Beach sand mining

Life is not a beach

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Gagandeep Singh Bedi (left), who was appointed by the government to inquire into beach sand mining, at a quarry at Periyathalai in September 2013. Photo: N. Rajesh

Fisherman Santiago and his wife, Susheela, of Periyathalai village in Tuticorin district attribute many of the problems of the community to beach sand mining. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Mining for beach sand minerals poses a threat to the economic and social fabric of fishing villages along Tamil Nadu’s coast.

SANTIAGO, 73, has been at sea for nearly 60 summers of his life. The old fisherman from Periyathalai village in the coastal district of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu is, however, now dejected that the sea, which he calls his “soul and life”, is getting alienated from him. “We have not ventured into it for the past couple of months,” Santiago said. Periyathalai and neighbouring hamlets are known for huge lobsters, white pomfrets and other premium marine varieties. But the catches “are increasingly becoming rare and poor”.

Many fishermen like Santiago in several villages that dot the 90-kilometre shoreline along the three districts of Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, which have mineral placer deposits of high value on their beaches, share his feeling of desolation. These precious minerals have lured miners to the beaches in droves, leading to many social and economic problems. “Outside forces have alienated the sea from us. They have infiltrated our close-knit communities, caused divisions, corrupted our men and started exploiting our community to achieve their nefarious objectives. Today we stand divided,” said Santiago. He attributed many of their problems to illicit mining in non-leased areas and overexploitation of minerals in permitted pockets.

Periyathalai and nearby Uvari have been in the forefront of a struggle against the indiscriminate mining since 1995, which is gaining strength in other coastal areas like Padukkapathu in Tuticorin district and Kudankulam in Tirunelveli district. Beach sand mining, fishermen say, has destroyed the fishing economy of the entire region besides causing health hazards and massive sea erosion.

The State’s coastline of 1,076 km along the Bay of Bengal constitutes 15 per cent of India’s total coastline of 7,500 km. The Tamil Nadu coastline has 571 fishing hamlets in 13 districts. Mineral deposits such as garnet, ilmenite, zircon, rutile, sillimanite and leucoxene are found on the southern coast. A geological study says that four million tonnes of garnet is available in the 40-kilometre coast of Tuticorin district alone. Before private players entered the scene, the government-owned Indian Rare Earths at Manavalakurichi in Kanyakumari district was the sole miner.

Santiago’s wife and former Periyathalai village president S. Susheela, 65, attributed the searing heat “that engulfs us not only in summer but all through the year” to the large-scale mining along the coast. She claimed that a large number of women had miscarriages because of problems associated with mining.

“When I was president, no one dared to enter our village. I never obliged the miners who are destroying our traditional livelihood. But today miners are closing in on our village from all directions,” she said. The entire village has to buy drinking water supplied in tankers today as the supply from the Tamiraparani Drinking Water Supply Scheme is negligible.

However, the current president, Manoharan Vaz, dismissed these allegations. He said that as president he had to take care of the interest of the entire village. “I need to depend on the Tuticorin district administration for everything. Even to install a tubelight or lay a drinking water pipeline I have to get its approval. I have no alternative but to keep quiet when a specific instruction on any development activity is initiated on the seashore,” he said. “If anyone can prove that I am getting bribed by any ‘manal company’ [mining firm], I will resign,” he said angrily.

While the majority of fishermen have voiced their dismay over the indiscriminate mining, a few “black sheep” among them, environmental activists say, support the miners clandestinely for obvious gains. “We are not able to mobilise the entire community against the mafia because of the few who have turned traitors,” said Austin of Periyathalai, who, along with the youths in the coastal villages, has been mobilising people against illicit mining. He claimed that the government was reluctant to execute welfare schemes for them because of their opposition. “Rs.2.32 crore has been released to Tamil Nadu under the ‘State Sector Scheme’ for anti-erosion works in coastal States as the Centre’s share for the construction of a 400-metre groyne in the village. But even this work is being executed in a tardy manner,” Austin claimed.

But there are not many youths in Periyathalai these days. “Our villages would be buzzing with activity in mornings and evenings whenever hundreds of boats from this village and the neighbouring hamlets set sail. It was a common sight to see able-bodied youth beach the boats and cast the nets. Today, our boys have deserted the village to seek jobs elsewhere,” said 45-year-old Michael.

Similar tales abound in other fishing hamlets. “Our boys today prefer marine and shipping-related studies. Many are employed in major shipping firms all over the world,” said Mesmann, one of the few young men who have remained in Periyathalai. He is engaged in sourcing lobsters and selling them to exporters. He says the business is not as lucrative as it was in the past since lobsters’ breeding sites in rocks under the sea have come under stress because of mining. “Mining spews out waste sand, which along the coastal line travels to distant places and disturbs marine habitat,” he said. Many youths, he said, had even met with death when they tried to beach boats on the rocky shores.

Periyathalai became the epicentre of opposition to illegal mining when a major law and order problem arose following the issuance of a mining licence in the village. The then village committee mobilised people against mining. The Hindu was the first national English newspaper to report in detail the ills of beach mining, on October 4, 1995. Illicit beach mining then was hardly two years old.

After nearly two decades, the people of Periyathalai are up in arms again. In July 2013, the residents of the village filed a complaint with the then Tuticorin District Collector, Ashish Kumar, on illicit mining in nearby Padukapathu village. The Collector ordered an inquiry and found that a private miner had illegally mined 4.91 lakh cubic metres of sand. He slapped a fine of Rs.3.10 crore on the miner and cancelled the transport permits under Sections 4(1) and 21(5) of the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957, and the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 1959.

