The high financial stakes, regular scandal value, political heat, criminal assaults, and the distress caused for the masses, all point to sand turning into Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh’s ‘chitta’. The Punjabi word refers to drugs, the ‘white powder’, that proved to be the previous SAD government’s nemesis following years of sweeping allegations. The public shock and outrage over the belligerent manner in which faceless miners continue to plunder sand — and the apparent helplessness of the government even in the face of physical attacks on officials — could well deliver the same outcome for the Congress government four years down the line.
Immediately after coming into power, the government cancelled mining contracts given out by the SAD-BJP government on ‘reverse bidding’. It took the plea that these had fetched very little money for the government, and yet prices were not lowered for the people. If there was any other motive behind the cancelling, it cannot be proved, except that a minister had to resign after being accused of manipulating the fresh bidding process. The ‘progressive bidding’ that the government introduced did get more money, but the sand prices shot through the roof that the common people are trying to build over their heads.
Such has become the price incentive that everyone from legal contractor to non-contractor, even the common villager, is out to dig wherever he can, unmindful of the consequences. A revision of the mining policy is stuck in wrangling within the ruling party. It’s hard to say if it is only competitive politics, or it is stakes in mining that is holding up the revision.
There has now been a series of assaults on public officials by the criminals hired as mining labour. And each incident has revealed more of the murkiness in the ‘establishment’ — which includes stakeholders across party lines — than the criminality of the mining agents. The latest attack on an MLA in Ropar brought to light the past business and political affiliations of the AAP leader as well as those of his assailants, which touch both the Congress and SAD. All, of course, deny any wrongdoing. In a video, the assailants and an aide of the MLA are heard discussing a money demand even as the latter is beaten.
An earlier assault in Patiala on a general manager of the Mining Department seems to have ended in a ‘compromise’. Following a gruesome attack on forest officials in Kharar last week, the police have sought to suggest that the material being transported was not sand but mud. In the Ropar incident, a clean chit was issued to the miners in 24 hours. In a May incident, also in Ropar, a police constable alleged his jaw was broken in an assault by the mafia, but the inquiry claimed he broke it as he fell while “chasing the mafia men”. All of this can mean only one of two things — either the investigators are absolutely incompetent, or the system is absolutely compromised as some ‘untouchables’ in power have stakes.
The very nature of the complex rules and measurement parameters governing sand mining, and the geographical peculiarities of the industry, make it difficult to establish violations. Areas different from those allotted, or land beyond or deeper than permitted, are exploited, often by unidentified people. The opacity is what helps ensure traditional businessmen stay away from this industry. That leaves the field open for the politician-businessman to exploit as he pleases, often in cyclical exchange with rivals to ensure ‘harmony’.
This is easy money lying out there simply to be dug out with a ‘Poclain’ machine, and can understandably be very tempting to a politician in power. But every extreme has its political fallout — the Akalis even after a year and a half have not found the courage to take on the government forcefully on sand and drugs. If Capt Amarinder Singh is not able to take on the ‘holy cows’ in his government, irrespective of their political or financial clout, sand will ensure the public enthusiasm that brought him to power slips through his fingers faster than he imagined.