CHENNAI: Sand from the Cooum river mouth near Napier bridge in Chennai has been illegally mined for over a year now, right under the noses of the Public Works Department (PWD) and police. Between midnight and 2 am on Sunday, The New Indian Express witnessed tipper lorries carrying out sand from the beach area, just over a kilometre from the State secretariat.
About five tipper lorries were parked ahead of the bridge. The lorries entered the narrow lane adjacent to the Anna Square bus stand one at a time, carrying out sand from the river mouth. Two men appeared to be on guard, one at the entrance of the lane and another in a car parked a few yards away. The car trailed this reporter following attempts to photograph the lorries.
While some of the lorries had no visible number plates, the registration numbers of a few others were those of motorbikes, according to private directories of vehicle registration numbers. The loaded lorries passed through well-manned police checkpoints near the Labour statue on Kamaraj Salai.
Local sources said the illegal mining has been going on for over a year. Officials from the PWD, the custodian of the river, said they were unaware of the illegal mining. They confirmed that no permission has been granted to any Government or private agency to take sand from the Cooum river mouth. Officials said the only way to take sand from here was through the issue of a Government Order (GO).
Yet, a GO issued in 2013 allowing 11,000 cubic metres to be transported to the Vallur thermal power plant at a cost of Rs 9.79 lakh was cancelled in 2014, citing reports that sea sand was used for the adulteration of river sand.
If used for construction, this illegally mined sea sand will result in poor quality buildings that pose a danger to residents, said builders.
"This sand (from the river mouth) can never be used for construction. If used, the buildings will fall. The clay content will not allow for proper mixing," said S Rama Prabhu, Builders Association of India state secretary.
S Yuvaraj, president of Tamil Nadu Sand Lorry Owners Federation told The New Indian Express this sand may be sold for Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000 a load.
"For the last seven months, only the Government is allowed to sell sand. However, the demand continues to be high and the public unwittingly buys the adulterated sand for as much as Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000 a load," he said.
Each tipper lorry has a capacity of around six units with each unit being 2.83 cubic metres. If each load is sold for Rs 20,000 -- a conservative estimate -- 15 loads of sand taken in one night will yield a revenue of around Rs 3 lakh.
According to official estimates accessed by The New Indian Express, over one lakh cubic metres of sand accumulates at the said point yearly, enough for around 25,000 lorry trips. When The New Indian Express visited the river mouth last week, there were visible pits from where the sand was taken. Groynes laid in 2006 were levelled with construction debris, in what appears to be an effort to help vehicle movement.
Apart from poor quality buildings, the illegal mining is also disastrous to the coastal ecosystem, experts said.
"Sand near the river mouth may sometimes be polluted and so, they may also take sand from sand dunes which is easier to pick up near the river mouth. Sand dunes are extremely important to protect the land from the sea; damaging the dunes will allow sea water to come in easily," said S Janakarajan, president, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies.
"The Cooum is one of the most important urban rivers. Bodies like the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust only undertake cosmetic interventions and fail to protect these rivers," he added.
The New Indian Express contacted the Executive and Superintending Engineers of the PWD who said they were not aware of the illegal mining at the river mouth. "We are not aware of such a development. We will immediately take up investigation tonight and, if found true, will take immediate action," Executive Engineer Jayakumari told Express.
Superintending Engineer Muthiah said they will investigate the matter and inform the police if the allegations are true. Assistant Engineer Vijayaragavan was in charge at the field level until recently. Official sources said often, when forced to take action after such illegal operations are uncovered, it is low ranking officers and those without a direct connection to the issue who are suspended.
"A detailed and thorough investigation at all levels should be done to see why action has not been taken for the past one year," an official said.