Kashmir’s Banned Stones—Part II: Penalties, Nexuses And Costly Homes

A stone quarry in Athwajan, on the outskirts of Srinagar. REUTERS- Fayaz Kabli

‘Those who had hoped to build new homes and were in process, have been worst-hit of the blackmarketing of crushed stone.’

AFTER Kashmir witnessed mass socio-political detentions and a total political reshuffle in August 2019, works that were never finished, half finished, or nearly finished in the former state’s offices were brusquely shifted to New Delhi and the eager stone miners’ wait for their clearances got longer amid complicated red-tapism.

The pandemic and the suspension of ‘normal’ since the outbreak of Covid-19 has further stretched the sarkari offices’ working timelines, that the common citizenry already mocks for being sloth-paced.

As it has been established that none of the stone-quarry holders have been successful in procuring environmental clearances yet, it’s understood that no mine has had the permission to operate. Legally.

But, on the contrary, government officers from departments overlooking civil works, planning, and infrastructure have been pulling up contractors for not completing tendered jobs.

“It’s baffling,” remarked Zeeshan Rehman, the acting chairperson of the Senior Contractors Coordination Committee (J&K).

“After raising my issue of non-availability of raw materials,” he continued, narrating his own experience, “I received official permission to ply tippers. But what good is that? I may rent and drive a tipper around, but where will I get my ‘aggregate’ from?”

Shafeeq Hussain Bhat, a self-employed tipper driver, confirmed that in spite of a ban on the extraction of stones, quarries are operating because of high demand from official quarters.

Unassociated with the mines and their legal problems, he brings his vehicle to the road whenever he gets an order.

He loads the aggregate, what he calls ‘maal’, onto his lorry after paying the quarry, and delivers it to its final destination where he receives his payment from the civil contractors.

Many “royalty-hunters” have caught him and his peers since their covert trips began. “They seize our vehicles – only to be released as per the whims of the police officials, and fine us anything between Rs 15,000 and 30,000.”

He said that he lost about one lakh rupees in such penalties since last year’s SRO-powered ban.

“On a good day,” Bhat continued, “I earn anywhere between Rs 1500 and 2000. My troubles are very serious. There’re about 700 tippers in northern belt of Pampore – where I come from. They’re all in very deep stress.”

Read Part 1 Of The Story: Kashmir’s Banned Stones — Part I: Closure of Century Old Quarry

He has understood, from the changes in the industry’s modus operandi, that the ‘royalty system’ has stopped and a new model of ‘penalties’ has been put in its place.

Unsorting the clutter of the new process, while trying to explain it, he said, “They’re not taking royalties anymore. That system was straightforward. I had receipts that let me proceed with my trips. The miners are ready to pay their royalties like they’ve been for so many years.”

But the authorities, he said, are not ready to operate like that anymore for reasons best known to them.

“The government,” Bhat informed, “has banned stone crushers but is ironically demanding the completion of civil tenders with a ban on the production of the raw material. Hence, like this, we are forced to operate. Also by the punch of our hungry stomachs, we’re forced to earn. We leave at night in the name of Allah to be eventually caught by the government for breaking ‘rules’. Karein toh kya karein!”

As an obvious consequence of such sly operations, the final price of the raw material has doubled, in some areas, tripled.

A trip which used to previously cost Bhat Rs 3000 for 200 cubic feet, costs him Rs 6000 now.

“Even diesel prices have skyrocketed,” he said. “That factor cannot be ignored. What we paid Rs 50-55 for, is now worth Rs 80 per litre.”

After talking to the industry insiders as part of the fact-finding exercise, Kashmir Observer was able to break up the spiked price into five main components that intelligibly tells one the reasons behind the increase: rampant and high penalties, ban on explosives, opportunity cost, risk, and an overall crunch in regular supply.

After the 2019 Pulwama attack, Hilal Ahmad, a quarry holder from Pampore, alleged that stone quarries were asked to stop blasting rocks for their business.

“As per my information,” Hilal detailed, “in the official report that investigated into the material used in the highway bombing, none of the materials that we, stone crushers, use to blow up rocks, were listed.”

But soon after the fateful incident, he said, the miners were stopped from using explosives for extraction. “The implicit ban on explosives has resulted in the employment of manual labourers for the job, making the process of extraction more expensive.”

Most of the stones processed in northern pockets of Pampore are utilised in official projects, Hilal alleged, but after the ban on explosives and extraction, the government’s progress in its own projects had stopped.

“Since the work was pending, the Deputy Commissioner of Pulwama District said that he could allow us to extract and crush stones if we used people for breaking rocks instead of explosives,” Hilal said. “He was essentially asking us to invest Rs 1000 in place of the regular amount of Rs 100. It was infeasible.”

Kashmir Observer tried to contact Dr Raghav Langer, Deputy Commissioner of Pulwama District, for his comments, but repeated calls and texts went unanswered. As and when he replies, this copy will be updated.

Acting on pressure from contractors who’ve accused the administration of pressuring them, some stone-quarry holders sold their old stock.

“For example,” Hilal explained, “if a contractor needed to build a 4-km road stretch, I was able to provide him material for 2 km from my own reserves. Now, the government says that it will not pay the contractor until the full road has been completed.”

So, he said, just like that a lot of payments are stuck.

“We’ve been delegitimized, our clearances are taking many years to come, we cannot even legally operate to produce the materials for their projects, and our income is being blocked by uncooperative official moves,” the man lamented.

“How will any of this be sorted out unless the government realises that it is contradicting itself everywhere? This incompetent attitude has hurt our community beyond description and we are facing grave issues.”

The government has reportedly given the contractors a ‘death period’ for completing their tendered projects.

On failing to do so, the deposit handed over by the contractors (in some cases amounting to crores) while taking up the project will remain in the treasury of the concerned department. Lost forever in an paradoxical circus of legal orders and legal tenders.

Kashmir’s Divisional Commissioner, PK Pole told Kashmir Observer that “sand and bricks were available to complete the tenders”, insinuating that the complaints were unwarranted.

“No two contracts are the same and not all projects require just sand and bricks – although these two industries are facing serious issues of their own,” Zeeshan Rehman underlined. “Bajri is an essential commodity in construction.”

In short, said Basheer Khan, former President of Hot Mix Plant Owners, the parameters of pricing have collapsed.

Ab yeh loot ka maal ban gaya hai (a black market for this has been formed),” he stressed.

Many players associated with mining business ‘regretted’ how the final burden of such cost escalation fell on the backs of the common people.

“Those who had hoped to build new homes and were in process, have been worst-hit,” Khan rued. “Budgets worth Rs 4-5 lakhs are proving insufficient to build regular Kashmiri homes amid this cost escalation.”

This blackmarketing of crushed stone ‘aggregate’ since its year-old ban has formed an intricate and dark nexus of illegal cash flow in Kashmir.

“These mines and their operations need to be scrutinised very thoroughly,” said Nadeem Qadri, an environmental lawyer based in Pampore.

In Baramulla, Qadri said, he highlighted a case of illegal extraction and it turned out to be “a deep nexus involving the Department of Geology and Mining”.

There’re a lot of cement factories owned by elitist bigwigs of the Valley in Pampore belt, Hilal remarked.

“My peers and I have a hunch that most of them are working without environmental clearances and here they are asking those who carry a 20 kg hammer every day to break rocks (stone miners), for these ‘big’ documents,” he said.

To be continued…

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