Tricks of the trade

Print edition : July 24, 2015

“A ROUGH estimate has pointed out that so far 39,30,431 cu. m [cubic metres] of stones worth Rs.15,721 crore would have been illegally quarried. The State (Tamil Nadu) would have lost ‘stone value and licence fees’ to the tune of Rs.617 crore in addition. Thus, the total value of loss would have been Rs.16,338 crore.” These findings, made by U. Sagayam in 2012 when he was the Collector of Madurai blew the lid off the mega granite scam. “It is just the tip of the iceberg,” said an informed source in the Department of Mines and Geology in Chennai. “If probed dispassionately, the granite scam will render insignificant the multi-billion-crore scams the country has witnessed in recent times,” the source added.

A few officials of Tamil Nadu Minerals Limited (TAMIN), a Government of Tamil Nadu-owned company with “substantial quarrying rights”, which was floated in 1978 to exploit, process and market granite and other minerals, were suspended for their connivance with the miners. TAMIN’s quarrying activities are limited since, according to an official, it does not have adequate manpower and equipment, rendering it a mere licence-issuing agency. It issues “Raising, and Raising and Sale” licences to prospective miners, allowing them to extract and sell granite.

Taking advantage of the loopholes in the system of the licence raj, private miners, after obtaining the “Raising and Sale” licence, underrate the granite recovery ratio in order to lower the royalty payable to the state. In fact, the source in the Department of Mines and Geology told Frontline that almost all the miners in Melur block had shown a mere 10 to 15 per cent granite recovery ratio from the quarry, showing the rest as “wastage”.

“But an in-depth investigation revealed that their recovery ratio was 50 to 60 per cent,” he said. The miners would move the high-quality granite blocks to their stockyards under cover of darkness before replacing them with waste and substandard slabs at the quarry sites. “Officials who come for inspection would be shown the substandard slabs and waste and told that the granite yield was of poor quality,” said an appraiser in a mining firm. But some claim that the dishonesty begins when licences are issued. While allotting premium quality TAMIN mines, the granite recovery ratio would be deliberately underrated, increasing the miners’ profits. “As a result, the government has incurred heavy losses in all possible ways,” the appraiser said.

A senior revenue official who was a member of the team formed by Sagayam, which exposed the scam, said that they had found adequate evidence to prove accusations of irregularities against Olympus Granites. “The firm was given a licence to quarry 400 cu. m in two years while it obtained a permit to transport 2,200 cu. m.” Another allegation was that since its quarry was located next to TAMIN mines, it reportedly took away granite slabs quarried and stored on the TAMIN campus.

But many firms had resorted to this malpractice. Sagayam’s report pointed out that there was strong evidence that 8,37,500 cu. m of granite slabs worth Rs.3,350 crore, mined in TAMIN quarries, were found in the stockyard of PRG Granites. “Nearly 60,000 cu. m of granite could have been thus smuggled out of TAMIN mines,” said a Krishnagiri-based miner who was forced out of the Melur area by local miners.

Former workers of a mining firm alleged that the miners often cheated the buyers too. Buyers from faraway countries would be shown premium granite blocks in their stockyards. “The usual practice is that the selected blocks are marked with ‘Unique Code Markers’, by the buyers themselves. This enables the buyer to avoid mix-ups while transporting the selected blocks. After the payment is received, the marked blocks would be shipped to the buyers’ destinations. But many firms in Melur cheated the buyer by replacing the marked slabs with substandard ones, forging the markers and documents before shipping,” said a retired manager of a firm. The granite deposits in Tamil Nadu, according to TAMIN, are rich in black and multiple-colour granite and are rated among the best in the world. Hence, there is a steady market for black and other colour granite in countries such as Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Holland, the United States and China.

Kashmir White from Tamil Nadu is the best of its kind and commands a high price. Keelavalavu and surrounding villages in Melur block in Madurai district are rich in such granite stones.

While black granite is confined to northern districts such as Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Vellore, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Salem, Erode, Perambalur, Villupuram, Tiruchi and Tiruvannamalai, multi-coloured granite is found in the southern districts and in Salem, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts.

The Indian Bureau of Mines says that the total reserves of granite in Tamil Nadu according to its 2006 assessment is around 55,94,35,000 cu. m. But there is no information on how much granite has been extracted so far. There are 191 quarry leases for black granite, out of which 116 are in patta land covering 236.69 hectares and 75 are in government land covering 896.96 ha. There are 548 quarry leases for coloured granite, out of which 441 are in 1,027.89 ha of patta land and 107 are in 835.11 ha of government land.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran