Feature

‘Shifting sands’ in Kashmir’s abrogated riverbeds

Sand excavators at job.

Amidst shooting prices, widening gap between demand and supply, sand barons who mostly happen to be non-locals now, are sitting on gold mines, while leaving thousands of locals related to the trade at a disadvantage.

As part of Kashmir’s construction story that paved way to new neighbourhoods and housing colonies in the valley over the years, Mohammad Sultan became a sunshine trader. A fleet of ten tippers that he owned would ferry loads of sand in Srinagar at sundown.

Everything was going well, before August 5, 2019 changed his business usual.

His work-field since then has passed through a series of snoopy measures. Apart from bolstering bureaucrats and well-oiled lawmen, the strict edicts have made it a tough task.

“The motive is clear,” Sultan talks about the ‘abrogated’ landscape of Kashmir, “and that’s to disempower Kashmiris from different business ventures in their own homeland.”

Today, Sultan’s sullen tribe stripped of ‘sway and say’ is unable to make peace with the shifting sands of Kashmir.

As sand producers harbour a disempowered mindset, commoners in Kashmir are bogged down with construction blues.

Levered and limited

After his hectic struggle to get a few hundred square feet of sand miserably failed, Mohammad Shaban shelved the plan to host the marriage function this year for his recently-engaged daughter Mymoona.

“I wanted to add some space to my existing single-storied house before marrying off my daughter, but have left the thought, because the prices of sand have skyrocketed,” deplores Shaban, a resident of Hazratbal Srinagar.

Like Shaban, many people in the valley are facing a tough time to buy construction material due to scarcity, or unaffordable prices. In particular, the scarcity of sand has hit hard the construction activities.

“It was after lengthy departmental procedures, that I managed to get the permission from the town Muncipal Committee for the construction of a house,” says Reyaz Ahmad, a resident of Rangreth, Srinagar. “But due to uncertain pricing and scarcity of sand, I don’t think I can do it this year.”

Cost of one tipper, which is around 170 square feet of sand, in Srinagar and vicinity, ranges from Rs 14,000 to Rs 16,000, says Arshid, a mason.

With such whopping prices, if a person is able to get few tippers, he considers himself lucky, the mason exclaims.

Forbidden Treasure

After graduation, Showkat Lorhanji took to the family trade of sand excavation from the river Jhelum at Latti Mohalla, Gund Roshan of district Ganderbal. But following his forefathers’ footsteps is not easy for him.

“Authorities are not allowing us to extract any sand,” Showkat, heading a team of forty manual sand-miners, says. “Seizure of sand boats, regular FIRs and constant bullying have rendered us workless from the past six months.”

Earlier, he says, the sand excavators used to pay royalty Rs 100 per load to the Geology and Mining Department on Chungis (Collection Points), but they’ve stopped the practice now, “since the department says the sand block has been auctioned”.

Department of Geology and Mining of J&K had opened more than 200 mineral blocks of Jhelum and its tributaries across the valley for mining of sand, boulders, gravel and other riverbed material via e-auction last December. It undid the tradition of collecting royalty from the sand-diggers and the related transporters at designated Chungis.

The act has not gone well with the people involved with the sand trade. Most of the sand blocks auctioned have gone to the kitty of non-local bidders.

In Srinagar alone, all the ten sand-blocks went to the non-locals leaving many local bidders and traders uncertain about their business. Many aspirants allege that they were not able to participate in the e-auction.

“Had I got an iota of instinct about the e-auctioning of sand blocks, I would’ve also participated in the bid, since these blocks alluding towards sand are our livelihood,” laments Mohammad Yaqoob, a young sand-miner.

The same anguish is being voiced by Shabir Ahmad, a sand excavator from Shilwat Bandipore. Slow internet facility and high-end bidding compelled him to stay away from the process, he says.

“I tried to submit my papers online for the bidding but the lack of proper internet facility prevented me from doing so,” Shabir says.

Authorities had started the 2G internet on January 25, six months after the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of erstwhile state of J&K into union territories of J&K and Ladakh on August 5 last year, when the government blacked-out phone services and the internet communication in the valley.

However, notification for the e-auction of sand blocks was widely advertised and published via widely circulated newspapers and other media, says Mohammad Altaf, District Mineral Officer (DMO) of Bandipore.

“Presently whoever is excavating sand in the district is indulging in an unlawful act,” Altaf says. “We’ve approached the police authorities to stop the illegal mining of the sand in the area.”

 

Choked Means

Hafizullah Lone, owner of three tippers, has been in sand-ferrying trade for almost two decades now in his native Ganderbal district. The sturdy sandman counts a number of reasons for the trade setback.

“Rate of sand, whatever available, from diggers has almost doubled,” says Hafizullah. “Earlier I used to lift a tipper load for Rs 5,000-6,000 against the current rate of Rs 11,000-12,000 from sand diggers.”

Constant pressure from the officials, seizure of tippers and unaffordable prices of the load have halted the trade, rues Umer Aslam, a young sand transporter from Srinagar.

“I used to charge Rs 7,000 per load last year, but this year I’ve hung up the keys, as the price for the same has almost doubled within the span of six months,” Lateef Ahmad, a tipper owner from Sumbal, says.

“My tipper has a current liability of Rs 8 lakh with the bank. I will be compelled to handover the vehicle to the bank, if the current situation does not change.”

Desperate Bids

Since there’s a blanket ban from the authorities to do any digging, a local sand digger, getting desperate for living,  says, “I along with three colleagues are compelled to do it during dark hours to feed our families.”

Moreover, he says, the successful bidder of the sand block who happens to be non-local “collects Rs 3,000 to 4,000 from us per load through his watchers”.

Clearly, as the script of Kashmir construction story has changed, the shifting sands in the abrogated landscape of the valley are only making locals feel disempowered and dispossessed.

 

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