Mining dangers

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

A public hearing brings to light the serious threat sand mining, often illegal, poses to the ecology and livelihoods in many districts of Tamil Nadu.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS and human rights activists have repeatedly drawn public attention to the possible ecological impact of the indiscriminate mining of sand in the river basins, coastal areas and hill regions of Tamil Nadu. The threat to the livelihoods of local communities from this mindless commercial activity seems to be more real now than ever before.

After intense studies in different regions and interaction with the affected people, the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources-Tamil Nadu has identified 15 adverse consequences of sand mining. They include the depletion of groundwater; lesser availability of water for industrial, agricultural and drinking purposes; destruction of agricultural land; loss of employment to farm workers; threat to livelihoods; human rights violations; and damage to roads and bridges.

There has been a significant increase in sand mining since the beginning of the 1990s following a boom in the construction industry, and the activity reached alarming proportions in several areas, particularly in the southern and western regions of the State, after court restrictions on sand mining came into effect in neighbouring Kerala in 1994. Isolated attempts by local communities to seek legal remedies did succeed to some extent, with courts issuing directions to the State government to regulate sand mining under the provisions of the law. However, the law has often been unable to rein in the greedy among the miners, thanks to their money and muscle power and political influence. Although they should confine their mining operations to the area or areas specified in their licences and the depth of the mine should not exceed three feet (90 cm), these conditions are seldom respected. In a number of places they have dug land upto a depth of 18 metres. As a result, the sand they have removed is four to six times the permitted quantum. In some cases mining continues even after the expiry of the licences. Protests by local communities in the form of dharnas and demonstrations have not had the desired effect.

With a view to drawing the attention of the government to the magnitude of the problem and sensitising people about the risks involved, the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources-Tamil Nadu arranged in Chennai on February 19 and 20, a State-level "public hearing" on the impact of sand mining (on river basins, streams, coastal areas and hill regions). A six-member jury comprising Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Judge of the Supreme Court; Justice H. Suresh, former Judge of the Bombay High Court; Dr. N. Markandan, former Vice-Chancellor of Gandhigram Rural Institute (a deemed university); Dr. V. Vasanthi Devi, member of the State Planning Commission and former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University; Dr. R. Sivanappan, water technology and management expert; and Dr. K. Gopalakrishnan, former Senior Director, Geological Survey of India, heard depositions by 28 victims from across the State, besides three government officials and three experts. The panel had also before it a detailed note, prepared by the Campaign, on mining operations in different regions and their impact on the State's ecology and on the livelihood of the people.

Representatives of victims from 13 of the 28 districts of the State gave evidence on the damage caused to the environment and livelihoods in these districts. The affected river basins included those of the Palar and its tributaries Cheyyar, Araniyar and Kosathalaiyar (Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur districts); the Cauvery (Karur district); the Bhavani (Erode district); the Vellar (Perambalur district); the Vaigai (Madurai and Theni districts); and the Thamiraparani (Tirunelveli district). Victims from the coastal districts of Nagapattinam, Tuticorin, Ramanatha-puram and Kanyakumari and the hill regions of Salem and Erode districts also appeared before the panel and narrated their tales of woe.

The Campaign presented a background note that contained vital information on the Palar river basin. The Palar is the longest of the rivers in the districts bordering Chennai and has been a major source of drinking water for the State capital and its suburbs. The Palar and its tributaries irrigate about three lakh hectares of agricultural land in Kanchipuram, Thiruvallur, Chennai and Vellore districts. Until a century ago these were perennial rivers, but now the water flow is confined to the monsoon months. Because of this and also the thick layer of clay in the riverbed, the possibility of flooding has become minimal. This has attracted sand miners. According to the background note, the exposure of the riverbed to solar radiation following deep mining has resulted in its drying up. The note says that water availability has therefore considerably fallen and even the available water has turned saline in several places. Continued sand mining has led to obstruction in the free flow of water during the monsoon, and the volume of water that flows into the Pulicat lake has dwindled too. This reduction in the availability of sweet water has brought down the fish catch substantially, thus affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of families of fisherfolk. The sand mining has also hindered the flow of water into the heavily silted Red Hills and Cholavaram lakes, thereby posing a serious threat to Chennai's water supply system.

