Sand Storm

At the peak of internet blockade, UT administration e-auctioned around 100 sand blocks along the Jhelum river and some of its tributaries. Most of these blocks were bagged by non-locals leaving thousands of families surviving on sand digging for generations without a livelihood. It has also started hitting the real estate sector hard, reports Saima Bhat

KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

For the last two years Suhaib Ashiq, 18, starts his day early than his other classmates so that he can give enough time to his studies. As his friends leave their homes to refresh themselves in evenings, he changes his clothes and gets ready to reach his workplace on the banks of river Jhelum.

A resident of Padhshahibagh in Srinagar, where primary occupation is sand extraction, Suhaib is preparing for medical entrance these days. Unlike his classmates, he cannot afford to sit at his home after 5’O clock in the evening. He is the lone bread earner of his family of four members: parents and a sister after his father met an accident in 2017 that left him bedridden.

“I was then a class 10th student and my labourer father became bed-ridden. A tipper ran over his leg. The burden of running the family and continuing my and sister’s schooling became my responsibility,” Suhaib says. Both siblings were studying in a local private school.

Suhaib Ashiq

Left with no option he decided to earn his livelihood from the river like most of his neighbours did but he wished to continue his studies as well. He helps in loading the tippers with sand. His work starts at 5 pm, after his school, and then continues till midnight. Every truckload fetches him Rs 400 which makes him earn at least Rs 7000 a month.

“I was working when I came to know that I have scored 75 per cent in my class 10th  examination and I was again working when my 12th class results were announced. I scored 64 per cent which is lesser than what I had expected but I had no resources to go for private tuitions,” says Suhaib, who appears weaker than his classmates. But he is now uncertain about his studies as the government has come up with a notice that bans the extraction of sand from  Jhelum and its tributaries by the locals, who traditionally depend on the vocation for their livelihood.

Suhaib’s employer Waheed Ahmad Dar, 45,   says there are around 100 sites along Jhelum from Qazigund in south Kashmir to Boniyar in north Kashmir and at each site, there are around 100 boats that extract sand manually. Each boat has four labourers who extract sand from river,  four more labourers load it on tippers and two labourers are hired for the cleanliness of the shoal and the bund in the area as per the guidelines of Pollution Control Board.

“Around 1 lakh people who extract sand and around 50,000 tippers, that ferry this sand, will be directly affected now.  So around 1.5 lakh people will go jobless in one blow,”  says Waheed. “And then thousands of people who earn from fishing, also depend on the river for their livelihood. These people are mostly illiterates so how will they feed their families?”

Sand extraction in riiver Jhelum. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur
Sand extraction in river Jhelum. KL Image by Saima Bhat

Javaid Ahmad Malla, 27, is a resident of a small village of Aghanzpora in Awantipora. Every morning he puts on a waterproof trouser and heads towards Jhelum that runs through outskirts of the village. He works on a boat as a labourer and extracts sand all day. He earns a sum of Rs 600 a day. “I am extracting sand since I was in grade six.”

The village has a population of over 200 males and all are dependent on sand mining.

But the villagers were recently told they have to stop the extraction of the sand as their block is being leased to a contractor. They hardly understand the e-auctioning and the tendering system.

“How come a person from other areas can come and extract sand where we have been mining since generations,” says Malla. “Where shall we go, what shall we do?

Supreme Court Guidelines

It was after Supreme Court order in 2015, the officials say, that the extraction of minor minerals including sand, boulders and muck, was to be regulated like major minerals. Under this order, all the states of India were asked to frame guidelines to regulate the extraction of minerals. Rules were drafted for the mining of minerals from Jhelum, Sindh and their tributaries and in the first instance at least 260 mineral blocks were identified for auctioning on Jhelum alone.

Under the guidelines, the government of India defined four-member committees that will work as State environment impact assessment authority (SEIAA) which will be assisted by an 18 member committee of state environmental assessment committee (SEAC). After the demarcation of blocks, the committees decided to go for tendering and online auctions.

“Out of 100, 70 per cent people doing this work manually, are poor and illiterate and 30 per cent are the big shots who used to extract minerals with machines,” an officer working in the department says, preferring anonymity.

Ajaz Ahmad, the executive engineer in Irrigation and Flood Control (I&FC) for district Srinagar says they received an order from the district commissioner in early 2019 to stop all mining. This was followed by a government order which says a committee will be formed involving four departments; I&FC, Fisheries, Environment and Geology and Mining,  which will supervise the mining.

“Under this order, we were supposed to give a plan on how and where the mining has to be carried out so that our embankments are not damaged,” Ahmad says. “For all contracts, the applicants have to get environmental clearance from J&K  to start their work. Environment clearance, or a NOC from Punjab or any other state won’t work here.”

