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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Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

…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.

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.

How Karnataka and Tamil Nadu mismanaged their water and then blamed each other

Why is the Cauvery such a recurring flashpoint between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu?

In recent days, an array of hypotheses have been advanced to help answer that question. Some of these are broad in their scope – tracing the long history of the conflict. Others focus on the here and now – rainfall patterns and reservoir levels this year. Yet others have taken a more sociological look – which is how we ended up with diagnoses that include political grandstanding, Kannadiga nationalism, the role of the media, and more.

In the process, however, some ecological questions have not received the attention they deserve.

Can the courts save India’s rivers from pollution? Tirupur shows the answer is no

the second — and concluding — part of our trip down the Noyyal (see previous post).

A slum sprawled on one side of the river. In the distance, a factory belched smoke in the air. The riverbed was overrun with weeds and crammed with plastic bags that were half buried into the earth. An earthmover scooped gunk from an open drain and dumped it on top of the debris. The river itself was a thin trickle of black.

Welcome to Tirupur, an industrial city in central Tamil Nadu, where India’s judicial system tried – and failed – to save a river.

The Noyyal is a small river which starts in the western ghats and flows 170 kilometres to merge into the Cauvery. It passes through Tirupur, where factories have been emptying out effluents in its waters ever since a textile hub came up in the 1970s.

After the state failed to protect the river, in 1996, the Supreme Court intervened. It ordered dyeing units in Tirupur to shut down if they could not stop polluting the river. Fifteen years later, in 2011, the Madras High Court followed up by applying the “Polluter Pays” principle, directing the dyeing factories to become zero discharge units by recycling waste water and pumping it back for reuse.

Since then, the larger units in Tirupur have set up their own effluent treatment plants. The smaller ones have come together to set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants. In all, 18 CETPs are operating here.

But the river still does not look clean.

The first part of this series flagged how the state administration in Tamil Nadu has been unable to protect the Noyyal. That story traced the river’s journey from its source till Coimbatore.

This story looks at what happens to the Noyyal after it leaves Comibatore, and why even judicial remedies to protect the river have failed.

How a river in Tamil Nadu turned into a sewage canal

A narrow little rivulet splashes down, bouncing from boulder to boulder as it descends the rockface. It pauses to catch its breath in a tiny pool limned by trees, before rushing downhill again, merging with other streams to form a small river called the Noyyal.

For centuries, the river’s 170-km course used to take it past the farms, forests and villages of Tamil Nadu, before sinking it into the embrace of the great Cauvery.

In recent decades, this landscape has changed.

Noyyal’s basin – the area drained by the river and its tributaries – has become one of the densest urban landscapes in the state. The cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur, which are located here, are now among India’s leading industrial clusters. The basin has seen an exponential rise in population. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of people living here doubled from 19.5 lakhs to 42 lakhs. With more people settling in the cities, the urban population mushroomed from 9 lakhs to 33 lakhs. Such a large number of people moved to the cities that the rural population actually fell.

Spikes in population, urbanisation and industrial activity bring with them questions of sustainability.

At Kovai Kutralam in Kachimanathi Reserve Forest, one of the starting points of Noyyal’s journey, the water is so clear, you can scoop it up to drink.

What happens as it flows ahead?

The first of a two part series on the river.

Why hydel-power companies in Arunachal Pradesh want NHPC to take over their projects (and why it won’t)

In a delicious twist of fate, a cluster of private companies that rushed headlong into Arunachal in the late 2000s to build hydel power projects are now, in a turnaround, asking the public sector National Hydel Power Corporation to take over their projects.

The fascinating afterlife of Arunachal Pradesh’s hydel scam.