Riverbed mining

A requiem for rivers

Print edition : July 24, 2015

A 10-foot-deep pond that was formed in the bed of the Palar because of indiscriminate mining of sand, in Vellore district. A file picture. Photo: D. Gopalakrishnan

Unscientific and indiscriminate quarrying, illegal stockyards and the nexus between officials and the sand mafia may lead to rivers in Tamil Nadu being mined out of existence.

“THE actual statistics [with respect to the quantity of sand mined] appear to have been buried deep in the very same sand.”

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court made this caustic observation on August 7 last year against the Tamil Nadu government while passing orders on a batch of writ petitions against the indiscriminate mining of sand in the Cauvery and Coleroon (Kollidam) riverbeds. The bench, comprising Justices V. Ramasubramanian and V.M. Velumani, made the remark after the government failed to disclose the exact quantity of river sand mined from the quarries designated by it.

The rivers in Tamil Nadu are fast turning into streams of despair because of exploitative and unscientific mining, leaving the traditional river-based irrigation system in a shambles, destroying drinking water sources and other schemes and causing irreparable damage to the riverine ecosystem, besides leaving the main stakeholders, farmers, in distress. The innumerable laws and rules and regulations remain only on paper in a situation where law enforcers and lawbreakers seem to be on the same side.

In fact, the Madras High Court Bench in the same case criticised the State government for using heavy machinery to quarry river sand, which is classified as a minor mineral under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957. “Though it is submitted by the State that the mechanised mining is taking place with two Poclains [earth movers] and that no in-stream mining is taking place, the said claim appears to be false,” it said.

Scores of legal wrangles over river sand quarrying keep alive what environmentalists call an intense public struggle to save the fragile river ecosystem and prevent indiscriminate mining. The miners have left no river untouched, and the only hope now seems to be the judiciary, which, barring a few occasions in which it favoured the State, has played a proactive role to curb mining.

In fact, in many places, the court has intervened effectively to ban sand quarrying, and in a few places it has left a long list of instructions and regulations to be complied with. Reacting sharply to a contempt petition, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, in its order dated July 26, 2002, directed the State government to constitute a committee of experts to study the rivers and riverbeds, with particular reference to the damage caused on account of haphazard sand quarrying. This is the first-ever concrete effort in the long-drawn-out struggle against illegal mining.

The State government had no option but to obey the court’s directive to constitute a committee of experts. The six-member team, after a detailed study, contended that illicit and haphazard mining had led to the deepening of the beds of many rivers. On the basis of the study, the State felt an urgent need to regulate sand quarrying. However, several other instructions of the court have not been followed as the government and many individuals have challenged them.

With a view to eliminating indiscriminate mining and ensuring uninterrupted supply of sand for construction activities, the government ostentatiously brought an amendment to Rule 38-A of the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession (TNMMC) Rules, 1959, by which it cancelled the existing quarrying leases given to private players and, through Government Order No: 95 of the Industries Department, on October 1, 2003, entrusted the Public Works Department (PWD) with the job of quarrying. This government order was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.

According to a State government note in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment in Deepak Kumar, etc. vs State of Haryana and Others in February 2012, the PWD would identity the areas that could be mined and forward the list to the Department of Geology and Mining. After getting the necessary environmental clearances from agencies such as the State-level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) under the Union Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF), the proposals would be sent to the respective District Collectors, who have the authority to issue licences for mining.

According to the provisions of the TNMMC Rules, mining should be avoided within 50 metres from rail tracks, reservoirs, canals and public works such as roads, and within a radial distance of 500 metres from bridges, buildings, waterworks, etc. The pits should not be more than one metre deep. It also stipulates that no machinery should be used to quarry sand from riverbeds except with the permission of the Secretary to the Government, Industries Department, or any other competent authority or officer as may be authorised by him. These rules, the court ruled, were to be scrupulously followed by field-level officers.

Activists were elated. “The State had assumed the role of a guardian angel. The fragile ecology of the entire river system in the State, we believed, would be restored and rejuvenated and would remain thereafter safe in its hands,” said Mughilan, an environmentalist.

