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Thirty Years of Official Collusion Helped Tamil Nadu’s Beach Miners Break the Law

Thirty Years of Official Collusion Helped Tamil Nadu’s Beach Miners Break the Law

Violations of regulations continued unchecked under both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, while successive governments at the Centre chose not to act either.

Sand dunes on the coast of Tamil Nadu. Contrary to sound ecological practice, and environmental laws, the government has allowed mining of dunes too. Credit: Special Arrangement

Chennai: It has been three decades since beach sand mining by the private sector began in India, in an uncertain and poorly regulated manner. Among the first to realise the business potential were S. Vaikundarajan – the largest miner of beach sand minerals minerals in the country – and his squabbling siblings. With successive governments at the centre slow to wake up to the possibilities of precious minerals being illegally carted away by private miners, and an intricate and complex set of laws and rules which were continually changing, bureaucrats, officials and, ultimately, the miners themselves had a free hand to exploit loopholes in the policy governing the mining of Indian beaches. In Tamil Nadu, this has meant turning sand into gold.

Here’s how the past 30 years unfolded.

Political twists and turns

A detailed perusal of the complicated legal and official records on the issue, going back to 1998, shows a clear and interesting pattern. When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) ran the Tamil Nadu government – with its leader, M. Karunanidhi, as chief minister – officials from the state mining department, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the department of environment, submitted reports alleging large-scale illegal mining. However, all of these reports were either shelved without action being taken or the miners were allowed to go scot free on flimsy grounds.

During the rule of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) under J. Jayalalithaa as chief minister, officials from the same departments compiled reports based on complaints about illegal mining but strangely, all of these reports, until 2013, gave the miners a clean chit.

So strong was the political commitment to inaction in the state that successive Tamil Nadu governments even failed to act on a series of reports and directions regarding illegal mining that various central government departments had been raising since 2000.

Was there political collusion? This was the charge made by a former senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. Addressing the media in Chennai, Bhushan, who is now with the Swaraj Abhiyan, levelled a serious allegation against the ruling AIADMK: “What is not known to the outside world is that a Tirunelveli businessman S. Vaikundarajan literally controls the beach sand-mining industry in southern Tamil Nadu. Directly or indirectly, he owns a large number of the garnet mining licenses issued by the Indian Bureau of Mines. Apparently, the same Vaikundarajan held major shares in Midas until 2009. I think the nexus is now clear.”

Bhushan was alluding to Midas Breweries, a company owned by Sasikala Natarajan, a close aide of the late Jayalalithaa and now the head of the AIADMK. Vaikundarajan is also a former director of Jaya TV, a mouthpiece of the AIADMK, again run by Sasikala. Vaikundarajan, though, told this reporter in January 2015 that the allegations of him being a benami owner for Jayalalithaa were untrue. “I hold stocks in many companies and Jaya TV is one of them,” laughed Vaikundarajan. “That does not mean I am a benami,” he said.

Even if his statement is taken at face value, what is unmistakable is the clear picture of collusion that has been operating at various levels of both the state and central governments for the last three decades.

Jayalalithaa regime: 2001 to 2006

In November 2000, the Union environment ministry of environment (MoEF) carried out an inspection of the mining leases issued to miners following complaints about illegal mining. The MoEF wrote to the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority (CZMA) in February 2002 requesting it to take action against illegal sand mining on the beaches of Kanyakumari. Another inspection was carried out in May 2002; it was discovered that “sand mining in CRZ (coastal regulation zone) area is being carried out by M/s VV Minerals in Thirunelveli District without obtaining clearance from MOEF under Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991.”

VV Minerals is one of the companies owned by S. Vaikundarajan.

Directions were given to the same authority to act upon this report too. This letter dated May 13, 2002 also points out that the TNPCB had given VV Mineral permission to operate based on approvals by the district level CZMA. The ministry pointed out that “…no such powers to permit mining activities in Coastal Regulation Zone areas have been delegated to any authority by the central government… The Centre reminds the state that environmental clearances can only be done by the Centre and that state departments cannot usurp that power.

“It is clear fraud. Since 1991, anything to do with coasts in the CRZ area – which is 500 metres from the high tide line – would have to get clearance from the Centre. And that clearance is given only after environmental impact assessment, social impact assessment and public hearing and only after that can the state apply for clearance from the ministry of environment,” said Probir Banerjee, president of the non-profit body PondyCAN and an expert on coastal issues.

