Government moves to halt sand racket | Sunday Observer

Government moves to halt sand racket

15 December, 2019

Regulation of river sand mining and transport leads not only to the prevention of environmental damage, but also to the elimination of a mafia culture that has infected society. Illicit or otherwise, the country’s sand mining operations are controlled by a powerful sand mafia linked to political patronage.

The communities affected, who live near sand mining sites, are powerless before the sand mafia’s cunning and wrath. These operations often involve a member or two in Pradeshiya Sabhas who will engage with people who would have problems, such as salinity intrusion of water into their wells, unprecedented clogging of water around their homes during rainfalls and various thefts occurring in their neighborhoods because of sand mining activities.

A Pradeshiya Sabha member and his closest Sabha officials use their commiserating skills with the affected civilians to bury the problems which otherwise could go to a different level of supervision by other authorities. The Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) member often begins to blame the sand merchant in question with a riverbed heart full of ecology. He would often blame the police for failing to take any action on the sand mining threat in the area and says they have made repeated requests and multiple complaints to relevant parties regarding the matters concerned. It is in this position that the PS member makes supermen of sand dealers above the law. The anointing thus bestowed becomes a privilege for a sand merchant to throw his weight around civilians, for they would not dare to challenge such an operative directly who is seen with a gang that looks like the pirates of the Caribbean who come to their employer’s Weli Thotupola (sand mining site).

Finally, the PS member tells his affected civilian subjects that the sand miner has strong ties to some sort of minister as a subterfuge to discourage the civilians affected from taking any further action on their issues. They make sure they believe he’s on their side and he’s really worried about the problem they face.

One cannot also disregard the role played by the Gramasevaka of the area in this respect to placate the affected residents who often visit him as their first move to get a fair solution to such problems. We know what the solution is when this officer is a very good friend of the sand miner.

Both PS members and Grama Niladharis have been in a position to present a bill of some sort to the sand merchant for such services offered by them, that is being the ones who race with the rabbits and hunt with the hounds, one way or the other.

The government’s recent decision to temporarily remove the need for a permit to transport sand, granite and soil has in fact broken that link between the sand miners and the local authorities because transport permits as regards these items are issued by the local authorities. It is by misuse of these permits that racketeers, with the support of local authorities issu-ng them, and some police officers who are in their payroll of course , transport these items beyond their legal limits.

If anybody had lost their mental equilibrium as a result of this decision, who more so than those corrupt PS members and local authorities who has been making a fortune from it at the expense of biodiversity losses, destruction, threatened species, affected civilian life, erosion of law, negative soicio-political impacts and exacerbating public health emergencies.

If they had any kind of complacency, it was that the decision was temporary.

However, after the removal of the sand transport licence and related items to oppose it, the environmentalists have ashored. Activist Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam reportedly wrote to the Minister of Environment and Wildlife Resources that they strongly condemn the Cabinet’s decision in this regard.

As pointed out by him, in the recent past, environmental systems surrounding the rivers were destroyed due to unauthorised river sand mining. By cancelling the permit, anyone receives the legal right to engage in unauthorised mining as well as transport those illegally mined sand.

“Sri Lanka has been destroyed as an ecosystem. The cancellation of the permit will encourage the illegal sand miners to continue their activities which will cause inevitable damage to the environmental system,” he had stated.

The truth is that the transport permits provided a vicarious cover for carrying out unauthorized mining. It never had any noticeable impact on illegal sand mining operations, in other words it did not put any rein on illegal sand mining operations other than legitimizing it.

Illicit sand mining on the river has continued throughout the island due to a shortage of manpower to monitor the activity firmly

It has become a huge issue since it has been learned that even the very few provincial officers attached to the Geological Survey and Mining Bureau (GSMB) were vulnerable to political pressure and corruption to monitor mining operations.

More than 60 percent of the sand used in the construction sector had been coming from illegal sand mining operations even before the emergence of this decision to remove the need for a transport permit. There is hardly any difference in that , except that sand prices have fallen while delays in sand supplies to construction sites have been eliminated to a considerable degree. According to a study carried out by Network for Women Water Professionals (NetWwater), and the Universities of Colombo and Ruhuna , this is 10 times more sand than River Sand Mining (RSM) permits allow.

As a result of the decision taken, there is a good chance that even the most corrupt Pradeshiya Sabhas in the system will suddenly become aware of the scale of illegality associated with this trade now that it has affected their gains.

This appears to be a good basis for regularizing the illicit sand mining menace, if law enforcements agencies will strictly monitor the miners, whether they exceed allowed quantity, which will require work on their part.

According to Co-Cabinet Spokesman, Minister Bandula Gunawardana, the Cabinet approved the proposal to allow permit free transport for building material to facilitate those employed in the construction industry. The Chamber of Construction Industry, Sri Lanka (CCI), the apex representative body of all construction industry stakeholders in the country, has commended this decision as it would put an end to the delays the say have been plaguing the industry for the past few years.

He said that with environmental conservation in mind, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a strong interest in sustainable development. So one can expect more measures coming into force as regards river sand mining and other related operations.

He said, “The way to control environmental issues is not just having regulations. Arrests should be made from the lower levels, including at the point of mining, rather than stopping vehicles after loading of the materials,”

Besides one has to wait until a final decision in this regard is announced by the government, which will be very soon.