Srinagar: For over 20 years, Mohamad Yousuf, now in his early 60s, worked along the banks of river Jhelum extracting sand. He had saved enough money from his previous job as an accountant at a stone crushing unit to start his own business of sand extraction. Yousuf later involved over a dozen people from his locality where he is considered a saviour. Today, Yousuf, and all those with him, are broken due to fear of losing work, and their livelihoods.
A resident of Kakapora area of Pulwama, Yousuf, and many other like him, lost the bidding of land banks for sand mining along the Jhelum. This is the first time local residents of Kashmir have lost a majority of bids to those they term “outsiders”.
After January 18, the government announced auctions of land banks across the Kashmir valley, except Baramulla, for nearly a month. Over 150 land banks have or are currently being auctioned for extracting sand, stones or other minerals. Most of these land banks are in South Kashmir’s Pulwama area, where as many as 36 banks have been earmarked for auctioning.
With as many as 260 identified mineral blocks, the Jhelum, which emerges from Anantnag, flows through Kulgam, Shopian, Budgam, Pulwama, Srinagar, Bandipora and Baramulla. It is a lifeline for lakhs of households living in these areas. Aside from fishing, people in areas like Awantipora, Kakapora, Bijbehara and Sangam of Pulwama almost entirely depend on sand extraction. Many villagers from the dozens of villages in the area earn by working as labourers, as most of the extraction is done manually.
With the move to abrogate Article 370 and the bi-furcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, the change in the “special status” of the region opened the Jhelum to exploitation of non-state businessmen or outsiders.
As compared to last time, the auction amount in Pulwama alone has spiked multifold in the ongoing bidding. For 12 land blocks auctioned in Pulwama so far, the amount has reached Rs 17.82 crore, an official in the department of Geology and Mining told NewsClick, requesting anonymity.
“In Pulwama, 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 Rs 77 lakh only,” the official added.
Another bidder from Pulwama managed to bid up to Rs 88 lakh for a single block. “But, the bidding on the block crossed over Rs 1.15 crore,” a businessman from Srinagar in the know, said.
Yousuf said the bidding amount in most blocks crossed crores and most local businessmen like him have been just put out of work as most blocks are slipping from their hands. “Until now the rate per block would not be much. Some of the blocks would cost around Rs 1 lakh,” Yousuf said.
For mining a mineral block, there has to be a letter of intent provided by a district magistrate along with an environmental clearance and a mining plan to be approved by the Department of Geology and Mining. Finally, a consent from the pollution control board is required for operation.
According to officials from the geology department in Srinagar, where auctions were not held the last time, the highest bid has crossed Rs 1.62 crore and the total amount spiked to Rs 5.08 crore for less than a dozen blocks.
Seeing that most of the blocks are being taken by businessmen from outside the region, a businessman in Srinagar increased his bid amount despite knowing he would incur losses. “I even crossed Rs 1 crore to secure a block despite knowing that the amount is way too much for the block. But, someone else from outside Kashmir did not want to let go. I am just left wondering what he is up to,” the businessman said.
Within the department, many have also raised concerns about the use of heavy machinery equipment on the Jhelum. “It is another major concern. The locals know about the ecological sensitivity of the river. Wherever miners have used machinery for extraction of sand we have witnessed a damage in river bank and huge loss in flora and fauna reserves,” the official said.
With an increase in the bidding prices, the prices for construction material is likely to skyrocket. So will construction prices and everything else.