In the heat of the controversy over the suspension of a civil servant in Uttar Pradesh, serious issues such as the link between unregulated activities such as sand mining from river banks and sea beaches have been ignored. Much of this demand is fuelled by the country’s construction boom. But if the subsequent knee-jerk reaction of the National Green Tribunal to ban sand mining without environmental clearance is anything to go by, the episode serves as a grim reminder of the ineptitude of country’s institutions to shape rational solutions to public policy problems.
To be sure, local bureaucrats having to pay the price for not kowtowing to the political class is not something new. Transfers have been the favourite weapon of politicians who have wanted to get past stubborn officers. Of actual importance, however, are the motives of interest groups working behind the scenes that have their roots from the country’s booming construction industry. Rapid economic growth and employment generation fuelled by the boom are undeniably welcome, but it is clear they have come at the hefty cost of huge negative externalities imposed on the environment by indiscriminate sand mining.
In response, varied attempts by government authorities to regulate sand mining have showed the complete absence of a comprehensive policy framework to deal with the problem. Until recently, with sand classified as a minor mineral, state governments have largely been entrusted with the duty of regulating its extraction. But with poor implementation of rules, indiscriminate sand mining has continued all the way with absolutely no heed paid to environmental costs. To bring some sense of order, early this year the Supreme Court stepped in and directed state governments to grant mining leases only after necessary clearance from the environment ministry. The tribunal’s recent ban adds to this emphasis on environmental sanction to sand mining. However, it is questionable whether this spate of increased bureaucratic restrictions on sand mining is really a step in the right direction.
Take the case of the leasing of riverbed plots for sand mining, a practice that is heavily restricted by rules and procedures. It has made honest business practically impossible. With shady dealings having become the norm, honest competitive bidding is a farce. The sand mafia, with its close political connections, calls the shots and wields complete control over the leasing mechanism. It’s not surprising given the huge profits at stake. In this scenario, the tribunal’s recent decision to further tighten restrictions is likely to be counter-productive as it pushes sand mining further into the black market. As this reduces the supply of sand and cause prices to shoot, the mafia has reasons to be happy with the tribunal’s inane actions.
An independent regulatory authority to oversee sand mining is one way to deal with this problem. But given the dearth of honest and efficient officers to implement rules and the sheer magnitude of the interests involved, the chances of its success is questionable. It is, however, a solution that should be considered carefully before being given up. A more practical solution, in the interim, lies in making sand mining a legitimate and transparent business that it ought to be. This clearly cannot be achieved through more red tape that increases the scope for rent-seeking but by orderly deregulation of the mining industry. A step in this direction will also break the sand mining cartel and help bring down current inflated prices of sand.
Apart from the issue of illegal sand mining, the rationale behind the current practice of allotment of riverbed plots through short-term leases is questionable. Short-term leasing, which provides little incentive for sustainable management, encourages indiscriminate mining, giving little time for the riverbed to replenish. State governments have resorted to imposing quotas and other restrictions to deal with this problem, but these rules have been flouted too often to have any real effect on improving river ecology. A more practical solution to the problem lies in empowering local residents, who have a long-term stake in preserving riverbed ecology, and thus more likely to engage in sustainable sand management.
Given the stakes of interest groups involved in sand mining and the counter-productive policy decisions of bodies like the green tribunal, it is unlikely that the situation will change for the better any time soon. Moreover, the sheer arrogance and disregard the Uttar Pradesh government displayed in dealing with the controversy shows that allegations of corruption and misuse of power do not worry political parties any more. The situation clearly calls for some kind of constructive public effort to steer policy in a positive direction.
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