Thirumalairajanar river is being ravaged, exposing the village to vagaries of monsoon

At the stroke of dawn, tractors can be seen along the embankments of the Thirumalairajanar river at Polagam. Here, in Polagam panchayat of Thirumarugal union in Nagapattinam district, illegal mining of sand in the river reigns supreme.

Each day, even before the sun ascends the horizon, the bed and banks of this tributary of the Cauvery is slowly and steadily ravaged, exposing the village to the vagaries of the monsoon, which is often accompanied by cyclone.

A few tractors flaunt the flag of the ruling AIADMK, while others bear the names of some local functionaries painted in the hues of the party flag.

Along the Thirumalairajanar river, the embankments, once dotted with bamboo and teak trees, have been denuded to lay a path for ensuring the free movement of these tractors and trucks.

Scores of teak trees — a property of the Forest Department — stand wilted, with the ground underneath scooped away.

The numbering on the existing teak trees shows that many more existed there once.

The mining activities have also cut off the villagers’ access to common lands that were earlier used for seasonal cultivation of chillies and as pasture for their cattle.

Villagers say the mining of sand in the Cauvery is unauthorised as the district authorities allow river mining by the Public Works Department only in the Kollidam.

Tacit collusion alleged

Villagers allege tacit collusion between union level and panchayat level AIADMK functionaries in the sand mining activities. “Any protest is met with threats,” says a local resident, himself an AIADMK functionary.

“When we complain to the revenue authorities, they expect us to haul up the tractors,” says Ponmani, of Vivasayigal Sangam affiliated to the CPI (M), holding copies of the petitions to the administration. If the departments of Revenue and Mines feign the same powerlessness of the people, then why have them, he asks.

Revenue officials are aware of the illegal activity, but have not been able to seize the offenders red-handed.

“I have personally visited a few spots in Thirumarugal block, but the tractors are always alerted to flee the site,” says Manikandan, Revenue Divisional Officer, who has seized and imposed fines on violators on patta lands. “But, we need to seize them red-handed, when it happens in rivers, unlike violations on patta lands.”

However, according to him, the PWD or the Department of Mines has not stepped up enforcement in this regard. “Not a single case of seizure by the Department of Mines has come to my knowledge so far. Rivers and channels fall under the purview of PWD, yet they have not acted upon these violations.”

There is also the issue of the safety of village level revenue officials, he says. A week ago, a VAO was attacked during an RDO-instituted survey to curb illegal mining at North Poigainallur.

The mining activity depends on local labour, engaged to quickly load a tractor and oversee its safe transport out of the village. For young boys just over 15 years of age, it fetches a daily wage of Rs.350 per tractor load. They load four tractors per day and walk away with about Rs.1,500. This pits them against the rest of the village that is opposed to the illegal mining.

Villagers are concerned that while the State government has vowed to rein in illegal sand mining in the river, ruling party functionaries are behind the activity at Polagam. Local AIADMK leaders were reluctant to speak on the subject. However, an official, speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, admitted that there were occasional ‘requests’ to release seized vehicles.

“Mining on embankments and banks affects water seepage,” says Kaveri Danapalan of the Cauvery Farmers’ Protection Association. Each year, when the Mettur dam is shut on January 28, there is a 45-day spell of water seepage, which allows farmers to take up summer cultivation. However, this has dried up due to illegal mining, he says.

For now, the villagers of Polagam, reduced to a state of powerlessness, haplessly watch their river being ravaged.

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