When it comes to the acute shortage of stone chips and sand that is plaguing construction across the State, Dispur is sending out conflicting versions that is adding to the confusion. Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal may have formed an inter-departmental committee consisting of Forest and Public Works departments, but the departmental ministers themselves are busy laying the blame at each other’s doorstep. PWD minister Parimal Suklabaidya has lamented that the shortage has brought departmental projects worth Rs 900 crore to a standstill, hinting that road construction and repair during the rainy season will not be possible due to the present crisis. Coming out strongly against the Forest department, two contractor associations have alleged that despite paying royalty through challans, the department is not supplying them stone chips and sand, thereby forcing them to look at other sources and fork out much higher prices. In Guwahati alone, as many as 69 PWD projects worth Rs 100 crore have been stalled due to this minor building material crunch, the contractors pointed out. These materials were earlier sourced from Kamrup East Forest Division to meet the requirements for Guwahati, but the contractors say they are now being sent to Kamrup West Forest Division where the mahals providing the materials are situated farther away, thereby raising transportation costs. The problem stems primarily from the fact that there are around 13 stone quarrying sites in lower Assam, but the lease periods of lessees running these sites have expired. Unless Dispur gets on with the tendering process to award stone quarrying contracts to new lessees, the supply of stone chips from these sites cannot resume.
This apart, the Forest department will also require no-objection certificates from the Central government to allow stone quarrying. The crisis has been aggravated by the tiol Green Tribul’s ban on stone quarrying in Meghalaya hills; the NGT has made it clear the ban will not be lifted until Meghalaya government comes out with proper scientific rules to regulate such activity. The contractors in Assam also say they are confused as to which department, Forest or Mines and Minerals, is in charge of stone quarrying — because in the past, both these departments have fixed the royalty and revenue due from stone chips. Referring to stone quarries located in Rani area on Guwahati outskirts remaining closed because the area has been desigted as an eco-sensitive zone, the contractor associations have pointed out cement units operating in the area. Forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma has meanwhile lambasted PWD contractors for the ‘artificial shortage’, stating that without the contractors paying advance royalty to her department, there can be no supply of stone chips. This is required under the Mines & Minerals Act, which needs to be enforced strictly now, Brahma has pointed out. While she claims there are no pending royalty paid indents for such minerals from the PWD and other departments, she admits individual consumers are facing issues. As per data by the Forest department, there are 455 quarries across the State for minor minerals, of which 250 are functioning presently. It has also informed that additiol 57 quarries are under sale process, while clearances are being sought from the Central government for operating 23 quarries in reserved forest areas.
It suffices to say that the State government has long neglected to chalk out a clear policy on minor building materials which involves several departments. If key departments are trading allegations over the shortage, the plight of individual homebuilders can well be gauged. Not only are they now running around to access stone chips and sand, they find themselves at the mercy of mafias jacking up prices at whim. This is apart from the constant high prices of key building materials like iron and cement, what with major manufacturers in the region operating like cartels to defraud common people. What needs be understood by stakeholders and consumers is how environmental concerns are impacting the construction business. Blasting of hills to quarry stones is being prohibited. Riverbeds are being haphazardly dug up for sand and boulders, which frequently aggravate flooding and erosion. Court bans and government decisions have made many such mining and quarrying activities illegal. The State government needs to take its cue from the Centre fast and devise appropriate policies, so as to tide over shortages and prevent monopolistic practices by manufacturers. But overall, the supply of construction materials will need to be balanced with the need for environment conservation. There is no escaping the fact that extraction of such resources will be regulated as per scientific standards in coming days. This should accelerate the search and use of substitute materials, on which the government again has to take the lead.