Part I: Politicians aren't only messing with Tamil Nadu's water – they're making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Part 3: Sand mining in Tamil Nadu is incredibly destructive – but it's also unstoppable

After he retired in the mid-1990s, S Neelakantan went back to Chettipalayam, his ancestral village.

The professor of economics had spent much of his working life in Chennai – first as a teacher and then as the director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

He was returning to his roots. His family had 40 acres in their village near Karur in northern Tamil Nadu where they grew fruit trees like guava, coconut, sapota and mango. Back to agriculture, Neelakantan had thought.

Twenty years later, things have not worked out. He has sold 30 of his 40 acres. On the land left behind, all he grows now is sapota.“I am a failed horticulture farmer,” he said with a wry smile.

Blame it on sand mining. Neelakantan's land lies very close to the Amravathi river. Sand miners came to the village about 10 years ago. It was an ill-portent. By 2004, local sand mining had already reduced sand levels in the river by a foot.

Concerned over the impact of large scale sand mining, Neelakantan and others went to the courts. They asked for a stay on sand mining along the 10-km stretch of the Amravathi near their village. The court, Neelankantan said, was willing to accede but the other side managed to get an adjournment.

What happened next was stunning. Hundreds of lorries mined out the sand in just three months, he recalled. “The 10 km stretch lost as much as 24 feet of sand in just three months.”

This triggered a groundwater collapse. River sand acts as a sponge. The water it holds percolates into the ground. Without the sand, water just courses downstream. Even before the miners reached, the village had seen a drop in groundwater levels because of water being pumped for agriculture. The groundwater table had fallen to about 250 feet in 2004. Once the sand mining started, it plummeted further.

"At 500 feet, said Neelakantan, "we get one inch of water”. That’s a reference to the diameter of the pipe inserted in the ground. At 500 feet, groundwater pumps find just enough water to keep a one-inch pipe busy. “Five inches can irrigate 10 acres; three inches, 6 acres; one inch, two acres,” said Neelakantan.

The former professor sold his land and focused his efforts on cultivating sapota. “That needs less water and I am able to sustain it with one inch of water.”

Travel in other parts of Tamil Nadu – or elsewhere in India – which have seen rampant sand mining and you will hear similar accounts. Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline.

Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.

The revenue foregone story

Take sand mining's impact on the state economy.

As the previous story in this series reported, it is not easy to estimate the size of Tamil Nadu's sand market. However, even conservative estimates by researchers peg its size at more than Rs 20,000 crore annually. In an ideal world, the sand miner would get enough to cover his cost of mining and a decent margin, while the bulk of the money would come to the state. In Tamil Nadu, however, government revenue from sand mining stands at just Rs 216.82 crore – a 1% sliver of the market.

That is a lot of foregone revenue. To put that in perspective, the estimated size of the state budget in 2014-'15 was Rs 91,835 crore.

Scroll sent questions about the size of the sand economy and allegations of foregone revenue to Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, her principal secretary KN Venkataramanan and Chief Secretary P Rama Mohana Rao. There was no response.

This trend of revenue foregone is not unique to Tamil Nadu. Both Odisha and Punjab, as Scroll has reported earlier, are similarly losing large chunks of potential revenue. This has severely damaged the quality of healthcare and education these states provide.

Tribal children in Tamil Nadu's Krishnagiri district. In the poorer parts of the state, the prevalence of anaemia, poor healthcare and illiteracy is high.

That said, sand mining's impact on Tamil Nadu's economy goes beyond foregone revenue.

The industry functions through contractors who illegally stockpile and sell sand, which pushes up the cost of sand for the construction sector. Further, the state incurs additional expenditure trying to repair damaged rivers.

Take the Amravathi. So much sand was extracted, said Neelakantan, that irrigation canals diverting water from the river could not pick up any water. The river had slipped about 20 feet deeper, and was now flowing below the intake mouth of the irrigation canals. The government, he said, had to build “a new barrage last year to raise the level of the water high enough for the canals to function”.

That’s not all. When groundwater levels fall, agriculture sees its economics erode further. Which brings with it a set of other effects – like changes in cropping patterns, migration, dipping income levels and more.

The rising use of money in state elections

In recent years, the role of money in Tamil Nadu's elections has gone up.

This takes two forms: the cash given to voters and the funds spent on campaigning.

A researcher who studies sand mining in the state told Scroll on the condition of anonymity that in the state's recently concluded assembly elections, political parties gave voters anywhere between Rs 500-1,000. Politicians and local people gave similar estimates of the cash distributed at election time.

Such heavy spending, said the researcher, is relatively new. “Fifteen years ago, of the 234 constituencies in the state, money was given in just 15 or 20 constituencies," he said. "In the last ten years, it began to be given in more. In the last 5 years, everywhere.”

The biggest spenders are the two main Dravidian parties of the state – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Between them, the two parties have ruled the state for more than four decades.

The spending in Tamil Nadu elections has been growing, say political observers. There are about 5 crore voters in the state. Even if you assume that half the voters in the state got Rs 1,000, that works out to about Rs 2,500 crore.

It is not very clear where this money comes from. The declared income of India's political parties runs far below what they spend in elections. See this and this. In Tamil Nadu, said the researcher, a part of poll expenditure comes from sand mining.

Scroll asked Jayalalithaa and Venkatramanan. They did not respond.

According to rival politicians from smaller parties, the rising role of money in polls has had large impacts on elections in Tamil Nadu – starting with voter behaviour. “In the 2011 polls, an old woman threw my leaflet in my face,” recalled a senior leader of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, one of the major Dalit parties in the state. “She said, ‘Give me Rs 1,000 and I will vote for you.’”

It is a sign of disillusionment, he said, when voters ask politicians for cash and say: “You are looting. This is the time we can get some benefits.”

Money has skewed the political battlefield, he claimed. “I am not able to spend Rs two lakh per constituency while others are spending Rs 10 crore.” Between the voters' insistence on cash and the concentration of money with the Dravidian parties, parties like his have to tie up with them.

“They arrange the cadre and the meetings,” he continued. “Our candidate has to just show up. But the candidate cannot speak. They just stand with folded hands. The whole show is controlled by the Dravidian parties.”

This hamstrings the ability of parties like his to challenge the political hegemony of the dominant castes.

Dravidian parties have more money to spend on elections, say rivals.

How villages near quarries changed

Sand mining has had another major impact. As a villager near the town of Karur said, “About Rs 1,000 from each unit (of mined sand) is shared amongst local party workers – Rs 25 goes to the person in the village, Rs 150 to the taluka head, Rs 350 to the district members, and so on.”

Eager to keep good ties with all parties, the industry also pays opposition parties and their local cadre, said K Kaliyan, the district leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Villupuram. “Every day, district level leaders of all parties take tokens to (sand filled) lorries.” About 10 tokens a day earns them Rs 22,000 daily. Or Rs 6 lakh a month.

O Arumugasamy, who was one of the biggest miners in the state till recently, did not respond to Scroll's questionnaire asking him if he had paid the workers and leaders of political parties.

This flow of money has changed villages in two ways. Like most parts of India, jobs are not easy to come by in Tamil Nadu. Many young people join political parties to make money.

“90% of them say that if we go to the ruling party, our life is safe,” said Kaliyan. “We will get PWD work, panchayat work, etc.”

As the impact of rampant sand mining percolates down to the state’s politics, and distorts it in many ways, why hasn’t there been a groundswell against it? Why didn't the checks and balances kick in to oppose sand mining? More on that in the final part of this series.

Read Part I here: Politicians aren't only messing with Tamil Nadu's water – they're making Rs 20,000 crore from sand