Tamil Nadu

A sand scam

Print edition : September 20, 2013

The colour of the sea has turned red because of the release of effluent from a sand mining company near Periyathazhai village. Photo: N. Rajesh

A view of the garnet sand mined along the Periyathazhai coast in Tuticorin district. Photo: N. Rajesh

Fishermen speaking to Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Secretary, Revenue Department, Government of Tamil Nadu, and head of the special team investigating the allegations of illicit mining, at Periyathazhai. Photo: N. Rajesh

Allegations of illegal beach sand mining in southern Tamil Nadu gain considerable strength with the government transferring the Collector of Tuticorin district who ordered a crackdown on some mining units run by politically influential persons.

THE Tamil Nadu government’s decision to transfer the Collector of Tuticorin district, Ashish Kumar, the same day he launched a crackdown on the beach sand mining units run by politically influential groups in some coastal villages in the district has raised many an eyebrow. The abrupt transfer of the Collector and his appointment as Deputy Secretary of Social Welfare and Noon Meal Programme in Chennai on August 6 has also set many tongues wagging.

Dubbing the transfer a “vindictive action”, some political parties and civic organisations have demanded his reinstatement. Ashish Kumar’s removal from the district will please the sand mafia while sending the wrong signals to the bureaucracy, they argue.

Soon after the government’s action, events started unfolding at a fast pace. The government went into damage-control mode without losing time. Its prime concern appeared to be to set at rest speculations revolving around the “controversial transfer”. The government was also keen to show that it was not being soft on the sand mine barons.

Through an order issued on August 8, the government suspended beach sand mining operations in Tuticorin district. It also appointed a special team to inspect and verify, in two phases, whether there was illicit mining in the six leases granted for major minerals such as garnet (mainly used in the manufacture of abrasives), ilmenite (used in the manufacture of titanium dioxide) and rutile (used for coating welding electrodes) in the district.

The team has been asked to submit its report within a month. Close on the heels of the conclusion of the first phase of inspection of the quarry sites by the special team headed by the Secretary of the Revenue Department, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, fishermen in the district intensified their agitation on August 16.

Suspending fishing operations, they urged the government to enforce a blanket ban on beach sand mining not only in Tuticorin but also in the neighbouring Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts. The fisherfolk claimed that they bore the brunt of the indiscriminate mining activity in the coastal belt, which resulted in considerable loss of livelihood and serious health problems.

In a related development, the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal issued notice on August 16 to the State and Central governments on a plea to stop all illegal sand mining in the coastal regulation zone in Tirunelveli district, and in the Gulf of Mannar region which has a fragile ecosystem. Subsequently, the Bench allowed the petitioner to move the Principal Bench in Delhi in view of the larger ramifications of the case. All the stakeholders are awaiting the State government’s next move, based on the recommendations of its special team and the National Green Tribunal’s order.

But Collector Ashish Kumar’s initiative against illegal mining and subsequent developments have revived the debate on the need to regulate the exploitation of precious mineral resources so that it is done in a sustainable manner, protecting the coastal ecology and the livelihoods of fishermen.

Interestingly, the local residents, barring fishermen, maintain a stoic silence on the issue. Even experts are reluctant to comment on the impact of the indiscriminate mining on the coastal ecosystem.

Some experts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred with the outgoing Collector’s remark at a press conference on August 7 that the local residents and officials “are scared of the sand mafia”.

Timeline of events

According to informed sources, following receipt of complaints from fishermen belonging to Padukkapathu village in Sattankulam taluk on illicit mining in March, Ashish Kumar formed teams to inspect the spot. Reports submitted by the teams showed that the Beach Mineral Sands Company, which had been granted a lease to mine garnet, ilmenite and rutile over an area of five hectares at Manappadu village for a period of 30 years up to January 27, 2032, had done illicit quarrying of 2,82,744 tonnes of garnet-bearing sand and 3,90,228 cubic metres of red earth at Padukkapathu village, a “non-permitted area”. Samples of the raw sand mineral mined by the company were sent to Indian Rare Earths Limited to assess the percentage of heavy minerals. Apart from this, a penalty of Rs.3,10,25,250 was levied on the company for mining red earth, as per Rule 36 A(1) and (3) of the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 1959.

Ashish Kumar brought this to the notice of the Chief Secretary to Tamil Nadu government through a letter on June 12. He expressed an apprehension that other leaseholders or non-leaseholders might also be mining in non-permitted areas, as the major minerals involved were “costly and peculiar in nature”. He also suggested that detailed field inspections be undertaken by special teams of the Department of Geology and Mining in connection with the “illicit mining of beach minerals in Tuticorin district and elsewhere”.

As a follow-up, the district administration conducted raids at six quarry sites. The site at Vaipar in Vilathikulam taluk, where 4.18 hectares of land had been given on lease for 30 years from May 3, 2006, to V.V. Mineral, a leading company in the field, was inspected first. Special teams conducted inspections at the mining locations for over six hours on August 6.

