Billion Rupee Sand Mining Scam At Wahalkada
by Nirmala Kannangara
- GSMB was fully geared to issue sand mining licences for the highest bidders at the open auction
- Minister Soyza had ignored all directives and had taken the ‘job’ into his own hand
- Underworld gangs are moving in the sites to protect their respective politicians’ interests
The involvement of certain cabinet ministers in large scale fraud is continuing further ignoring the civil society outcry which has led to damage the reputation of the good governance administration that was formed exactly two years from today.
Another billion rupee fraud is now taking place at Wahalkada, Anuradhapura with the alleged involvement of the Minister of Irrigation and Water Resource Management, Gamini Vijith Vijithamuni Soyza, The Sunday Leader reliably understands.
Minister Soyza has come under severe criticism for his alleged involvement in making money from the licences given for sand mining within the Yan Oya diversion project site which has resulted in a loss of several billion rupees to the national coffers. All attempts taken by the Anuradhapura state land owner, the District Secretary to go for an open auction to give away the earmarked plot of lands that runs into a stretch of six to seven kilometres from the dam for sand mining, had come to an abrupt end due to Irrigation Minister’s interference. Instead of going for an open auction like how the National Gem and Jewellery Authority auction gem lands, the minister is alleged for ‘selling’ the sand mining licences.
It was during the construction of the Yan Oya dam, the Central Environmental Authority, together with the Irrigation Department, had found a massive sand dune underneath the top soil layer running into few kilometres. The Irrigation Department had made a suggestion to the land owner – the District Secretary (DS) to auction these earmarked lands that will go under water once the diversion project is completed. Although the DS had agreed to the suggestion and even the Environment Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena had given his approval to go for an auction, Minister Soyza had ignored all directives and had taken the ‘job’ into his own hand and is now in full swing making billions of rupees.
“At a progress review meeting, the former DS Anuradhapua, D. P. G. Kumarasiri had told the President about the sand dune and his proposed plan to go for an open auction to which the President had given his approval. However, Minister of Irrigation prevented the initial plan and brought his cronies to the sites and allowed them to mine the sand deposit. Later the licences were issued to most of his parliamentarian colleagues under different names,” highly reliable Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau (GSMB) sources told this newspaper.
The sources who wished to remain anonymous said as to how the GSMB was fully geared to issue sand mining licences for the successful highest bidders at the open auction, but, later had to issue the same licences to the list of names that came from the office of the Minister of Irrigation and Water Resource Management.
Meanwhile a few residents in the area who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity said the people in the vicinity are deprived of mining sand from the dune but ‘big wigs’ from Colombo including parliamentarians and local government politicians are given approval. According to them, the mining licences had been obtained from the GSMB not under the politicians’ names but under their stooges’ names. However, not only the GSMB sources but also sources from the Irrigation Department, Forest Department and Central Environment Authority too confirmed as to how the arrangement to auction the lands was thwarted by Minister Soyza for his personal gain.
“The minister knew that this is the best time he could make money and is in the process of ‘selling’ the licences. It is the Irrigation Ministry that sends the lists of names to the GSMB. It is alleged that one of the highest officials at GSMB is a nephew of the minister and those whose names are recommended by the ministry gets their sand mining licences easily from the bureau through this higher official,” sources added.
Meanwhile Irrigation Department sources in Anuradhapura said as to how they gave their approvals to the villagers to obtain the mining licences as earlier they were not allowed to.
“When we gave them the Irrigation Department clearances, they have been asked to come to the Ministry where they were asked to pay Rs. 500,000 for each sand mining licence. While a few had agreed to pay, some had said that they cannot pay such a big amount and then it had been brought down to Rs. 300,000. However they have paid only Rs. 250,000. There are a few more who could not pay for the ‘licence’ although they had the required clearances from the Irrigation and Forest Departments, but still had to come back empty handed,” sources alleged.
According to the residents in the area, members of the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) and defender jeeps have become a common site in the sand mining areas in order to give the guard to their respective mines.
The sources further said as to how the licence holders have violated environmental laws and added as to how the Forest Department wanted to stop the destruction that had already done to the environment.
“These licence holders not only have violated the mining rules and regulations. but have also shared the same licence with their cronies. It is the police, GSMB and the Forest Department that have the authority to take action but since Minister Soyza is directly involved in this and it is his ministry that had recommended them to the GSMB to issue licences, no one is taking action against those who violates the rules,” sources added.According to the sources, the market price of a cube of sand which is more than Rs. 10,000 could have been brought down by thirty five per cent had the initial plan was implemented.
