Granite mining

Once a hill

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Granite blocks quarried from the Panchapandavar Hill (background) in Keelavalavu near Melur. Photo: S. James

U. Sagayam receiving petitions from police officers in Madurai on December 15, 2014. Photo: S. James

The illegal granite mining industry in Madurai district has cost the exchequer an estimated Rs.16,000 crore and has been responsible for wiping off the face of the earth entire villages, hills and irrigation canals.

THE 13-page report of the Sagayam Commission, released in May 2012, on the illegal mining of granite in Tamil Nadu brought out in stark detail something that had been speculated on in discussions and debates: the unholy nexus between politicians, government officials and mining lobbies.

Although the interim report by the then Madurai District Collector, U. Sagayam, with appended video footage, only covered Madurai district (particularly Melur block, where granite is found), it could be applied to the way mining is carried out in other parts of the State as well. Incidentally, the report is the first official document probing a mining scam in the State in the past two decades.

It has also given farmers and activists the confidence that all is not lost in the battle against the mining mafia. “We are now confident that we can restore and safeguard our natural resources,” said Shanmugam, a farmers’ representative in Melur. Courts across the State are now flooded with public interest litigation (PIL) petitions seeking judicial intervention in mining issues.

Sagayam estimated the loss to the exchequer at Rs.16,338 crore from a total of 39,30,431 cubic metres of illegally mined granite. The loss, he pointed out in his report, could be double this amount if the quarries of the State-run Tamil Nadu Minerals (TAMIN) Limited and private players were included for assessment and evaluation scientifically (See “Removing roadblocks”, Frontline, December 12, 2014).

Sagayam, appointed by the Madras High Court as its Special Officer-cum-Legal Commissioner in September 2014, began his job in earnest in February 2015 and has so far completed 14 sittings of exhaustive inquiries, besides making extensive field visits to Madurai district and adjoining Sivagangai district despite intimidation and attempts to derail the investigation.

For instance, when he landed in Madurai, no one from the district administration came to receive him, and when he enquired about his stay, the official concerned in the Revenue Department told him that the travellers’ bungalow was full. “He had to talk tough to a few senior officials to get the accommodation. Even setting up a small office became a painful exercise. Adequate staff was not deputed. These bullying tactics inconvenienced us,” said one of his close aides.

The indirect intimidation and pinpricks continued. He was denied permission to go to Japan to attend a Tamil conference, and tragedy struck when the expert who operated the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to capture pictures of granite mining was killed in a car accident near Madurai city under mysterious circumstances. The police registered the case as an accident.

Undeterred, Sagayam summoned technical experts to assess the mines and the value of the illegally mined granite slabs. “The impact on the socio-economic circumstances of farmers, agricultural labourers and people in villages near Melur, which have borne the brunt of the illicit quarrying, will be the subject of discussion in the report,” he said when this correspondent met him in Madurai.

He received petitions from farmers and other residents of the block whose lives had been badly scarred by the mining activities. Farmers alleged that miners had destroyed vast tracts of “poromboke” land, irrigation canals, tanks, wells, ponds, public pathways and panchami and Boomidhan land in 43 revenue villages, including Keelavalavu, Tirumohur, Thindiyur, Sivalingam, Keelaiyur, E. Mallampatti and Semminpatti.

The sheer scale of the granite trade and its impact on the lives of the residents have to be seen to be believed. The entire agriculture-based economy is in a shambles, and people have even migrated from this area of the district. “The greed of the granite barons has destroyed us,” said M. Sevarkodiyon of Kambarmalaipatti near Keelavalavu village, who used to work as a driver at a firm belonging to PRP Granites, an industry leader. He is now vice-president of the Neervala Padukappu Matrum Oolal Ethirppu Iyakkam (Movement for Preservation of Water Sources and Anti-Corruption). He said that he faced a threat to his life for supporting Sagayam. He also accused the granite barons of indulging in bizarre acts of “human sacrifices” whenever a new quarry or piece of heavy machinery was commissioned. N. Palanivel of Keelavalavu, who had worked as a driver in a quarry, submitted a petition to the committee in which he claimed that he was a witness to one such “sacrifice” at a quarry. Both claimed that the police recorded these cases of deaths as suicide under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

A few police personnel, including women, submitted petitions to Sagayam in one of his sittings in Madurai against the granite mafia for usurping their housing plots measuring 5.5 cents and costing Rs.35,000 in Jangid Nagar in Puthutamaraipatti. “The granite mafia threatened us and purchased many of the plots. Our bosses remained mute witnesses,” a policeman claimed. Another petition that Sagayam received was from members of a dargah in Keelavalavu requesting him to save the “Pokkisham” hills from further mining since their ancient place of worship was located at the foothills.

There were also complaints that persons who had raised their voice against the quarrying had gone missing, and that labourers had been crushed to death during quarrying operations. “Nothing has been recorded either by the police or by any official concerned,” said Ganesan of Keelavalavu. The Sagayam Commission has sought a report from the Madurai Rural Police on persons who have gone missing in the past decade in Melur block.

Official machinery indifferent

Until Sagayam’s arrival, people in the area lived in fear and silence as the official machinery remained indifferent to the operations of the mafia. “His arrival has boosted our morale,” said Marimuthu, a farmer in Keelaiyur village. A “Support Sagayam Committee” has sprung up on the initiative of the environmentalist Mughilan, and plans are afoot to make it a State-wide movement. “The state had seen to it that any problem arising out of mining remained localised. But Sagayam’s appointment has given a fillip to our movement to unite and coordinate our struggles on a common platform and take them forward across the State,” said Mughilan.

The unravelling of the granite scam began in 2008 when Murugesan, a resident of Melur, sought certain details regarding granite mining through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. He wanted information on the activities of PRP Granites and PRP Exports, the leading granite miners and exporters in the country. At that time, the PRP group owned and operated 55 quarries, mostly in and around Melur, where world-class premium granite is found.

As his representation evoked little response, he filed a petition in the Madras High Court in 2009, which ordered an inquiry. The district administration, for inexplicable reasons, did not act on the court order. A local Tamil daily took up the issue and ran a series of stories on the scam in 2010. The articles not only claimed that illicit mining was rampant but dragged in the names of both P.R. Palanisamy, owner of the PRP group, and Dayanidhi Alagiri, one of the directors [he relinquished the position later] of Olympus Granite Private Limited and son of M.K. Alagiri, former Union Minister and the then strongman of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Madurai.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its leader Jayalalithaa took up the issue while campaigning for the 2011 Assembly elections and exploited it to the hilt to attack the DMK government. During a campaign in Madurai district, she assured the farmers and the people that if her party was voted to power, it would put an end to the “granite looting”. It was at this time that the Election Commission of India brought in Sagayam as the District Collector of Madurai to stem the cash-for-votes menace there. As expected, the AIADMK came to power with a huge win and Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister. She asked Sagayam to prepare a detailed report on the granite scam, and Sagayam held an inquiry and submitted his report, dated May 19, 2012, to the then Principal Secretary, Department of Industries, Government of Tamil Nadu.

Then the drama and the intrigue began. Sagayam was transferred to Chennai as the Managing Director of Co-optex, his 24th transfer in 23 years of service, with Anshul Mishra succeeding him as Collector of Madurai. As Sagayam’s report gathered dust, mining continued unabated. A little later, Sagayam’s report was leaked to the media. It openly charged officials, including a few senior officers, with collusion in the illicit mining. A total of 175 leases had been granted to quarry granite blocks in over 43 revenue villages in Melur taluk. But none of them, the report said, was legal.

Anshul Mishra, however, took up the onerous responsibility of continuing the inquiry into the scam. He systematically initiated legal proceedings against the granite barons for various violations, ordered the closure of 95 of the 175 quarries, and filed 90 first information reports (FIRs) against firms, including PRP Exports and PRP Granites, Olympus Granites and Sindhu Granites.

He served notices on 83 firms for removing granite blocks worth Rs.13,748 crore illegally. Palanisamy and a few others were arrested and Dayanidhi Alagiri went underground. The Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) raided the houses of N. Mathivanan and C. Kamaraj, two former Collectors of Madurai, in connection with the mining scam.