Traditional sand diggers manually excavating sand from river Jhelum. KL Image by Mehraj Bhat
Traditional sand diggers manually excavating sand from river Jhelum. KL Image by Mehraj Bhat

Initially I&FC, an insider says, had decided to go for open auctions but was later forced to reverse course following public resentment to the move.

”After J&K became a UT, more people started applying for the contract,” he says. “In Jammu, there was the use of muscle power after which it was decided that the department will go for e-auctions.”

 Outsiders Corner Lion’s Share

A local contractor Rafiq Ahmad says even outsiders can apply for a sand mining lease.  “The first order issued by the department read that if non-local contractors wished to apply they should have a local state subject along but soon the department came with a corrigendum and omitted that condition,” Rafiq says.

The auctions were publicized in September and the process to allot contracts began in January 2020 with the leasing of 20 blocks of Bandipore.

Out of 20 blocks, only one was won by a local firm of Mohammad Amin Mir and rest went to different contractors based in Punjab.

All these blocks were bid for around Rs one crore. Three blocks (2, 15 and 16) fetched bids of Rs 4470000,  Rs 1290000 and Rs 2070000 respectively. Rest of the bids could not even cross Rs 3 lakh because the second bidder was not a local.

In district Budgam, tenders were invited for seven blocks and all were won by the outside contractors for a total bid amount of Rs 17 lakhs only. The highest bid was at Rs 4 lakhs for block 7(Aru-Wohangam bridge to Rathsun).

For district Srinagar, tenders were published for 10 blocks and here also all the blocks were won by outside contractors for a total amount of Rs 5.81 crores with block 7 from Palpora to Choochan Noorbagh going for Rs 1,62 crores, and block 4  from Padhshahibagh to Rajbagh fetching Rs 1,06 crores.  Similarly block 8 from Choochan to Tengpora and block 3 from Gandabal to Padshahibagh went for Rs 78 lakhs and Rs 72 lakhs respectively.

For district Pulwama, tenders were sought for 38 blocks. So far auction has been held for only 12 blocks earning the government Rs 17.82 crores. The highest bid for one block went up to Rs 3.25 crore. Last time, the total amount was Rs 2 crore and the highest bid made was just Rs 77 lakh.

The friends and now partners, Muzaffar Ahmad Mir and Khan Javaid Ahmad, working under the firm Mohammad Amin Mir, had submitted their bids for eight blocks in Bandipore but they could win only one.

“We blame the internet for our loss,”  Khan says. “After August 5, the internet remains a luxury for us.”

KL Artwork by Malik Yasir

Though the duo had gone to the district office to access the internet it could not help them much.

“DC Bandipore was generous enough to provide us access from the server but unfortunately it had very slow speed and our opponents usually have leased lines with more than 20 Mbps speed,” Khan says. “During bidding, our computer used to show us ‘please wait’ after providing a new rate and till the time the page refreshed, the tenders were won by outsiders.

As of now, out of the 20 blocks in Bandipore, tenders for 14 blocks were cancelled by the chairman of the supervising committee. “They were supposed to pay the minimum reserve bids in 48 hours and when they submitted their demand drafts, all of the money had come from a single bank account,” an insider said. “We became suspicious and found that it was actually only one company filing these tenders with different names.”

Any defaulter, as per the rules, will be banned for five years in case the contract winners fail to fill formalities. In Bandipore case, the insiders found the same people had participated in the bidding process of Budgam, Srinagar and Pulwama districts. “If they are defaulters in Bandipore then how can they be given tenders in other districts,” Javed Ahmad asked.

“We will be doing re-auction in Budgam as well,” said an official. He refused to comment on why the same contractors were allowed to bid in Srinagar and Pulwama but asserted the rules are unclear if the contractor has to be banned by the government or the district commissioner in case of unfair means. “Any Deputy Commissioner doesn’t want to take any harsh decision against these contractors because the auction process is being monitored directly from high offices,” he added.

Unequal Competition

Other than the lack of access to the internet, Khan and Mir allege that the non-local contractors increase the bidding amount when they apply for a block.

“We cannot bid higher as most of our bills remain pending with the government for years together,”  Mir says. “After a contractor wins a contract he has to deposit minimum reserve bid which is 50 per cent of the total bid amount. So we can’t bid beyond a few blocks.”

Kashmir Life spoke to at least ten more contractors and asked them why they didn’t file their tenders for these contracts.  They blame lack of internet access.  Other reasons they give is their ignorance about the outsiders applying for the leases and also their inability to shell out money needed for minimum reserve bids.

After the process was over, a non-local contractor called Mir and Ahmad. “He was very disappointed over losing three blocks in Pulwama to a local contractor,” Ahmad said. “Curious, I asked him same why is he so disappointed and he said – ‘we have a company rule that we cannot leave any block even if the bid amount crosses a crore’.”

