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DateLine Sunday, 8 April 2007

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Government Gazette

Do not group Geological Survey and Mines Bureau with the Sand mafia - Chairman GSMB

There is unbelievable slowness shown by a handful of officials to implement GSMB's scientific systematisation activities. These personnel are alleged to be tarnishing the noble image of the Bureau which gives the impression to the public that the GSMB is in the payroll of the sand mafia.

The GSMB's honest and silent majority should bravely work towards rescuing the GSMB from being branded as a corrupt agency. For this public support is also necessary. The Chairman's hotline 2725664 at the head office is open for suggestions, complaints or comments.

A mafia takes root in any illegal activity, opens its claws and grasps whatever within its reach to relish in illegal activity which makes money at any cost. It is no secret that there is a mafia behind the illegal sand mining which amounts to an approximate quantity of one third the national consumption and may be more if calculated in detail.

The mafia deprives the government of its income, threatens honest police officers and community leaders while pocketing all corrupt officials thereby increasing the burden on the poor home builder as well as large project developers and hence the burden on the government.

The GSMB needs to take huge steps to streamline and carryout its activities in a scientific manner to solve the sand crisis that is surely killing the construction industry and the poor of the country. What is needed has been identified, assessed and documented, but the implementation lacks enthusiasm.

Though there are personnel in the GSMB who support the much needed systematic approach to solve the sand problem, some display the usual government servant's lethargic attitude, some ignore follow up action and also it appears that a handful of persons probably backed by the mafia are challenging the vision of the government and its leadership, in and outside the office.

A few months ago media revealed that that Sand Mafia was targeting personnel of other agencies and especially honest law enforcement personnel and community who value our environment which requires to be looked after for future generations.

The mafia thrives in chaotic situations and especially a chaotic situation in the GSMB which is the licensing authority. The Mafia would not want a methodical GSMB that is acting responsibly. Therefore, it appears that the Mafia is providing financial support without limitations to resort to any activity that would lead to shaking the present GSMB vision and the direction through which it is moving to fulfil the governments aspirations.

There is unbelievable slowness shown by a handful of officials in implementing the systematisation activities of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau. This handful is tarnishing the noble image of the Bureau which gives the impression to the public that the GSMB is on the payroll of the sand mafia.

The GSMB's honest and silent majority should understand the situation and bravely work towards rescuing the GSMB from being branded as a corrupt agency. If all the good elements join hands then it is certain that a bright future is not far away.

What is the sand crisis?

Today GSMB is famous for the sand crisis in the country which is a burning issue for both the common man who is looking forward to constructing a dwelling, and also for the government who looks at the execution of massive development projects in a short duration.

The sand prices have sky rocketed and the construction industry complains about the price which is claimed as unaffordable. The royalty payment to the government through the GSMB is approximately Rs. 13.50 per cube of sand though the divisional secretaries charge a sum of approximately Rs. 150.00 per cube as a land rent which is often cited as a royalty.

Often, the complaint is that sand mining is done illegally and hence significant malpractices take place which in turn is transferred to the price that the consumer has to pay.

The profit earned by today's sand businessmen is in the order of millions of rupees per month and this illegal activity involving huge amounts of money is no doubt in the hands of a mafia which would go to any limit to ensure their influx of money.

However, in my opinion, it is the chaos that prevails in the legislative bodies which is the backbone of the mafia and any one with common sense would not be missing out on why the solutions to iron out the chaos is not supported by many.

What is the cause of sand crisis?

The destruction caused by the tsunami and the subsequent rebuilding efforts exponentially increased the need of sand for construction activities. Also with large national projects being launched, the sand demand has increased which in turn skyrocketed the price of sand due to its short supply.

The main cause of the sand crisis is that there is a short supply of sand in the market and there are no acceptable alternatives for sand within accessible distance. The public has no option but to opt for river sand and this causes the sand crisis.

What should be done?

The simple answer is to increase the supply of sand and increase the supply of acceptable sand alternatives. This is easier said than done. The river sand is limited.

Sediments in a river is in balance and needs extraction only with care. If not, excessive erosion can take place jeopardising the river, the associated structures and its environments. As such, sand supply increase should be done with caution.

The other answer could be to increase the number of suppliers to the market. There is also limitations of supply and hence a monopoly created as a result of a limited number of large-capacity licences issued by the GSMB.

In cases where such large-capacity licences can be converted to many smaller-capacity ones, there would be more sand suppliers thereby influencing the demand-supply balances to reduce the prices. Another option is to identify means of introducing quality sea sand supply to the market at a reasonable price thereby forcing the river based sand to reduce the price.

Who are the parties involved?

The parties that are directly involved with the sand crisis are the consumers, sand suppliers, the GSMB, and supporting agencies such as police, divisional secretary' office, Forest Department, Department of Wildlife etc.

The suppliers include miners, transporters and the traders. In this, the suppliers responsibility would be to supply sand to the market in a lawful manner.

GSMB role?