Judicial watch

Judicial watch on river sand mining began in 2000 and was further strengthened by a landmark judgment of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on December 12, 2010, in M. Periyasamy vs The State of Tamil Nadu, known as the Tamiraparani river case. It banned mining for five years in the entire Tamiraparani river and asked the State to form a State-Level Monitoring Committee with a former High Court judge as its chairman to supervise the quarrying operations across the State. The order is yet to be complied with. The bench also passed severe strictures against the State for using heavy machinery in quarries.

Another major intervention from the court came in the Cauvery Neervala Athara Padukappu Sangam (Cauvery Water Resources Protection Association) case, again before the Madurai Bench. In its ruling on August 3, 2012, it underscored its earlier directions with regard to river mining and its impact on the environment and ordered the closure of quarries that were more than five years old across the State. Twenty-seven of them were closed accordingly.

These and a few other directions from the higher judiciary, including a censure on the stockpiling of sand outside the quarries, which came to be known as “second sales”, played a critical role in minimising the impact of the indiscriminate mining and preventing further ecological degradation. “But for these orders, many rivers would have vanished by now in Tamil Nadu,” said Mughilan.

However, activists claim that in some cases, judicial delays have not only provided the much-needed time to the sand mafia but also emboldened them to resort to illicit activities. A leading Chennai-based lawyer who himself is a petitioner in a few cases against illegal river mining points out that he has filed 23 appeals against many quarries in the State before the National Green Tribunal (NGT). “Unfortunately, it takes eight to 10 weeks for every appeal to even get listed,” he said.

The lawyer also exposed the nexus between the mafia and a few who claim to be activists. He said that a few petitioners who had filed cases against quarries had become corrupt and betrayed the people by showing little interest in pursuing the cases. “They ask us to file cases and vanish thereafter. In a few cases, in the absence of petitioners, the court asked us to implead ourselves as petitioners,” he said.

Sivan Suriyan, a district functionary of the Communist Party of India’s farmers’ wing, said that such stealthy practices by those who were out to exploit the prevailing situation for monetary gain was not uncommon in Tiruchi district today. “We have been betrayed innumerable times while taking up the fight against illicit mining in the Cauvery on which 4.4 lakh farmers in the Delta region depend for their livelihood. In fact, it was the Left parties that backed the local communities in their struggles against the mafia which made such corruption a household phenomenon,” he said.

But nothing seems to have changed. On April 19, 2004, the government amended Sub Rule 6 of Rule 36 (A) of the TNMMC Rules to let the restricted use of machinery for quarrying if such use “will not be detrimental to ecology”. This irked the court, which directed the State to amend the TNMMC Rules to prevent the use of machinery. But the government, in its review petition, citing difficulties in ensuring a steady availability of sand at affordable cost, requested the court to modify the direction.

Accordingly, the court permitted two machines in every quarry site, of course with riders. On the basis of that, the government, in its order of November 3, 2011, directed all District Collectors to resort to judicious use of earth movers and not more than two at each quarry site other than those at the Tamiraparani and Palar rivers. This was because of an earlier Supreme Court ruling against conducting any sort of development activity in the Palar river since it had become critical after untreated tannery effluents and large-scale mining had ravaged it.

Environmentalists, however, say that the State does encourage the use of heavy machinery on the pretext of meeting the public demand for sand. “It has now become a common sight in many quarries to have more than two machines in use. Quarrying takes place beyond the stipulated one metre depth and outside the restricted timings of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.,” said C. Raju, an activist who has mobilised people against quarrying on the Vellar river in Cuddalore district.

There have also been attempts to downplay the need for environmental clearance for sand mining. Apparently, the stern green norms by the Centre have irritated vested interests in the industry. In the Cauvery Neervala Athara Pathukappu Sangam case, which was heard along with a batch of writ petitions, the State appeared to be dismissive about environmental concerns, claiming that since quarrying operations were carried out by the PWD scientifically, there was no need to get environmental clearance from any agency. But the petitioners argued that mining of river sand over five hectares should get environmental clearance from the MoEF.

(The MoEF in September 14, 2006, classified development and mining activities into A and B categories. While major projects such as nuclear power, airports, chemicals and fertilizers and national highways fall under A, others come under the B category. Alarmed over the spurt in illicit mining, the Ministry, in its letter dated December 24, 2013, stipulated that mining in river sand quarries with a lease area of five to 25 hectares should be carried out manually after getting environmental clearance. It further categorised the projects into B1 (area of 25 hectares and above), which requires environment impact assessment and public hearings, and B2, which requires pre-feasible reports and documents.)