S. Vaikundarajan in Chennai in 2015. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar.
S. Vaikundarajan in Chennai in 2015. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar.

The ministry gave the state government a deadline of 15 days to take action. What the state did next can be seen in an official affidavit filed by the MoEF at the Madurai bench of the Madras high court in a related case that was heard in August 2012. “The state government has issued notice to 34 mining leases operating in CRZ area. The mine owners challenged and had obtained a stay from the cessions Court. However, in the final order of the court, all the mines were directed to obtain clearance from ministry,” it said.

In May 2001, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) issued licences to VV Mineral to mine in several areas in Kanyakumari. A year later, in April 2002, the DAE sent a letter to the company cancelling the licences that permitted mining over an area of around 14 hectares in Midalam, Kanyakumari. The reason was that these were “areas which have been allotted to Indian Rare Earths Ltd” in 1999 and 2001. How these licences came to be granted to VV Minerals in the first place is a question that can only be answered by the DAE.

In December 2002, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who was the collector of Kanyakumari at the time, shot off a letter to the commissioner of geology and mining listing the reasons why applications for mining leases by VV Mineral should be denied. In his letter, Bedi made some important observations: 1) that part of the survey areas mentioned were in the sea; 2) that there was coastal poromboke, or common, land adjoining the lease areas which could be mined illegally if permission was accorded; 3) that Indian Rare Earths Ltd. (the Central government enterprise) had stated that it too had applied for mining leases in the same areas and; 4) that the locals had opposed mining in the area.

A few days later, however, the commissioner of geology and mining wrote  to the state industries department trashing Bedi’s  red flags and recommending approval of the mining leases. An approval from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) was pending. The commissioner at the time made an extra effort to help the miner, as is evident in his letter: “Since the areas applied for mining leases fall within the HACA Taluk… a clearance from HACA is necessary. However a proposal is pending with Govt for removal of the plain area coastal villages in Kanyakumari district from the purview of HACA… Therefore in the special circumstances of the case based on the proposal of this department… a special clearance may be obtained directly from HACA simultaneously along with obtaining clearance of MoEF.”

“We do not have any specific laws that protect our beaches and there are a lot of loopholes in the existing umbrella legislation,” said environmental expert Ranjith Daniels. “The mining companies make use of these loopholes to their advantage. There is no formal regulation or monitoring of this sector and there is no knowledge of how it actually impacts the coastal ecology. There has been no formal study done on how much sand has been removed, how many beaches have been lost or anything of that nature. No comprehensive ecological impact assessment has been done so far. There is absolutely no basis on which anyone can take up the issue legally or environmentally and say that this is causing damage to the environment,” he explained.

File photo of a beach sand minerals processing unit in Tirunelveli district. Credit: Special Arrangement
File photo of a beach sand minerals processing unit in Tirunelveli district. Credit: Special Arrangement

Daniels added that this situation – of an absolute lack of scientific data – probably exists because it helps both the government and the miners.

“This situation has probably been left in this manner because there is very large revenue being generated from this. So the mining cartels are allowed to continue and various state government officials also benefit in the process. Just talking about it as only a CRZ violation is not adequate. I don’t think the magnitude of this issue has been understood. Just as a proper environmental impact assessment was done in iron ore mining in Kudremukh in Karnataka, a similar study needs to be done in terms of beach sand mining as well – so that a proper policy can be arrived at,” said Daniels.

On August 25, 2004, a group of 20 MPs signed a letter to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demanding a probe into the mounting allegations of illegal beach sand mining. The charge was led by an arch rival of VV Mineral-owner Vaikundarajan, the Congress MP Dhanushkodi Athithan. The letter alleged “illegal mining of Rs 200 crores worth of ilmenite, garnet etc from government coastal lands and smuggling of thorium containing monazite used for manufacturing nuclear weapons… and other anti-national activities of two firms M/s VV Mineral and M/s Beach Mineral Sand Co…”

This letter was forwarded to the Jayalalithaa government for action. The state government set up a high level committee to probe the allegations and sent its report to the Centre in November 2004. In it, the state told the PMO  “to drop further action since the allegations are not proved. The report of the high level committee clearly states that the allegations are evidently inter rivalry of business groups engaged in mining and trading of garnet sand and other prescribed substances.” The report was cited by the state industries department in an affidavit presented to the Madurai bench of the Madras high court in February 2013.

