TAMIL NADU is an environmental powder keg. In what can be termed the mother of all loot, relentless exploitation of its natural resources has been going on for two decades now in contemptuous disregard for the environment and people’s livelihoods.
Government sources, who insist on anonymity, estimate the losses from it in terms of revenue and degraded natural assets—beach minerals, river sand, bauxite, magnesite, granite, and so on—at Rs.1.43 lakh crore. Environmentalists put the annual loss to the government from beach sand mining at Rs.20,000 crore to Rs.30,000 crore and from illegal river sand mining at Rs.30,000 crore. According to a report submitted to the State government by U. Sagayam, former Madurai District Collector whom the Madras High Court has appointed as the Legal Commissioner to study the granite mining scam, Rs.13,000 crore has been lost because of illegal granite mining since 1995.
The mining mafia rules in pockets from Kanyakumari in the deep south to Tiruvallur near Chennai in the north and in neighbouring Puducherry, gouging out tonnes of sand from beaches and riverbeds and huge blocks of granite from farmland and hillocks. Bauxite mining has wreaked havoc on the fragile ecology of the Kolli hills in Namakkal district and the Shervaroyan hills in Salem district. The rampant mining, which is regulated only on paper, poses a major threat to the ecology and affects the availability of water sources in Tamil Nadu, a State that falls in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats and has few perennial rivers except for the Cauvery and the Tamiraparani.
The south-west and north-east monsoons are the main sources of water, and the major share of it is realised from the latter. The normal annual rainfall in the State is about 945 mm, of which 48 per cent is from the north-east monsoon and 32 per cent from the south-west monsoon. Frequent monsoon failures lead to acute water scarcity and severe drought.
In fact, a study of the State’s hydrology reveals that its entire surface water has been exhausted and nearly 85 per cent of the groundwater potential has been tapped. The untapped groundwater potential has been classified as 97 safe blocks (70 per cent tapped), 105 semi-critical blocks (70 to 90 per cent tapped) and 183 critical blocks (90 to 100 per cent tapped). Nearly 130 blocks have been overexploited.
Water experts fear that in such a situation, the unscientific mining of beach sand, river sand and other minor and major minerals such as granite and bauxite can have disastrous consequences for the environment. For instance, in the coastal villages of Tuticorin and Tirunelveli districts, mining of beach sand for placer minerals such as garnet has resulted in the groundwater falling to 300 feet (91 metres), a depth at which salinity renders the water unfit for human consumption.
It was the neoliberal economic reforms initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991, which dismantled the licence raj, that accelerated the exploitation of natural resources to keep pace with the construction boom and the thrust to industry and the services sectors.
River sand soon emerged as a money-spinner in Tamil Nadu. The shift from the traditional and eco-friendly brick- and clay-tiled buildings to multistoreyed concrete structures increased the demand for cement and sand. Tamil Nadu consumes nearly 20 lakh tonnes of cement a month. Sand is the main aggregate in the concrete mix.
The industry’s ever-growing demand for sand has prompted miners to dig deeper and deeper in riverbeds, thus spawning a black market for sand. The casualty is not only the environment but the livelihood options of rural people, especially those who survive on agriculture. Any attempt to regulate mining or the price of sand, despite the Public Works Department (PWD) taking control over river mining in 2003, has been met with contempt. The nexus between miners, politicians and the executive, which silences whistle-blowers and other voices of dissent, continues to be strong.
Mining using heavy machinery continues day and night on the Cauvery, on which around 4.5 lakh farmers depend for their livelihood. The dry bed of the Cauvery in Tiruchi, Karur, Kulithalai, Thottiyam and Musiri is dotted with deep pits from which sand has been scooped out. The situation in the heavily mined Palar, coursing through Vellore and other northern districts of the State, has been made worse by the pollutants released from tannery units. In 2010, the Madras High Court came to the rescue of the Tamiraparani by banning mining of the river for five years.
In fact, other rivers, too, are on the verge of annihilation. Illegal mining is rampant in the Pennaiyar in Villupuram district, the Vellar in Vriddachalam (Cuddalore district), the Vaigai in Madurai and the southern districts, the Amaravati in Karur district and the Bhavani in Erode and Karur districts. The miners have not spared even the tributaries of these rivers and also streams. The riverbeds are full of pits and trenches, some even 20 metres deep. People residing in villages on the banks of the rivers now have to struggle to get water, which was once available in plenty.
Laws, be it of the Centre or of the State, banning unscientific mining remain on paper. The executive, which has the responsibility to enforce them, is a mute spectator. A few who attempted to rein in the mafia had to pay dearly. “Friendly bureaucrats,” a corrupt political class, and miners’ cartels silence any voice of resistance.
A silver lining in this distressing situation is the resistance put up by local communities. Many senior officials such as former Madurai District Collectors U. Sagayam and Anshul Mishra and former Tuticorin Collector Ashish Kumar initiated legal proceedings against illegal mining in their respective districts. As a consequence they were shunted out. Lower-level officers in the Revenue and Police Departments who dared to oppose the mining mafia were intimidated, manhandled or even murdered.
An exhaustive tour of the mining sites in the State —on the coast, along rivers and on the hills—by this correspondent made one thing clear: mining on the scale at which it is going on in the State, if allowed to continue unchecked, will lead to a serious depletion of natural resources and environmental problems with consequences for the State. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in another decade or so the State could turn barren.
The indiscriminate mining has destroyed hills, eroded biodiversity spheres, denuded forests, contaminated water resources and degraded fertile soil. It has changed the physical characteristics of river basins, impacting heavily the socio-economic condition of local people. Livelihood options of rural populations are drying up at a fast pace, which in turn has triggered an exodus of people to urban clusters, upsetting the economic and cultural balance of a society.
