Illegal sand quarry diggers in collusion with powerful persons
The murder of 21-year-old Sathish Kumar at the hands of a gang of illegal sand quarry diggers in Tirunelveli on Sunday is a sad pointer to the continuing menace of illegal sand quarrying which refuses to die.
The ill-effects of unauthorised, indiscriminate and unscientific sand quarrying on the environment and ecology of waterbodies are well known. Equally well known is the nexus that illegal sand quarry diggers have with powerful and influential persons. In fact, in December 2010, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, while banning sand quarrying on the entire stretch of Tamiraparani for five years, stated that the river had been “devastated” due to indiscriminate quarrying “with or without the connivance of Public Works Department (PWD) and local authorities.”
At least, in the last 15 years, numerous public-spirited citizens and organisations raised their voice against the menace of illegal sand quarrying. But, the sand mafia has always been ruthless, while hitting back. In August 2007, Sudalaimuthu of Harikesavanallur, district secretary of Democratic Youth Federation of India, was murdered by mercenaries of illicit sand quarry diggers. The mafia, several times, targeted officials who sought to enforce rules. The killing of a Deputy Tashildar, R.Venkatesan, near Chengalpattu, in December 2004 is one such instance.
In recent years, Karur in the central parts of the State came to symbolise the problem of illegal quarrying. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, while in the Opposition, was quick to highlight it. When a sand-laden lorry fatally knocked down a 34-year-old woman in Karur in October 2010, she came down heavily on the unrestrained sand quarrying and explained how the groundwater table in Karur had been depleted. Five months earlier, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) staged a demonstration in Karur on the issue of illegal sand quarrying, which was attended by many leaders including O. Paneerselvam, now Finance Minister.
Since October 2003, the PWD is operating sand quarries and it awards loading contracts to private parties through tenders. In the wake of the Madurai Bench's order on Tamiraparani, the State government, in March 2011, constituted a State-level monitoring committee, headed by Justice E. Padmanabhan. Apart from monitoring that the sand quarrying was done in accordance with the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, the committee had been empowered to probe complaints of illegal quarrying or excessive quarrying.
However, not much is known about the working of the committee.
Referring to the latest Tirunelveli incident, a senior PWD official says that in the south, as sand quarrying has been banned by the High Court, illegal operations have become rampant. Though the PWD has been sending reports regularly to the District Collector, it is up to the local authorities to take follow up.
As for authorised 170 quarrying sites that include the beds of rivers and tanks, excess sand quarrying is not allowed as there is an in-built monitoring mechanism, the PWD official asserts. In Madurai district, active steps of Collector U. Sagayam in tackling the problem have generated a tangible impact.
But, what is acknowledged widely among officials is that in general, offenders have not been dealt with severely. The amounts of fine are not very high. Impounded vehicles, released after the payment of penalty, are again pressed into illegal activity in spite of the possibility of officials keeping track of their movement, say Kancheepuram district officials.
At least, those who repeatedly violate the law should be booked under the Goondas' Act.
Emphasising that there must be a will on the part of the administration from the top to bottom to tackle the menace, another official says that when attempts were made to tighten the system, vested interests raised hue and cry, citing the shortage of sand. But, this should not detract the attention of the authorities.
A former director of mines and geology suggests utilisation of ‘M sand' or manufactured sand or ‘robosand' as an alternative material in construction.
The government should insist on the use of the alternative material in its construction projects. Also, the promotion of the alternative material can be done through directing builders of mutli-storeyed apartments in urban centres to them.
[With inputs from P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli, L. Srikrishna in Madurai, L. Renganathan in Karur, V. Venkatasubramanian in Kancheepuram and T. Ramakrishnan in Chennai].