The GSMB role is the biggest. The GSMB is the organisation for sand availability assessments, the authority to issue licences, the agency to look after the environmental safeguards, the agency responsible in the collection of royalty and the agency to enhance the stakeholder awareness.

External Agency Role?

The supporting agencies such as DS office, Forest, Wildlife or Mahaweli provide land clearances or a kind of environmental clearance to facilitate the issue of licences.

The Police Department check the legality of the mining and associated transport activities.

You have been in office for just over one year. What is your vision?

The GSMB role in the sand issue is a very important one. It has to ensure that mining is done in a sustainable manner, ascertain that the government income through royalty collection, looks after the environmental concerns on behalf of the generations to come, and also to take all efforts to enhance stakeholder awareness.

These actions have to be carried out with respect to all stakeholders and namely the miners, transporters, consumers, the government and most importantly the general public.

Today the state, media and the public are blaming the unlawful sand miners, and the corrupt officials for the crisis. Though I agree that these parties no doubt are culprits I also believe that if the GSMB plays its role to a reasonable extent, then the sand crisis could be mitigated to an extent that the public would not notice a crisis.

In a normally-distributed society, one finds extremely genuine personnel who fall into the category of having within them, say more than 75% good and 25% bad, then there is a normal set personnel with the good component within them being equal or a little above their bad nature, and then the culprits of the society or the undesirables from the point of view of the civilised, who within them have a majority of bad intentions.

Having understood this factor throughout the history of mankind, and in all nations, state regulations and laws are embedded to curb the unlawful or the bad lot from doing harm to the society and the associated environment. In this context it is our job to find out what the GSMB could do and what it has been doing to ensure that the unlawful acts are minimised.

Belonging to a nation consistently complaining of non availability of resources and most of the time finding excuses for not being able to do a perfect job, it is of great importance to identify what best could be done by a person or an institute to execute a task with the available resources. These resources to include human, financial, legislative and associated infrastructure.

It is in this light that the GSMB has to look at the issue of the sand crisis to provide solutions. Once this is done to the best of its ability then the GSMB would be in a position to ask for more resources to do the job to the entire satisfaction of the state and the public.

What are the specific activities that you have identified?

The vision has to be put in to practice; and to do so it has to be divided into activities.

* The GSMB has to carryout sand assessments in all the rivers of Sri Lanka, identify available deposits and initiate action to identify the suitability for mining the resource.

* GSMB needs to carryout a sand supply and demand balance to identify the need of alternatives both in quantity and location.

* GSMB has to identify methods to better facilitate licensing of sand mining activities.

* GSMB has to develop and issue complete guidelines for obtaining licences, time taken for submission, inspection, and issuance. The GSMB guidelines should provide a complete set of material for a stakeholder to know the time taken, the fees and charges, agency clearances, etc.

* The GSMB should have uniform procedures in all its offices with regards to the methodology of treating an application throughout the screening process. Such notices should be displayed in the offices for stakeholder convenience.

* The GSMB should formulate structured awareness programmes to educated the miners, transporters and the public in general including school children and officials.

* GSMB should pay serious attention to public complaints and ensure a systematic methodology to identify the action taken, its adequacy and provision of feed backs to the management and stakeholders.

* GSMB should ensure that all its licences are sufficiently fool proof. GSMB should establish appropriate environmental regulations with regards to mining and transport.

* GSMB should carryout systematize field inspections where minerals exist and irrespective of whether or not mining is in operation.

* GSMB should identify sensitive sand deposits through a mapping exercise. Aquifer sand mining is taking place and this activity if not checked would deplete ground water resource beyond repair.

* GSMB should embark upon environmental restoration activities in the regions which are affected by mineral resource exploitation.

* GSMB has to have a computerised database of mineral existence, mining licences issued, supply points of sand as per transport licences. Also the agency should be networked with its regions enabling easy communication.

* GSMB should have a close relationship with supporting agencies while facilitating their jobs through timely supply of licensing data, periodical discussions for regulations, and through supply of inspection information.

* GSMB should be well equipped with computers, GPS, Digital cameras etc.,to carryout meaningful office work, field inspections, and pubic relation works.

* GSMB should ensure that its staff are trained to handle responsible tasks and also to serve the public in a polite manner.

* GSMB should carryout a performance audit to ascertain whether the licensing fees recover the administrative costs and the costs of environmental safeguards.

* GSMB should enhance and strengthen its staff and facilities to effectively execute the tasks related to the sand crisis and at the same time work to the best of its ability by sharing responsibilities among officials.

What actions have you taken?

All actions taken have been discussed at the Board of Management and carried out under the guidance of either the previous minister Hon Maitreepala Sirisena or the present minister Hon. Champika Ranawaka. The GSMB is making all efforts to streamline its work in a scientific manner to fulfil the efforts of the Honorable Minister and the vision of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Presently sand surveys are carried out only at several selected places. This needs to be expanded to a greater scale. The recently captured terrorist areas, wildlife reservation areas, Mahaweli regions and inlets to major reservoirs should be surveyed for sand deposits and assessed urgently.

