It is becoming clear that a new mafia is slowly taking control of sand mining in Andhra Pradesh
Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s decision this June to ban sand mining in the state met with wide approval, as people believed this would put an end to rampant illegal sand mining by mafias, and usher in a new regime in which sand would be made available adequately, at a fair price, to the people.
This has not happened. The state had to wait till September for the announcement of the new sand policy, amid incessant rain and floods. For three months, no sand mining was officially allowed.
The inordinate delay in announcing the sand policy couple with the floods saw the state slip in to a situation of severe sand scarcity; construction activity came to a grinding halt and lakhs of labourers were rendered jobless.
The resultant financial distress led to several suicides - so far, four suicides have been reported.
It is true that there was an anarchic situation in the state under the free sand policy in force since 04 March 2016, till Jagan introduced the ban. That the state was a paradise for the sand mafia was not known from statements made by any politician or facts unearthed by any journalist. It was learned from the summary of the report submitted to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by an expert committee set up by the NGT itself. The committee’s members were drawn from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (State PCB).
According to the NGT, the Pollution Control Board’s report dated 21 January 2019 stated that 34,000 metric tons of sand were extracted daily from seven points in the river Krishna near Vijayawada and as many as 2500 truckloads of sand were being transported per day.
Even if the value of sand per truck is estimated to be just Rs 5000, the court calculated that the value of the total extracted sand from the river bed would be Rs 1.25 crore per day, or Rs 450 crore per year.
This convinced the NGT last April to slap an interim fine of Rs 100 crore on the state government. It also directed the state to recover the amount from the “persons responsible for illegal mining or the colluding erring officers.”
Anumolu Gandhi, the petitioner in the case, told The Lede that the illegal sand mining mentioned in the case took place at a distance of just 8 to 12 km from the residence of the then chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who lived in a mansion built on the banks of river Krishna near Vijayawada. Naidu is leader of the opposition Telugu Desam Party.
This speaks volumes about the patronage the sand mafia enjoyed during the previous regime, and the nexus between the mafia and officials of several departments.
But the change of government is unlikely to alter the status quo in Andhra Pradesh. The five month period since Jagan took over as chief minister though, is a pointer to the shape of things to come.
The new YSR Congress government, which promised to introduce liquor prohibition in its poll manifesto, recently cancelled a majority of licenses of private liquor shops. Before that, it banned the notorious ‘belt-shops’ which sold liquor at every village street corner. The YSRCP government announced a new liquor policy that came into force without any hiccups. The transition was commendably smooth.
Why then has the government not shown a similar agility in the case of tackling illegal sand mining?
It is commonly known that leaders at all levels belonging to the party in power in a state are empowered in some way or another. Unwritten instructions are issued to officials down to the lowest rungs of the administration, asking them to pay attention to the political interests of party leaders, the moment that party forms the government.
It is a party’s way of recognising the services their party leaders and senior workers have rendered. This is a long-standing system through which, even at the village level, nothing moves without the knowledge of local party leaders. This is how local party leaders have long exercised control over resources and the administration.
Since sand has become lucrative contraband, the party leadership magnanimously allows local leaders to earn money by colluding with officials and party bosses.
The only change a new government brings about, irrespective of which party wins the elections, is a shift of power from one group of leaders to the other.
If one goes by media reports and criticism of political parties, it is clear that a new mafia is slowly taking control of sand mining the state.
It appears the ruling party in Andhra Pradesh is in a tearing hurry to help its local satraps.
The government did admit that there was sand scarcity in Andhra Pradesh. But in its view, this was the result of unusual rains and prolonged floods in Krishna and Godavari.
“Unusually, this year the state has witnessed excessive rainfall. Krishna and Godavari have been in flooding for the past 40 to 70 days. This is the reason for the sand crisis. The government is trying all the possible ways to overcome the crisis by supplying sand from Patta lands,” was the response of P Ramachandra Reddy, Minister for Mines, Geology and Panchayat Raj when questioned by The Lede.
But the opposition parties disagree.
What about the districts like Anantapur where there are no floods, asks former TDP minister Kalva Srinivasulu.
“Sand from local rivers is freely smuggled by YSRCP leaders to Ballari and Bengaluru. The trucks seized by the police would prove this. TDP has also forced police to seize sand trucks four times. Even journalists have helped waylay the smugglers' trucks,” Srinivasulu, who was I&PR minister in the previous TDP government, told The Lede.
Srinivasulu alleges that Jagan’s government is helping MLAs and other leaders, who had spent crores of rupees during the elections, to recover their investments.
“For the first three months, illegal mining and smuggling were unbridled. Now a policy was put in place. It’s only an eyewash. The online system never works for an hour for the people. Whenever it works it would say “no stock”. Then how do you get the sand? You have either to buy it in black market or postpone the construction,” Srinivasulu said.
Nadendla Manohar, a former Speaker and now the number two in the Jana Sena party, has more to add.
“It’s very rare to get a positive response from the online system. When the stock is available, it says stock is available but not in your district, it's available in a faraway district. Then the buyer has to pay transport charges (Rs 4.90/km) more than the fixed price of the sand (Rs 370 a tonne) itself. In the black market, a truck of sand costs somewhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000,” Manohar told The Lede.
One truckload of 10 to 12 tons of legal sand costs between Rs 3000 to Rs 5000.
He said about 30 lakh construction labourers are now jobless due to the non-availability of sand in the construction sector.
“Can a labourer’s family cope with financial distress for six months? It’s a mystery how a chief minister who always talks of people’s welfare is not able to understand this,” said Manohar, stating that the crisis was not a result of floods but due to continued sand smuggling to Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ballari and Chennai.
Anumolu Gandhi wonders why Jagan is not filing criminal cases against those who mined sand illegally and earned hundreds for crores of rupees, despite clear orders from the NGT.
“Chief minister Jagan looks more interested in reining in the illegal mining that enjoyed the support of the previous TDP government. He is not ready to implement NGT orders to recover the money the state had lost due to illegal mining. It clearly shows there is no environmental angle in Jagan’s actions. Reason: it might be a lack of understanding of the problem or it might be that his own people are among them,” said Gandhi, an environmental activist.
Last week, former TDP minister Kollu Ravindra observed a 36-hour satyagraha in protest against the government’s sand policy.
On November 03, Jana Sena supremo Pawan Kalyan will lead a protest march in Visakhapatnam to highlight the plight of construction labourers who have been jobless for five months. Pawan is also mulling an all-party agitation against the new sand mafia emerging in the state.
Meanwhile, former TDP minister Vadde Sobhanadriswar Rao dubs the Jana Sena’s move as politicising the real problem. “I admit, there is scarcity in the state. It has arisen out of prolonged flooding of all important rivers. But opposition parties are trying to capitalise on the issue,” he said, adding that Jagan did commit a mistake by taking three months, too long a time, to announce the new sand policy.
“Had the chief minister announced the policy a month before, the scarcity would not have been this acute,” Rao told The Lede.
"It’s after a gap of 10 years that all the major rivers in the state received such huge inflows," said Amar Devulapalli, Advisor-National Media, government of Andhra Pradesh to The Lede.
"Of the available 267 reaches only 67 reaches are operational because of floods. It is expected that the situation will ease in another week.
To tide over the shortage, government has allowed extraction of sand in first, second and third grade reaches also - rivulets and streams (vaagulu, vankalu).
For self consumption, anyone can extract sand after paying due challan in Tahsildar office and transport it in tractor for a distance of upto 20 kms.
Unlike the previous government, the extraction is done totally manually which provides employment and also is environment friendly.
Sand shortage persists in all the states dependent on Krishna and Godavari (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana).
Recently Tamil Nadu had to import sand in ship from Indonesia.
All efforts are being made by government to see that least inconvenience is caused to labour dependent on construction activity.
The Opposition is trying to make political capital out of events (flood) on which humans have little control.
Thankfully because of the floods the state has received 10 crore tonnes of fresh sand deposits which will be sufficient for next five years and will also compensate the loot of NCB (Nara Chandrababu Naidu) and co," he said.
(This story has been updated with the response of the AP government which was provided shortly after publication)