“Of course there is illegal mining, the whole country knows there is illegal mining,” Probir Banerjee, an environmental expert, told The Wire. “The high level committee has to look into the actual allegations and get to the truth – irrespective of business rivalry, they have to assess whether there is illegal mining or not. Rivalry cannot be shown as a cause for dropping action against illegal mining. You cannot say it is based on business rivalry. Basically what officials are doing is to find a flaw in the system and use the flaw to cut down on any investigation – this is what has been happening. They find something that is irrelevant – like business rivalry – and use that to defuse the whole complaint,” he added.

DMK regime: 2006 to 2011

In 2006 came a change of regime in Tamil Nadu, with the DMK’s Karunanidhi taking over as chief minister. Within a year, the government began to gun for VV Mineral and Vaikundarajan.

Gathering up beach sand for processing. Credit: Special Arrangement
Gathering up beach sand for processing. Credit: Special Arrangement

A May 2007 ‘Joint Inspection Report on Garnet Sand Mining in the Coastal Tracts in Gulf of Mannar in Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari Districts’ compiled by a team comprising the commissioner of geology and mining, director of environment, member secretary of the TNPCB and other officials details various violations by the Beach Minerals (Sands) Company, Indian Overseas Garnet Sand Company, VV Minerals and Indian Rare Earths Limited. The violations listed in the report ranged from mining without obtaining Coastal Regulatory Zone clearances, to mining more beach sand than the allowed amount, to the destruction of sand dunes and mining by using heavy machinery. While the state mining department did not respond to The Wire’s queries regarding action taken on this report, sources within the department said that no action was taken and that the report was shelved for reasons unknown.

Again in July 2007, the then district collector of Tirunelveli issued show cause notices to the same miners asking why action should not be taken against them for illegal mining to the tune of over Rs 9 crore. In December 2008, however, the proceedings were suddenly dropped by the collector, who referred to a vague report filed by an advocate commissioner, appointed by the local sessions court to probe into the issue, as his reason. The advocate commissioner had issued a clean chit to the miners and the district collector relied on this report to negate his own findings. On what basis did the collector reverse his decision? There are no answers.

In June 2007, the collector of Tirunelveli began proceedings against a smaller miner, M. Ramesh, who held a single mining lease. The show cause notice issued to him pointed out many violations: 1) while he possessed a mining licence for only garnet, Ramesh was transporting ilmenite as well; 2) sand dunes had been destroyed while mining; 3) mining was being carried out in the inter-tidal zone and 4) periodical monthly and annual returns had not been maintained.

In his response in September 2007, Ramesh stated that he had “applied for permission” to include ilmenite and the application was “pending with the government.” He also said that since no prior intimation had been given to him, he was not able to produce accounts but claimed that they were maintained properly. He also denied the charges of illegal mining. The collector then, curiously, went on to accept all of the miner’s explanations – even going so far as to state wrongly that there was no need for a handling licence for ilmenite, that despite having no mining licence for ilmenite, Ramesh was transporting raw sand to a sister concern for processing, that mining upto a depth of 4 metres was acceptable, and went on to give a clean chit to the miner in January 2009.

“What I suspect is that all these adverse reports only help the people in power extract a pound of flesh from the miners,” said Banerjee. “A report like this just means more money will be put on the table.”

Jayalalithaa regime: 2011 to 2016

Come 2011, Jayalalithaa swept back to power with a thumping majority. With her victory came a crackdown on VV Mineral’s troublesome rival, Dhaya Devadas and his mining firms Southern Enterprises and Indian Garnet Sand Company. In 2007, 2008 and 2010, a friend of Vaikundarajan’s – the former MLA R. Appu Nadesan – had sent letters to the state government demanding action against Dhaya Devadas’s firms for indulging in illegal mining. He also filed a case with the Madurai bench of the Madras high court regarding the same. In November 2011, the state government inspected Devadas’s mines in Trichy district and found evidence of illegal mining along with other violations. Devadas’s mines were shut down.