Accordingly, the court in its ruling made environmental clearance from the SEIAA mandatory for fresh sand quarry operations. It pointed out that with regard to quarries that were in operation for more than five years, no statistics were available as to the quantity of sand lifted so far and the resultant replenishment. Hence, it ordered the immediate closure of 15 quarries, of which seven were located in the Cauvery and Amaravathi rivers in Karur district.

Other quarries, either functioning or yet to be started, it told the State, must get environmental clearance. The court directed the PWD to submit relevant reports to the District Collectors on the quantity of the sand lifted against the permitted quantity allowed to be lifted, once in two weeks. But despite all these restrictions, the sand mafia returned to quarries in the guise of “loaders and lifters”. They have gradually taken over the quarries as loaders, lifters, transporters, stockists and sellers.

According to the present arrangement, the PWD is to sell the sand directly to consumers. It quotes the prices and issues licences to sand lorry operators to transport the load. But, instead of transporting the sand from the pits to the buyers directly, the PWD, citing inadequate infrastructure and manpower, has awarded contracts to “lift, load, transport and second sale of sand”, thus facilitating the mafia to re-enter the quarries in a different garb. “They are creating artificial scarcity to prepare a strong ground for opening fresh quarries so that indiscriminate quarrying can be continued in the State,” said Mughilan.

The economics of shifting sand

The State government order (Ms) No. 451, PWD, dated October 3, 2003, says that it operates quarries at 239 locations and that nearly 60 per cent of them are located in the Cauvery, Coleroon (Kollidam) and Amaravathi rivers covering the districts of Tiruchi, Thanjavur, Karur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. Though a few of them have been closed down owing to opposition from local communities and the intervention of the courts, many more continue to function flouting norms. Chennai (with Palar and Vellar basins) and Tiruchi (with the Cauvery basin) are the two major sand regions that supply the bulk of the sand. Pollachi and Madurai are the two other sand regions.

It remains a mystery, as the High Court itself noted, how much sand has been quarried so far. All attempts to get the necessary data on river sand mining, including queries under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, have so far been met with silence from the PWD and the Department of Mines. “The government remains tight-lipped about the river mining statistics such as the volume of sand quarried with the corresponding revenue earning, at least since its takeover in 2003,” said an environmentalist.

A sample study can aid in the understanding of the quantum of river sand mined in the State. The Amoor quarry located in the Cauvery near Kulithalai, according to a report submitted to the SIEAA by the Tiruchi District Collector, offers 3,82,720 cubic metres of sand for quarrying for which environmental clearance has been given for a period from 2012 to 2017. The mine lease area is 19 hectares. The total estimate of the available sand is 8,57,720 cubic metres at an average sand deposit depth of 3.50 metres. The extent of the quarried sand can be calculated only after the lease period is over.

The only concrete official detail that is available with the State is that it has earned Rs.188 crore during 2012-13 from its river quarrying, with a 10 per cent increase every year. It, however, as pointed out earlier, maintains a silence over the quantum of the sand quarried so far. An informed source says that officially 12,000 to 15,000 lorries, each carrying two to three units a day, transport sand from quarries across the State. A transporter, however, said lorries carried six to eight units of sand a day these days.

But a sand lorry operator in Namakkal has a different tale altogether. He claims that even going by a conservative estimate, around one lakh lorries transport sand daily, which is worth Rs.15,000 crore a year, benefiting mainly the “loading and lifting” contractors and not the State exchequer, which suffers gross underpayment of royalties. “Let the government come out with real data about the quantum of sand quarried. Then, you can calculate the exact revenue from it,” said Sella Rasamani, president of the Tamil Nadu Sand Lorry Owners Federation. Rasamani says that no lorry other than the loading and lifting contractors’ vehicles is allowed inside the quarry. “We are forced to purchase sand from these private contractors who are involved in ‘second sales’ at thrice the rate fixed by the government. Three units of sand cost Rs.1,500, but the contractors charge between Rs.4,500 and Rs.5,000,” alleged Rasamani. He said that they had no other option but to pass on the burden to the consumers.