The GSMB has identified the sensitive nature of sand removal from the rivers and already initiated action to carryout a systematic study of removing the Manampitiya sand bar of the Mahaweli River, with the help of the Irrigation Department. The land based sand mining has increased at an alarming rate.

What most people and most professionals do not realise is the fact that most land based sand deposits are water storages of the nation. Removal of such deposits enhance desertification, not only due to lack of storage but also due to lowering of groundwater.

It is urgently needed that the GSMB maps out the land based aquifer sand deposits to declare them as protected areas. This work is pending.

Mapping of the mineral resources should be completed as soon as possible. The work has been prioritised and the expedited action would commence early. The already executed works are still in report form and presently efforts are being taken to prepare a geographic database.

The sand requirements for national development projects and other regional projects are being studied on a regional basis. This needs to be completed early and compared with the supplies on a district wise comparison to determine the sand sources for each district.

Sea sand exploration and mining activity with direct involvement of the GSMB has been initiated. One offshore location in the Southern coast and another in the west coast have been gazetted and is under tender for exploration. The target is to have quality assured sea sand in the market at a reasonable price considering the environmental benefits of safeguarding the environment.

A sand guide has been developed in the past six months to make the public aware of the details associated with sand licensing and permits. This needs to be improved and published for wider circulation.

Similar guidelines need to be developed on how to fill applications, establishing help desks at each office, indicating schedules of application acceptance, field inspections and issue dates of the licenses etc. Instructions have been given to prepare notices facilitating the application and office walk through process during the application submission and scrutiny.

GSMB is presently studying the other agency clearances that have been made necessary through the Mines and Minerals Act. Especially the mining licence application is under review in connection with the requisite Divisional Secretary clearance and delegation of powers.

All regional offices and the head office have been instructed to clearly identify and display the important days of the week with respect to the mining licence processing.

The mining division is presently working on a common awareness program for miners and transporters. This would identify the speakers, titles and the sequence of speeches, preparation of training material and the schedule of programmes throughout the year. Once this is done similar awareness programmes would be developed for other stakeholders as well.

The GSMB is actively taking part in the environmental rehabilitation activities in river banks and other abandoned mined areas.

This is presently being done by all regional offices with the miner and community cooperation and with the GSMB's own initiative. The GSMB recently joined hands with the University of Moratuwa, IUCN and the community to execute a project titled environmental rehabilitation of mined areas and regreening at Akurala in the southern province.

The complaint recording and inspection mechanism is presently under review. The common complaint is that the GSMB procedure for accepting, acknowledgement and taking action with regards to public complaints is inadequate. A complaint book and a box have been placed at all regional office and at the head office.

A hotline to the Chairman (2725664) is available for the public to dial their complain or concerns directly. A spatial database is being developed to identify the severity of complaints in a spatial scale.

A new sand transport licence has been designed and printed within a very short period of about 6 months. This is done in a watermarked paper with specific security checks in place. The new licence would come into effect during the first two weeks of April.

During the last one year the GSMB networking, internet and email services which was restricted to a few and considered as a luxury has been extended to cover the entire agency to enable quick data transfers and fast communication.

There is some balance work to be done. However, the mining database which is the backbone for a systematic GSMB has not been operational for several years and this has to be linked to available mineral assessment datasets. Steps have been taken to upgrade the database and to incorporate the facility of linking it with other databases of the agency.

The present link with other external agencies is rather weak. The mechanism of informing the media, informing the police and other agencies of changes to regulations, the cancellation of licences or about any illegal activities without much delays are being put in place.

The upgrading of the office field and laboratory equipment which had been a forgotten affair was revived, new estimates were done and incorporated in to the corporate plan. The 2007 target of upgrading has been completed.

The building for the Head office which has been prevented from being a reality since the inception of the GSMB has broken the shackles to obtain cabinet approval and to proceed up to the tendering stage. This with well designed laboratories, working environments, and facilities would enhance the capabilities of the GSMB to better serve the nation.

The land acquisition for regional office buildings have taken off the ground. Land for regional offices of Polonnaruwa and Ratnapura has been secured. Yakkala proposed core repository which had been a dream is on the way to becoming a reality.

The GSMB has now embarked upon to design a structured local training programme for all its staff. The driver training program went underway last month.

The clerical staff has not had any training and this training would take place immediately after the Sinhala and Tamil new year.

Several workshops have been held to identify the needs and priorities of the Bureau, and slowly but surely the GSMB is looking at a structured training for all its staff irrespective of the grade. Human resource development to have a competent, disciplined and a polite workforce in the GSMB is in the top of the agenda.

Among the streamlining activities of the administration the GSMB is now implementing the evaluation the productivity guidelines of the government to assess the workloads of each division.

A workload based reward scheme is being prepared to remunerate hard work. List of duties for the staff which were not in place for many years have been completed within a record time of approximately 10 months.

The filing of documents in the agency has been taken out of its chaos and streamlined according to state guidelines. A transfer scheme has been put in place to expedite the process of suitably functioning of the regional offices.

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