A sandy solution for Nitish’s revenue coffers
Chief minister Nitish Kumar keeps demanding that New Delhi should make Bihar a special category state. But New Delhi points out that special category status-which entitles a state to get 90% of central assistance as grants instead of loans-is meant to overcome the problems of hilly states with remote, difficult terrain that makes transport and communications difficult (Kashmir, the north-eastern states, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand). Bihar is not remote or mountainous. It was the epicentre of the Maurya and Gupta empires, and in the 1950s was India’s industrial heartland.
Yet, even while calling for citizens to take pride in being Bihari, Kumar keeps demanding special category status. One critic sneers that his notion of pride is “to convert Biharis to bhikaris (beggars)”. Another internet critic says, “The people of Bihar chose to elect the Joker named Lalu for multiple successive terms, who just destroyed Bihar economically. They have to pay the price for the so-called social justice they achieved in 90’s by choosing that buffoon as their leader. Real men own up their mess, not beg.”
Kumar has in eight years of rule made Bihar an economic star with double-digit GDP growth, touching 13.67% and 16.71% in the last two financial years. This has not required any favours from New Delhi (which is ruled by a political opponent). Bihar hardly looks a terminal case requiring special props. But Kumar complains that the division of Bihar has made it backward and poor. The state’s partition gave all the huge mineral resources of the composite state to Jharkhand, leaving Bihar mainly with the flood-prone areas north of the Ganga.
Flooding can be checked by upstream dams in Nepal, but Nepal is so unhappy with the experience of the Kosi canal that it refuses to build any more dams for India’s benefit. So floods keep inundating north Bihar, lowering agricultural yields, making road-building difficult and discouraging factories. Bihar has the best agroclimatic conditions in India for sugarcane, but this crop is adversely affected by floods, so yields are low and most sugar factories have closed.
The Kosi, Gandak and other rivers descending from the Himalayas are heavily choked with sand. So are all irrigation and drainage canals. Flood waters erode Himalayan rock and bring down enormous quantities of sand with little organic matter. This is different from fertile silt, which is also deposited in some areas. Sand deposited on fields makes them barren – villagers call them sands of death. The choking of canals and river beds has lowered their capacity to accommodate water surges, and so increased flooding and sand deposition. The 2008 Kosi flood, which inundated 800,000 acres and displaced 3 million people, epitomised the problem.
However, good policy can convert problems into opportunities. Today Biharis view sand as a problem. But it is also an opportunity, since sand is a minor mineral that has become scarce in the rest of India. Bihar can become a major sand provider to other states.
The construction industry complains that there is a sand crisis. One state after another has, on environmental grounds, banned the mining of sand from river beds, the traditional source. Many activists want a ban on coastal sand mining too. Concrete is a mix in which one-third is sand, so the widespread sand shortage has become a national construction problem. Scarce sand now sells in some states at Rs 1,500 per tonne, more than the price of coal a few years ago.
In many states, sand mafia have proliferated, mining river beds illegally and killing those who try to stop it. Factories are coming up in many states to crush rock into sand, easing the shortage, but this is expensive and creates its own environmental problems in quarrying.
Dredging can remove silt from Bihar’s rivers and canals, greatly reducing flooding. But the cost has historically been viewed as too high. Some desultory attempts to use MNREGA for de-silting have achieved rather little. The great news is that Bihar can now actually raise money by auctioning sand mining rights for different sorts of sand in its silted areas. The bidding must not be restricted to local contractors, and must bring in bidders from all over India. Brisk demand will come from states with sand shortages, including neighbouring West Bengal.
If designed properly, and regulated to check over-mining and illegal mining, this will produce a huge triple benefit. Bihar’s water bodies will get desilted and become less flood-prone; the state will earn revenue that can be used for additional flood protection; and the sand shortage in the rest of India will be relieved. Nitish Kumar should go for this triple whammy.