Contractors engaged by PWD to mine sand flout every rule; mining is taking place along the Cauvery banks and in the river bed round the clock, say farmers and activists (Photo Courtesy: Down To Earth, photo by M Suchitra)

Voices Monday, June 09, 2014 - 05:30
Dhanya Rajendran | The News Minute | June 9, 2014 | 7.30 am IST Some places in South India have become no-reporting zones at one point or another in time.  When the Reddy brothers were ruling Bellary, it was tough to sneak in cameras and shoot the indiscriminate mining in the area. There would be Reddy informers at every nook and corner. Bellary like many other areas was inaccessible only for a certain period of time, but one place in Tamil Nadu has remained largely out of bounds for journalists for years: the banks of the Cauvery River in Tamil Nadu. For years illegal sand miners have plundered the banks of the Cauvery river. More than a decade ago, as the demand for sand in the construction industry grew, a powerful lobby of sand miners in collusion with politicians and bureaucrats ravaged the river bank for sand.  With people in nearby areas and activists raising the alarm that river Cauvery was being killed gradually, the courts took notice. In 2008, the sand mining leases along the Cauvery and its tributary Coleroon was handed over to the State Public Works Department.  There are around 30 quarries spread in Karur, Tiruchchirapalli and Tanjavur districts of Tamil Nadu. Though the PWD is supposedly in charge of the sand quarries, those fighting the battle against unabated mining say the government has leased out the contracts to private companies and individuals who continue to plunder the banks day and night. Though the efforts to fight this battle legally have been going on one side, there has been a parallel effort by the media to highlight the plight of Cauvery. But for many years the banks of the Cauvery where the quarrying goes on has remained out of bounds for most journalists. Stories of assaults of journalists and crews who have tried to cover the sand mining continue unabated from here.  In the last three weeks, there have been two attacks on journalists (that we are aware of). On May 22, two reporters who were trying to take footage of the sand mining neat Kulitalai in Karur district were attacked. M Suchitra, the Down To Earth (DTE) correspondent in-charge of southern India, and V M Deepa, Senior News Editor with Asianet were threatened by a group of around 30 men. The men who came on motorbikes were abusive and insisted that the footage taken be deleted.  “They surrounded us and tried to take our cameras away. They took my camera and deleted the pictures. We were shaken and got into the car, but they chased us for quite a while,” says Suchitra. Suchitra, Deepa and two cameraperson’s V B Hiran and P Praveen tried to seek help from local policemen who told them it would be better if they leave the state. There was no question of filing an FIR. But things did not end there. Deepa later went back to Karur and Trichy district to do another story on the dyeing industry. On June 3, as Deepa and her crew travelled from Trichy to Karur, they were attacked again. “I went there to shoot a story on dyeing industry. I needed some visuals for my story on sand mining and since I did not want to go to Kulitalai anymore, we decided to shoot in a village called Anpil. The villagers there had successfully stopped all mining there and we took their interviews. We later decided to go back to Karur.” They were intercepted en route to Karur by a group of men on motorbikes who seemed to be waiting for the TV crew. “They first stopped the car claiming we had hit someone. When the driver stopped the car, my cameraman was pulled out and beaten up. The driver too was not spared. They demanded that we handover our camera. We had hidden the camera anticipating trouble and before they could search thoroughly, we escaped,” says Deepa. “The sand mafia completely controls the place, they have informants everywhere, it reminds me eerily of Bellary,” Suchitra told The News Minute. Attacks like these have occurred many times in the past decade, with goons of the sand mafia trying their level best to black out any kind of reportage. In 2006, NDTV reporter Alaphia Zoyab and crew were attacked as they tried to capture visuals of illegal mining. Alaphia later wrote in her blog,” If this is the way they treat journalists then I really do shudder to imagine how the common man must suffer at their hands. The police can do so much but they do so little. It tires me out now to constantly understand 'the system' and be more sympathetic to the pulls and pressures of working in government. Frankly, whats the point of understanding?” In 2005, another journalist Prem Shanker, who was then working with the TV Today Group was attacked. “When we had gone to shoot sand mining, the issue had already become a standing joke in the area. Any journalist who went nearby were being threatened and attacked. Many people surrounded us, we were beaten our equipment was vandalized,” says Prem Shanker.  A spokesperson of the Cauvery Water Resources Protection Committee told The News Minute: “In spite of court orders, there is indiscriminate sand mining happening. Though mining is allowed only up to three feet, they dig much deeper. Many machines work simultaneously, which is clearly prohibited. The mining goes on even in the night. These are some reasons why this mafia in collusion with government officials doesn’t want media anywhere nearby.” Environment laws, court orders, have all proven helpless and a powerful clique of politicians, miners and government officers continue to ravage the banks of Cauvery. One of the miners, who had started as a small time contractor had recently told a Tamil magazine that he now had assets worth Rs 1,200 crores. As those who plunder our resources grow richer and powerful, so do the efforts to mute the voices that are being raised in protest intensify.
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