Meanwhile, farmers and others seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry approached the Madras High Court. The Collector submitted a status report in court, saying that the lessees had stockpiled granite blocks on government land in the villages of Puthutamaraipatti, Thiruvadavur, Keelaiyur, Keelavalavu and E. Mallampatti. He told the court that the administration had counted nearly 1.70 lakh blocks of granite lying in and around 40 villages in Melur block.

The PRP Group, he alleged, resorted to forgery to illegally transfer pattas (land ownership documents) to the company. As many files pertaining to landholdings and their classifications were found missing from the Melur taluk office, the State government placed nine revenue officials under suspension, pending inquiry. Two village administrative officers were also suspended.

Anshul Mishra said UAVs were used to ascertain the volume and the value of the granite blocks mined from non-leased areas. But when the inquiry was nearing completion, and with the cases relating to the scam at various stages in different courts, the government, in another surprise move, transferred Anshul Mishra to Chennai, though it claimed that it was a routine transfer.

The legal processes and investigations came to a grinding halt. All the arrested were released on bail and those who had remained underground were given anticipatory bail. When everything seemed to be going in favour of the miners, a PIL petition filed by the Chennai-based octogenarian activist “Traffic” Ramaswamy alias K.R. Ramaswamy in the Madras High Court in July 2014 condemning the delay in the investigation put the issue back in the spotlight.

The petitioner further filed an interlocutory petition seeking a direction to the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu, to constitute a commission and appoint Sagayam Special Officer to inspect the illegal quarrying of granite. On September 11, 2014, the High Court appointed Sagayam as its Special Officer–cum-Legal Commissioner. The Supreme Court upheld the appointment.

The commission, which was granted two extensions by the Madras High Court, one on December 22, 2014, for eight weeks and again on June 10, 2015, for four weeks, has received 3,000-odd petitions against the granite mining from farmers, former workers of mining companies, affected residents, government officials, devotees of a dargha, and even police officers.

Farmers claimed that they had to abandon farming activities in the once-fertile land under the Periyar-Vaigai canal irrigation system. “Once there was a carpet of greenery here. Today, it is a land of stones and pits,” said C. Vaiyapuri, president, United Farmers Association of Tamil Nadu. He told Frontline that the farmers had provided the commission with whatever information they possessed on granite mining in their villages. “The mafia has destroyed rivers, tanks, ponds, waterways, village properties and fertile land,” he said.

A survey by a team of social workers showed that in Melur block alone nearly 800 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of panchami land had been illegally taken over. About 150 acres of panchami land in Senmalaipatti was bought from Dalits at throwaway prices and converted into quarries and waste dumps. The team submitted a 600-page report to the commission in this regard.

Destruction of agriculture

The farmers claimed that the granite mafia devised a plan to create drought-like conditions in the fertile area by systematically dumping granite in tanks and water-carrying canals. “These slabs were so huge that a poor farmer with a sickle and a plough would not be able to move them. Besides, there would be hundreds of such stones blocking the entire stretch of the canals. Over a period of time, water stopped flowing into the fields, forcing the farmers to suspend farm operations,” said 60-year-old Murugan in Keelavalavu village.

With farming becoming impossible, farmers were forced to sell their land to the miners at throwaway prices. “Thus, we, as a family of five, had to abandon our property, which we inherited from our great-grandfather. We migrated to Madurai city to eke out a living,” said a farmer who was forced to sell his one acre of agricultural land on which he raised two crops of paddy and one crop of sugarcane a year. “I had to abandon my tiled house near the field, and it was later demolished,” he said.

An estimated 75 irrigation tanks have been identified as silted up and destroyed, and according to Anshul Mishra’s report, 26 waterways have been choked with granite waste. “Government school buildings in villages, panchayat offices, community halls, paddy drying floors, common properties, grazing lands, etc., have also been destroyed in many villages,” claimed a Revenue Department official. Even burial grounds and cemeteries have not been spared. Besides the Irrigation Department, Sagayam has sought details from the Agriculture and the Public Works Departments too to substantiate his claim with data that the entire economy of villages had been destroyed by illegal granite mining. “Approximately three lakh acres of fertile land in Madurai district, including 60 villages in Melur block, have fallen to the greed of miners,” said the Revenue Department official.

