August 24, 2014

TAMILNADU CPI(M) Protests against Sand Mafia in Vellore

S P Rajendran

HUNDREDS of activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) took out a 13-km march from Walajapet to Mel Visharam in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu on August 14, urging the government to protect the River Palar from sand mining mafia. The movement was a culmination of protests against rampant sand mining in the state as well as in the River Palar which flows through Vellore district. Recently, the district witnessed a shocking murder of a police head constable by sand mafia. Instead of taking action against the sand mafia and the killers, the AIADMK government showed its anger against the opponents of the sand mining, particularly, G Ramakrishnan, CPI(M) state secretary, who condemned the murder of the head constable. On July 20, special sub-inspector S Rajan, 52, and head constable G Kanagaraj, 43, attached to the Thakkolam police station near Arakkonam in Vellore district, rushed to the Kusasthalai riverbed at 6 am following a tip-off that a gang had been mining sand illegally from there. The two cops in plain clothes spotted the seven-member gang. On realising that the cops found them, the gang members attempted to flee. However, Kanagaraj managed to board the moving tractor and grabbed the driver. In the melee, he lost balance and fell down. At that moment he was run over by the tractor. The gang members, including the driver, fled the scene. With severe injuries, the head constable was rushed to Arakkonam government general hospital where the duty doctors declared him brought dead. After preliminary inquiries, the police arrested a person namely D Suresh. He was one of the gang members. His mother, D Shenbagavalli, is a councilor of the Thakkolam town panchayat while his father, Devaraj, is the treasurer of the local DMDK unit. This incident shook the conscience of the people of the state. CPI(M) state secretary G Ramakrishnan demanded that the government expedite the probe and arrest all the culprits. Accusing the DMK and the AIADMK of following the same policy towards sand smuggling, Ramakrishnan said that amny smugglers have grown to the extent of even interfering with the district administration. The government should announce financial compensation to the family of Kanagaraj, he demanded. CPI(M) district secretary A Narayanan said sand-mining has become rampant in Vellore, especially on the banks of Palar river and its tributaries. He said, one can see sand-laden vehicles speeding on the national highway during the day, causing fear among other vehicle-users. He said, this kind of sand-mining could not take place without the connivance of the officialdom. He pointed out that the mafia had become a big challenge to the police and district administration. The sand-mining has contributed to the depletion of groundwater-levels in villages and districts near River Palar. This has led to severe water scarcity since the past five years. DEFAMATION CASE AGAINST CPI(M) STATE SECRETARY On the next day of the condemnation by the CPI(M) leader which was published in the media, on July 25, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa filed a contempt case against CPI(M) state secretary G Ramakrishnan alleging that he made defamatory remarks against her. Chennai City public prosecutor M L Jegan filed the contempt petition on behalf of the chief minister in the principal sessions court at Chennai. In his petition, the public prosecutor said a statement (condemning sand mining) made by Ramakrishnan was "highly defamatory and malicious and it harmed the reputation" of the chief minister. While other political parties are silently watching the illegal sand mining, why is the CPI(M) questioning, seems to be their question. Clearly, that was the intention behind the 'defamation' case against G Ramakrishnan. The CPI(M) has the details on the illegal sand mining. Exactly a year back, on August 21, 2013, the Times of India, published a news report. According to it, all quarries are under the government control and outside involvement is limited to getting contractors to dig up sand at a pre-determined rate of Rs 220 per truck load. So, close to five dozen quarries mined about 8,300 truck loads per day in Tamil Nadu in the last financial year. But this is not the case. Private contractors may have ferreted away up to 55,000 truckloads of sand, says the news report. While government's annual revenue was Rs 188 crore (for 2012-2013), contractors are estimated to have made about Rs 15,000 crore, according to the report. It is estimated that river sand mining contractors engaged by the PWD in TN take home roughly 40 crore a day. In a year, it is estimated they make about Rs 15,000 crore – enough to fund a metro rail project of Chennai's size. In comparison, the government's annual revenue of Rs 188 crore from sand mining (for 2012-2013) is a pittance. Private contractors make 80 times of what government earns, thanks to poor supervision of mining and sale. While government gets a meagre Rs 1,248 for a billed 400 cubic feet (cft) of load, a contractor earns more than Rs 7,500 for the same consignment. Incidentally, rules say the contractor is only entitled to a predetermined rate of Rs 220 per load. Official records say that on an average, close to five dozen quarries yielded about 8,300 truckloads (as per PWD statistics, each load is 200 cft) per day in the state in the last financial year, with Chennai and Trichy, as the two major regions, contributing the bulk of the river sand. The overall yield, on record, has fallen to 5,000 to 5,500 truckloads per day after the National Green Tribunal recently laid down stringent norms to regulate sand mining. But there is no correlation between official figures and actual supply of sand in the state. In reality, Chennai alone gets a daily supply of 9,000 to 10,000 truckloads (each of them 400 cft). Across the state, about 55,000 sand lorry operators manage to procure a minimum of one truckload per day, according to the Times of India report. SAVE THE RIVER PALAR In this background, the CPI(M) took this issue to the people and organised protests to save the River Palar and against the sand mafia. Leading the march from Walajapet, G Ramakrishnan, state secretary of the Party, said that exploitation of sand deposits was rampant ever since the government began quarrying activities in the state in 2003. It was continuing unabated through the successive AIADMK and DMK regimes. “The Madras High Court ordered not to engage earth movers to scoop sand from rivers and restricted the miners from going beyond three feet deep. But they go even up to 30 feet deep. Politician-sand mafia nexus became so notorious that government officials and policemen who took action were attacked or killed,” he said. The sand mafia not only exploits river sand but also exploits consumers by slapping exorbitant price on sand loads, he added. Addressing the people participating in the march, N Gunasekaran, state secretariat member of the Party, said that five lakh families belonging to five districts including Vellore and Tiruvannamalai depend on the Palar for their livelihood. He said the river is not merely a livelihood source; it is a historic monument; an identity of Tamil civilization and a pivot of its long culture. The government’s erroneous policy was responsible for the river’s present sorry state. The murder of police constable Kanagaraj while attempting to stop a vehicle from smuggling sand is a pointer to an impending disaster, Gunasekaran observed. The marchers also wanted action against pollution of the Palar by industrial effluents and wanted eviction of encroachments from the river. A Narayanan, district secretary of the Party, Thinapuratchi, an activist of the Joint Committee for Palar Protection and former MLA, Hasan, were among the participants.