In 2013, however, the tide suddenly turned. The Jayalalithaa regime appeared to have decided that enough is enough. On August 8, 2013, the state government constituted a special team Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who was now revenue secretary, to probe allegations of illegal beach sand mining in Tuticorin district. This came in the wake of heightened media scrutiny as the district collector of Tuticorin, Ashish Kumar, was transferred hours after he inspected some mining sites, dashed off a report to the government stating that illegal mining was taking place and requested a thorough probe into the same.

File photo of a beach sand minerals processing unit in Tirunelveli district. Credit: Special Arrangement
File photo of a beach sand minerals processing unit in Tirunelveli district. Credit: Special Arrangement

Bedi submitted his report to Jayalalithaa within a month. Stating that the Tuticorin report had evidence of illegal mining, Jayalalithaa, in September 2013, ordered a statewide ban on beach sand mining and ordered the same committee, led by Bedi, to extend its probe to four more districts – Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai and Trichy.

In December 2013, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court issued orders on a batch of cases filed by Dhaya Devadas and others against rival miners. “…in view of the fact that a committee of experts, under the chairmanship of Mr Gagandeep Singh Bedi, secretary, revenue department, has been constituted by the state government to examine, investigate and to file a report, after physical verification of the mining sites in question, we find it appropriate to permit the petitioner… to submit their representations to … Bedi… within 15 days from today,” ordered the court. “On receipt of such representations, the committee concerned shall examine the issues, by making necessary enquiries and investigation, and if necessary, by serving appropriate notices on the parties concerned, and file a report before the state government, for necessary action, as expeditiously as possible.”

The miners subsequently met with Bedi and submitted their representations. However, from May 2014 onwards, a slew of cases began to be filed with the Madras high court. The first salvo was fired by the Beach Mineral Producers Association, a group fronted by Vaikundarajan, which demanded a stay on the probe ordered by the Madurai bench of the Madras high court. The second and third salvos came in July 2014. Transworld India Garnet and VV Mineral filed separate petitions in the high court alleging Bedi was biased and demanding a stay on the submission of his report. For the first time, the state government disputed Vaikundarajan’s claims and argued that the special committee was functioning in a fair manner. In another case though, the court issued a stay on the submission of the report, which remains in effect today.

Then came the PIL and the subsequent suspensions of senior bureaucrats as well as the resignation of the state advocate general, Somaiyaji. The state government subsequently announced, in the last session of the assembly in June, that it would take over beach sand mining soon and bar private players from entering the sector. How and when this change will take place is not yet known.

Garnet, Rutile and Ilmenite, after their removal from beach sands. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar
Garnet, Rutile and Ilmenite, after their removal from beach sands. Credit: Sandhya Ravishankar

More questions

Meanwhile, all the miners involved in these cases have submitted various documents to courts, defending themselves against allegations of illegal mining. But burying the truth under a web of legislation, rules and procedures may not work for much longer.

A perusal of mining leases, mining licences, environmental and other clearances would show that in most cases, fraudulent mining plans have been approved on the back of unscientific claims. An example: that the replenishment of beach sand minerals is taking place at the rate of 75-78% per annum.

Many mining plans have excluded sand dunes from their regulations, thereby allowing for rampant mining and the destruction of the south’s coasts. In one particular case pertaining to a mining lease issued to Beach Minerals Company in Tuticorin district, a 2007 report by the member secretary of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shows how falsehoods have been injected into official reports to help miners get clearances. The TNPCB report observes that in March 2004, the district CZMA recommended clearing BMC’s mining lease stating that “altering of sand dunes is an allowed activity.” The state’s department of environment, in March 2006 – two years later – returned the recommendation to the district authority and pointed out that this was incorrect, “since it is a prohibited activity.”

“Sand dunes cannot be touched even if you own the land,” explained Banerjee. “You don’t have permission to build on or mine a sand dune. Sand dunes are nature’s way of protecting the coast. Waves break on sand bars and they come gently onto the shore. When there is a storm the sand bars will be driven to the sand dune so the dune becomes bigger. When the cyclone recedes, the sand bar is slowly formed again, as sand is washed back into the sea. This is a system that protects the coastal hinterlands. The sand dune itself is a vital ecosystem – there are plants that keep the dune strong. If this is removed, we are at danger from extreme weather conditions,” he warned.

