Tamil Nadu’s sand is in high demand for the construction industry, causing great damage to the Indian state’s extensive network of rivers. Profits and corruption are high, illegal mining is rampant, and attacks on those opposed to the industry are commonplace, according to S. Mugilan.
Mugilan has been taking on polluters across Tamil Nadu for more than two decades, and has been attacked, arrested, and jailed for his work.
He is currently in the hospital, fasting to protest the police preventing him from handing out voter pamphlets opposing two prominent political candidates.
In November 2008, a gang of around 70 assailants attacked S. Mugilan and his nine comrades with kadaparais (crowbars) and aruvals (curved machetes). The attack took place at around three in the morning, as they were returning home from sticking posters up across the town of Namakkal in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The posters called on state authorities to shut down a paper factory that had polluted 10,000 acres of land in the district— a factory owned by a well-connected functionary of a leading political party. Mugilan and others had organised numerous protests against the factory.
The attackers were never identified or apprehended, but Mugilan presumes they were goons hired by the factory owner. He and his fellow posterers spent many weeks in the hospital recovering from their injuries. But in the end they won. They continued organizing protests, and, just four months after the attack, the factory closed. Since then, all large factories set up in the district inevitably implement strict pollution controls, for fear of drawing the people’s ire.
For more than two decades Mugilan, now 49, has been taking on polluters across his state. He is currently back in the hospital. This time, the police took him there for fasting to protest their preventing him from handing out pamphlets urging voters to defeat a prominent political candidate from the incumbent party.
Mugilan has had some victories over the years: shutting down a Coke factory in Perundurai, shutting down a highly polluting textile-dyeing factory in Erode, preventing a hill near his hometown of Chennimalai from being mined into oblivion for its sand, helping organize popular opposition to a nuclear power plant on the state’s coastline. And, in an especially shocking case, helping to expose granite miners who were offering narabali (human sacrifice) to improve their business.
Mugilan has had many failures, too, and even more struggles that are still ongoing. The most strenuous among these is his fight against Tamil Nadu’s sand-mining mafia.
From engineer to activist
“We never take any decision separately, we always rely on people power,” Mugilan told Mongabay at his modest home in the small town of Chennimalai, about 450 kilometres (280 miles) from the state capital of Chennai. Chennimalai is chock a block with small- and medium-size handloom factories and many of its residents spin cotton at their homes. A temple for the Hindu deity Muruga located in the center of town is a popular destination for religious tourists. Otherwise, the town typifies the South Indian countryside, with rice and paddy fields as far as the eye can see and the Noyyal River running its course nearby.
Mugilan grew up in this home, which he now shares with his wife M. Poongkodi and until recently his son M. Karmugil, who is now pursuing his undergraduate degree in zoology in the nearby city of Coimbatore.
Mugilan has always nurtured a far left-of-center ideology, which inspires his work.“For me an environmental issue is not just about saving the environment,” he said. “I feel exploitation of Tamil Nadu or causing damage to its land and natural resources is an attack on the Tamil people as much as it is on the region’s ecosystems.”
Mugilan’s father, an agriculturalist, encouraged him to pursue his education. He went on to graduate as an engineer and worked with the state public works department for four years after. “That job was not for me, so I began taking up activism more seriously and focused my entire energy on this,” he said.
His first foray into environmentalism came in 1995 with the campaign to close down the textile-dyeing factory in Erode. The factory was polluting the Noyyal River, a 173 kilometer (107 mile) long tributary of the Kaveri River, which has been called the lifeline of the state. Dyeing clothes is a traditional industry here but it wasn’t until large-scale production began in the 1990s that chemical dyes were used.
“Things came to a head when a schoolgirl went to bathe in the river and came out with skin burns,” Mugilan said. “We collected 10 lakh [one million] signatures asking for the factory to be shut and collected one rupee [less than two cents] from each person who signed. We organised large protests in Erode town as well. Finally the authorities woke up and shut down the factory. This victory after three years of incessant efforts was a great learning experience.”
It was around this time that Mugilan faced his first confrontations with the sand-mining mafia.
Questions of sand
At 130,000 square kilometres (50,200 square miles), the state of Tamil Nadu is about the same size as Nicaragua. Ninety-five rivers cut across it and at least 17 major river basins. It also has the second longest coastline in India, stretching out over 1,076 kilometers (670 miles).
Needless to say, there is river and beach sand aplenty. Historically, the sand was never heavily exploited. But starting with the real estate boom of the 1990s, demand for Tamil Nadu’s sand has grown exponentially, both in the state’s major cities of Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, and Salem and in the neighboring states of Kerala and Karnataka.
The state government estimates that between 5,500 and 6,000 truckloads of 200 cubic feet of sand each are mined in Tamil Nadu every day. But Mugilan puts the number much higher, at 90,000 truckloads or more. He also disputes the state public works department’s assertion that the market rate for sand is $105 to $120 per truckload, saying it actually goes for $300 to $600, and much more if it is trucked out of state.
He says this adds up to tremendous profits for the industry that encourage rampant mining of sand. Major rivers, such as the Thamirabarani and the Palar, have sunk 30 feet below ground level due to excessive mining.
Much of this mining is illegal. State law prohibits mining of more than five vertical feet of sand, but miners regularly dig much deeper. And the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change stipulates that mining in quarries with lease areas of between five and 25 hectares can only be done manually. Many of Tamil Nadu’s sand mines fall within this size but the use of heavy equipment, such as sand mining dredges, is common.
“The sad reality is that the mining stops only when the sand’s been completely extracted. So when the monsoons come along, there is no sand to retain water in the rivers and they flow straight to the sea, as if through a water hose,” said Mugilan. “The groundwater levels keep constantly dropping and the once glorious river systems, which were the lifeline for the state’s agriculture industry, are now in pathetic conditions.”
