Beware falling foul of the sand mafia in Tamil Nadu. The consequences can be fatal, as those who have been fighting against it know. “We have lost many active socially conscious people to the sand mafia’s greed,” said the environmental activist Mughilan. Campaigners like him, who mobilise people against illicit mining, make the sand mafia nervous.
Tamil Nadu has witnessed several mining-related murders since 2000, and those killed include local people, political activists, enforcement officials and even a policeman. On a few occasions, professional gangsters have been hired to do away with “opponents” of the illicit trade. The majority of the murders have taken place in the districts of Tirunelveli and Kancheepuram, mostly in hit-and-run incidents involving sand lorries.
Sam Devasagayam, an 81-year-old retired teacher and a friend of the veteran Communist Party of India leader R. Nallakannu, was hacked to death at Kongarayakurichi village near Srivaikundam in Tirunelveli district on July 15 last year. Devasagayam had been campaigning actively against the mining going on in the Tamiraparani near his village despite the Madras High Court banning it in 2010 for five years. On July 20 last year, Head Constable G. Kanakaraj, 43, attached to Thakkolam police station near Arakkonam in Vellore district, was run over when he attempted to stop a tractor transporting illicitly mined sand from the Kusasthalai river. Two months later, on September 20, five officials, including the Tahsildhar of Aavudaiyarkoil, Ravichandran, and four of his assistants, had a miraculous escape when a sand lorry rammed their car near Pudukottai.
Brothers Rajesh, 24, and Karthick, 30, were hacked to death in Mathur village in Pudukottai district in October 2013 when they opposed illicit mining in a jungle stream. In March 2012, an ITI diploma holder, Satheesh Kumar, 24, son of Estaak Vincent, a pump operator at Kottaikarunkulam village near Mitaadarkulam in Tirunelveli district, was killed by a speeding lorry that was transporting sand illicitly mined in the Nambiyar river. A group of village youths, including Satheesh, had been on guard duty against the mining that night. The mining, they believed, led to the lowering of the water level in infiltration wells and affected drinking water supply.
On December 11, 2004, the Deputy Tahsildhar of Tirukazhukundram in Kancheepuram district, R. Venkatesan, was killed when he was run over by a sand-laden lorry at Manapakkam village. Four months earlier, in September 2003, Tahsildhar G. Punniyakodi lost his life when he attempted to stop a lorry that was illegally transporting blue metal from Erumaiyur in Kancheepuram district.
Revenue Inspector R. Shanmugasundaram lost his life on April 20, 2003, when a speeding lorry transporting illicitly mined sand from the Palar riverbed near Palayaseevaram, also in Kancheepuram district, knocked him down. In fact, the then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, replying to a special calling attention motion in the State Assembly on the death of Shanmugasundaram, said “no culprit even if he were God” would be spared.
But there was no stopping the killings. In November 2014, Thanikachalam, 65, of Mathanur village in Vellore district, was murdered when he filed a case against those who had encroached on water channels. Prabhakaran of Elachipalayam in Coimbatore district, who got a stay on illicit mining in the Pudupalayam village tank, was beaten up by a gang of rowdies on May 26, 2015.
A farmer, A. Raja, of E. Mallampatti village in Melur taluk in Madurai district, lost his left hand when gangsters chopped it off because he refused to part with his land to the granite mafia three years earlier. “Despite these threats, people’s opposition is gaining momentum though a few officials in all districts are in collusion with the mafia. The struggle against illicit mining in the Palar river in Kalathur village in Vellore district, which has a sizeable population of Dalit farmers and agricultural labourers, is a shining example,” said Mughilan. But a tough battle lies ahead.