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NATURAL WEALTH

With the widespread publicity it got at the time, it was hoped that the Durga Shakti Nagpal affair would be followed up not only by establishing the rightful role of the executives but also by the formulation of policies in the sector of sand mining and trading. Regrettably, after the re-instatement of Nagpal, the matter seems to have been forgotten.

Sand is a mineral which is abundantly available in every state of India and in demand everywhere. Perhaps because of this, its potential value to the exchequer is overlooked. But there is every reason why this natural wealth should demand the same attention as that demanded by, say, coal or limestone.

The writer travels frequently on National Highway 2 leading out of the Calcutta metropolitan area. A familiar sight all the way outward from Calcutta is that of a series of empty trucks returning after delivery to the metropolitan area; on the way back, an equally familiar sight is line after line of sand-laden trucks standing on the roadside, waiting for the entry timing restriction for the metropolitan area to be lifted. One cannot but wonder at the huge consumption of diesel for such empty runs, although, doubtless, the cost is recovered from the buyer of the sand.

Crossing culverts and bridges, one can see giant excavators gouging huge bucketfuls from dry river beds. What effect this can have on erosion and other environmental issues is for experts to assess. On January 14, a young man picnicking near Illambazar on the bed of river Ajoy was drowned in a deep pit while he was wading in knee-deep water. There was a mild furore in the press over this and perhaps this was the reason behind a West Bengal government notification on February 2 saying that the control over the extraction of sand was being moved from the land department to the irrigation department — which seems a sensible move, although the result will lie in the quality of administration.The same notification stated that the government now expected to earn Rs 250 crores annually from sand extraction.

An RTI inquiry has been made to ask exactly how the government realizes its income from the sand business —whether it is through leasing rights or whether it is linked to the quantity extracted. If it is the former, it seems too open-ended and if it is the latter, then there is no evidence of a government apparatus for proper supervision to ensure rightful revenue earnings. The amount received in the last three years has also been questioned.

The entire economics of the sand business needs to be reconsidered. The price at which the burgeoning building contractors buy the product throughout the country is essentially the cost of transportation and the big margins of the supplier. In the final cost of the building constructed, the total cost of sand is minute; if it is increased several times, there will only be a tiny increase in the cost of the building. A natural wealth will then be properly exploited by the State. The sand should be marketed in returnable jute bags in much the same way as cement used to be marketed not so long ago. Immediately, the following benefits will ensue. First, the jute industry will get a much- needed fillip. Second, there will be a big boost to local employment. Third, transportation can be in general-purpose trucks, in railway wagons, barges and the like. The wastage of diesel in the long haulage of specially designed empty trucks will then be avoided. Fourth, the inventory management and accounting will, at all stages, be simple and suited for correct revenue collection. Fifth, the stacking of sand on the roadside, blowing dust all over and causing problems to pedestrians, will be avoided and the product itself will not suffer from exposure to the elements. Surely, all these advantages and more justify an increase in the price at which sand is practically given away today.