Orders from above
Mugilan alleges that the reason rampant illegal sand mining continues is because of the complicity of the state’s leading politicians. “For every truckload of sand that is mined, legal or illegal, we estimate that 200 rupees[$3] goes to a close aide of the state’s chief minister,” he said. If so, that would work out to more than $160,000 for that one aide alone every day. Staggering figures, to say the least.
In his 2014 book Thathu Manal Kollai (The Stealing of Beach Sand) Mugilan claims that the state’s biggest miner of beach sand is a prominent industrialist named S. Vaikundarajan who is chairman of VV Minerals, India’s leading exporter of industrial minerals. Vaikundarajan also owns a Tamil news channel, among other interests, and has close ties to ministers in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party. In 2013, the industrialist’s name appeared in a state investigation of illegal sand mining worth $14.3 billion in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, according to The Economic Times.
Mugilan says there is so much money in the sand business that regulation is all but futile. Illegal miners have the clout and cash to deal directly with politicians at the helm of power and senior civil service officials. However, it is officials in the third or fourth tier of the Indian civil services bureaucracy, such as village administrative officers (VAOs) and revenue department (RD) officials, who have been tasked with preventing illegal mining. Without the backing of their senior officials, this task is next to impossible to fulfill, according to Mugilan.
“The problem is that the VAOs and RD officials who are supposed to act against the illegal miners are either paid off or, if they turn out to be honest officials, then targeted through other means,” said Mugilan.
He added that while small-time miners are routinely arrested, the “big fish” are allowed to practice their trade freely and even assisted by government officials. “Because to oppose them would be career suicide and in extreme situations even life threatening,” he said.
Threatened over sand
In addition to the grave attack in 2008, Mugilan has been threatened many times, as well as arrested for sedition and jailed along with others for his opposition to the nuclear power plant, located in the coastal town of Koodankulam.
Others have been less fortunate. Although poorly documented, anecdotal accounts and scattered news reports indicate that numerous activists and government officials have been injured or killed for opposing Tamil Nadu sand- and granite-mining mafias.
A report in the progressive news magazine Frontline details some of these incidents. Among them: An 81-year-old retired teacher named Sam Devasagayam, who was campaigning against illegal sand mining in the Thamirabarani River, was hacked to death in 2014. The same year, a 43-year-old police constable named G. Kanakaraj was run over by a truck carrying illicitly mined sand. And a government official and four colleagues narrowly escaped when a truck carrying sand rammed into their car. Two years earlier, twenty-four-year-old Satheesh Kumar was killed by a speeding truck while standing guard against sand mining in the Nambiyar River. A farmer’s hand was chopped off in Madurai District when he refused to part with his land for granite mining. These cases reported by Frontline are just a few among many more recorded and unrecorded deaths and injuries.
“I can think of at least four government officials who have been killed because of their stringent positions against sand mining in the last decade or so,” an anti-sand-mining activist named S. Amudhan told Mongabay. “Most of the attacks are attributed to negligent driving or road accidents and the connections between their efforts to curb sand mining and their deaths are hardly ever laid out.”
Mugilan said he knows of at least 20 people, including activists, villagers, and government officials, who have lost their lives over sand and granite mining, and countless others who have been injured. “These deaths are seldom reported in the media since the regional journalists too are targeted if they are to report on these incidents. When the entire system is in their hands, it’s sometimes difficult to get the word out,” he said.
It is not just activists or officials standing in the way of mining interests who lose their lives, though. Last year a state government probe found that at least 12 people had been offered as narabali at a granite quarry in Madurai district. The victims appeared to be mentally challenged people picked up from various regions of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and offered as human sacrifices between 1999 and 2003. Exhumed skeletons included that of a small baby. The probe found that a local granite baron named P.R. Palanichamy had ordered the sacrifices, allegedly to improve business. Palanichamy owns PRP Granites, the company responsible for the quarry where the remains were found.
A few years earlier, in 2012, the District Collector in charge of revenue collection and administration for Madurai District, a man named U. Sagayam, with assistance from Mugilan and other activists, had blown the lid on 175 granite quarries that Palanichamy and PRP Granites were running illegally. Sagayam’s investigation estimated that PRP Granites illegally mined $2.4 million worth of granite stones across Madurai District.
Sagayam was transferred out of the district within days of submitting his report on illegal mining. He now serves as vice-chairman of a state-run initiative to promote research in science and technology — a huge demotion from the powerful position of Madurai District Collector. However, in September 2014 the Madras High Court appointed Sagayam as a special officer to investigate mining activities in the state. It was this probe that uncovered the human sacrifices.
Having witnessed situations such as this, Mugilan has gotten used to the threats that he receives and claims that his family has, too. “My wife now just says ‘you can do what you want,’ whenever someone calls our home to threaten us. Both she and my son accept that what we’re trying to do is important and goes beyond just our family,” he said. “We are fighting against the greatest monopolies and power mongers in our region. So threats are inevitable. The point is to keep on going.”
After the popular protests against the nuclear power plant on the coast, Mugilan’s four-month imprisonment on sedition charges helped make him a prominent face of environmental movements in Tamil Nadu. Now, he says, any direct attack on him will not go unnoticed by the state’s media and civil society groups.
“So the way I see it, the only reason why people like Vaikundarajan have let me be is because he’ll be held directly responsible if something happens to me. It really can’t be anything else,” Mugilan said.
Now forcibly hospitalized, Mugilan is on day two of his fast. What keeps him fighting is an optimistic vision for the future.
“When I was growing up, we could take the water right out of the Noyyal River and drink. We used to play in the river for hours, spend so much time there. My son can never experience the same,” he said. “Maybe through our efforts, we can bring the region back to how it was, or at least a semblance of it.”