SLOWLY but steadily, local communities in Tamil Nadu which have so far been mute witnesses to the plunder of sand from the rivers have started raising the banner of revolt in order to protect the vital natural resource. From a few pockets where local youths raised their voice against quarries in their localities, the protests are turning into a “people’s movement”.

For instance, the Save Vellar Movement, which was formed by people living on the banks of the Vellar river in Vriddachalam block in Cuddalore district and which functions in close coordination with the Human Rights Protection Centre (HRPC), Vriddachalam, and the Cuddalore and Vriddachalam units of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (MKIK), has forced the district administration to suspend mining in the river. The State-level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) had, in its order dated January 9, 2014, allowed the manual quarrying of 1,91,000 cubic metres of sand. However, the sand cartel is exploring all avenues to reopen the quarry. “People are being enticed with money to refrain from opposing the reopening. There are attempts to divide them on caste lines. But they are united,” said C. Raju, a lawyer-activist of the HRPC who has been mobilising people in the area against the sand mafia.

Confronting the sand mafia is not easy. The lifting and loading contractors in many quarries have employed as “managers” men mainly from the southern districts, including Theni and Pudukottai, to supervise the quarrying works and pay the labourers their wages. “These men have emerged so powerful that they virtually run the quarries at many places ‘replacing unofficially’ the PWD [Public Works Department] officials who are supposed to monitor the extent of the sand quarried. The state has only a token presence here,” said Raju.

Subramani, 65, of Aankudi, a farmer, said that the water table in nearly 20 villages on either bank of the river had fallen abysmally. “We used to grow two crops of paddy and one of sugarcane. Now agriculture has been badly hit; even farm work is not available,” he said.

Panchamoorthy, another farmer, said that all caste groups, Dalit, Vanniyar, Reddiar and Pillai, own tiny parcels of land and that “many of them have had to abandon agriculture and migrate to Chennai for sundry works”.

The miners, however, donate liberally for renovating temples, conducting annual festivals, building community halls and school buildings, laying roads and sinking borewells so that the people do not complain about their illicit activities. In many village panchayats, residents have been given flat screen colour television sets, streetlights have been installed, and burial grounds have been given a facelift. “In some places even medical camps were organised,” said Raju.

They give interest-free loans to buy lorries, motorcycles and even earth movers. “These vehicles are used in quarries and the money earned is adjusted against the cost of the vehicles,” said another activist.

“I was given Rs.15 lakh to buy a lorry. Now I am transporting sand for the lessee,” said Murugan, a farmer in a village near Thottiyam in Tiruchi district where a quarry is located on the Cauvery riverbed. He has stopped farming on his small parcel of land that once grew sugarcane and paddy.

“They lift excess sand ensuring free flow of water in the river. Besides they donate liberally to villages. They renovated our village temple,” said Kumar, another resident.

A prolonged agitation led by Raju and his team of activists ensured the closure of a 15-year-old quarry in the Vellar river at Mudikandanallur in Kattumannarkudi block although criminal cases were registered against them.

To condemn the police action against the activists and to express their solidarity with the struggle of the residents of the village, lawyers of Vridachalam and Chidambaram boycotted court proceedings for a day in January 2015. Ironically, the huge money that the mafia makes from quarrying helps it to infiltrate the close-knit ranks of village communities. Miners today have usurped the economy of many a village on the banks of several rivers. That miners have taken control of many river-side habitations was evident at a hamlet near Amoor village in Karur district where a major quarry has been functioning for nearly four years.

A woman in her forties who was tending to vegetables on a small piece of land near the quarry reacted violently when this correspondent asked her how the quarrying had affected her livelihood. Such an outburst did not surprise many of those who were fighting against the sand mafia. “We have participated in various struggles against the sand mafia for long in Tiruchi and nearby districts. We mobilised local communities. But only a few of our interventions have paid dividends. The mafia has been able to indoctrinate the people by purchasing them,” said Sivan Suriyan, Communist Party of India leader of Tiruchi district.

Not all are falling into the money trap, though. The residents of Kalathur near Vellore have opposed miners from lifting sand from the Palar river. The Palar “Paadhukavalargal”, or the Palar Protectors’ Coordination Committee, has urged the State government to close down all sand quarries, including the ones at Thottalam, that are functioning despite a Central government’s order to stop quarrying.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran