Pranesh Sarkar and Abhijeet Chatterjee, TT, Calcutta, July 30: Projects worth Rs 10,000 crore, including road-laying and bridge construction, have been plunged into uncertainty with the National Green Tribunal prohibiting sand-mining in Bengal because of the state government’s failure to implement central guidelines.
The ban has caught the state government on the wrong foot and prompted some Trinamul politicians to point fingers at the Centre. But officials blamed the Bengal administration’s failure to properly plan the regularisation of sand-mining.
“The Centre had issued guidelines on sand-lifting from riverbeds in January. Had they been implemented, things would not have come to such a pass,” a senior state government official said.
Officials said that several important projects, including the laying of two highways to connect Bangladesh with Bhutan and Nepal through north Bengal, have been hit because the executing agencies are not getting enough sand every day. Work on 40 bridges across the state has been affected too.
“Sand is an integral component of any kind of construction, be it roads or bridges. But the supply of sand has dried up since April, slowing down several projects,” an engineer said.
Tardy progress of projects often puts a strain on the state’s coffers as costs escalate with each passing month.
“Usually, if a project gets delayed by a year, the project cost goes up by around 10 per cent. If all ongoing projects in Bengal get delayed by a year, the exchequer will lose around Rs 1,000 crore,” a financial adviser to a department that is implementing some of the projects said.
Government sources said one of the key reasons behind the failure to adhere to the central guidelines was the presence of entrenched players with alleged Trinamul links in the illegal sand-mining business.
Lifting of sand without environmental clearances or local permission has been rampant in Bengal. A source said the illegal sand-mining trade in the state was worth Rs 1,000 a year.
According to the central guidelines, state governments are to ensure that an environment impact assessment is done before allowing anybody to lift sand from riverbeds, and that mining licences are given through a bidding process.
No environment studies are conducted in Bengal and licences are issued by local authorities such as panchayats and municipalities on a first-come-first-served basis.
“To stop illegal sand-mining and prevent Trinamul groups from fighting over the spoils of the trade, the Bengal government had in July 2015 issued a set of guidelines,” a source said.
The state government had reduced the lease period from a maximum of five years to three months and reduced the permissible mining area for each person from a maximum of 10 acres to 3 acres.
But these guidelines ceased to exist after the Centre issued its own guidelines which, however, are yet to be implemented by the state.
“The Assembly elections were approaching and the ruling party did not want to take chances,” a source said, asked about the failure to enforce the first-ever central guidelines.
Most other states have already implemented the guidelines, the source added.
On March 3, the Bihar government entrusted the State Level Environment Impact Assessment Authority with the responsibility of issuing environmental clearances. It has also put in place a system to ensure that mining rights are awarded through a bidding process.
Waking up to the urgency of the situation, the Bengal cabinet approved a policy on July 20 to implement the central guidelines.
According to the policy, district-level environmental impact assessment authorities will be set up under the district magistrates. The authorities will undertake the study before clearing mining proposals through a bidding process.
According to the central guidelines, each licensee can mine a maximum of 12.35 acres. If an individual seeks to mine an area larger than this, his application will go to a state-level committee.
“The problem is, it will take at least six months to implement the policy on the ground. First, it has to be tabled and cleared in the Assembly, then the committees will be formed and after that they will look into the proposals,” an official said.
“The delay will further dry up the supply of sand and the projects will continue to suffer. Realtors will face problems too.”
The Bengal government has decided to move the National Green Tribunal seeking a stay on the order for at least six months, by when the central guidelines can be implemented.