Removing roadblocks

The appointment of U. Sagayam as the High Court’s Special Officer to probe the illegal mining activities in the State enthuses farmers and activists who have taken up the cudgels against the plunder of natural resources.

Published : Nov 26, 2014 12:30 IST

A view of the interior of the PRP Granite Company at Therkutheru on the Madurai-Melur highway.

A view of the interior of the PRP Granite Company at Therkutheru on the Madurai-Melur highway.

“THE facts are eloquent enough to point to the rampant illegal mining in the State. Let him go and inquire. This is only to assist you [state] and ensure that illegal mining does not go on.” The Supreme Court made this observation on September 18 when it heard a review petition filed by the Tamil Nadu government against a Madras High Court order appointing U. Sagayam, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer, to probe the illegal mining activities in the State.

The judicial intervention has enthused farmers, activists and environmentalists, who have been waging a losing battle against the mining mafia in the State, to come together on a common platform to carry on their struggle against the loot of river sand, red sand, beach sand and granite.

“We have started pooling our resources to take on the miners. We have lost our rivers, tanks, ponds, waterways, common village properties, beaches and even fertile land to their greed. The return of Sagayam, a no-nonsense officer who exposed the multi-crore granite scam when he was the Collector of Madurai district, has offered hope for an end to the illegal mining of natural resources,” said C. Vaiyapuri, president of the United Farmers Association of Tamil Nadu.

The High Court appointed Sagayam as its Special Officer to “inspect illegal mining throughout the State and file” a report. Mugilan, an activist-cum-environmentalist who was instrumental in mobilising people to form a forum, the Support Sagayam Committee, endorsed Vaiyapuri’s views. “Until now, our struggles against illegal miners were confined to the local areas. We were fighting as tiny groups. The judicial appointment of Sagayam has given a fillip to our struggle,” Mugilan said.

The enormity of the illegal mining activities and the plunder of the State’s natural resources came to light when Dina Bhoomi , a Madurai-based Tamil language daily, ran a story on the front page on June 15, 2010. The paper claimed that illegal granite quarrying was going on on a large scale in and around Melur near Madurai causing a loss of thousands of crores of rupees to the exchequer.

The paper followed up this with a series of reports until July 20, 2010, providing details of illegal mining by politically powerful miners and their encroachment of waterbodies, common pathways, and government poramboke and panchami (assigned to the depressed classes) lands. The reports pointed to the alleged involvement of Durai Dayanidhi, co-founder of Olympus Granite Private Limited, in the scam. Durai is the son of former Union Minister M.K. Alagiri, the elder son of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi.

Soon other newspapers picked up the story. According to their reports, the notional loss caused by the illegal quarrying was nearly Rs.16,000 crore. However, the then Madurai Collector C. Kamaraj submitted a report to the government claiming that the news reports were “figments of imagination”. He justified the mining activities, saying that the State gained crores of rupees as taxes from the industry, which also provided livelihood to thousands of people.

In fact, the scam began to unfold in 2008 when S. Murugesan, a right to information (RTI) activist, sought information from the district administration and the State Department of Mines and Geology on the activities of PRP Exports and PRP Granites, a leading granite miner and exporter in the country which owned 55 quarries. When his repeated representations did not evoke any response, Murugesan filed a petition before the Madras High Court in 2009. The court ordered an inquiry. But legal proceedings started only after the newspaper exposed the scandal.

Dina Bhoomi ’s chief reporter R. Panneerselvam told Frontline that the Karunanidhi government, which was in power in the State then, showed its vicious intent by arresting the publication’s editor, K.A.S. Manimaran, his son M. Rameshkumar, and Murugesan, who provided vital data to the newspaper, on charges that were non-bailable.

This drew protests from the media across the State. Political leaders, including All India Anna DMK (AIADMK) supremo Jayalalithaa, issued statements condemning the arrests. An embarrassed government released the Dina Bhoomi journalists and Murugesan but not before registering cases of intimidation and extortion against them in police stations in various towns on the basis of complaints from unknown persons. On the scam itself, no further inquiry was recommended.

