The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s decision to do away with permits to transport sand, rocks and earth has been met with mixed reactions; the construction industry is extremely happy, but environmentalists are aghast.
“I am totally opposed to the lifting of the permit,” lawyer and environmentalist Jagath Gunawardena told Counterpoint. In a situation where it is near impossible to monitor all of the rivers, granite deposits and soil excavations, the only recourse to limit the environmental devastation caused were these permits, he pointed out. The permits limited the number of trucks that transport these raw materials.
Even though there is corruption involved in the transporting of these materials, it still meant that there was some safeguard to stall the unlimited extraction of these resources, he said.
But, with the government’s decision to do away with the permits, environmentalists fear, it is now open season!
Minister for Environment, Wildlife Resources, Land and Land Development S.M. Chandrasena, told the media that the decision came following special cabinet paper aimed at helping the construction sector. Mr. Chandrasena also told the media that a committee has been formed to further identify relief measures for the construction sector. The move, he pointed out would reduce the price of sand, rock and soil. Later, Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena clarified that permits were removed temporarily and that a decision would be made within a week, after studying its impact.
One would have expected a responsible government to first study the environmental impact and other issues, before removing the permit system that has been in place for several years. Not the other way around!
The permit system goes as far back as 1993 says Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam, the National Coordinator of the Centre for Environmental & Nature Studies. It effectively curtailed the volume of sand for instance that could be mined and transported. Granted, illegal actions continue, and in a country where bribery and corruption is rampant, it has not been too difficult for those who flouted the regulations, he said. However, there are limits on how many tipper loads per permit could be transported, which meant some control over the extraction of raw materials that play an important role in environment conservation. In the case of sand mining, he stated that in 2006 the courts had banned sand mining in the Ma Oya, and the Deduru Oya. However, it was the permit system for transport of the sand that effectively controlled the volume extracted. “Sand is a precious commodity; it takes a billion years for a grain of sand to form. It is exploited because there is money in it, just two people are required to mine and fill a tipper load and they would be paid Rs. 1000 each. But the sand is sold in Colombo for instance for around Rs. 16,000 per tipper-load. Even after factoring in transport costs, and in some cases oiling the palms of corrupt officials, those involved in the trade make a good profit.’
Dr. Kariyawasam points to the scarcity of water in the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura areas, claiming it’s caused by the extensive sand mining of rivers. Even when the Mahaweli River is in spate miners dig the lands close to it for sand and the people of the area have to go down deeper and deeper in search of water. Miners also dig up the lakes, when they cannot work in the rivers he stated, and this affects the sedimentation process. He accused those involved in the trade of paying scant respect for the environment; ‘the river beds collapse, Daduru Oya, for instance is now a 100 metres wide, when it used to be about a 20 metres. And that is saying nothing about the ecological crisis that has occurred. Sri Lanka has 51 endemic species whose habitat is the river bed, and that is getting lost to them.”
In fact, a 2013 study ‘Water Integrity in Action CURBING ILLEGAL SAND MINING IN SRI LANKA, authored by Kiran Pereira and Ranjith Ratnayake, state that, “Sand mining is especially counter-intuitive because of the inescapable issues of rising sea levels and climate change. Saline intrusion changes the nature of the river itself, causes loss of ecosystems and directly threatens the survival of most species that are particularly adapted to their habitats.” The report also points to the socio-economic impact brought about by the negative effects on agriculture and also that ‘it is important to realise that many societies were built along rivers and vulnerable rivers can magnify the vulnerability of such societies.”
Dr. Kariyawasam pointed out that one project that required large loads of the rock was the Colombo Port City Project. According to some estimates, around 3.43 million cubic meters of granite was required to reclaim land from the sea for this project. While other projects do not require such a large quantity, the unprecedented boom in the construction industry has meant that the demand for soil and rock apart from sand has more than doubled.
Rock blasting and soil excavation bring about further hardships for those living close to those sites, be it landslide or material damage to buildings. Also of concern is the damage to rural roads, culverts and bridges that are ill-equipped to stand the constant use of heavy vehicles transporting these raw materials.
Meanwhile, P.B. Hemantha Jayasinghe, Director General Central Environmental Authority told Counterpoint that “The government has decided to temporarily hold issuing sand transportation permits. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) is monitoring and looking into the matter. What the authorities are looking at is minimizing environmental harm caused by sand mining.”
“The Central Environmental Authority is looking into the impact sand mining has on the environment. We can’t say that there are people who do not violate conditions stipulated by the government for sand mining. It causes environmental harm. Then there is illegal sand mining. We are taking legal action against perpetrators whenever we come across such incidents.”
“Authorities, especially the NBRO, will soon announce the decision with regard to this issue.”
Despite environmentalists shaking their heads in dismay over this matter, for the construction industry the removal of the permit comes as a bonanza. Says Nalin Kodikara, Managing Partner of Didula Constructions, “Since the permit removal, it is easier for us to do our work. The suppliers are giving us sand on time. Before, because of the permit issues, sand transportation was delayed.”
“There is a difference in the price of sand now too. Now a cube of sand is about Rs 400 -500 less than what we used to pay.”
Given the enormity of the environmental problem, it is indeed surprising that the requirement for transport permits was lifted, before commissioning an in depth study on the issue. Though the government promised to review the effects within a week, it is now almost ten days since the removal. There has been no other communique on the matter. One needs to ask too, whether the impact of such a move could be seen within a week!
The government seems to be keen to woo the construction industry and perhaps infuse more incentives into businesses. However, it looks more like a short term gain, where all those in the construction industry will be happy, while the long term environment devastation, which will impact our future generations, of course, will be a whole other matter unless required checks and balances are put in.