During his inspection, Sagayam questioned officials of various departments concerned about the disappearance of tanks, irrigation wells, and waterways. “If your records say that the tank is here, where is it and its bund?” he asked a PWD official in a village during one of his inspection tours. Similarly, in Adanchanpatti hamlet, residents told Sagayam that a one-kilometre-long part of a public pathway had been obliterated with waste slabs.

Threat to archaeological sites

In December 2014, Sagayam inspected unlicensed quarries beneath the Jaina caves in Ova Hills at Thiruvathavur village near Melur. This archeologically important site is in danger of being totally destroyed. “In fact, many such important and historical sites have already been lost to indiscriminate mining,” said an officer accompanying Sagayam. The commission has sought a detailed report from the Department of Archaeology.

Shockingly, entire villages have been obliterated. Hamlets such as D. Guntangal and Rengarajapuram and a large part of Puthutamaraipatti today exist only in revenue records. Murugan of Puthutamaraipatti said his family had lived in the village for five generations. “Our woes began when they started mining around our village. Slowly they started occupying our village because they found that beneath the soil was rich granite.”

Pasuvatham, 70, of Puthutamaraipatti told Frontline that the mafia forced her and other families to sell their houses and leave. “Thus, nearly 50 houses, comprising three-fourths of the village, were sold to the miners. The village once boasted green fields, with bounteous yields of paddy, sugarcane and millets,” she said with tears in her eyes. Today, three-fourths of the village is deserted with stone debris dumped all over. “Even the biodiversity of the area has been lost. The noise from the continuous blasting and the indiscriminate dumping of granite waste have driven out birds and animals such as mongooses, rabbits and foxes from the area,” said one of the residents of the village.

About 140 Muslim families in Keelavalavu village have a grouse. They tried in vain to save the 40-metre-high and 600-metre-long Pokkisham Malai, also known as Sakkarapeer Hills, from the miners. A 400-year-old dargah functioning at the foothills is a revered place of worship for both Hindus and Muslims. Their struggle to save the hill began in 1989, when the Department of Mining announced that the hill would be leased out for mining. “We have lost our battle to save this majestic hill because of an insensitive bureaucracy,” said Salim, secretary, Keelavalavau Jamaath.

A complaint was filed in the Keelavalavu police station as Crime No: 429/2002. Youths who raised voice against the mining were beaten up. Many of them, fearing the wrath of the mafia, sought employment in West Asian countries. After the mafia snuffed out the people’s opposition, TAMIN leased out the hill to a miner, who, in turn, subleased it to two others, including PRP Granites. A mining official claimed that the granite found in Pokkisham Hills was of high quality, with a yellowish shade, and was worth Rs.4.5 lakh per cubic metre. Today, the hill presents a dismal sight. Half of it has been sawn off.

The same fate befell seven other hills in the locality, including the 20-metre-high and 160-metre-long “Purakoondu Malai” in Mallampatti. Villagers called it Diamond Hills since they believed it contained diamonds. The lessee sawed off nearly 70 cubic metres of high-grade pink granite and Kashmir variety granite from the hill in less than two months, reducing it to a mound of rubble. The hills that got axed include Perumal Hills in Arittapatti, Pancha Pandavar Hills in Keelaiyur and Ova Hills near Thiruvathavur.

Most government departments have been reluctant to share information with the Sagayam Commission, but the Tuticorin Port Trust responded early to his queries and provided him details on the export of granite slabs through the port. Between 2004 and 2008, PRP Exports exported 1,20,000 cubic metres of premium quality stones, which, according to officials, was much more than what the firm was actually permitted to mine. The port has also given details of other firms that export granite slabs. “We are collating details which we have received from various departments,” said a member of Sagayam’s team.

Ecologists demand a similar probe into the illegal mining in other granite-rich districts, such as Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli, Vellore, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Pudukottai, Karur, Erode and Salem.

Today, the villages in and around Melur in Madurai district wear a bruised look with huge trenches, deep pits, pockmarked fields, and giant stone slabs strewn all over the place. The noise of earthmovers, giant stonecutters and loud explosions have ceased for the present. “But for how long?” is the primary question that lingers in everyone’s mind today.

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