The local contractor duo alleges that the non-local contractor was willing to work jointly. “When I asked them why they are bidding for the block where no profit-making is possible, he said they are not interested in profit but only winning these contractors regardless of the costs,” the contractor said.

Coming to a Boil

On the banks of river Jhelum at Padshahibagh, Waheed and his neighbours are angry. They have resolved not to let anyone snatch their livelihood.

Waheed has hired two boats, one is from Banihal and another from Sumbal. Firdous, a resident of Sumbal leaves his home every day at 2.30 am and reaches Padshahibagh at 3.30 am to start his work. He says around 80 more youth from his locality come to this site for their work every day. They work till 11.30 am and then return to their homes.

Firdous, 25, says he couldn’t continue his studies past 12th class as he couldn’t afford it.

“Sumbal area is very poor and that is why we travel such a long distance to earn our livelihood,” Firdous says. “We extract sand from mid-September to March only, when we earn a decent amount but then from April till September we work as labourers to load the dumped sand. That time we earn only Rs 500 a day.”

Labourers, he adds,  also come from Banihal region.

Ashiq Ahmad Dar

But now they think their future is in danger. “So far we are happy that these contractors, even after winning the contracts were not able to submit their minimum reserve bids,” says Waheed’s brother Ashiq Hussain, who is also into sand mining. He owns two tippers and has hired two boats from Banihal.  “And we believe it is very difficult to get  NOC from Irrigation and Flood control department”.  Around sixteen youth of the locality joined hands in 2013 and pooled money to get a sand dredger. But they were not provided with  NOC. “When we were not allowed to use this small machine  how can these contractors use big dredgers,” questions Ashiq.

Waheed says that an outside contractor will use sand mining machines. “But before that, they will have to submit their mining plans and then an environment clearance, consent from the pollution control board and I&FC department and then sign for ensuring safeguard for the environment,” Waheed says. “We think it will be difficult for outsiders to meet all these stipulations.”

After the e-auction order, Padshahibagh sand diggers say they requested the geology and mining department to take a royalty from them. “We requested them instead of Rs 180 per tipper, take Rs 300. We have 100 tippers and every year we have 200 working days. Our rough estimate is they can earn Rs 60 lakh every year when the e-auctions have been done at much lesser amounts,” says Waheed. “And now when sand extraction is banned, everyday local youths are booked under FIRs. A week ago 14 youth have been booked along Padshahibagh-Rajbagh stretch and six youth in Gadhainzpora.”

Ariz Mohammad, a tipper driver who used to ferry sand, reveals how difficult his job has become. “If we are caught the first time we are fined Rs 10,000. The second time, we could be sent to jail and our vehicle auctioned,” says Mohammad adding there are thousands of tipper drivers associated with the industry, all of them live in fear of getting caught. “Sometimes it looks as if we are not ferrying sand but RDX. We can’t even ferry other building material like Bajri, boulders, soil.”

For now, the manual sand extractors like Waheed and Ashiq and the others like Mohammad are keeping their fingers crossed. They also see a design behind outsiders getting sand contracts: “Kashmir has a history of giving jobs to outsiders but now people are working on a plan that Kashmiris should work as employees and not employers,” says Waheed.

Environmental Cost

Shakeel Ramshoo, a noted environmental expert, says the likely mechanization of the sand mining will not only wreak havoc with the livelihood of locals but also the fish diversity.

KL Artwork by Malik Yasir
KL Artwork by Malik Yasir

“We have not learnt anything after 2014 floods,” Ramshoo says. “We have recommended the identification of river sanctuaries so that we can save Jhelum. The vandalisation of the environment won’t be allowed.”

“At least 150 contracts were approved in Jammu region alone, which were mostly bagged by relatives of a known contractor,” another environmental expert working at the University of Kashmir said. “But the environment appraisal committee did not approve any of his contracts. Wining a bid does not mean that the contractor can start his work but he has to pass through the stringent environmental guidelines, which have been drafted by at least 18 technical professionals. Despite tremendous pressure from authorities, I don’t think it will be allowed at the cost of the environment.”

The expert said that only three contracts (two from Lethpora and one from Jhelum) reached the committee and they too were turned down. “In Kashmir, there is no big lobby but yes because of political uncertainty some people are pushing non-locals to enter this region.”

However, chief engineer I&FC Shahnawaz Ahmad, affirms that no mechanical mining will be allowed. “Our department was supposed to identify spots where mining can be done but we are clear it has to be done manually inside the river,” he says  “We have decided to put it as a condition in the project plan.”

(With inputs from Umar Mukhtar)


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