Balarampur in Purulia,” said Amal Mukhopadhyay, a political commentator.

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.

The BJP, too, has targeted Mamata Banerjee, by saying that she wants to centralise corruption with this move.

“Earlier, corruption was at the grassroots level. Now that is being centralised. If the TMC really wants to do away with corruption, then it has to go for a major rejig. Unless the local administration undergoes a major change, corruption will never go,” said Samik Bhattacharya, BJP spokesperson in West Bengal.

“The TMC government will not tolerate any corruption or illegal activities. The Mamata Banerjee government has cracked down on illegal sand mining as not only natural resources were being depleted but the government was also not getting revenue. What has this to do with politics? Does the BJP want to say that the central government doesn’t come up with any policy or do they mean that every policy of the central government is intended to centralise corruption?” TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said.

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