Thanks to its proximity to Chennai, the Palar basin mostly serves the ever-increasing sand needs of builders in and around the city and therefore is the most exploited of the river basins in the State. The background note says that mining operations, both legal and illegal, have been noticed in a number of places and the norm regarding the depth of the mine is often flouted. Irrigation and drinking water supply are the major casualties. Besides, lorries that are overloaded with sand damage village roads. In some places, houses are found to have developed cracks. Also, the people in the region are exposed to lungs-related diseases because of the dust emanating from the sand-laden lorries. And whenever the mining licensees face trouble from the local community, they use their workers, most of whom were until recently farm labour, against their own people, thus causing disharmony in the community. Sometimes the miners use the caste divisions in these villages to their advantage.

Those who deposed before the panel gave an idea of the extent of the damage caused by sand mining in different regions. Because of indiscriminate mining, agriculture in the Thamiraparani river basin, which has an ayacut of about 100,000 ha, is under serious threat. Most of the victims confirmed that availability of water for irrigation and drinking purposes had diminished substantially following a fall in water levels in wells, tanks and other sources. In Kanyakumari district, 54 tanks that met drinking water requirements have been badly affected and most of them have since been closed. Srithevan, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) functionary from Munichirai, told the panel that the entire Kanyakumari district had been affected. He said that the restrictions on sand mining in Kerala had led to a spurt in mining activities in the district since 1994. The riverbed in many places has gone down by 12 metres owing to continuous quarrying. He said that agriculture and coir weaving, the main occupations of the people of the district, had suffered, thus throwing a number of people out of job. Twelve houses belonging to Dalits were damaged owing to the mining activity, and a bridge was hanging precariously, posing a threat to passers-by.

ALMOST all those who deposed said that protest actions at local levels seldom drew governmental attention and that even in the cases in which they were able to get some legal remedies, the miners refused to honour - and the administration was reluctant to implement - court orders. The victims blamed it on the corruption among government employees. The miners also broke local resistance by employing goondas against the protesters and sometimes by buying over sections of local communities by offering them munificent donations for temple festivals or other public causes. Many people complained that government officials were hand in glove with the miners.

R. Karikalan of Renganathapuram in Karur district said that Krishnarayapuram taluk in the Cauvery basin was slowly turning into a desert. Efforts to find a solution through legal means did not succeed for want of cooperation from officials, he said. A series of protest actions by the people and counter-moves by miners had only led to a serious law and order problem. "Our village is now totally divided. Because of group rivalry, a public building was burnt down. We are not able to celebrate temple festivals. If mining operations continue on the present scale, agriculture will perish," Karikalan said.

Rani, a panchayat president from Nagapattinam district, deposed that the extensive illegal mining for silicon sand had resulted in depletion of groundwater and consequently affected agriculture in her village. With drain canals blocked, agricultural lands were getting flooded in several places. She also detailed the damage caused to the mangrove ecosystem. When some 1,000 protesters led by her staged a dharna before sand-laden lorries, 15 of them were arrested. The women among the protesters were abused by goondas, she said.

In a note submitted to the panel, the organisers gave an account of the damage caused to the coastal ecology and livelihoods by extensive mining of coastal sand for uranium extraction in places such as Colachal in Kanyakumari district and Manappadu in Tuticorin district. Coastal sand is also mined for construction purposes in Ramanathapuram district. Mining is done to a depth of up to six metres within 10 metres from the high tide line. These operations have the potential to cause severe sea erosion, which will have an adverse impact on the fishing communities on the coast. The encroachment by miners has robbed fisherfolk of the space they have used traditionally to land their catch and keep the fishing equipment. In several places sea water intrusion has resulted in the salinisation of well water and the depletion of groundwater resources. The disappearance of sand dunes owing to indiscriminate mining has made interior land vulnerable to storms and cyclones.

