On March 17, 2021, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court passed an order directing the State authorities to ensure that river sand for construction purposes was supplied only when the buyer produced an approved building plan. The court issued the guidelines while disposing of a couple of writ petitions accusing officials of colluding with lorry owners in the sale of sand and seeking directions to enable members of the public to buy sand through the Tamil Nadu Sand Web Service Portal.
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Acting on this directive, the Tamil Nadu government passed an order months later, rolling out a Standard Operating Procedure for the sale of river sand. The order said the cost of sand at the river bed or at a sand quarry would be ₹1,000 per unit. It was made clear that to buy sand, the purchaser would have to make an online booking by uploading the building plan approval. Customers were given the option of remitting cash at bank counters that were proposed to be established at stockyards or depots.
All sand quarries and stockyards, managed by the Water Resources Department (WRD), would be monitored through CCTV cameras with 24/7 live streaming and all shunting vehicles would be monitored real time with the GPS and prefixed geofence to prevent pilferage. A centralised control room would be established to monitor sand mining and sale throughout the State, the order said.
The order was followed closely by a press statement from Minister for Water Resources M. Duraimurugan. He said members of the public could buy sand online from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the quantum of sand left thereafter would be made available to lorry owners from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
A brutal murder
This being the background, allegations of illegal sand mining and sale by private persons emerged in several districts. The police registered cases in the recent past. The gravity of the problem came to the fore when Village Administrative Officer (VAO) Lourdhu Francis was hacked to death on April 25 this year at his office at Morappanadu in Thoothukudi district allegedly by members of a sand mafia. It was reported that the VAO had resisted illegal sand mining from the Tamirabarani riverbed, thus incurring the ire of sand-smugglers. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced ₹1 crore in solatium to the victim’s family. Two accused persons, arrested for the murder, were sentenced to life imprisonment by a court early this month.
There were a few more cases of officials being attacked or abused by sand mafia when they attempted to stop the illegal activity. First Information Reports have been registered in many districts on complaints filed by officials of the Department of Geology and Mining and private persons about illegal sand mining.
ED steps in
This was the very reason cited by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) which conducted simultaneous searches at multiple locations in six districts on September 12. The Central agency claimed to have unearthed incriminating documents, including fake bills and counterfeit QR codes, which also point to GST losses to the Central and State governments.
The searches lasted over two days at sand-quarrying sites, stockyards, the residential and business premises of various persons, including S. Ramachandran, K. Rathinam, Karikalan and their accomplices, auditor P. Shanmugaraj and officials of the WRD.
Thereafter, the ED said in a formal statement that it “initiated investigation on basis of the FIRs registered in various parts of Tamil Nadu disclosing allegations about huge illegal mining of river sand and gravel quarry etc.” It went on to say that numerous complaints were registered, with law-enforcement agencies highlighting illegal mining practices rampant across the State. Investigators froze ₹12.82 crore in cash and seized ₹2.33 crore in unaccounted-for cash and 1024.6 grams of gold worth ₹56.86 lakh. They also seized storage devices containing CCTV footage and computerised data.
Amid allegations of serious irregularities in the sale of river sand involving private persons and officials of the WRD causing a revenue loss to the State government and GST evasion, the agency is looking into possible money laundering in the business.
Alleged modus operandi
Information shared by lorry owners’ associations reveals that a sizeable quantum of river sand sold in the last one year or more was not brought on record at all. Private persons allegedly set up counters at the 14 stockyards and received cash to supply sand at the government-owned outlets. They even issued fake bills containing bogus QR codes and GST numbers.
While the quantum of sand sold through online bookings was negligible, the quantity sold on cash payment was very high. The money was not accounted for or credited to the State government’s account. The CCTV footage and sales data entered on computers were erased systematically on a daily basis, the lorry owners’ associations alleged.
‘Complaints sent to Executive Engineers’
However, A. Muthiah, Engineer-in-Chief and Chief Engineer General, WRD, denied the charges that the CCTV footage and computerised data were erased. He said there were certain complaints of fake bills and counterfeit QR codes, which were referred to the Executive Engineers in charge of various sand quarries to investigate.
Tamil Nadu police officials say they have little information about the operation as the ED officials came along with personnel of the Central Armed Police Force.
“Private persons took control of the stockyards and were selling sand illegally offline. They issued fake bills, containing QR codes, with a hand-held machine”K. RajasekarPresident, Tamil Nadu Sand Lorries Owners’ Protection Association
Quoting sources in the district administration, a police official said ED officials were trying to assess the number of sand lorries that transported the excavated sand from the riverbed to the stockyards and the purchased sand from the stockyards to various destinations.
They were trying to gather technical evidence and CCTV footage from toll plazas and other sources to establish the approximate number of excavators that operated on riverbeds and lorries at the stockyards to assess the quantum of sand mined and sold, police sources said.
Setting a precedent
Illegal sand mining is not uncommon in Tamil Nadu. In 2012, the State government constituted a special multi-disciplinary team, headed by IAS officer Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who was then Revenue Secretary, to inspect and verify — under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 — whether beach sand minerals such as garnets, ilmenite, rutile and others minerals were mined. The team visited Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts and found several violations.
In 2017, the team reported that the extent of illicit mining in Tirunelveli district alone, involving three companies and two individuals, was 90,29,838 metric tonnes and in Kanniyakumari, it was 54,446 metric tonnes. It found that the transport permits did not tally with the quantum mined; illicit mining was done in government poromboke and Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department land; mechanical methods were used for mining despite a ban; and no registers or documents were maintained at the sites.
In the ED operation against illegal sand mining, the first of its kind in the State, investigators are in the process of issuing summons to suspected contractors and officials.
Ironically, the issue of illegal sand mining or sale was flagged by lorry owners’ associations at different levels, but no action was taken. They alleged large-scale irregularities in the sale and demanded 100% online sales and no cash payments since banks did not open counters. Though the cost of sand was fixed at ₹1,000 per unit, unauthorised persons handling the yards were forcing the lorry operators to buy a minimum of 3 units of sand for 6-wheel lorries and 5 units for 10-wheel lorries at a much higher price, they said.
‘Private persons selling sand offline’
K. Rajasekar, president of the Tamil Nadu Sand Lorries Owners’ Protection Association, said private persons had taken control of the stockyards and were selling sand illegally offline. They issued fake bills, containing QR codes, with a hand-held machine.
To one of Mr. Rajasekar’s questions under the Right to Information Act, the WRD said the government earned only ₹18.66 crore through the sale of river sand during the period from April 1, 2022 to May 1, 2023. But the actual revenue would be much higher, he said.