Ear to the ground

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

The state government did not oppose sand miners. What about rival political parties, courts, media and local communities? Third part of an indepth investigation

Part 1: Politicians aren't only messing with Tamil Nadu's water – they're making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Part 2: Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

For the longest time, V Chandrasekhar fought a lonely battle.

When sand miners first came to his village near Pondicherry in the 1980s, most of his fellow villagers stayed quiet.

They stayed quiet when the local riverbed went down by 30 feet, local groundwater levels collapsed, wells dried out and then filled up with saline water as sea-water moved into the space vacated by freshwater aquifers.

They stayed quiet even when the miners began disturbing the dead. “We bury our dead on the river bank,” said Chandrasekhar, “and body parts were getting disinterred.”

The villager-turned-activist knocked on other doors. But to no avail. Local bureaucrats and police officials did not help. He had a short-lived glimpse of victory in 2010 when he turned to the courts, petitioning the civil court and then the Madras High Court. The High Court issued an order staying sand mining. But, Chandrasekhar said, the state did not implement it. He filed a case in the National Green Tribunal at Chennai which gave another favourable order. That was not followed either.

Welcome to one of the more intriguing dimensions of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. As the previous story in this series reported, rampant sand mining has hurt the state in several ways. It has damaged rivers, contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels and imperilled farming livelihoods. With the industry functioning through subcontractors who illegally stockpile and sell sand, the state is believed to have lost thousands of crores as revenue each year.

It raises a large question: how could something so harmful continue so long? As the first story in this series reported, successive state governments have supported the trade. But why did the other checks and balances – local communities, rival political parties, media and courts – fail to oppose sand mining?

This story, which is the third and final in the series, attempts to answer that.

In a country with fraying ecological foundations, Tamil Nadu’s experience with sand mining has a lot to tell us about our society's inability to challenge processes harming the environment.

 A sand mining quarry in Tamil Nadu.
A sand mining quarry in Tamil Nadu.

What happened to the villages

A good place to start is the villages that abut sand quarries.

Going by environmental theory, the people living here should oppose sand mining – it threatens their way of life. In the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, for instance, the Dongria Kondhs opposed Vedanta's plans to mine bauxite. Their opposition was termed the 'environmentalism of the poor'.

In Tamil Nadu, however, opposition to sand mining has stayed low. K Kaliyan, the district leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Villupuram, said that his party “asked people to come and agitate but they did not”.

Chandrashekhar had a similar experience when people in his village refused to support him.

A complex set of factors explains this.

It is partly violence. Even visiting the quarries is fraught with risk. “People cannot go there alone. It's not safe,” said Chandrashekhar. Government officials and locals opposing the trade have been killed.

Said Thangam Thenarasu, a member of the legislative assembly from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam who served as education minister in the state between 2006 and 2011, the sand miners use muscle power. “People have been killed. They want to create terror.”

Instead of acting against the sand miners, the state has filed “false cases on protestors”, said Kaliyan. Last year, in Kalathur village, on the banks of the Palar, the state police registered cases against women protesting against sand mining for rioting, possession of deadly weapons, preventing officials from discharging duty, criminal intimidation and harassment of women.

Scroll asked Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa, her principal secretary KN Venkataramanan and Chief Secretary P Mohana Rao about these charges of police slapping false cases against protestors. But they did not respond.

The other factor inhibiting opposition in the villages is blandishment. Take Villupuram. Sand miners first came to the district 25 years ago. At that time, said Kaliyan, “They gave money to build a temple and asked for permission to mine the sand. Ninety percent of the people were okay with such a transaction.”

In recent years, miners have also begun paying villagers. This year, Kaliyan said, they gave Rs 4,700 per ration card to people in the villages near the quarries. The sarpanch, he added, got Rs 40 lakh. The ex-sarpanch was given Rs 20 lakh. Leaders of other parties in the village got Rs 1-2 lakh each.

These ration card payments are new. Till two years ago, miners made payments only to the panchayat leaders. Things changed, according to Kaliyan, because of protests by people who asked the miners: ‘'Why are you only giving to village president? We are not satisfied. You give to all.” The miners started with payments of Rs 4,500 per ration card two years ago and have now hiked it to Rs 4,700, he added.

This carrot and stick explanation, however, is not the complete story. In the last thirty years, Tamil Nadu's villages have seen large changes. The quantum of rainfall has come down, with predictable implications for farming. At the same time, households' expenditure has spiked. Between them, traditional livelihoods are struggling to support families. In response, villages in the Cauvery delta and elsewhere have seen youth migrate to industrial clusters like Tirupur for employment. Some have moved to other states and other countries.

This is the milieu in which sand mining – with its ability to pay large sums and upturn village hierarchies – entered. The villagers responded by trying to maximise their self-interest. Given the impunity with which the miners operated, many thought it was best to take what they could get.