Swift reaction

Within hours, around 8-30 p.m., Ashish Kumar, a 2005 batch Indian Administrative Service officer, was handed his transfer order, abruptly ending his two-year tenure as the Collector of Tuticorin.

The outgoing Collector told a press conference the next day (August 7) that it was the “government’s prerogative to transfer any officer and I will continue to do good work in my new assignment”.

Ashish Kumar also took the opportunity to reveal the findings of the inspections at Vaipar village. According to him, over 81,000 cubic metres of raw sand with an estimated mineral content of around 2,30,000 tonnes had been mined illegally on more than 30 hectares of poramboke land. He claimed that such illegal mining operations were going on in the coastal areas of neighbouring Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts also.

But the miners, particularly the V.V. Mineral company which has been carrying out beach sand mining operations for the past 25 years, denied the charges relating to illegal quarrying.

Alleging that the raids at Vaipar were ordered at the instance of business rivals, a spokesman for V.V. Mineral said the former Collector’s allegations of illicit beach sand mining in the neighbouring districts were aimed at helping one of them. Describing V.V. Mineral as a “100 per cent export-oriented unit”, he said data relating to its volume of export were available with the Customs Department as well as the Tuticorin Port Trust for verification. There was no room for evasion of royalty either, he added.

Mining leases were awarded to companies on the basis of a mining plan approved by the government. Going by the approved plan for the site at Vaipar, the mining activity had been carried out within the sanctioned limits of approximately 29,280 tonnes of garnet, 58,560 tonnes of ilmenite, 1,830 tonnes of rutile and 7,320 tonnes of other heavy mineral deposits a year, he said.

An expert committee, which presented a report on the technical aspects of the mining of heavy mineral placer deposits in the coastal area, had also confirmed that active replenishment occurred for 200 days from April to November in Tamil Nadu and there was nothing illegal about tapping the replenished minerals per se, he said. According to him, the fishermen in Vaipar had not made any complaint against V.V. Mineral but had only urged the district administration not to grant mining leases close to their residential locations.

Innumerable problems

However, enquiries with experts revealed that unrestricted plunder of these natural resources, against norms stipulated by the government agencies concerned, has posed serious problems to the socio-economic life of the people, besides causing adverse effects on the ecosystem in the region. The situation has taken a turn for the worse in the era of neoliberalism, experts said.

N. Ramanujam, Professor and Head, Department of Disaster Management, Pondicherry University, Port Blair, Andaman, stresses the need for strict regulation of the mining and export of rare minerals along the coastal zone. While discussing issues relating to beach sand mining, he said: “It should be borne in mind that coastal zones constitute a delicate, multifaceted and fragile environment influenced by both marine and terrestrial systems.”

“In recent years, shoreline erosion has increased in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, especially Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts,” he said. Accelerated sea erosion had resulted in the disappearance of beaches and dunes in these regions while the landward displacement of the shoreline had swallowed houses of the fisherfolk, fish landing grounds and resting places. The beaches in these areas were narrowing with no backshore, he observed.

“Shoreline erosion in these districts has been caused by mining activities rather than natural causes,” he said. “A recent geological study estimated 74 per cent and 63 per cent risk for the coastal sectors between Kanyakumari and Manapad and from Tuticorin to Vembar respectively,” he said.

A Tirunelveli-based geologist said indiscriminate mining of beach placer deposits had resulted in the disappearance of sand dunes, which played a vital role in the coastal ecosystem. Seawater incursion in the coastal belt would render the groundwater unsuitable even for industrial purposes, he added. Against the stipulated guideline that beach placer mineral bearing sand should be collected manually, quarry operators used huge machines, he pointed out.

V.K. Venkataramani, former Dean and Director of the Government Fisheries College and Research Institute, said that the discharge of untreated effluent from the mineral separation plants into the sea would affect the fauna and flora. Hence, the effluent should be properly treated. Apart from this, the inshore areas have plenty of juvenile fish in view of the availability of planktonic organisms. The Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay are known for their unique seaweeds and coral reefs, which provide ideal fish-breeding grounds. Mining activity and the release of effluents should be curtailed to ensure conservation of coastal biodiversity in the region, he said.

Dr Patterson Edward, Director, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research and Development Institute, said: “There should not be any generalisation on environmental issues owing to developmental activities, which need to be addressed in a focussed, scientific manner.” In the case of beach sand mining, “temporary disturbance to intertidal fauna excluding fishes is expected but there is no adverse effect. This is because the mining activity is being carried out in the beach areas where wave action acts to mix atmospheric gases into the water, thus increasing oxygen content,” he said. As fish resources were not available in the beach mining area, no artisanal or commercial fishermen were affected, he said.

There is stiff competition and bitter rivalry among the beach sand mining companies to garner licences. About 92 per cent of the total production of garnet (abrasive) in the country is from Tamil Nadu, and the State is the leading producer of ilmenite and rutile, accounting for 52 per cent and 47 per cent respectively of the total production in India.