The miners continue in their attempts to confuse the courts, filing cases willy nilly and changing their stand in each case, perhaps in an effort to obfuscate proceedings via the complicated policy framework.

“The policy on beach sand minerals needs to be simplified and made transparent and accountable so that natural resources are safeguarded and miners cannot hide behind loopholes,” argued Banerjee. “On the other hand, the courts should not entertain such complicated cases. They should club all such cases together and make it into one case so that all arguments can be made on one platform. Courts can be confused otherwise by complicated policy such as this,” he added.

Daniels feels that a reputed institution like NEERI should be commissioned to study the impact of beach sand mining before tweaking policy. “A study must be done on how much sand has been mined, how it impacts marine life, how it impacts our coasts – we need data first. That is the need of the hour,” he said.

New mining rules set to end the party

Though the Department of Atomic Energy has consistently taken the position that there has been no export of monazite by the private beach sand mineral mining companies, it has helped draft tighter rules that were notified last July by the Ministry of Mines as the Atomic Minerals Concession Rules, 2016. According to the new rules, sands containing atomic minerals above a specified threshold level are reserved for government-owned companies. Private players can only mine in sands where atomic minerals are less than the threshold value for that area.

Some commentators have decried the new rules as an example of ‘Nehruvian socialism’ but sources in the atomic establishment confirmed that the latest restrictions have been framed at least partly in response to the growing evidence of illegal beach sand mining as well as the illegal transportation and export of placer minerals. “There has to be better supervision and transparency, especially given the growing international market for rare earths.”

The rules specify the trigger value for the presence of various placer minerals – monazite, ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene and zircon – but the DAE is still preparing a map of all those areas where their presence is below the threshold. According to one estimate, the Atomic Minerals Division has identified a 1,000 sq km area where private players would be eligible to mine.

Broadly speaking, however, the new rules effectively cut out private players from mining rare earths, especially along the coasts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Odisha, where atomic minerals are present in high quantities. State governments have been advised by the Centre that under the new rules existing mining leases where mineral presence is higher than the threshold value will have to be cancelled.

Not surprisingly, Vaikundarajan and the other private players are furious. “The very concept of threshold limit value (TLV) is unscientific and seems to have been arrived at arbitrarily without fundamental principles. Basing the entire future of beach sand minerals (BSM) industry on this single factor is highly lopsided and irrational,” Vaikundarajan was quoted by the Economic Times as saying on behalf of the Beach Minerals Producers Association. “This TLV criterion is purely to safeguard government organisations and hide inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. This is also totally against national interest, which disregards the benefit that will accrue to the nation in the absence of this TLV clause,” he added.

Apart from issuing these new rules, the Centre has also re-included ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene and zircon in the list of “prescribed substances” under the Atomic Energy Act. This too in effect means that they cannot be mined by private players.

“We have to look at structural changes to govern this aspect of mining of rare earth minerals,” said Sriram Panchu, a senior advocate based in Chennai who is also an expert on good governance. “The neighbouring state of Kerala does this through a state-owned corporation which has exclusive control over the rare earth in its beach areas. If a similar system is followed in Tamil Nadu, it will avoid or lessen the phenomenon of excessive and exploitative mining, corruption and nexus between mining lease holders and politicians. This will make for better governance in this subject which has several public ramifications,” he argued.

Though the new rules have been notified, Tamil Nadu’s sand miners are hopeful of getting the Centre to reverse course.  “There is uncertainty in the ministry regarding the jurisdiction of atomic minerals, as the DAE falls under the supervision of the prime minister and not the Ministry of Mines, from where the draft has been released. As such, we have appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider the proposed guidelines,” Subramanian Vaikundarajan, BMPA vice president  told Industrial Minerals, an industry portal.

The government – both at the Centre and the state – may finally be rejigging policy in order to protect the precious beach sand minerals but the illegal mining and corruption of the past three decades still needs to be accounted for. Government departments in Chennai and Delhi have a lot of tough questions they must respond to in the Madras high court. And the officials, ministers and leaders who turned a blind eye to the loot and destruction of the coast need to explain why they failed to uphold the law of the law all these years.

Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist who has been investigating illegal beach sand mining for years. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan

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