In Chandrasekhar’s village, soon after the NGT ordered the abortive stay on sand mining, a mob of 200 people came to his house. These were lorry drivers and other workers connected to the sand mining industry. Chandrashekhar escaped. “A police official had called and told me not to go home,” he recalled.

Caste also entered the dynamic. In Villupuram, for instance, villages have Dalits and Vanniyars. Miners, said Kaliyan, employed Dalits. “90-95% of the people working in sand mining – loading, unloading, drivers, cleaners – are Dalits.” This made it impossible to build a support group against sand mining on the basis of caste solidarity.

In all, only some villages managed to oppose sand mining. Said Thenarasu, those were the ones where “the community was strong”.

“Where villages were not prepared to fight,” he said, “they were subsumed.”

Enter, rival political parties

In the absence of a groundswell, the scattered protests needed support to be heard. But the local administration was, to use Thenarasu's words, “reluctant or not willing”.

For activists like Chandrasekhar, rival political parties were the next port of call. These parties, too, stayed quiet. Miners were funding them as well, Kaliyan explained. Not just the Dravidian parties which used to appoint their chosen miners upon coming to power, even the smaller, caste-based parties draw a part of their sustenance from sand mining. As Kaliyan said, “Every day, district level leaders of all parties take tokens to (sand) lorries.” Ten tokens a day comes to about Rs 22,000 a day, which adds upto 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 rival political parties.

The reach of the sand miners is widespread. Even radical parties have been coopted. In fact, as Senthil Babu, a researcher with Feral, an ecological thinktank and research organisation based in Pondicherry, said, sand mining became a new barometer for equality. "In the panchayats dominated by Vanniyars, Dalit local leadership want equal treatment. And one way to claim dignity is to insist on an share in the extraction.”

In the process, the parties got entrenched in local money-making. Even parties like the CPI(M) which opposed sand mining found themselves powerless. Their local cadres were taking money from miners. Agreed Kaliyan, “Even if the district office of the Left wants to oppose, the local worker will support.”

With political parties not picking up the issue, the onus shifted to the media.

What happened to the media

By 1990-91, sand mining was underway on an industrial scale.

It began hitting headlines, said Babu, about ten years later when local officials tried to rein in the industry and paid with their lives. It has stayed on the media's radar since then. However, its coverage has been carefully circumscribed. The state's news media covered protests, attacks on protestors and orders by the judiciary. It wrote about the sand mafia, the losses to the state exchequer and the ecological ravages of the industry. But it stayed silent on other issues.

“The names of the key people, the political patrons, remained mostly unknown,” said Babu.

Others aspects – like the linkages between revenue foregone and the government's expenditure on welfare – were not fleshed out. A lawyer in the Madurai High Court who challenged sand mining in the state, who requested anonymity, said: “The stories would go till a point and then stop.”

This is odd. Tamil Nadu has an abundance of Tamil and English dailies – The Hindu is headquartered in Chennai. The state also has a number of news TV channels – two owned by the Dravidian parties, others which are independent. So what happened?

Take the Tamil newspapers first. A senior journalist who used to work at Puthiya Thalaimurai, a leading independent news channel in the state, put it in perspective. “They all know. But a couple of things are missing in their journalism. Like attribution.” This makes for a version of journalism that is quasi-fictional. “A paper will have a section where four people are sitting at a tea bench exchanging gossip. But there is real information in that.”

As for the English newspapers, said the journalist, the state government's penchant for slapping defamation suits has resulted in a chilling effect. The newspapers do very few investigations. "Everyone knows their limits. This is creating an outcome where the sharpest stories on Tamil Nadu come from outside the state," said cultural journalism teacher Sadanand Menon. Scroll sent an email to N Ram, the publisher of The Hindu, asking him about this. He did not respond.

Tamil Nadu has an abundance of Tamil and English dailies.
Tamil Nadu has an abundance of Tamil and English dailies.

What about news channels controlled by the rival political parties? “At the most, they will be mouthpieces of the parties, doing propaganda or countering rival propaganda. But they won't get into critical points,” said the journalist. The news channels might have larger discussions about agricultural problems – why canals are not being desilted – but won’t get into the specifics. “It is only when you get into the specifics that you get into trouble,” added the journalist.

That left the independent TV channels. As it turns out, they are facing a squeeze. Take Puthiya Thalaimurai. It started on an aggressive note in 2011, when it carried live footage of a raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the house of DMK leader Dayanidhi Maran.

In its first year, said the journalist, the channel paid the state-owned cable company Rs 11 crore as annual fees for getting into its digital and cable feeds. This was hiked to Rs 18 crore in the next year. “That’s arm-twisting,” he said. “If you take all costs into account, a Rs 18 crore cable cost means the channel will go into an operational loss.”

