A letter from a former Collector blows the lid off the illegal activities of Tamil Nadu's politically powerful granite magnates.
The Tamil Nadu government, at last, appears to have cracked its whip on the politically influential granite mafia, which has been plundering the natural resource across the State for the last two decades. This followed the leak of a letter that the then Collector of Madurai, U. Sagayam, wrote to the Principal Secretary of the State Industries Department on May 19.
Informed sources infer from the letter that the loss of revenue to the government in recent times in Madurai district alone would be more than Rs.35,000 crore. What is revealed in Sagayams letter is only the tip of the iceberg, considering that illegal quarrying has been going on in other districts too, they say.
With the prevailing economic policies offering ideal conditions for loot, the mighty granite lobby has been flouting rules and regulations. It has been grabbing government and private plots and Panchami lands meant for Dalits, occupying waterbodies and waterways and encroaching upon sites of cultural and archaeological significance. Quarry operators have even uprooted boundary stones put up by the authorities.
The issue has for long been highlighted by environmentalists, social activists, functionaries of non-governmental organisations and leaders of Left parties. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, while campaigning for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) during the Assembly elections last year, referred to the revenue loss suffered by the State owing to illegal granite quarrying. She also promised action against erring quarry operators in the event of her returning to power.
However, just as the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) regime maintained a stony silence on the issue, the new government, which assumed office on May 16, 2011, did not get into action until the bombshell letter found its way into the public domain. On August 10, Jayalalithaa held discussions in Chennai with Ministers and officials concerned on the issues relating to granite quarrying.
According to informed sources, the letter was sent by Sagayam on May 19. Four days later, he was transferred and posted as Special Officer and Managing Director of the Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society. The letter was leaked on August 1.
Citing the illegal activities of three major granite operators in Melur taluk in Madurai district, Sagayam stated in his 13-page letter that a detailed study of the mining sector would reveal that the scam could have caused a loss of Rs.15,000 crore to the exchequer. The three granite companies mentioned in the letter are PRP Exports, Olympus Granites and Sindhu Granites.
The letter exposed how farmers and other rural people had been deprived of their livelihoods and how it became possible for the granite companies to continue their loot in connivance with the officials of the Departments of Revenue and Geology & Mining for several years. It also suggested a plan to plug the loopholes in the system of granite mining and marketing. The nine-point plan included honest officers conducting a detailed, scientific survey within a period of one month; making private operators remit the amount usurped by them through illegal mining to the government treasury; cancelling the lease agreements with the erring operators; seizing and auctioning the illegally quarried granite blocks; and doing away with the raising-cum-sale agency system adopted by Tamil Nadu Minerals Limited (TAMIN).
Following a complaint from the Tamil daily Dinabhoomi, Sagayam ordered on April 3 intensive surveys and inspections at the quarries run by the granite companies. It was found that illegal mining of 4,511.571 cubic metres of granite by the three companies alone had resulted in a revenue loss of Rs.23.42 crore to the government, the letter pointed out.
It said that the government must have suffered a further loss of Rs.16,338 crore, owing to illegal quarrying to an extent of 39,30,431 cu. m from government poramboke land and land earmarked for bullock cart roads in Keezhavalavu, Keezhaiyur, E.Malampatti and Semminipatti villages, as claimed by the complainant. It said that the estimate of the actual revenue loss to the government could be 100 per cent higher if the quarries run by TAMIN and private companies in Melur taluk were inspected scientifically.
In addition to this, it was alleged by the complainant that granite blocks measuring 8,37,500 cu. m worth Rs.3,350 crore were illegally moved out of the quarries run by TAMIN, the letter said. Video evidence had been presented to the government to show the illegal removal of granite blocks from these quarries to private storage yards.
Sagayam said in the letter that apart from the inspections conducted by the officers deputed by him, he had personally visited the villages and ascertained the illegal mining by the companies. He had pulled up the personnel of the Revenue and Geology and Mining Departments for failing to prevent these illegal activities, he added.
