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.