This opened a floodgate of petitions and complaints to the Collector. The residents of the villages utilised every available opportunity to voice their grievances on the illegal mining in all official meetings. These and the sustained campaign by environmentalists that the fragile marine ecology in the coastal region, which includes areas in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere and the Palk Bay, was in danger owing to mining led to a chain of events that exposed a major scam in beach mining in Tamil Nadu.

Ashish Kumar extended the scope of his investigation following repeated representations from the fishing community. On August 6, 2013, he formed two teams of officials, which carried out inspections along the beaches at Vaippar, Vembar and Periyasamipuram in Vilathikulam block. The teams found that around 81,000 cu. m of raw sand with a mineral quantity of 2.30 lakh tonnes had been mined from about 30 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of government land at Vaipar though the lessee, VV Minerals Company, a major miner of beach sand in the country, was legally entitled to mine only around four acres. VV Minerals denied the charges.

Within hours of the inspection, Ashish Kumar was transferred to Chennai as Deputy Secretary of the Social Welfare Department. In fact, the firm in question, VV Minerals, filed a police complaint against Ashish Kumar for “falsely implicating it in the scam”.

Meanwhile, the “Meenavar Iyakkiya Munnani”, a fishermen’s front, continued its struggle against the sand mafia. Ashish Kumar’s work prompted the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Bench to ban mining on beaches in Tamil Nadu without clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) from August 14, 2013. On August 8 and September 17, 2013, the Tamil Nadu government ordered an inquiry by the then Revenue Secretary, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, into 52 leases in Tirunelveli district, 11 in Tiruchirapalli district (where inland mining of garnet in Musiri and Thottiyam blocks had been on), six in Kanyakumari district and two in Madurai district (two leases in Peraiyur taluk) to ascertain whether illicit mining by six lessees had taken place.

Bedi inspected the mines in two phases, met fishermen and miners, and submitted his report to the government, which is yet to be made public though various forums including the Madurai-based Human Rights Protection Centre (HRPC)-Tamil Nadu, which approached the Madras High Court in this regard. Meanwhile, the State government suspended the mining operations from September 17, 2013, pending the completion of the investigation.

“But sand mining is covertly pursued. Periyathalai fishermen impounded a lorry that transported sand to Tuticorin, which suggests that mining, despite a ban, is still going on on the beaches of these three coastal districts,” said S. Vanchinathan of the HRPC, a Madurai-based activist-cum-lawyer.

His claims that mining is going on despite a ban are not unfounded if one goes by the statistics available with the Customs Department, Thoothukudi, which a source received through a right to information (RTI) query. It says that between September 18 and October 20, 2013, as much as 7,05,839.08 tonnes of garnet and ilmenite were exported through the Tuticorin port.

The State government, according to an official source, has issued 75 mining leases, the majority of them in Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts, of which 11 are located in Musiri and Thottiyam blocks in Tiruchi district, and in two villages in Peraiyur block in Madurai district, which are yet to become operational.

Loss to the exchequer

According to a geologist, the notional loss the State incurs in a year from illegal beach sand mining is Rs.20,000 crore to Rs.30,000 crore, in all the years since 2005 when the government started liberally issuing licences in accordance with its neoliberal policies. “There are accusations that transport permits for sand minerals also are being misused by the miners since they have been mining beyond the permitted minable quantities in violation of the law since 1995,” said Raj, a fisherman from Kudankulam.

But miners denied these charges, claiming that stringent rules and regulations would never permit illicit mining of beach sand. They said that leases could not be granted in contravention of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) guidelines of May 21, 2002, which prohibited mining within 500 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL) on the landward side along the seafront and the stretch between the Low Tide Line (LTL) and the HTL.

“Mining outside the CRZ area is, however, permissible with prior clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Besides as per the guidelines of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, prior clearance is mandatory for mining beach sand minerals from a mine lease area of five hectares and above. Under its notification, environmental clearance from the Union Ministry is required for mining a lease area of 50 hectares and above and clearance from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) is required for mining an area less than 50 hectares,” said a miner who requested anonymity.

Miners denied any mining activity in human settlements. “Sea erosion is a growing threat to Tamil Nadu coast due to various natural factors. The waves are furious in villages like Periyathalai because of its geographical location,” said the miner.

The situation on the ground is different. A Government of India report in 2000 said that in response to various petitions on allegations of illicit mining, the MoEF carried out an inspection for three days in November 2000 along the beaches of south Tamil Nadu. “Illegal sand mining was found in Kanyakumari district and the site visit report was sent to the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority for taking necessary action. Accordingly, the State government issued closure to 34 mining leases operating in the CRZ area. But the mine owners went to court and got the reprieve,” it noted.

It further claimed that large-scale violations had taken place against the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the Environment Protection Act and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act. In fact, a case against a miner was filed by the State government on July 9, 2007, for offences under Section 25 read with Sections 14 and 2 of the Atomic Energy Act, which was, however, quashed by a court.

Today, many people in the fishing hamlets of Tuticorin and Tirunelveli see Bedi as their saviour. “We are optimistic that his report will end this looting,” said Mesmann. When Frontlinemet Bedi sometime ago, he said: “I have completed the task that was entrusted to me as per my conscience. I have nothing to hide and nothing more to say.” He refused to say anything further on the report as it would be “unfair”.

Tamil Nadu’s coast has been witnessing rapid erosion since the 1970s. Sand dunes are also disappearing fast. “Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin are located in a high-erosion zone,” said a marine biologist in Tuticorin.

But what worries activists and sociologists is the rivalry between two prime players in beach sand mining. Their rivalry has percolated down to the local community, which is vulnerable to exploitation. “The social fabric of the community is in tatters, causing heavy damage to the ecology and livelihood options,” said an activist. Local people are also opposing a project to make the nearby Manappadu coastal village a tourism spot.

Obviously, there are bigger things at stake for Santiago, the old man of the sea, and his ilk.