Expressing concern over the loss of livelihoods, the letter said that ponds and lakes hitherto used for irrigating farmlands had been destroyed or rendered useless by private operators who had converted them into storage yards. Destruction of the waterbodies had forced farmers to scale down farming activities. The cattle population had also come down drastically as the grazing land had shrunk, it said.
The letter said there was a time when farmers put up a spirited resistance to such encroachments. However, in the course of time they lost their assertiveness and the strength to resist the powerful granite empire. Gripped by fear, they had become silent. Worse, the agriculture-based, self-sufficient village economy had suffered a silent death. On the other hand, certain private granite companies had grown to monstrous proportions in money power and muscle power, the letter added.
Lambasting the personnel of the departments concerned for not taking action on the basis of complaints lodged by villagers, Sagayam said in the letter that they had failed to respond positively either out of fear or because they had received pecuniary benefits. Whenever he planned to undertake inspections in the areas concerned, the information was passed on well in advance to the quarry owners.
The whole issue assumes significance because of the political influence of the quarry operators. The PRP group, run by P.R. Palanisamy, is one of the leading companies in the granite sector in the country. It has maintained cordial relations with the ruling class, observers point out. The power and influence of the granite magnates was such that in certain cases the police allegedly foisted cases against persons who complained about the illegal quarries.
Strangely enough, almost all the major political parties, including the AIADMK, the DMK and the Congress, have maintained a stoic silence on the issue. The Pattali Makkal Katchi did not go beyond issuing a statement calling for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
However, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) took up the issue and held demonstrations demanding a CBI inquiry. The party conducted a survey to study the impact of illegal quarrying on local livelihoods.
Claiming that illegal mining could have cost the exchequer more than Rs.35,000 crore, State committee secretary of the party G. Ramakrishnan said 14 tanks and 13 irrigation canals had been gobbled up by the greedy operators. According to him, 35 villages in Madurai district suffered serious environmental pollution. Commending Sagayam, Ramakrishnan said that the State government owed the people an explanation as to why he was shifted from Madurai suddenly and why it had not initiated action against the granite mafia until his letter was leaked. He also flayed DMK chief and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for being silent on the issue.
Interactions with bureaucrats, leaders of farmers associations, trade union leaders, Right to Information (RTI) Act activists and NGO functionaries also reveal that there is no exaggeration in Sagayams observations about several villages in Melur taluk.
K. Vijayan, secretary of the TAMIN Employees Union, said that the State government agency was incorporated in 1978 by the then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, with the lofty idea of continuous updation of mining technology, quality control measures and mineral processing and marketing, besides enhancing employment in rural and backward areas.
TAMIN had quarries with good-quality granite. It allowed private players into its territory by introducing the raising-cum-sale system in different parts of the State, saying it could not afford sophisticated equipment. The introduction of the contract system in the late 1990s paved the way for pilferage and smuggling from several TAMIN quarries to private storage yards as the contractors had their own quarries in adjacent plots in violation of rules, he said.
In a State bestowed with vast resources of granite deposits, the draft granite policy introduced in 2009 has not taken off in the face of resistance from the granite lobby.
S. Murugesan, an RTI activist who fired the first salvo against the private quarry operators in Melur area, recalled his battle against the granite empire right from 2008. Using the RTI, he collected information from the Department of Geology and Mining and from the Customs Department with regard to the volume of export of granite blocks by PRP Exports in the period 2004-05 to 2007-08. He also moved a writ petition before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in 2009 seeking a fresh inquiry in the case on the grounds that the figures obtained from the two departments showed a huge difference.
Justice K. Chandru, allowing the writ petition, said in his order of February 4, 2011, that the Commissioner, Department of Geology and Mining, should conduct a detailed inquiry into the allegations of suppression of transactions and the consequent tax evasion by PRP Exports. He also directed the officer to inspect the quarry fields taken on lease by the private company, if necessary, and complete the inquiry within three months. The court quashed an order passed on July 2, 2009, by the then Collector of Madurai, giving a clean chit to the company.