The granite mining scam became a campaign issue during the 2011 Assembly elections. Jayalalithaa promised the people and farmers of Madurai that if the AIADMK was elected to power she would initiate stern action against the “granite looters”. By then the Election Commission of India had handpicked Sagayam, the Collector of Madurai, to monitor and prevent any replication of the “Tirumangalam formula” of cash-for-votes in the district.

The AIADMK won the election and formed the government in May 2011. Jayalalithaa, who became Chief Minister, sought a detailed report on the scam. A series of letters were issued to the Madurai district administration and to the Commissioner of the Department of Mines and Geology between August 3, 2011 and April 19, 2012. By then, the Home Department had dropped the cases against those arrested for the publication of the news reports, “finding no merit” in them.

With election work behind him, Sagayam turned his attention to the granite scam. The Dina Bhoomi editor had preferred a complaint with him claiming that 4.05 lakh cubic metres of granite stones had been mined illegally and smuggled over a period of six months. He submitted visuals and documents to support his claims. This, and letters from the government asking for a report, prompted the Collector to begin a detailed field survey, which eventually opened a Pandora’s box.

Sagayam’s 13-page confidential report, dated May 19, 2012, to the then Principal Secretary, Department of Industries, Government of Tamil Nadu, which was leaked to the media, charged officials, including a few senior officers, with colluding with illegal miners. (A total of 175 leases were granted to quarry and transport granite blocks from 43 revenue villages, including E. Mallampatti, Keezhavalavu and Keezhaiyur, in Melur taluk.)

The report concluded that the State government had lost Rs.16,338 crore owing to illegal quarrying for over two decades of 39,30,431 cu. m of granite ( Frontline , September 7, 2012). The loss, it said, could be 100 per cent higher if the quarries run by the State-owned Tamil Nadu Minerals (TAMIN) Limited and private players were subjected to scientific evaluation and assessment. Sagayam also forwarded to the government a nine-point charter of suggestions to prevent illegal mining.

Soon after Sagayam submitted his report, he was summoned to Fort St. George, the seat of government in Chennai. Before he could return to Madurai he was transferred and posted as Managing Director of the Handlooms Weavers’ Cooperative Society in Chennai. It was his 24th transfer in 23 years.

The government did not act on the Sagayam report for two months. But when the report was leaked to the media on August 1, 2012, a public outcry forced the government to act. The onus of taking the probe to its logical conclusion fell on Sagayam’s successor in Madurai, Anshul Mishra.

Mishra formed 18 special teams, which inspected 175 quarries and ordered the closure of 94 quarries for rampant violations. Ninety first information reports were filed against several firms, including PRP Exports and PRP Granites, Olympus Granites and Sindhu Granites. Fifty FIRs were filed against the PRP group alone.

In January 2013, notices were issued to 83 firms for removing granite blocks worth Rs.13,748 crore illegally. PRP Granite’s owner, P.R. Palanisamy and a few other miners were arrested. Durai Dayanidhi went underground. The sleuths of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) raided the houses of N. Mathivanan and C. Kamaraj, two former Collectors of Madurai, and a few officials in the Departments of Revenue, Mines and Geology, TAMIN and the Public Works Department on charges of aiding and abetting the granite lobby.

Demand for CBI inquiry The farmers of Melur taluk demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). A batch of public interest litigation petitions were filed in the Madurai Bench of the High Court in 2012 for a CBI inquiry and a scientific study on the illegal quarrying. One of the petitioners, V. Anbalagan, claimed that since the criminal cases initiated against the quarry operators were heading nowhere, the CBI should be entrusted with the case. He pleaded with the court to order the Indian Bureau of Mines to carry out a scientific study on the actual losses.

Mishra filed a status report before the court saying that the investigation was proceeding without political interference. The Collector told the court that the Commissioner of the Department of Geology and Mining had deputed a special squad, which used special devices (including unmanned aerial vehicles) to ascertain the volume and value of the granite blocks mined from non-leased areas.

The lessees, the Collector’s status report added, had stockpiled the granite blocks in Puthutamaraipatti, Thiruvadavur, Keezhaiyur, Keezhavalavu and E. Mallampatti villages. He told the court that the district administration had measured nearly 1.70 lakh blocks as on that date. The investigation, he stated, had found that 26 waterways had been destroyed.

