It was set up last month by the Union Ministry of Mines after the Supreme Court’s tough judgement on illegal iron ore mining in Odisha. Disposing of a petition filed by the non-profit Common Cause, Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta not only ordered the Union government to recover the full value of iron ore mined illegally by the mining lease owners, it also asked it to review India’s mining regulations.
These regulations have failed to arrest illegal mining in the country as is evident in several cases across India – for instance in Karnataka and Odisha, as well as Goa, where the Supreme Court imposed a ban on iron ore mining in 2012, and Tamil Nadu, which has seen rampant illegal sand mining for several years. They have also failed to mitigate the social and environmental consequences of mining. Indeed, there are glaring economic inequalities in India’s mineral-rich districts. Communities living close to the mineral reserves teeter at the edge of destitution and battle environmental pollution even as a handful of politically-connected people amass extraordinary riches.
The Supreme Court therefore directed the Centre to set up an expert committee, chaired by a retired judge, to identify the regulatory lapses that allowed illegal mining. It also directed the Union government to review the National Mineral Policy, 2008, in order to bring in greater transparency, environmental protection and more social and economic growth.
Accordingly, the Ministry of Mines set up the KR Rao Committee on August 14. The committee is expected to submit its report on October 31. Its composition, however, raises questions on whether India’s mining sector will see a fundamental overhaul or more of the same.
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?
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.
…Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline. Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.
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.
Despite healthy finances, the state is failing to provide basic services to its people. Its schools and hospitals are badly understaffed. Jobs are not easy to find, as a result of which young people are getting disillusioned with education itself. Welfare programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme work only on paper.
While the state saw an iron ore boom over the last decade, government’s policies ensured only a handful of people became rich. Most stayed unaffected. Some ended up poorer. During the same period, the state also saw a chit fund boom in which middle- and low-income families lost money.
a wrap of all our #eartotheground reporting from odisha. this is the second wrap — the first was on mizoram.
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.
The third — and concluding — story in our series on the mining boom of Odisha.