The beach sand in this region has a high concentration of minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, zircon, sillimanite, garnet and monazite. The minerals other than garnet and sillimanite are classified as “prescribed substances” under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962.

In accordance with the provisions of this Act, it is mandatory to obtain a licence from the designated authority in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to mine sand from which any of the above-mentioned substances could be obtained, official sources said. As beach placer minerals are found within 500 metres from the high-tide line, no-objection certificates should be obtained from the Pollution Control Board and the Ministry of Environment and Forests for setting up plants within the coastal regulation zone, experts pointed out.

Allowing private players

Though operations such as mining and production of the prescribed substances are reserved for the public sector as per the Industrial Policy Statement of 1991, selective entry of the private sector was also allowed. The policy was further diluted through the DAE resolution of October 6, 1998, titled “Policy on exploitation of Beach Sand Minerals”. It spoke about the Central government’s “recently approved policy” of encouraging further exploitation of these mineral deposits “through a judicious mix of public and private sector participation (including foreign investment)”.

In January 2006, the DAE delisted titanium ore minerals such as ilmenite, rutile and leucoxene as prescribed substances. As per Foreign Trade Policy 2009-2014 and the policy on export and import, titanium ores and concentrates comprising beneficiated ilmenite, including ground ilmenite and rutile sand, could be imported or exported freely, the sources added.

Neoliberal economic policies have tilted the scales in favour of private players in the beach mining industry and helped them tighten their stranglehold in the area, even as the public sector companies kept a low profile, observers pointed out.

Citing an example, they refer to Union Minister of Mines Dinsha Patel’s reply to a starred question in the Lok Sabha on December 14, 2012, on the mining leases granted for beach minerals in Tamil Nadu. On the basis of the information furnished by the State government, he said that a total of 123 licences had been granted. Barring 42 licences given to Indian Rare Earths Ltd, a public sector undertaking, the remaining 81 leases were garnered by private players.

The State government-appointed special team’s visit to the district has brought to light various socio-economic problems in the district. Members of the team, assisted by district and local officials, inspected all the six lease sites simultaneously. The first phase of the inspection took place from August 12 to 14. The two-day second phase ended on August 20.

During the second phase, the chairman of the team met representatives of fishermen belonging to Tuticorin and Tirunelveli districts, quarry owners and other stakeholders. While the miners stressed the need for strengthening quarrying operations in the industrially backward rain shadow districts, the fisherfolk poured out their woes to the team.

Strangely, activists of the Hindu Munnani and functionaries of the Church of South India (CSI) submitted petitions separately to the special team, urging the government to permit the mining units to continue their operations. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Tuticorin diocese came out openly in support of the fishermen’s demand for a permanent ban on beach sand mining.

Fishermen belonging to Tuticorin and Tirunelveli said that the beaches had been transformed into domains of private miners, who had purchased vast tracts of land near the coastal areas. The henchmen of quarry operators keep them away from the beach in certain areas citing the need to safeguard precious mineral deposits. Several of the fishermen had been silenced by money power and muscle power, they said. They also alleged that the miners expanded mining activities outside the areas for which they had obtained lease. On completion of the illicit mining, they filled the pits with sand and planted aloe vera and shrubs as a cover-up, they said.

Former president of Uvari panchayat in Tirunelveli district, S.V. Antony, said the private mining units showed scant regard for environmental regulations. A. Amalan, president, Fishermen Cooperative Society in Periyathazhai in Tuticorin district, said untreated effluents from a mineral separation plant was being released into the sea through a huge canal near his village, causing skin diseases and other health problems to the people. Others in the affected villages, like S.J. Raymond, L. Amala, J. Vasuki and S. Causanel, while emphasising that the mining operations did cause environmental degradation, added that the miners were trying to create social unrest by driving a wedge between the quarry workers and the fishermen.

Demand for a CBI probe

A. Subash Fernando, district secretary of the Meenavar Aikkiya Munnani (United Front of Fishermen), Tuticorin, said the federation had urged the Centre to order a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the beach sand mining in the three southern districts of Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. In a memorandum given to Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde on August 24, the federation gave a detailed background of the sand mining operations in the coastal belt.

The Tuticorin district unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a memorandum to the government’s special team on August 19, claimed that from 2007-08 to 2012-13, around 13.5 lakh tonnes of ilmenite and 2.05 lakh tonnes of garnet had been exported as bulk consignments apart from the export through 500 containers. The secretary of the district CPI(M) unit, K.S. Arjunan, demanded immediate action by the State and Central governments to stop the export of several lakh tonnes of heavy minerals “hoarded” by the quarry operators in godowns.

A comprehensive inquiry into the alleged illegal mining of precious minerals and other related issues such as suspicious deaths and incidents of violence in certain villages where mines had been leased should be undertaken, he said.

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