Kerala Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has raised some serious allegations against thte state government in regard to the sand mining in Pampa river. One of them is that the government is clandestinely planning to give away to private individuals free of cost about 75,000 cubic meter of sand, accumulated in the river bed of Pampa during the 2018 deluge. He has tried to establish, supported by documents, that the forest department had prepared to cleanse Pampa by removing the sedimented soil and contaminations, but that move was thwarted by the intervention of a government team consisting of former chief secretary Tom Jose, current chief secretary Vishwas Mehta and DGP Loknath Behera leading to a graft amounting to crores of rupees. The cabinet meeting held in early May had taken precise decisions against auctioning 'excess sand' of Pampa.
The cabinet decision was to supply a quantity of sand for the construction activities to enhance the pilgrimage facilities in Sabarimala, and to sell the balance through e-tender. However, the cabinet decision got overturned when a public sector undertaking in Kannur was given permission to collect the sand. When the forest department came out opposing this move, the chief minister intervened and gave permission to 'free sand extraction'. Since the firm that was awarded the contract did not possess the technical capability for that, that operation is now said to be performed by a private firm based in Kottayam. Opposition leader's contention is that this sand scam has resulted in a loss of crores of rupees that should have been netted by the state treasury.
Ramesh Chennithala's allegations merit serious debates. The government is facing acute financial crisis during this Covid time, when even for running its day-to-day expenditure it is reducing spending and taking measures including 'salary cut'; these steps are essential too. But if at the same time possible sources of revenue are not promptly tapped, that would be seen as a serious failing. According to the opposition version, the sand extraction in Pampa was a project with great potential for revenue generation. If sand were extracted in compliance with the Supreme Court's guidelines regarding mining after an accurate sand auditing and in a manner without harm to the environment, it would have become at least a slight relief for the financial crisis.
What happened unfortunately is just the opposite. It is notable that a controversy has arisen about Pampa when the state is under the threat of yet another flood. During previous floods, the sludge and contaminations that settles in the river were removed when the threat of another flood was looming. In many areas, river cleansing, which was a part of the flood prevention, did not take place at all. Post-flood mud and trees were all lying accumulated as earlier. That was the reason why with a single day's rain the other day, river Chaliyar overflowed the banks resulting in water-logging of roads in Nilambur town.
The water log in Nilambur tells us that the delay and deferment of works, which should have been completed in the summer itself, will lead to serious consequences. Even otherwise, it is a major misfortune here: in the war front against calamaties, the government and the people will join hands in all earnestness and set exemplary models, as vouched for by the last two floods. By the time the disaster is over, every one will forget all the lessons from them and without internalising any of such lessons, people will revert to their old habits. That precedent is being repeated through the current sand controversy too.
The committee headed by the chief secretary had found that following the flood, 22.67 lakh cubic metres of sand had sedimented in eight rivers including Pampa, Periyar and Chaliyar. And the Revenue department prepared a plan to extract 7.56 lakh cubic metres of sand on an urgent basis, and released guidelines for it too. For another seven rivers, approval was given for sand mining. But the government had to give up that plan early this year.
The government dropped moves to resume sand mining, which had been happening but was stopped for years following resistance by environmental activists citing that it was against prevailing mining laws and guidelines of National Green Tribunal. That opposition was inevitable. Anyone can easily guess who will stand to gain from the sand extraction without fulfilling conditions including sand quditing, and in the name of preventionof flood. What is happening in Pampa now is nothing different. Therefore, the need at this hour is action without damaging the equilibrium of the river and in full compliance with environment laws. And that will help the state at least to a great extent avert another flood and ensure administrative transparency.