SRINAGAR: Thousands of labourers in Kashmir valley, from South to North Kashmir, are protesting a recent decision by the UT administration as it has e-auctioned hundreds of sand blocks along the river Jhelum and its tributaries and the contracts have been given to non-locals.

Recently, hundreds of sand diggers protested in Srinagar and approached local media, questioning the intentions of the authorities as they could not understand why they were in a hurry to e-auction the sand blocks at the peak of the clampdown with no internet facility in Jammu and Kashmir. For generations, thousands of families are dependent on sand extraction along river Jhelum. They dig the sand and transport them in hundreds of boats during the winters when the water level remains low in the river and its connecting tributaries.

According to the sand diggers’ association, this move of the government will render about one lakh families without livelihood, as police and authorities have recently banned them from extracting sand and were informed that the contract has been given to many non-locals who have applied for the same by e-auction. “Not only our families, but thousands of those families who take the sand in tippers to different destinations will suffer now. It will result in a huge crisis and would be a setback for construction work too,” said Muhammad Ramzan Rather who is heading one of the groups of sand diggers at Pantha Chowk on the outskirts of Srinagar in South Kashmir. “How can outsiders come and extract sand while we have been doing it for generations?” asked one of the protesting sand diggers in Srinagar.

According to senior officers in administration, it was a process completed recently on the guidelines of a Supreme Court order issued in 2015. “Under these guidelines, we have identified 260 mineral blocks for auction in river Jhelum and Sindh,” said an official. Government officials maintain that while the majority of sand was being extracted manually, in the past several years, some big business houses were using money and muscle power to use machines in the river beds for quick gains.

In 2019, the District Development Commissioner of Srinagar issued an order to all wings concerned of the government to stop all mining in river Jhelum. Local contactors of sand contradict the government claim and say that it was a “conspiracy” to bring outsiders in this business. “Outsiders can apply for sand mining lease after J&K became a Union Territory, but what is the safeguard for us. We have been doing this business for so many years, they are rendering us jobless. What was the hurry to go for e-auction when we were having no internet facility,” Altaf Ahmad Dar, a local contractor from Pulwama, said.

Although a few local contractors have been able to apply and compete, most of the sand blocks have gone to the outsiders and with ban on the extraction of sand, there has been a crisis for construction work as contractors have started selling the sand at exorbitant prices. As the season for extraction of sand is from September to March in Kashmir valley, locals are angry that the government ban on sand extraction in the middle of the season had left them without work. “We have now only dumped sand at many places and after selling it, we are left jobless,” said Masarat Ahmad Malla, one of the villagers at Sumbal in North Kashmir. Police recently booked dozens of youths for allegedly illegal extraction of sand. The Geology and Mining Department, which used to take royalty from hundreds of tippers for transportation of sand, has also refused to help them.