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

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.

What does Tamil Nadu’s experience with sand mining tell us about our society’s ability to challenge/stop environmental damage? As Scroll’s #eartotheground project did its reporting into sand mining, this question loomed larger and larger. This story, the third in our series, is what we concluded.

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

Out today, the first instalment of our three-part series on sand mining in tamil nadu.

Stepping onto the bank, the first thing that’s visible is a ten-wheeled tipper. It grinds to a halt at the end of a queue of similar trucks. Beyond it stretches a vast riverbed. That is the Thenpennaiyar, one of the larger rivers in central Tamil Nadu. It is summer and there isn’t a drop of water in the river. The riverbed, with its carpet of sand, is warming under the sun. It looks like it has been ploughed by a giant tractor. Long trenches are separated by ridges that are wide enough to serve as roads for the tippers. All along the monochrome riverbed are queues of trucks. At the head of each queue is an excavator. The arm of the machine dips into a trench, pulls out a shovelful of sand and pours it into the tipper waiting alongside. As the tipper fills up, it moves away, and another tipper takes its place.

It’s hard to tell how far this sand quarry stretches. The trenches are as deep as seven metres. The ridges are all that is left of the original riverbed. A scab of dark earth is visible at the bottom of one trench. So much sand has been scraped away that the Thenpennaiyar’s clay base stands exposed. According to locals, anywhere between 2,500-3,000 tipper-loads of sand leave from here each day. With each tipper designed to carry 20 tons, that’s 50,000 tons of sand a day. This quarry in Villupuram district, about an hour from Pondicherry, is a good introduction to the daunting scale of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The Thenpennaiyar enters this part of northern Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and flows through the district for about 100 kilometres before entering the neighbouring district of Cuddalore. In this stretch, said locals, there are two more quarries of similar size. And that’s just one river in one district.

Why does the IAS Association defend HC Gupta but not Ashok Khemka?

Our second piece on this ghastly caterwauling over ex-coal secy HC Gupta.

The fervent defence of former Coal Secretary HC Gupta seems to be taking India into dangerous waters.

India’s Prevention Of Corruption Act, 1988 should be amended, wrote Partha Sen Sharma, a serving Indian Administrative Service officer in The Times Of India on Tuesday, to “make it mandatory to prove pecuniary benefit to a civil servant before he can be implicated in criminal liability”.

Sharma is not the first person to articulate this demand. In the last two weeks, ever since the former coal secretary HC Gupta, currently under trial for his role in the captive coal block allocation scam, told the special CBI court that he wanted to withdraw his personal bond due to financial difficulties, a clutch of serving and retired IAS officials have said that a quid pro quo – a favour or advantage granted in return for something – needs to be established before a bureaucrat can be put up on trial.

Take former cabinet secretary BK Chaturvedi. In a column titled “Civil Servants Bear The Brunt Of Corrupt Governance”, a sentiment that India’s poorer millions would probably have sharp words about, Chaturvedi wrote: “Unless there is clear proof of mala fide decisions made by the officers and clear benefit received by them, criminality cannot be assigned.”

These are problematic suggestions. If accepted, they will result in a dramatic reduction of the bureaucracy’s accountability to the rest of the country.

Why Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk can no longer find fish

“What did you catch?” Alagairi Madhivanan shouts across to the fisherman in a small boat to our left. The young man stops scanning the net he has just pulled out of the lagoon, turns towards us and says, “Five fishes.”

His answer echoes what Madhivanan has been telling me over the past hour as his small fibre-bodied boat nosed through Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves – it’s getting harder and harder to find fish. As recently as a decade ago, fishermen like him in this part of the state, midway between Pondicherry and the fishing town of Nagapattinam, made one fishing trip every day. They would head out before dawn and come back with the day’s catch by half-past eight.

But now, Madhivanan does two trips each day – two hours in the morning and another two in the evening. His fellow fishermen – the ones with bigger boats – are staying out as long as three days looking for fish. It is the same story in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Travel further north to the fishing port of Kasimedu near Chennai and you will find fisherfolk who stay out at sea for as long as a week. Head south to Nagapattinam and you will hear that fishermen, in the quest for catch, are sailing into Sri Lankan waters, even at the risk of landing up in jail.

Part 3: How Odisha squandered valuable mineral resources without any gains for its people

In Unchabali village in Odisha’s Keonjhar district, a massive house is under construction atop the ridge that looms over the village. It belongs to the local MLA, Sanatan Mahakud. Given his zealous security guards, you cannot give the sprawling complex the close attention it deserves, but as you drive by, you see a temple coming up inside the complex, stonemasons chiselling away at idols in the shade of a tarpaulin, and a three-metre-high boundary wall with large statues of gods and goddesses plastered onto it.

Mahakud is a rich man. As the previous story in this series reported, his assets have grown by 1,700% between 2009 and 2014. Drive down the hill and you are in Unchabali. The village is an odd amalgam of large, brightly painted mansions with trucks parked outside and broken-down earthen houses with tiled roofs and muddy courtyards. The government middle school has 144 students but just four teachers – two of whom are matriculates. Here, and in two neighbouring villages, people complain of grinding poverty, lack of work, and the threat of violence towards anyone who speaks out against the local MLA.

This pattern – islands of affluence in an ocean of penury – is something that you see across Keonjhar.

The third — and concluding — story in our series on the mining boom of Odisha.

Part 2. Meet the Odisha MLA whose assets grew by 1,700% in five years

Travel around the district of Keonjhar and you hear stories of the MLA who distributes money among his constituents every month. Elected as an independent candidate in 2014 from Champua constituency in the heart of Odisha’s richest iron ore-rich belt, Sanatan Mahakud distributes anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 to more than half the families in his constituency.
Just as strikingly, Mahakud funded the election campaigns of a clutch of other independent MLAs contesting elsewhere in Keonjhar. According to press reports, these candidates – who spent a lot on their campaigns – were presenting themselves as Sanatan Mahakudna Samarthita Prarthi, or Sanatan Mahakud-backed candidates.
Mahakud can evidently afford the largesse. According to his election affidavits, his assets have grown from Rs 3 crore in 2009 to Rs 51 crore in 2014 – a growth of 1,700% in five years.
Today, Mahakud is the unquestioned king of Keonjhar. But it wasn’t always so.

Part 1: How a contractor from Tamil Nadu carved out an enormous mining empire in Odisha

the first part of our trilogy on illegal iron ore mining in Odisha, a boom in which only a few benefitted. this story looks at the rise of b prabhakaran and his thriveni earthmovers.