On March 8 when north India was celebrating Holi with a burst of colour and joy, Narendra Kumar, a vigilant IPS officer, was mowed down and killed by a lorry driver allegedly involved in transporting illegally mined stones in the Morena district of Madhya Pradesh. On March 11 Sathish Kumar, a 21-year-old student, was crushed to death allegedly by a tipper lorry carrying illegally quarried sand in Mittadarkulam in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. A day earlier, goons of the sand mafia in Madhya Pradesh allegedly fired at a vigilance team led by a sub-divisional district magistrate. The team was setting out to decommission a bridge as the structure was apparently being used to transport illegally mined sand from Madhya Pradesh to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
In 2011, it was suspected that Swami Nigamananda was poisoned after going on a fast protesting illegal mining of stones in the Ganga riverbed. In 2010 Amit Jethwa, an RTI activist, was gunned down presumably for his role in exposing illegal sand mining in the Gir forests of Gujarat. In December 2004 Venkatesan, a deputy tahsildar died in the line of duty. He reportedly tried to board a lorry carrying illegally mined sand, fell down and died.
Illegal quarrying has been flourishing for decades in India but experts say it has reached alarming proportions now. Former Karnataka Lokayukta Santhosh Hegde’s extensively researched report on illegal mining — which runs into 26,000 pages — has been hailed by many as a historic document, which connects the dots between industry and political heavyweights. Experts believe that political and industrial patronage has been the lifeline of illegal mining of minerals and other natural wealth in India. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were in turmoil following Hegde’s inquiry into mining illegalities covering many years. Fallout of his report was the forced resignation of BJP strongman in Karnataka B S Yeddyurappa as chief minister.
Some experts have estimated the loss to the exchequer from illegal mining to be around one crore lakh rupees, a staggering sum only associated with the 2G scam until now. Rough estimates say the loss to the state exchequers of Karnataka and Goa alone could be in the region of `36,000 crore. Illegal mining activity is known to flourish in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Karnataka, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal.
Illegal mining in India flourishes because of the muscle power of the mafia. Originally mafia was a term associated with criminal syndicates, predominantly in the Sicily area of Italy. This was in the mid-19th century. The Sicilian mafia evolved into an extremely well-structured organisation. They began as a group that could offer armed protection and settle disputes for business organisations. When the Sicilian mafia put out roots in USA thanks to immigration, their influence spread. Before long politicians began to court the mafia — a source of funding and votes. One major source of funds for the mafia was dealing in drugs and other illegal substances.
In India, the nexus has had a similar origin, and has become more rampant in recent years with the widespread belief that there is a strong nexus between the various groups, politicians and enforcement officials.
Courts Take a Tough Stance
Experts believe that illegal mining has been going for decades. Typically, miners dig deeper than permitted levels. For example, if miners are allowed to extract 50 metric tonnes of iron ore they may extract 10 times the quantity.Similarly sand miners often overexploit the permit, sometimes by as much as eight times.
Naturally, such overmining has had an impact. River beds have dried up, the habitat of animals and insects has been threatened and the risk of health hazards has risen. Thus in the last few years the ecological imbalance caused by illegal mining and over exploitation has been an eye opener. According to Hegde’s report, sloth bears and medicinal plants have vanished from areas where unauthorised mining activity was rampant.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court tried to put the brakes on illegal mining — it made environment clearance a must for mining sites smaller than five hectares.
In 2006, taking note of the danger to the gharials in the Chambal valley, the Supreme Court banned sand mining in that region. Morena, where IPS officer Narendra Kumar was killed, lies in the centre of this region. To all appearances, sand mining is still going on despite the apex court’s ban.
In Chennai, the Madras High Court banned stone mining and crushing activity at Tirisulam near the Chennai airport. In fact way back in 2008 the Court had directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to issue closure notice to those units whose output exceeded acceptable pollution levels. However, the quarry operators filed a writ petition and an interim order was passed in 2007 allowing these units to get back to what they were doing.
Dismissing all those earlier writ petitions, the first bench, comprising Chief Justice M Y Eqbal and Justice T S Sivagnanam went so far as to wonder ‘on what basis the state allowed the petitioners, who are the encroachers, to carry on the mining activity.’
The Court has ordered the official machinery to stop such illegal activity in Tirisulam forthwith.
Sand Mining in Tamil Nadu
Stone quarrying apart, Tamil Nadu has been a nest of illegal sand mining along the river beds of the Cauvery, Palar, Coleroon and Thamirabharani. For the last few years — from 2003 — the Public Works Department (PWD) has been operating quarries and awarding contracts after floating tenders. There are 172 approved sand quarries across Tamil Nadu where mining is permitted to a depth of 3 metres. However, there have been many violations.
Many activists, especially those from the CPI, have been actively taking on the sand mining mafia. In August 2007 Sudalaimuthu, an activist from the Democratic Youth Federation of India in Harikesavanallur, was murdered. The hand of the sand mafia is suspected. The CPI was also instrumental in getting the courts to issue a ban on sand mining in the Thamirabharani area. However, sand mining has been continuing unabated.
In the last two years alone there have half a dozen incidents in which village officials and PWD staff have been attacked by the sand mafia.
Tamil Nadu has a State-level monitoring committee which is empowered to probe complaints of both illegal and excessive mining. However, no official data on complaints received and action taken have been made public.
Why Illegal Mining Flourishes
To a large extent, illegal mining has been driven by two factors. In the case of iron ore, the demand from China is a defining reason. India meets over 85 per cent of China’s demand for iron ore. And the price is also very, very attractive. Iron ore, costing around Rs 50 here, can fetch upto Rs 5000 in China.
The demand for sand is driven by the booming infrastructure market. Typically sand is illegally mined from river beds in villages at night and spirited away to cities. As it reaches cities, the price climbs by as much as 50 per cent or more.
Crime and Punishment
Experts believe that lack of stringent punishment is another reason such crimes continue to grow. Suspects in many of the cases have been booked. Officials are empowered to seize any vehicles caught transporting illegally mined goods.
However, the impounded vehicle can be got released after paying a fine of Rs 25,000, and be back in business.
Observers say that unless the punishment for the crime becomes more forbidding, there is no way that illegal mining driven by the desire to get rich quick can be stopped.