The dark depths of sand mining

Despite restrictions and court order, mining of river sand in Tamil Nadu thrives illegally, thanks to the nexus between the establishment and the sand mafia
At sunrise on May 7, the family of Maria Rose Margaret of Chinthamani near Nanguneri in Tirunelveli district plunged into despair. Her husband, S. Jagadish Durai, a Special Branch constable, had been found lying with his head crushed in Pondicherry village, on the banks of Nambiyar river. The SB constable had ridden into the darkness the previous night in his motorcycle, armed with only a torchlight, to prevent illicit lifting of sand, alerted by a phone call.

The gruesome murder has added one more page in the history of aggression by the sand mining mafia in the State. Yet, the unequal fight between ill-equipped law enforcers and the powerful sand mafia, which thrives on official and political backing, buttressed by locals, goes on. Public outcry, court intervention and government action have, at best, only slowed down the plunder along rivers such as Tamirabarani, Nambiyar, Vaigai, Cauvery, Kollidam and Palar. It is the growing demand for sand, both in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala, that has transformed this minor mineral into gold. For example, Chennai has a daily demand of 6,000 loads of sand but only 10- 20% of it is supplied. One load of river sand is being sold at ₹35,000 to ₹40,000.

Novel methods
The sand mafia, which used heavy machinery to lift sand, has now devised a new modus operandi to move the mineral to the user, in the light of restrictions. In Kancheepuram, local cart owners used to be hired to transport sand from the riverbed to nearby villages for “own construction activity” by residents and moved forward in lorries. But the activity has been curbed in recent times, with revenue and police officials seizing the carts and not releasing them immediately.

In Tiruchi, according to a revenue official, the operators continue to use bullock carts for illegal sand mining from secluded and interior parts of the Cauvery during night. Each cart transports at least two loads of sand, which are stored at a particular place and reloaded into lorries for transporting to various parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is alleged that the operators pay ₹2,000 for four units of sand to bullock cart owners and it is sold to lorry owners at ₹6,000. The operation has assumed new vigour ever since the PWD was asked to suspend quarrying along the Cauvery and Coleroon in Tiruchi and Karur districts by the Madras High Court.

NGOs and farmers have been crying hoarse over “excessive sand mining” even from approved quarries in the Cauvery since the mid-1990s. They have been complaining that mining beyond the permitted depth has led to extensive environment damage, including depletion of groundwater table. Members of the Cauvery River Protection Movement allege that powerful mafia groups owing allegiance to mainstream political parties, have scant regard for law enforcement agencies. Some groups have “silenced the trouble makers and important persons in villages” by promising returns or lump sum donations for building temples. S. Vijayan, its coordinator, alleges that illegal sand lifting is still very much prevalent in Kadambakurichi, Thottakurichi, Nerur, Mayanur, Kulithalai, Pettavaithalai in Karur district and several pockets in Tiruchi district. In some places, the sand mafia has been “encouraging” bullock cart owners to organise protests, seeking permission to load sand to sustain their livelihood.

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