But the order was stayed by a Division Bench. Murugesan said he would continue with his legal battle against the granite mafia. He expressed the hope that the present action by the government would yield positive results.
T. Lajapathi Roy, a High Court advocate, said operations continued in several quarries in Melur taluk even after the expiry of the lease period on the strength of a stay from the court. The quarries had been converted into highly protected zones. It was for the first time in 20 years that official teams entered the area to conduct a detailed survey, he pointed out.Action launched
The district administration has now initiated certain steps against the granite majors. Cases have been booked under Sections 447 (trespass), 379 (theft) and 201 (destroying evidence) of the Indian Penal Code, besides invoking certain provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, and the Tamil Nadu Public Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992.
Eighteen teams of officers formed by the Madurai Collector, Anshul Mishra, started inspecting, from August 2, 175 quarries in the district. The Collector himself has surveyed more than once the quarries belonging to the granite majors. The teams have already ascertained various violations, such as encroachment of government and patta lands and destruction of waterbodies.
Raids were conducted at the offices of the granite companies and residences of their personnel. Documents relating to the purchase of land were seized. Some of the granite companies have been sealed, and the police have made some arrests.
Anshul Mishra has expressed satisfaction over the progress of the survey and investigation. He told Frontline on August 10 that all the six zonal officers reported to him on a daily basis and the administration was able to detect some violation or the other every day. As on August 9, of the 133 granite quarries inspected, 58 were found to have violated rules. He said, It is for the first time such a comprehensive survey is being taken up. To our great surprise, there are quarries that are hidden. The time allotted initially [for fulfilment of the task] may not be sufficient. We may need another 10 or 15 days to complete it.
Now the focus of the teams had shifted to assessing the volume of the granite quarried and stored, he said. Since the private quarry operators had removed the boundary stones, the district administration has been using gadgets such as total station solution to conduct the survey.
As many as 30 waterbodies have been occupied by the quarries. In Rangasamypuram, the mining was done underground. In one case, the companies had encroached upon land reserved by the government for future use, he said. With the emergence of a monopoly in the granite sector in the district, several other companies resorted to operations through a particular granite major. There have also been sustained efforts by the granite operators to silence the villagers through intimidation or bribes. Since the steps taken by the district administration had instilled confidence in them, people have started coming out with complaints of land grabbing and other violations.
According to police sources, residents of certain villages in Melur taluk have sought a fresh probe into the cases of unnatural deaths of quarry workers during the past four years.
The police have asked banks to freeze the accounts of the major granite units. As the granite industry barons, including Palanisamy, are still at large, the authorities have initiated steps to issue look-out circulars through the Central agencies. The private operators had started covering up the illegally quarried areas by dumping sand and waste stones, official sources said. But the granite lobby denies all the charges of illegal mining and encroachment of government and private lands. Senior lawyer Veera Kathiravan in Madurai described as imaginary the claim of a revenue loss of Rs.15,000 crore owing to illegal mining and violations. According to him, considering the volume of the granite produced and exported, no fraud was possible.
Officials were making statements just for publicity, he said, adding that the entire volume of stones quarried could not be treated as granite and that the price was fixed only on the basis of the quality of the material.
The quarry operators were left with no option other than keeping the non-saleable granite blocks far away from the quarries as the Granite Conservation and Development Rules, 1999, provided for storing them separately, he argued. It is a lawful business and officials cannot seal it just like that.
Despite the crackdown, the granite operators continue to be powerful. No stranger who enters their domain can escape surveillance. Whenever mediapersons and government personnel visit the villages, their movements are monitored by motorcycle riders, who pass on the information through mobile phones to their masters.
A youth who was following the Collector while he was inspecting quarries and storage yards of private granite operators in the taluk on August 12 was arrested.