Impact of sand mining
A State-level public hearing on the “Impact of sand mining in Tamil Nadu”, organised by the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources–Tamil Nadu, in 2002, identified 15 adverse consequences of sand mining, according to M. Naveen Saviour, a soil science researcher at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. In his article, he states that these consequences include depletion of groundwater, destruction of farmland, loss of employment to farm workers, rights violations, and heavy damage to infrastructure.
The pollution caused by mining even changes the colour of water, both sea and river, into reddish orange. “Low pH, high electrical conductivity, high concentration of ions of sulphate and other toxic metals, low dissolved oxygen and high BOD [biochemical oxygen demand] are some of the physiochemical and biological parameters that characterise the degradation of water quality,” he points out in the article. These “topographical disorders” can be seen at every site of mining in Tamil Nadu.
He lists weak governance and rampant corruption as the main causes of the “illegal mining”. “The socio-economic significance of the mining operations is often overlooked. Because of poor handling of resources, soil and sand mining causes a negative impact on the environment,” the article says. The government, it says, should exercise prudence when it comes to leasing out riverbeds for mining activities and demarcate areas clearly and monitor mining through a suitable institutional mechanism. But, sadly, the State has been silent on the issue, indicating its indifferent attitude to the loot.
Mining of all forms, involving 36 lakh hectares of land, contributes to 4 per cent of the nation’s GDP and provides employment to 1.1 million people. “But the loss in terms of asset destruction will be much more and can lead to social tensions. Already, affected people in certain pockets have started raising the banner of revolt against indiscriminate mining,” said the activist-cum-environmentalist Mughilan, who has been in the forefront of many struggles.
Academics, research scholars, government agencies and even voluntary institutions have carried out studies on the ill effects of unscientific and indiscriminate mining. Various courts too have passed strictures against the State on this issue, but mining continues unhindered. One reason why there are no complaints from the local people is the enormous amounts of money the miners have pumped into the villages adjoining the mining sites. They donate money liberally to temple festivals, attend weddings in the village and condole with the bereaved. The outcasts and the unemployed, weak links in a tight and conservative village community system, are lured into their web. They are encouraged to form local cartels, which in turn take care of silencing any voice of dissent against the mining activities. “In brief, the entire village administration is controlled by these elements,” said an activist.
If the residents remain united despite these enticements, the miners whip up caste tensions to divide them. Raju, who heads the “Save Vellar River” movement in Vriddachalam, said that with the connivance of the local police, the sand mafia that looted the river attempted to divide the people. “Fortunately, we were able to defeat their evil designs. We have remained united against all inducements,” he said.
According to scientists, sand accumulation in riverbeds reduces their depth and causes frequent floods. “But we need proper dredging of sand that keeps the bed at the proper level and not indiscriminate mining such as what Tamil Nadu has been witnessing,” said a geologist who was manhandled in Tuticorin for speaking to this correspondent on beach sand mining in 1995. He has shifted to Tirunelveli since then.
Sand mining, according to an estimate, directly provides jobs to around two lakh people in the State. In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the villagers in the districts of Tiruchi and Karur on the banks of the Cauvery are engaged in sand-mining activities, while many others are encouraged by miners to become their partners in crime. Thus sand miners are slowly taking over the entire economy of the blocks where they mine.
Taking on the mining mafia is not easy. Once the miners establish themselves in an area it is virtually impossible to dislodge them. “For example, the State leases out a small part of its ‘poromboke’ land for a paltry annual tenancy fee for mining. Later, the miners encroach on adjoining areas and patta land,” said Mughilan. They rake in millions, paying only a small royalty to the government, he said.
On the southern side of the State, in Keelavalavu village in Melur taluk in Madurai district, a shocking granite scam running into crores of rupees was unearthed by Sagayam when he was Madurai District Collector. (According to his initial report, the State has suffered a notional loss of Rs.13,000 crore from quarries in Madurai.) Waste stones lie scattered in almost all places, leaving very little space for farmers and other people to eke out a livelihood. His successor, Anshul Mishra, tightened the noose around granite barons by slapping legal cases against them and suspending quarrying for almost a year.
What remains of the once-green villages located in the Vaigai-Periyar river irrigation system are stunted hills, damaged waterbodies, useless water carrying channels, broken roads and dilapidated houses. Agriculture has been destroyed totally. Many people in and around Madurai poured out their grief before Sagayam who has been appointed by the Madras High Court as its Legal Commissioner to look into the granite scam in detail. Sagayam, despite hostile responses from within the government and the granite mafia, is on the threshold of completing his five-month-long investigation. He has to submit his report, which insiders say, might run into a few thousand pages, with video footage and visuals, to the Madras High Court shortly.
Meanwhile, on the seaside, between Tuticorin and Kanyakumari, mining for “placer metals” on the beach goes on unhindered despite a ban on it following a volley of allegations of widespread irregularities. A lorry that transports beach sand to the purification plant for leaching ran over a labourer in Udankudi town in the first week of March, exposing the miners’ impudence to any legal action. To avoid the embarrassment of facing a possible judicial intervention as in the case of granite and to pacify the agitated fisherfolk, the State government in 2013 asked the then Revenue Secretary, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, to investigate the allegations of irregularities in beach sand mining. He submitted his report some six months ago, which is yet to be made public. Pending further inquiry, the State government has issued an order suspending mining operations on the seashore of Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts.
Miners of minor minerals have been robbing the State for close to two decades now. Ecologists and activists urge the State and Central governments to carry out a social audit on the mining activities with the aid of an independent expert committee. The sands of time are running out.