A man-made sand crisis in Bihar over the past five months has angered all stakeholders: Thousands of labourers, skilled workers, traders dealing in bricks, cement and iron rods -- as also contractors in the construction and infrastructure sector and builders.
Even truck and tractor owners, who are mainly engaged in transportation of sand, are unhappy with the crisis badly hitting private and public construction, including major infrastructure projects worth thousands of crores of rupees.
It was evident recently in Bhojpur district, about 60 km from Patna, when thousands of labourers, sand miners, traders and contractors associated with the construction industry staged protests that disrupted trains to enforce a shutdown called against the state government's sand mining policy.
Similar small protests were also reported from Vaishali and Saran districts in the past week.
It is a hard fact that thousands of daily wagers and semi-skilled workers have been rendered jobless and are fighting for survival, after the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (JD-U-BJP) government led by Nitish Kumar initiated large-scale action in July against rampant illegal sand mining and control by "balu-mafia" (sand mafia) and put restrictions on sand mining.
While the government had good intentions, the steps resulted in scarcity of sand.
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"One cannot move a step ahead without sand; it is the most important construction material. We have money, cement, bricks, iron rods, labourers and masons, but without sand, construction activities have come to standstill for months," said N.K. Thakur of the Builders Association of India, Bihar chapter.
Private construction and public infrastructure projects in the state have been badly hit by sand shortage after the state banned sand mining along the riverbeds. It also affected the construction of houses for the poor under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna Gramin (PMAY-G).
"Sand scarcity has hit the construction work of the PMAY-G. It is a difficult challenge to complete 400,000 houses for the rural poor by the end of March," said Arvind Choudhary, Principal Secretary, Rural Development Department.
Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has also suffered and this has a direct bearing on the employment of the rural poor.
Sand is now a costly item in Bihar. It is selling at a premium -- from Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 for 100 cubic feet. Ahead of the crisis, sand was available in the market at Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 for 100 cft.
"Costly sand has raised the cost of construction and most private and public construction has slowed down like never before," said Sahid Malik, a contractor.
A builder said the per tractor cost of sand has touched an all-time high.
"The sand crisis has affected over 1,000 under-construction apartments in and around Patna, not to talk about thousands of houses. Construction activities are badly hit as big building construction and infrastructure projects have been stalled for the last four months," said the builder, on condition of anonymity.
According to officials, the sand crisis began after the government put restrictions on sand mining through the Bihar Minor Mineral Rules, 2017.
"Soon after, the government launched a statewide crackdown on illegal sand mining that created havoc among the sand mafia. It was a right step to check illegal sand mining to increase revenue of the government and to provide cheap sand to people. But nothing has happened and it has only created a sand scarcity that has angered the people," an official said.
Taking advantage of the people's anger over the crisis, the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had called for a shutdown in Bihar on the issue on December 21.
"The new sand mining policy has not only rendered hundreds of thousands of construction workers and others jobless but has also created an acute shortage of sand, resulting in a price escalation that has badly hit construction activities," Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Yadav said.
In a major setback to the state government, the Patna High Court has ordered that sand mining activities would continue as per older, un-amended rules. The court has also put a stop on all orders and directives issued by the department after the November 27 stay on the implementation of new Bihar Minor Mineral Rules.
After the National Green Tribunal's order suspending sand mining activities during the monsoon season ended on September 30, the state government has given clearance to sand mining in 10 districts; but that did not include Patna, Bhojpur, Vaishali and Saran that account for over 50 percent sand mining in Bihar.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at email@example.com)
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