The sand mafia has attacked journalists and environmental activists across the country for their investigative stories on the ecological damage caused by illegal and indiscriminate sand mining in rivers. In May this year, there were two attacks on journalists who were investigating illegal mining on the Cauvery basin in Tamil Nadu.
M Suchitra, journalist with “Down to Earth’ magazine and Asianet journalist VM Deepa were attacked when they went to cover the sand mining in May this year. Deepa faced another attack a few days later. Here, Suchitra spoke of her experience as well as of the impunity that marked these attacks. The absence of sustained media coverage of the issue has also contributed to the chilling silence on it, she said.
Q : What led you to investigate and report on the issue of sand mining?
A : Mining is one of the focus areas of Down To Earth magazine. I have written a few reports on iron ore mining in Karnataka’s Bellary district and sand mining in Andhra Pradesh. We had done a cover on sand mining in 2012.
Activists in Tamil Nadu asked us to do a detailed report on illegal sand mining mainly in the Cauvery basin, the lifeline of the state. Interestingly, in Tamil Nadu, unlike in other states, mining is done by the State Public Works Department and ten years after the government took up mining, the situation has worsened and illegalities continue. Activists wanted our magazine to bring the issue to national attention.
Q : What kind of difficulties do you face while reporting on the sand mafia?
A : Reporting on sand mining is very difficult since the mafia involves government officials, politicians, police and even members of local communities. It is often difficult to get data and officials are scared to talk to the media. If at all they talk, it will be on condition of anonymity.
Getting information is difficult even under the Right To Information Act. The mafia can do anything, threaten you, assault you, and even kill you. For local journalists, it is very difficult to report on the sand mafia since they have to continue to live there among those who are engaged in illegalities.
Q : There has been a raise in the number of reported threats and assaults over the years on journalist, revenue officers and activists. How do the police and the administration react to these reports/complaints?
A : There are honest officials and officials siding with the mafia. More often than not, the assault by the mafia is not followed up. The police may or may not register a case. There are incidents when journalists have registered cases against assaults on them, those associated with mining also register false cases against the journalists, and police try to compromise between them.
It’s very difficult for the local journalists to work where the mafia is very strong.Local journalists who write against the illegal sand mining and the mafia may become silent after a while. Some of the local journalists are also bought by the mafia. The district administration and the police usually take a stand against those who fight against illegal mining.
Thus, to a certain extent, the sand mafias have made many places in India ‘no-reporting’ zones.
Q : How are the journalists and reporters reacting to this?
A : Journalists are not a single class or group. They belong to different organisations. Many media organisations are funded by or run by political parties. There are incidents of journalists risking their lives and reporting but media organisations are reluctant to follow up the issues after a point. Where it becomes difficult for local journalists to report on the mafia, the national media has to step in and write about it.
Q : Recently, you and VM Deepa from Asianet were attacked by the goons of the sand mafia at Kulithalai in Tamil Nadu's Karur district. Can you please share your experiences of that day.
A : The incident happened on May 22 evening. I was on an assignment on indiscriminate sand mining in the Cauvery basin. V M Deepa is a senior news editor of the Malayalam news channel, Asianet. She produces a weekly programme Nalla Mannu (Good Earth) based on environment and agriculture.
We were in Kulithalai in Karur district. Kulithalai is midway between Karur town and Tiruchirappalli. The channel’s camera persons, V B Hiran and P Praveen were also with us. At Kuithalai, there is a bridge across the Cauvery. From the top of this bridge you can get wide view of the river. Here the river flows the widest with its two banks 1.5 km apart. There are a few sand quarries located a bit away from the bridge.
The moment we started taking visuals, around 20 men reached the spot on motorbikes and threatened us. They asked us to leave the place immediately and said we needed permission from the authorities to take photos. We pointed out that it’s a public place and asked why should we need permission to take pictures of the river.
But they were not ready to listen. They tried to snatch away our cameras and forced us to delete the visuals that we took. They slapped a local farmer who had accompanied us on his face. Even after we left the spot, the goons followed us in a Bolero car and on motor bikes for about an hour. Whenever, we slowed down our car, the goons on bikes would come and bang the windows of our car. As it was getting dark we thought it was not safe being followed like that.
So we went to the nearby police station at Mayanur between Kulithalai and Karur. We narrated the incident. The policemen had a casual attitude. We asked them whether we could file a case but they told us the incident happened at Kulithalai and if we wanted to register a case, it should be done there. It was not safe to go back to Kulithalai. By that time, Deepa’s office had contacted top police officials in Kerala and they in turn had contacted the top police officials in Tamil Nadu.
The policemen in Mayanur were asked to accompany us to the hotel. On the way, the SP of Karur district spoke to us over phone and asked us to leave the state, that night itself. We told him it was not safe for us to travel in the current situation and we had to complete our assignments but he said the police would not be able to ensure our safety. Finally, we were asked to leave Karur district early morning the following day. He also said we should have taken a proper permission from the district authorities before taking visuals of the river at Kulithalai.
Next day , Deepa and her team returned to Kerala. I completed my work in the next three days meeting farmers, activists and retired officials but did not take the risk of taking pictures.
A few day later, Deepa and her cameraman Prashant Alber were attacked again at Kulithalai when they were returning from Tiruchirappalli after a shoot. Somebody had informed the sand mafia’s goons that the team would be passing the spot.
Attacks of journalists by the sand mafia goons are not rare, it happens everywhere in the country. In Kulithalai itself journalists have been attacked and had to face murder threats many times.
Q : How does the ‘sand mafia’ work?
A : As I touched upon earlier, it involves officials, politicians, contractors, police and even members of the local communities. The mafia has huge money and muscle power. Their network is very strong and wide. They have informers everywhere. They will try to hurt those who raise their voices against corruption and illegalities by threatening, harassing, making false cases, killing or bribing. Honest officials will be transferred from their post or suspended.
We know the incident in Uttar Pradesh where an IAS officer Durga Shakti got suspended after taking on politicians involved in sand mining. This is not an isolated incident. In Tamil Nadu some revenue officials and activists have been killed. In the case of local communities, the mafia uses divide and rule tactics. They will lure local youths by giving them employment and high wages. When the community is divided, it becomes more difficult to carry on agitations and movements against illegal mining. The mafia can get favourable judgments too.
Q : But why is this important for the environment? How can the media pay more attention to it?
A : Sand is necessary to sustain virtually all the flora, fauna and other living things that exist in river ecosystems. Along with gravel, it forms an intermediate zone between the surface water of the river and the groundwater beneath. It recharges the ground water table by slowing down the flow of water in the river and allowing percolation. Sand is also a refuge for fish and an incubator for eggs.
Sand mining in our rivers is often destructive and causes erosion of river banks, depletes the ground water table and causes severe drinking water crisis and shortage of water for irrigation. Sand is categorised as a minor mineral and there are norms on mining it. However, these rules and regulations are violated.
There is no media scrutiny of sand auctions or the unholy nexus between government officials, politicians and contractors. There is no discussion on the uncontrolled construction boom in the cities that has led to indiscriminate and illegal sand mining or of ecologically safe, technically sound and cost-effective alternative for sand like green building technologies.