The drowning of seven young girls - aged between 10 and 19 - near a check dam built across the Gedilam river in Cuddalore on Sunday, June 5 has raised questions about the dangers of over-mining sand from river beds. The girls had gone to bathe in some water accumulated near the river, and some environmental activists believe that they might have been unaware of a deeper pit that was left behind due to the neglect of sand miners who did not bother to refill it once they were done mining. While two girls drowned first, the rest of the girls died while trying to rescue them, police say. And though the locals alerted fire and rescue personnel, who rushed to the spot, the girls could not be saved. Their bodies were retrieved and sent them to the Cuddalore District Hospital for postmortem.
TNM spoke with several activists, environmentalists, and local people to understand the factors that potentially led to this mishap. While some blame the lack of proper sanitation and toilet facilities that compelled the girls to go to the river, activists suggest that illegal sand mining may have made them more vulnerable to drowning.
When TNM spoke with Amarnath, the father of Monisha, one of the girls who died in the accident, he said, "While constructing the check dam in Kuchipalayam, officials dug up the Gedilam river bed for the sand to be used in the construction. After the construction work was over, the officials didn't take any steps to close that pit they had dug. My daughter, Monisha, went with other girls to bathe in the river. Two girls struggled to get out of the deep water, and my daughter and the others who went to rescue them also drowned."
He added that most of the 550 families in Kuchipalayam do not have proper toilet facilities, which is why many village residents use the river bank for open defecation. Amarnath suspects that on June 5 too, the girls would have gone to relieve themselves and take a dip in the water when they died.
Some of the local residents revealed that apart from the companies that come to mine sand there, some of the people residing in the nearby villages also depend on the river and river sand for livelihood. “The state government took several steps to monitor the river sand mining. But, still, bullock carts are being deployed to dig the river beds for sand. The local people, too, fetch the river sand on two-wheelers during the night and sell it. Such incidents are rampant here. But people never talk about this. Also, 13 villages located on the banks of Gedilam river lack sanitation facilities and people defecate on the river banks,” said one of the local residents under the condition of anonymity.
Funeral of the girls who drowned in Gedilam River (Special arrangment)
While M-sand or manufactured sand (artificially made by crushing hard stones) is being used in some places as an alternative to river sand, the former has not fully replaced the latter in construction. Cuddalore-based geologist Venkatesan Selvaraj said that due to persisting demand for river sand, the state government permitted quarry owners to extract sand up to a particular amount. “However, mining industries did not follow government guidelines. Now, in the delta region, the depth of many rivers is deeper than the estuaries,” he said, elaborating that this increases the risk of accidents like drowning as people are not aware of the increased depth due to unfilled mining pits.
“People dig river beds in the summer for two reasons: construction work, and to widen and deepen the bed so that it does not get affected by the flooding during the monsoons. The latter is harmless to the environment, and saves lives and crops. The former is harmful in many ways. Apart from such direct incidents of death, over-mining sand causes saltwater intrusion, degradation of microorganisms, increase in the backwater levels in the rivers, and loss of livelihood of farmers due to increased water salinity rendering it unfit for irrigation, among others,” he added.
“Clay layers in the river beds and banks act as barriers and stop the saltwater from getting into the groundwater network. But repeated sand pilferage will deplete such clay layers and lead to the high-density saltwater mixing with the groundwater. The impact may not be felt overnight, but after a decade it can cause serious health issues. Skin and hair colour will change if they are exposed to the salt permeated air, and consumption of such water leads to a higher level of salt content in our bodies,” Venkatesan explained.
The Tamil Nadu government gave the green light for river sand to be used in construction after a decade, earlier this year. The Department of Water Resources gave environmental clearance to 16 quarrying companies that use lorries and 21 companies that use bullock carts to operate.
In a series of tweets on Monday, G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental volunteer group, sought all political parties and organisations to pay attention to incidents such as the drowning in Cuddalore to prevent such mishaps in the future. "This is not the first time something like this has happened. Last month, a young man died in the same river but at a different location. Every month, people drown in the rivers and we assume the incidents happen because people don't know how to swim against the river current. But that is not true. In the past few years, especially during the summer, JCBs and earth-mover machines have been seen on the banks of every single river that is running across the state to mine sand for construction. When the river flow begins during the monsoon, miners leave pits without any consideration for the repercussions. The government stopped giving tenders for new sand miners since the earlier ones exploited the resources by over-mining. If there was no over-mining, why would there be a pit with a depth of 15-30 feet, where the girls drowned?" he asked. He requested the Tamil Nadu government to take necessary steps to avoid such incidents.
"A Water Resources Department report said the check dam is supported by the sand that was taken from the bunds, not from the Gedilam river bed," said Cuddalore Collector Balasubramaniam. "As a part of precautionary actions, we have released circulars to all the tahsildar offices to install warning boards across the district. I've asked all Block Development Officers to ensure the proper toilet facilities in each household and public toilets in every village in the district," he added.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin condoled the deaths and announced a solatium of Rs 5 lakh to the families of the deceased from the Chief Minister's relief fund. On Monday, while speaking to the media at Edappadi, AIADMK Co-coordinator and former Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisamy urged the state government to increase the solatium to Rs 10 lakh.