The sources further said that although issuing of licences has now been temporarily suspended, the same illegal procedure will start sooner than later, which not only brings losses to the government but also causes further destruction to the environment.
In a letter dated June 14, 2016, to Project Director, Yan Oya Reseviour Project, the Director General Irrigation, Eng. Saman Weerasinghe had stated that few companies had submitted their applications for sand excavation within the Yan Oya project site. The letter further states: ‘They are supposed to use this sand for construction activities of Yan Oya project and outside constructions. Therefore get the Central Environmental Authority and the Mines Bureau involved to get necessary action to find feasibility for sand excavation in project sites of the Yan Oya reservoir project. Hence I am sending details of companies for your information please”.
“According to the Director General’s letter the few companies that had submitted their applications were supposed to use not only for the project constriction work but for outside construction work as well. For outside constructions, these companies were selling the sand. This is the irregularity that we are talking about. Once the sand is excavated one cube of sand is sold for Rs. 6,000 at the site itself and once taken to other areas it is sold for Rs. 10,000. From each cube of sand the miner has to pay Rs. 185 to the GSMB, Rs. 740 to the Department of Forest Conservation and Rs. 100 to the Irrigation Department as royalty and the rest is their profit. Had the minister allowed the DS and the Irrigation Department to auction this land, it could have been given to the highest bidders and several billions of rupees could have obtained by the government,” sources claimed.
Meanwhile the then DS Anuradhapura in a letter dated November 2, 2016, to Divisional Secretary Horowpothana, District Forest Officer Anuradhapura, Deputy Director Central Environmental Authority, Regional Manager GSMB, Zonal Director, Zonal Irrigation Department Anuradhapura and HQI Environmental Police Anuradhapura had stated as to how (DS) on the advice of the Irrigation Officers attached to the Yan Oya diversion project, wanted to generate money to the national coffers by auctioning the earmarked plot of lands to the highest bidders but due to vested interest of certain people he had to abandon his plan.
Meanwhile the sources further said how underworld gangs are moving in the sites to protect their respective politicians’ interests and said how a certain cabinet minister is visiting the site regularly although he has not taken a licence under his name.
“Other than a few, most of the politicians who have got their representatives to obtain the licences, are from the UPFA/ SLFP as the subject minister is also from the same camp.
These politicians know that they do not have a political future after the President relinquishes his duties and now they are making money while the sun shines,” sources added.
Since Minister Soyza was not contactable for a comment, a text message was sent requesting him to give a comment on the allegations levelled against him. Although he received the text message, until the paper went to press, the Irrigation Minister did not send his response to the request made.
When the Irrigation and Water Resources Ministry Secretary R. M. W. Ratnayake was contacted to find out as to why the proposed plan to auction the land was prevented by the Minister and licences were given to individuals that caused the state a huge loss, Ratnayake said that the question should be posed to the GSMB and Forest Department as it is they who issue the licences but not the Irrigation Ministry.
When told that issuing licences is not the issue but the allegations that have been levelled against the Minister and the Ministry for preventing the open auction and recommending names for the licences to the Irrigation Department and GSMB, Ratnayake said that he cannot make any comment and transferred the call to the Project Director Udaya Hemakumara who said that he is not aware of the initial plans as he took over office as Project Director (Construction) lately.
According to Hemakumara, it is the Director General of the Irrigation Department that sends the list of names to the GSMB to issue licences.
However, when asked who sends the names to the Director General – whether it is the Minister or the Ministry, Hemakumara was unable to make any comment.
The government would have highly benefitted had the former District Secretary’s plans were implemented, says District Secretary Anuradhapura R. M. Wanninayake.
Based on what his predecessor planned, District Secretary Anuradhapura said that the government could have earned several billion rupees had the land area that has sand dunes underneath was blocked out and auctioned.
“Sand is vital in construction work and people purchase sand even when the prices are very high. The former DS and the Yan Oya Project irrigation officials had taken a right decision to auction the land area but whoever who disrupted the process has prevented the government from generating funds. I took over office recently and could not visit the mining sites. I was told that sand worth Rs. 3 billion was in the dune and had this land was auctioned the state could have earned a considerable amount to its coffers,” Wanninayake said.