Tamil Nadu

The dark depths of sand mining

The growing demand for sand, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, has transformed this mineral into gold. Picture shows puddles formed along the Kollidam riverbed in Thanjavur district due to excessive lifting of sand.

The growing demand for sand, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, has transformed this mineral into gold. Picture shows puddles formed along the Kollidam riverbed in Thanjavur district due to excessive lifting of sand.   | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

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Despite restrictions and court order, mining of river sand in Tamil Nadu thrives illegally, thanks to the nexus between the establishment and the sand mafia

At sunrise on May 7, the family of Maria Rose Margaret of Chinthamani near Nanguneri in Tirunelveli district plunged into despair. Her husband, S. Jagadish Durai, a Special Branch constable, had been found lying with his head crushed in Pondicherry village, on the banks of Nambiyar river. The SB constable had ridden into the darkness the previous night in his motorcycle, armed with only a torchlight, to prevent illicit lifting of sand, alerted by a phone call.

The gruesome murder has added one more page in the history of aggression by the sand mining mafia in the State. Yet, the unequal fight between ill-equipped law enforcers and the powerful sand mafia, which thrives on official and political backing, buttressed by locals, goes on. Public outcry, court intervention and government action have, at best, only slowed down the plunder along rivers such as Tamirabarani, Nambiyar, Vaigai, Cauvery, Kollidam and Palar. It is the growing demand for sand, both in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala, that has transformed this minor mineral into gold. For example, Chennai has a daily demand of 6,000 loads of sand but only 10- 20% of it is supplied. One load of river sand is being sold at ₹35,000 to ₹40,000.

Novel methods

The sand mafia, which used heavy machinery to lift sand, has now devised a new modus operandi to move the mineral to the user, in the light of restrictions. In Kancheepuram, local cart owners used to be hired to transport sand from the riverbed to nearby villages for “own construction activity” by residents and moved forward in lorries. But the activity has been curbed in recent times, with revenue and police officials seizing the carts and not releasing them immediately.

In Tiruchi, according to a revenue official, the operators continue to use bullock carts for illegal sand mining from secluded and interior parts of the Cauvery during night. Each cart transports at least two loads of sand, which are stored at a particular place and reloaded into lorries for transporting to various parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is alleged that the operators pay ₹2,000 for four units of sand to bullock cart owners and it is sold to lorry owners at ₹6,000. The operation has assumed new vigour ever since the PWD was asked to suspend quarrying along the Cauvery and Coleroon in Tiruchi and Karur districts by the Madras High Court.

NGOs and farmers have been crying hoarse over “excessive sand mining” even from approved quarries in the Cauvery since the mid-1990s. They have been complaining that mining beyond the permitted depth has led to extensive environment damage, including depletion of groundwater table. Members of the Cauvery River Protection Movement allege that powerful mafia groups owing allegiance to mainstream political parties, have scant regard for law enforcement agencies. Some groups have “silenced the trouble makers and important persons in villages” by promising returns or lump sum donations for building temples. S. Vijayan, its coordinator, alleges that illegal sand lifting is still very much prevalent in Kadambakurichi, Thottakurichi, Nerur, Mayanur, Kulithalai, Pettavaithalai in Karur district and several pockets in Tiruchi district. In some places, the sand mafia has been “encouraging” bullock cart owners to organise protests, seeking permission to load sand to sustain their livelihood.

The dark depths of sand mining

Locals pacified

S. N. C. Marthandan, organiser, Palar Protection Awareness Movement, recalls how the sand mafia bribed several villagers, who stood against sand smuggling in Vellore district. “A few years ago, there was indiscriminate sand smuggling at Thottalam and Chinnathottalam near Ambur. Sand was dug up for more than 40 feet. Bribed by the mafia, villagers who were initially against sand smuggling turned against us. They were paid ₹5,000 each. When we staged protests and blocked sand-laden lorries, they threatened us with dire consequences,” he says.

When rampant sand mining was going on in Nambiyar in Tirunelveli district, it triggered vociferous objections from locals. However, the murmurs were “silenced” by sand miners. Those who resisted sand mining — Dhas of Kannanallur or Chellappa and Kumar of Perunkulam — died in “accidents”.

In 2000, the then Kancheepuram District Revenue Officer U. Sagayam became the target of the sand mafia as he resisted the latter's move to plunder the Palar river bed. His vehicle came under attack by some miscreants near Pazhayaseevaram, and a case was registered in this connection at the Palur police station. After this incident, a private gun license was allotted to him but he was transferred within a few months.

Former ADSP A. Joseph says he became aware of the unholy nexus between illicit sand miners and police and revenue officials when he was posted in Tirunelveli. “Illicit sand mining is possible if this nexus is nurtured. He reveals that the whole team of a police station in Tirunelveli district had to be dismantled after its role in illicit sand quarrying came to light. When information about such deals are brought to the knowledge of senior police officers, appropriate action should be taken. Otherwise, it will lead to the loss of lives of honest policemen like Jagadish,” he says.

A former sand miner of Nanguneri area, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims he quit the illegal business since he “could not continue to feed the hungry revenue and police officials.” According to him, every illicit sand miner gives ₹4,000 per load (up to four units) to the police station under which the mining is done. The palms of other police and revenue officials need to be greased too, en route. The Nanguneri man, who now sells idlis, recalls that a head constable of a police station used to take ₹4,000 from the seller and ₹1,000 from the buyer for the sale of one load of sand for construction work. Sand became dearer in Nanguneri and Valliyoor areas after the then Radhapuram MLA, M. Appavu, obtained a court ban on sand mining by government there in 2003.