The PRP group, he claimed, had resorted to forgery to transfer patta s (land ownership documents) in their names. As several files relating to mining were missing from the Record Room of the Melur Taluk office, the district administration had suspended nine revenue officials. Hence, he argued, there was no need for a CBI inquiry.

But the State government sprang a surprise by transferring Mishra out of Madurai, claiming that it was a routine transfer. The cases relating to the mining scam once again got stuck. There was little progress in the investigation for more than a year and all those who were arrested in connection with the scam are out on bail.

A PIL petition filed in the High Court in July 2014 by the Chennai-based octogenarian activist, ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy alias K.R. Ramaswamy, brought the issue back into the limelight. He said nothing “concrete” had taken place so far in the investigation, and sought a probe by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.), and urged that the offenders be prosecuted under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002. He claimed that rare minerals were sent to foreign countries clandestinely.

He followed it up with an interlocutory petition for a direction to the Chief Secretary to appoint Sagayam as Special Officer to inspect the illegal quarrying in 32 districts. On instruction, the E.D. appraised the first Bench, comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana, that it had already initiated proceedings against illegal miners under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in Madurai district.

On September 11, the High Court ordered the State government to relieve Sagayam, now Vice-Chairman, Science City, Guindy, Chennai. It appointed him Special Officer-cum-Legal Commissioner, to inspect the various types of mining activities in the State and to submit a report within two months. The court observed: “Given the nature of the illegality alleged and also the fact that in this process even farmland given to deprived S.C./S.T. section of people are stated to be affected by the quarrying and U. Sagayam, IAS, being the person who filed the initial report in this matter, we consider it appropriate to appoint Sagayam.” The court felt that it was not necessary to refer the matter to the CVC at that stage and that it would examine the matter once it had the “benefit of the report”.

The State government filed a review petition contesting the order, saying that the probe into the scam was over and due legal processes had been initiated against those involved and appointing a new person to investigate the scam would cause further delay. The court rejected this argument. On October 28, it slapped a fine of Rs.10,000 on the government for not relieving Sagayam as instructed by it.

The government challenged the appointment of Sagayam in the Supreme Court. But the apex court refused to entertain the appeal, saying that “facts are eloquent enough” to point to the “rampant illegal mining” in the State.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, approached the High Court once again with a contempt petition alleging that the government had not complied with its orders. But before the court could take up the matter, the Commissioner (Mines and Geology) issued an order, on November 5, approving Sagayam’s appointment, thus rendering the petition infructuous.

Reacting to the accusations of Karunanidhi on November 2 that the AIADMK government was trying to scuttle the court’s order to appoint Sagayam, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam pointed out that it was the Jayalalithaa government that initiated the probe (by asking Sagayam, who was then Madurai Collector, to submit a report) into the scam.

Panneerselvam said the government had told the court that it had taken steps to expedite the investigation. “It is the AIADMK government that unearthed the malpractices. The licence of Olympus Granite has been cancelled. The licences of 77 quarries have been suspended. The cases have been clubbed into one cluster and are pending before the Madurai Bench of the High Court,” he said.

“Besides, the State could not auction 24,751 granite blocks kept on government poramboke lands in violations of mining rules since a batch of six miners had approached the High Court. The verdict on these petitions is awaited. The State government has also been fighting other cases relating to the scam in various courts of law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sagayam has received overwhelming support from farmers’ bodies, activists, and non-governmental organisations and even on social media with #sagayam trending on Twitter. “Though we are aware that the government will attempt to evade the issue, we have seen this as an opportunity to highlight serious environmental issues and sensitise the people of the State,” Mugilan said. “It is the social responsibility of every citizen to support him,” he added.

But doubts prevail whether Sagayam will be allowed to probe the “various mining activities in the State”. The State government, activists said, would confine him to the Madurai district granite scam. “Mishra has completed 80 per cent of the probe into the granite scam, so we need Sagayam to investigate all illegal mining activities, including beach sand mining in the districts of Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari, and river sand mining in other parts of the State,” said Mugilan.

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