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Friday, July 1, 2022

Punjab: Congress, AAP base poll pitch on sand; one on illegal mining, other on rates

As Punjab inches closer to Assembly elections, politics over sand, its illegal mining, and “theft” is assuming focus with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) raising it to hit out at Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi even as the latter is going to electorate stating that he has made the construction essential cheaper and allowing the farmers to scoop upto three feet without paying any royalty.

The AAP has been alleging that illegal sand mining was taking place in CM’s constituency Chamkaur Sahib and there were allegations of him being involved in the business.

Claiming large scale illegal sand mining in Channi’s constituency, and theft of sand worth Rs 20,000 crore in the state, AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal Tuesday demanded an independent probe and the registration of an FIR against the Congress leader.

In Amritsar on a day-long visit, Kejriwal said, “If illegal mining is going on in the chief minister’s own constituency then it is difficult to think that he (Channi) is not aware about it. There are serious allegations of sand theft on Punjab CM”.

Kejriwal’s accusations comes days after AAP Punjab in-charge Raghav Chadha made a surprise visit to Jindapur village in Chamkaur Sahib and claimed that illegal sand mining activity was going on in Channi’s home constituency.

Countering Chadha, Channi visited the Badi Haveli mining site in his constituency on Sunday and said that no illegal sand mining was being allowed in the state. He said he would not allow any outsider to create unfounded noise for vested political interests and the government will not hesitate to initiate action against such acts of political ambition.

On Tuesday, however, Kejriwal sought to know who was patronising alleged illegal sand mining in Channi’s constituency. “People of Punjab want to know whether he (Channi) is the owner or has partnership in the illegal sand mining in his constituency or is he patronising it. The truth should come out,” he told reporters in Amritsar.

Kejriwal said Channi’s predecessor Capt Amarinder Singh had said that many Punjab ministers and MLAs were involved in illegal sand mining. “When CM and ministers are involved in illegal sand mining, then where would public go? How would development take place?” he asked.

He said, “According to an estimate, Rs 20,000 crore worth of illegal sand mining is taking place”.

Promising to put an end to the illegal mining, Kejriwal said his party would use the money generated from it to fund welfare schemes in the state.

As allegations and counter-allegations fly, the issue of illegal sand mining is not new to Punjab. Soon after taking over as CM, Channi announced to reduce the price of sand from Rs 9 per cubic feet to Rs 5.5 per cubic feet. He also allowed mining of upto three feet of sand from farmers’ fields without them having to pay any royalty. State Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu, had earlier countered Channi’s claims stating that there was no change in prices of sand at the ground level.

Soil scientists, meanwhile, have frowned upon the new rule to allow free mining of sand by landowners. Dr O P Chaudhary, principal soil chemist and Head of the Department of the Soil Science, Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, said that once the upper layer or soil head, is mined, the particular patch would “forever” loose its most fertile layer.

Even during former CM Capt Amarinder Singh’s tenure, the issue of illegal mining often cropped up. It was in the first year of his government that he had got an intelligence report stating that over 30 Congress MLAs were engaged in illegal sand mining. After his ouster from the government, Amarinder had raised the issue and stated that he had the details of these MLAs with him.

During previous SAD-BJP regime too, illegal sand mining was rampant and prices of the commodity had hit record high. Then CM Parkash Singh Badal had once resorted to announcing that the government would sell the sand directly from the pit-heads.

When Sidhu was the Cabinet minister in Amarinder’s government, he had prepared an action plan that the the government should take over the sale of sand and earn at least Rs 4,000 crore every year. His suggestion, however, was not accepted.

Punjab’s estimated demand for sand is said to be 2 crore tonnes annually. Official estimate the business in state to be worth Rs 3,000 crore annually. A tractor trolley is sold for anything between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3500. A senior functionary of the government said that Channi’s move to reduce the prices had paid off. Those who were buying sand at pit-head were getting it for Rs 5.5 per cubic feet only.

There were, however, places where it was supplied at higher price as the transport cost was not regulated. He said that several Deputy Commissioners had on their own regulated the price. The CM’s office was now directing all other DCs to regulate the transport so that the government is spared of the criticism, he said.

Sand mining became a flourishing business after construction activity picked pace in the post-terrorism era. After the real estate boom in 2005-2006, a spurt in demand was witnessed. The previous SAD-BJP government was making Rs 35-40 crore every year from the exchequer through sand. Amarinder’s government took it up to Rs 350 crore every year.

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