Truck owners say that despite many attempts, they are unable to purchase sand directly from the quarries as the contractors have become a powerful cartel with strong political affiliations. The truckers also allege that they are forced to overload the trucks without being given proper receipts, which often lands them in trouble. “With this extent of corruption in the sand quarrying industry, we don’t expect sand to be sold at the price fixed by the government. At least, it should be Rs.4,000 for three units,” said a truck operator.

The State recently hiked the cost of river sand for a load (two units of 200 cubic feet) from Rs.630 to Rs.1,020. Three units cost Rs.1,530. A lorry may be permitted to carry three or more units subject to provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. “Nearly 300 loads of sand go out from a quarry on a single day. But the purchase bills and demand drafts [drawn mostly on local bank branches] for the consignments would be accounting for 50 to 100 loads only. Just imagine the volume of the clandestine business that is going on in this State-sponsored industry,” said Rasamani.

His opposition to the second-sale stockyard cost him the membership of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party. He blames a senior party functionary who is in charge of the Industries Department for the incongruities in the “second sale”. “It involves huge money. The ‘second sale’ spurs an artificial scarcity and a resultant price hike. When I tried to bring it to the notice of the Chief Minister, a powerful lobby saw to it that I got expelled from the party itself,” said Rasamani.

The State government, environmentalists and local communities allege, is yet to disclose the quantum of the sand already quarried or being quarried. Despite a ban since 2009 and stringent cross-border policing, the mafia has been able to smuggle sand out of Tamil Nadu into the neighbouring States of Kerala and Karnataka. This was evident when the police seized a few lorries in Hosur transporting sand to Bangalore, where a truckload of two to three units costs Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000. Even Maldives needs sand from Tamil Nadu for its infrastructure boom.

“When a lifter pays a sum of Rs.1,020 for two unit loads at the pit site, he should sell the same with an added cost of transportation only. But a black market thrives right at the quarry here, making the sand cost Rs.2,500. When it reaches a metropolis such as Chennai, it jumps to Rs.15,000 for a load,” said a sand transporter. But, ironically, the Tamil Nadu government, at the inter-State meeting of the Ministry of Mines on the “Growing concern of illicit river sand mining” in October last, said that the PWD was selling six cubic metres of sand at Rs.8,000. It further claimed that traders “can take sand from the PWD for resale”, which however is not in vogue.

Sand transporters who have been resisting the mafia stubbornly attribute the exorbitant sand price to the mushrooming of stockyards of “second sale” of sand, many of which are unlicensed. “We have been fighting against this illegal method of storing and selling. Many contractors of loaders and lifters own their stockyards and, after stockpiling the aggregate, quote fancy prices. We are at their mercy,” said Rasamani. That the demand has shot up 10-fold over the last decade explains the skyrocketing price of sand in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.

In fact, the Madras High Court, in Poonamallee Circle River and Lorry Owners Association, Tiruvallur Central District vs Government of Tamil Nadu, admonished the Kancheepuram district administration on the “second sale”. In its ruling on September 19, 2013, the court observed that the PWD should stockpile sand at 95 depots and sell it to users.

Despite this, illegal stockyards exist in Kancheepuram. The court came down heavily on the then Kancheepuram District Collector, L. Sitheresanan, saying that it was shocking as to how he had filed an affidavit saying that there was no stockyard in the district “though heaps of sand could be seen in stockyards”.

The judge, S. Manikumar, observed: “It is apparent that the officials, right from Village Administrative Officers, Revenue Inspectors, Tahsildhars and other officials of the Mines and Minerals Department, Police, Public Works Department and including the District Collector, Kancheepuram, have not taken any action [against] the concerned person or persons who have illegal stockyards in Palayaseevaram village in Kancheepuram district and at Kallapiranpuram village in Maduranthagam taluk.” He directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to nominate an officer to conduct a fair and proper investigation. The Collector was later transferred.

Notwithstanding the courts’ strong interventions, pilferage and illegal “second sale” of sand continue unabated. “Junior officials who are monitoring the quarries say they are helpless. Who will guarantee safety to our lives?” asked a junior engineer at a quarry in the Cauvery.

Neither the Tamil Nadu government nor those who are involved in the quarrying business have come out with data that can help civil society to assess both the revenue generation and the quantum of the sand quarried.

If this situation continues, the rivers in the State could well be mined out of existence.

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