In Tamil Nadu’s Kalathur village on the banks of river Palar, women lead the fight against the insatiable sand mafia that has ravaged this region over the years.
Natural resources worth between Rs 5 lakh crore to Rs 10 lakh crore have been plundered in the state in the last 25 years, estimates G Sundararajan, a volunteer with the long-standing Poovulagin Nanbargal environmental movement.
Members of the women’s self-help group headquartered at Kalathur in Kancheepuram district say they understand the importance of their resistance.
Palar is one among 35 rivers in Tamil Nadu along which the illegal sand lobby thrives.
Underground water is drying up around the village and it is an ecological disaster waiting to happen, sources say.
The women say mining was to start on the banks of Palar near the village and a local contractor won the rights. “But we did not allow it to start,” said N Lakshmi, 45, a local resident who led a protest.
But it is not just the mafia they are up against.
Police has slapped cases against the villagers on charges of rioting, possession of deadly weapons, preventing officials from discharging duty, criminal intimidation and harassment of women.
Cases have been registered against women and students for protesting against sand mining.
But the villagers say they are unafraid. “We have decided to nip the issue in the bud,” says Lakshmi. “Naming and shaming, ostracising a person and persuasion are the weapons at our command to get the villagers to talk one language against sand miners.’’
Lakshmi proudly narrates an incident when they collected all the bribe money given to the panchayat president, self-help group leaders as well as area councillor by the mining contractor and they donated the sum of Rs 2.18 lakh to the chief minister’s relief fund.
Like elsewhere in the state, Lakshmi says, the sand miners pay off important village representatives to ensure they look the other way.
“The contractor gave Rs 50,000 each to four female members of self-help groups, Rs 20,000 to each of the seven ward members and Rs 1,000 to around 30 people in the village,” she says.
Those who took the bribes were ostracised and chastised for ignoring the larger interests of the local residents.
“We will have no water once they take away the sand,” says Lakshmi, adding that Kalathur supplies water to 30 of the neighbouring villages.
Sand mining is a relatively recent event in the area and if it is not stopped now it will go on, says an activist who helps the villagers in their legal fight with police and administration.
In Tamil Nadu, civil society representatives are resisting legal mining, too, putting up stiff resistance.
“Police and officials are with the contractors,” said a college student from Kalathur.
The sand mafia uses muscle and money power to silence people raising their voices, backed by members of the administration and the political class.
“Often, affiliates of the politically powerful engage in illegal sand mining. They can do what they want and get away, literally, with murder,” said Sundararajan.
Along a 750-km stretch from Palar in the north to Tamraparani in the south and a 650-km area from Coimbatore in the west to Nagapattinam in the east, all rivers have been plundered for sand that feeds a burgeoning construction industry.
A senior IAS official, U Sahayam, has been appointed by the Madras high court to investigate illegal sand quarrying and submit a report.
Environmental activists, however, allege the government is not serious about checking this menace. Most often there is collusion, says Sundararajan.
In a recent study of river sand mining in Palar and Cheyyar basins of Kancheepuram district, civil rights group PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) noted that the highly-organised illegal process was concentrated in the hands of a few.
The damage it has done to the environment is incalculable and it has irreversibly compromised food and water security of the region, experts say.
The plunder has also exposed the region to greater incidence of drought and could lead to an impending anthropogenic ecological disaster.
“It is daylight robbery of an invaluable natural and common resource; it is the attack on our collective future that is impossible to estimate in monetary terms,” the PUCL report noted.
“Similar illegal mining is rampant in all other river basins in the state,” said V Suresh, head of the organisation’s state unit.