This has created an outcome where only groups with deep pockets can enter the News TV business, he added. Usually, such groups tend to have multiple interests. Take Puthiya Thalamurai. It is owned by the SRM group, a 1,000 crore education, transport, hotels and construction group. This, said the editor, makes them vulnerable. (Indeed, as this article was being written, the group chairman of SRM, TR Pachamuthu, was arrested).

These structures, he said, took a toll on Puthiya Thalaimurai's sand mining reportage as well. “There are stages to a story. We start by informing. Then, the analytical stories start. And then there is the investigations phase,” he said. “By 2013, some of my reporters were doing investigations. Our Madurai reporter managed to do a lot of stone quarrying stories. And we managed to reach till the businessman.” But the name of the political patron remained elusive.

In many ways, what you see in Tamil Nadu is similar to Odisha. In both states, business groups enter news TV for the wrong reasons – partly for prestige, partly for defense. Explained the journalist: “The minor guys – the second-rung political parties and the local cadre of the big parties – stop troubling you. The opposition parties will be friendly. Even the ruling party will be slightly careful.”

In such a landscape, he said, “If truly independent, the lifespan of an editor is 1.5 years – two years at the most.”

That left the judiciary.

What happened in the courts

Over the last two decades, Tamil Nadu has seen several PILs against sand mining.

The petitions have repeatedly flagged, among other things, the ecological damage caused by sand mining, the attacks on government officials and locals by the industry and its disregard for rules and regulations. As Thenarasu said, “The nominated depth of mining is one metre. But even from a flight you can see that the mining is deeper. There is violation and there is evidence about it.”

And yet, after 20 years, little has changed. That is because, even in the courts, the odds are against the petitioners. Here are five ways in which a petitioner might lose his case.

  1.  When a petition is filed. In a petition alleging over-extraction of sand, the court may direct the government to file a response. If the state PWD says everything is fine, explained a researcher who has studied sand mining in the state, the courts may take that response as the absolute truth and dismiss the application. The problem is structural. It is upto the court to verify the veracity and substantiveness of the allegations. But, in several cases, the courts accepted what the government's PWD department said.
  2. When the court sets up its own fact-finding commission. This doesn't always work well. According to the Madurai lawyer, the commissioners are usually outsmarted by the miners. “It is hard for the High Court to order a surprise inspection. It takes two-three days and in that time, they get tipped off and fill in the trenches.”
  3. While the case is being heard. In these early stages, petitioners can be undone in another way. Take the Amravathi, sand miners excavated – using the advantage of an adjournment in court hearings – 21 feet of sand in just 3 months along a 10 km stretch of the river. Said Thenarasu, “If the court stays mining, they will have to obey. But the court issues notices. And while the case continues, the quarry will have done its work.”
  4. After a judgement has been delivered. Even an order isn't enough to stop sand mining. It is easy to get judgements overturned. Two factors facilitate this. A retired judge at the Madras High Court, K Chandru, said there is a lack of consistency in judicial orders. “There was a case involving KC Palanisamy over granite mining," he said. "They took the case out of my court. It went to a two-judge bench in Madurai who gave a stay.” As it is, judges are rotated so rapidly that a case rarely comes up before the same judge. He added, “In all the PIL matters, the judiciary has no continuity.”
  5. Not implementing the order. Alternately, as Chandrasekhar found, the state government ignores the order. Thenarasu said, “Sand mining can be prevented only by a committed official machinery. But the executive is reluctant or not willing.” He attributed this to two reasons. First, the lack of binding orders. Second, for the bureaucrats, “The costs of disobeying politicians is greater than disobeying judiciary.” This, he said, is a relatively new trend. “In the last 10-20 years, the state has lost all fear of the judiciary.”

This question – on whether the state government is ignoring high court orders – was sent to Jayalalithaa, Venkataramanan and Rama Mohana Rao. There was no response.


Put it all together and you see how each of these public institutions has failed.

The political parties have stayed away. The media has stopped just short of the point where it could be effective. Instead, by treating sand mining as an instance of an errant mafia, it has minimised the scale of the problem. This is something that the courts do as well. Said the researcher, “The courts keep saying the PWD is very ineffective. It never gets asked who is being served by the PWD.”

The silver lining in all this is that the villages are changing. In the last two years, said Babu, the state has seen more protests than before. A slowdown in Tamil Nadu's industrial clusters has resulted in some workers returning to their villages, only to find their farms hit by the devastating impacts of sand mining.

For Chandrasekhar, who has fought a lonely battle so far, there is a glimmer of hope. “People are more aware now," he said, "due to problems with drinking water, irrigation, agriculture. They support me much more than before.”

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