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Taking on the sand lobby

Print edition : Nov 07, 2003 T+T-

The Tamil Nadu government bans sand-mining operations in the State by private parties, but further action is delayed by court cases that have been initiated on the issue.

in Chennai

AFTER years of inaction, the Tamil Nadu government took a major initiative on October 1 to put an to end to the indiscriminate, and often illicit, quarrying of sand on river-beds across the State, which has spelt disaster to the environment, water sources, agriculture, and development projects. It cancelled all leases and virtually took over all sand quarrying operations through an executive order. However, soon it found itself ensnared in a legal tangle over procedural issues. A batch of writ petitions challenging the validity of the Government Order (G.O.) that facilitated the cancellation of lease permits and the government takeover of quarrying activities are now before the Madras High Court.

According to the government, there are 135 lessees operating in poromboke land and 52 grantees quarrying sand in patta lands.

Social activists, environmentalists and political leaders, who have long been clamouring for strict regulatory measures, see in the initiative the beginning of the end of the mindless mining of river-beds, which had assumed, on the government's own admission, "alarming proportions".

The October 1 order cancelled all existing lease permits for sand quarrying in poromboke and patta lands with immediate effect under the newly inserted Rule 38-A of the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 1959, framed under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, of the Government of India. The order declared that the quarrying of sand at 239 locations in the riverbeds of the State had been entrusted to the Public Works Department (PWD). The order stated that in these locations sand could be quarried "without detriment to the river-beds and canals". The sand thus quarried would be sold at a "reasonable" price - Rs.1,000 a lorry load ex depot - through 95 outlets. The PWD followed it up on October 5 by commencing quarrying operations at some of the specified locations and selling sand at a few of its depots.

EXPLAINING the reasons for the government's action, a press release stated that the lessees engaged in quarrying sand on river-beds and in canals had "totally flouted all rules and regulations and resorted to indiscriminate exploitation of the sources". "This resulted in irreversible damage to river systems." Most of the observations in the press release confirmed what social action groups such as the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources - Tamil Nadu, had inferred from their studies in different regions of the State. (Frontline, May 24, 2002). "The rapacious practices adopted by the leaseholders have led to ecological damage and environmental degradation, groundwater depletion and has resulted in water scarcity as well as loss of agricultural production. Widespread unsustainable quarrying of sand has also affected the flow of water in the river systems to downstream areas and has also jeopardised the safety of structures such as bridges, dams, river embankments, power line towers and power line poles," the government said and noted that it had come in for "widespread public criticism".

The government referred to the lessees' "harassment of the public" by charging "extortionate" prices for the sand through "unscrupulous" manipulation of the supply position. "This has substantially affected construction activities which constitute a significant segment of the economy," the government observed. It also said that "the illegal removal of sand far in excess of what has been authorised has also led to loss of revenue to the government". (According to one estimate, the government suffers an annual revenue loss of not less than Rs.54.75 crores in Chennai alone.) Apart from quarrying more than the permitted quantity of sand in the area leased out, the operators have also flouted rules by quarrying sand in areas not covered by the lease.

The government also said that all its efforts "to regulate the operations of the lessees through better enforcement (of the rules) and by better supervision" were brought to nought by the "tactics" of the lease-holders. In this regard, it referred to "the repeated instances of regulatory officers and staff being attacked and threatened by the unscrupulous operators of sand quarries, who operate like a mafia". (A revenue inspector engaged in inspection work in Kancheepuram district was fatally knocked down by a sand-laden lorry in April and a Tahsildar escaped narrowly in a similar attempt in Virudhunagar district in May. Another Tahsildar was allegedly killed while inspecting a stone quarry in Kancheepuram district.)

Unauthorised sand mining has been going on in several places in the State for many years. It assumed menacing proportions recently, particularly after similar activities were banned in neighbouring Kerala following judicial intervention. The money power and the political influence of the lessees often helped them violate all norms and suppress any resistance.

It was made clear in the press release that the driving force behind the government's firm intervention was the "great concern" expressed by the Madras High Court over the "serious adverse consequences" of the illegal quarrying. The High Court, which had had to deal with public interest litigation (PIL) petitions and complaints from affected persons that even court directives were not heeded to, ordered on July 27, 2002, that the government constitute a high-level committee to go into this matter "in depth". Accordingly, the government appointed a committee headed by Dr. C. Mohanadoss, Head of the Department of Geology and Director, Centre for Geo Science and Engineering, Anna University, Chennai. The committee submitted its report to the government on July 31. A copy of it was submitted to the High Court as well, according to the government. The decision to entrust sand quarrying with the PWD seems to be based on the recommendation of the committee that "sand quarrying be placed under the complete control of one single agency of the government in order to regulate the operations".

The government seems to have been influenced by certain observations made in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG), which was placed before the State Assembly in May. The CAG report pointed out that the government had to incur an additional expenditure of about Rs.3.3. crores on strengthening the "flood banks" on both sides of the Vallur Anicut in Tiruvallur district, owing to the failure of the Public Works, Revenue and Industries departments to prevent illicit mining. The CAG report said that these departments blamed each other for the failure to prevent illicit sand mining. It observed that "... none of the departments discharged its duties envisaged in the Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Act and Rules." The CAG also charged that both the Revenue and Industries departments did not honour the court direction to prevent illicit quarrying.

THE Madras High Court directed the State government on July 26, 2002, to initiate steps to put an end to the illegal sand mining on river-beds, particularly in areas close to rail and road bridges. Justice K. Sampath, who gave the direction while passing orders on a contempt petition, also framed guidelines under which a time-bound programme for the purpose should be taken up by the State administration.

M.K. Janardhanam of Chennai had, in his contempt of court petition, alleged that the District Collector of Tiruvallur and three other officials, cited as respondents, had "wilfully and wantonly disobeyed" the High Court's direction to them, given on February 8, 2000 on a writ petition he had filed about the "illegal" quarrying of sand from the riverbed of the Kosathalaiyar and the adjacent land in certain villages in Ponneri taluk. The High Court had directed the respondents to ensure that the quarrying was stopped. Janardhanam had stated in the petition that his repeated requests to the respondents to get the court orders implemented were of no avail.

Justice Sampath said: "The enormity of the problem suffocates us. The apathetic and lukewarm approach of the powers that be baffles and pains us." He regretted that several earlier judgments on the subject had gone unheeded.

In his order Justice Sampath directed the State government to constitute within a month a high-level committee comprising scientists, geologists and environmentalists to study sand-mining operations in the river basins, which would submit its report incorporating remedial measures within six months. The Judge said: "The government shall pass legislation based on the report."

That some earlier court orders on sand-mining had also been flouted by government officials was brought to light at a State-level "people's public hearing" on the impact of sand mining in Tamil Nadu, arranged by the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources - Tamil Nadu in Chennai in February 2002. Representatives from 13 of the 28 districts of the State gave evidence on the damage caused by indiscriminate sand-quarrying in their regions. A `jury' comprising former Supreme Court Judge V.R. Krishna Iyer and five other eminent persons also called upon the State government to implement a High Court order on the issue, delivered in July 1999. The order told the government to regulate sand-quarrying operations with a view to protecting the river systems.

Leaders of major political parties have welcomed the government intervention and suggested stern steps against any irregularities in the quarrying and sale of sand. While hailing the government's action, Ossie Fernandez, one of the conveners of the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources - Tamil Nadu, described the government's action as "a step forward" in protecting water resources. He, however, felt that the scheme should have vested the administration of all minor minerals including sand with panchayati raj institutions and other local bodies, instead of exclusively with the PWD.