Probing the nexus

The police and revenue officials stoutly deny the existence of any nexus. “We’re inquiring about the connivance as alleged by the relatives of Jagadish Durai, the deceased constable. If anyone is found to be wrong, we’ll initiate stringent action,” assures P. Ve. Arunshakthikumar, Tirunelveli Superintendent of Police.

Though the recent intervention of the Madras High Court on setting up of quarries is said to have prevented indiscriminate mining at organised quarries operated by the PWD, allegations of illicit sand lifting and transportation continue to pour in from different places along the Cauvery and Coleroon in Tiruchi and Karur districts.

In Kancheepuram district, the sand mafia seems to have always had its say in decisions related to the sale of river sand. Once the PWD was entrusted with manning and loading sand at quarries, in 2003, transportation of sand using “fake” bills came to light. The problem of transportation with “fake” bills assumed prominence during 2012-13 when a section of local sand lorry owners knocked at the court’s doors. The State government hurriedly directed the district administration to ban sand quarrying in all water bodies for a year from November 2013. However, this effort did not yield the desired result.

Another effort the government took was announcing that the sand stacked in Palayaseevaram and Kallpiranpuram had been impounded and the material would be auctioned by the PWD. Even as hearing of the case was on, powerful sand businessmen formed a cartel during the auction. The auction was dropped on the first day itself as the first round of bidding, which commenced with a base price of ₹600 per load (two units of sand), culminated at ₹12,200. Fearing a steep increase in the bid amount, officials wound up the auction and suggested disposal of the sand through direct sales with revised pricing. Then it was decided to sell the sand directly to the public at a price of ₹2,500 per load, with a cap of 10 loads per person per day.

Once the two second sales stock yards were cleared within a month, the issue was forgotten. However, in order to express its firm commitment to save river sand, the government extended the ban by another year and, later, by three more years in August 2015.

The dark depths of sand mining

The dark depths of sand mining

Ravaging unabated

Despite tall claims by the administration of frequent raids on illegal sand mining, ravaging of the Thenpennaiar river bed in Thirukovilur in Villupuram district and along the contours of Puducherry-Cuddalore border thrives unabated.

While the administration issues press notes about raids, it seems to be business as usual for sand mining lobbies. Though the PWD claims that only a limited number of passes are issued every day to ensure that only approved vehicles lift sand, the well-connected mafia has been using bogus passes to lift sand after dusk.

Sand-laden lorries avoid the toll gates in Villupuram district and skirt Thirukovilur by using temporary roads cut through Athiyur Thirukai and Vadakku Nemeli. Residents of wayside villages make money by collecting an ‘entry fee,’ ranging from ₹100 to ₹200, as contribution to local temple festivals. A. Akilan, president, KarikalaChozhan Pasumai Meetppu Padai, alleges that it is near impossible to carry out illegal sand mining with such impunity without the connivance of the PWD. Instances of honest officials facing the wrath of the mafia are aplenty.

The scene is not different in neighbouring Vellore district, where Palar activists, along with residents, have been fighting against sand smuggling. “There have been instances of the sand mafia threatening villagers who opposed sand smuggling. A resident of Karai Puliankannu was attacked by the sand mafia,” L.C. Mani, district president of Tamil Nadu Vivasaigal Sangam, says. Now, revenue officials are regularly conducting checks in places such as Walajah but more needs to be done. Illegal mining of sand continues in the Palar-Ponnaiyarbelt in Thiruvalam, Navlock, Puliankannu and Sathambakkam. “Sand has been dug up for at least 40 feet deep in Sathambakkam, Thirumalaicheri and Thiruparkadal,” he says. An official of the Wallajah taluk claims that in the last one month alone they have seized more than 150 units of sand and confiscated 10 lorries, eight tractors and 25 bullock carts. “We have managed to bring sand smuggling under control through regular checks in areas near the Palar riverbed,” he claims.

Illegal sand mining is rampant in Tiruvallur district in the absence of river sand quarries. Sand lorry owners say that nearly ₹5 crore has been collected as fine from them in the past few years. S. Yuvaraj of Tamil Nadu State Sand Lorry Owners’ Federation says that areas around Red Hills, Cholavaram, Periapalayam and Vengalare are prone to illegal mining. Sand lorries need to ply over 300 km for a load till Tiruchi. “We have taken up the issue with district officials. We have even suggested marking of zones banned for lorries, installation of cameras and levy of fine as per sand load when vehicles are seized,” he says. He feels that different teams of officials must be involved in surprise raids to curb the menace.

Misuse of permit

Sand lorry and equipment owners demand that the State government must streamline the excavation of ‘savudu’ soil from waterbodies to put an end to illegal quarrying. R. Panneerselvam of Tamil Nadu Sand Lorries Coordinated Welfare Federation alleges that private agencies involved in loading savudu misuse the permit. In the past one year, nearly 10,000 loads of river sand has been excavated with a permit for savudu in many districts. As quarries for river sand are less than 10, savudu is often supplied for building projects, he alleges. The government must introduce online sale of savudu to streamline the trade.

(With inputs from S. Annamalai in Madurai, P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli, C. Jaisankar in Tiruchi, V. Venkatasubramanian in Kancheepuram, Serena Josephine in Vellore, K. Lakshmi in Chennai and S. Prasad in Villupuram).

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 2:41:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/the-dark-depths-of-sand-mining/article23867892.ece

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