When many of those who deposed expressed their inability to get court orders implemented, some members of the panel suggested that they move contempt petitions against the district administration. In cases where fighting for justice meant taking on a powerful "mining mafia", the panel suggested that instead of seeking legal remedies at individual levels, the people could ask for the appointment of a commission of inquiry through public interest petitions.

Other issues that came up in the deposition included the destruction of one lakh coconut trees along the Thamiraparani river basin that could have brought a regular income to the growers for about 100 years, thereby resulting in the loss of livelihood to 50,000 people; the damage to thousands of palmyrah trees; the migration of agricultural labour in certain areas for about three to four months; the increase in school dropout rates in certain areas; the rise in the number of child workers; and custodial violence and human rights violations against agitators.

The panel, in its interim verdict, recommended a total ban on sand mining in the upper reaches of any river, particularly in hilly regions such as Theni district. It suggested that no barrier dunes (raised beaches) along the banks of migrating rivers, such as the Kollidam river, be allowed to be mined and no mechanised mining be allowed on any riverbed. The panel suggested that along the coast, barrier dunes should not be touched for mining sand either as a minor mineral or as a source of major minerals such as silicon sand, garnet and monazite. Identification of an alternative to sand as a construction material and of areas for sand mining other than the ones already used and degraded was also recommended.

The panel called upon the Tamil Nadu government to take immediate steps to implement the Madras High Court order on sand mining. A Division Bench of the High Court, in its order of July 14, 1999, had directed the State government to take certain measures to preserve the river systems while granting licences for sand quarrying. It had directed the government to specify the normal sandbed level for each river and after such demarcation, mark the level on the river bank with some permanent benchmark for the purpose of quarrying. The government was directed to ban the removal or extraction of sand from such rivers where the sandbed level was below the required level fixed by the government.

The panel also recommended that the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 1959, and the Mines and Mineral (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, be reviewed and a new law be framed on the basis of the principle of conservation and regeneration. It suggested that the power to grant lease licence should not be with the District Collector or any subordinate district official but instead be vested with a commission comprising scientists, soil experts, environmentalists, and representatives of panchayats, municipalities and non-governmental organisations. The commission should review the existing rules and frame new ones with the conservation of sand as its objective. It should also be vested with the powers to inspect the mining areas from time to time and suggest remedial measures whenever there was violation of rules governing the protection of environment, the panel said.

The panel also wanted the appointment of monitoring committees at the panchayat level to oversee the mining operations. Another recommendation was that the district courts be empowered to entertain complaints about sand mining and appoint commissions on receipt of complaints in order to go into them and submit reports. The panel wanted the court to be given the power to grant stay on mining if called for, on an inquiry commission's report. The panel also suggested that local bodies be empowered in accordance with the State government order of January 2, 1998, to administer minor minerals - such as sand, clay and gravel - in common use. All police authorities, the panel said, should be directed to ensure that no illegal sand mining took place. And there should be a ban on all sand mining activities in Tamil Nadu, until laws are amended on these lines, the panel suggested.

While releasing the panel's interim recommendations at a media conference, Justice Krishna Iyer observed that "sand mining terrorism" had created a helpless situation in Tamil Nadu. He hoped that the people's "hunger for justice" would be answered by the Madras High Court. Some recent directions of the Kerala High Court in response to a writ petition against indiscriminate sand mining were commended by members of the panel. (The Kerala High Court in its judgment of October 19, 2001, directed the State of Kerala "to issue directions to ensure that there is no unrestricted or deleterious digging up of paddy and other lands all over the State in the name of extraction of clay or mud or earth for manufacturing or other purposes". The State was also directed to see that sand mining was not permitted near public roads, railway tracks and other places where people generally gathered.) Justice Suresh felt that the existing laws were inadequate, particularly in the matter of payment of compensation to victims. Vasanthi Devi wished that the people's movement that had been emerging in the southern States spread to other States, implying that the issue had to be viewed in a national perspective in order to find an effective and lasting solution.

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