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Why sand mining needs a solution set in stone

With the recent High Court ban on river sand mining in the Tiruchi-Karur belt dealing a blow to the construction industry, stakeholdersare pleading for a long-term solution that will make quarrying smooth while ensuring that the concerns of environmentalists are addressed

The Cauvery is known as the lifeline of the State, supporting agriculture across nine districts and providing drinking water to many more. In recent times, the river has been sustaining the booming construction industry too. Environmentalists, however, have warned that rampant sand mining from the Cauvery’s bed is harming the river itself, destroying its groundwater recharging capacity.

Recently, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court stepped up yet again to stop sand mining on the Tiruchi-Karur belt of the river, triggering a severe shortage of sand across the State in the process and a consequent price rise. While the farmers are yearning for water to irrigate the crops, the construction industry is groping in the dark to circumvent the current sand scarcity.

With questions of quality and efficacy hanging over the use of M-Sand as an effective alternative to river sand, the industry is staring down the barrel. The livelihood of lakhs of farmers, farm workers and construction industry workers has been severely impacted in the current twin crises that seem to elude a pragmatic solution.

As sand quarries in Tiruchi and Karur districts remain closed, pressure has built up on quarries in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts. However, as they mostly do not have proper access and road facilities, quarrying has been rather sluggish, adding to the woes of all stakeholders.

The housing sector is asking for a long-term solution – one that would take into account environmental concerns but also not tamp down the sector by creating scarcity. Industry leaders say the solution may lie in quarrying at more places but limiting it to ensure little environmental damage is done, clamping down on lucrative operations to smuggle the sand to other States, as well as clearly lay down where and to what extent M-Sand can be used. They are hoping that the solution will emerge when the Madurai Bench, comprising Justices G.R. Swaminathan and K.K. Sasidharan, gives its final orders after studying the expert committee report,

A blow to the mafia

The High Court directive in August came just about a couple of months after the State Government set in motion a slew of measures to streamline sand mining. The State Public Works Department (PWD) took direct control of sand quarrying in the State and decided to sell sand only through online bookings. The measures were intended to control the amount of sand mined, as well as to do away with corruption and profiteering. The government created a Special Project Circle in the PWD, exclusively for sand mining, and also appointed a Project Director to oversee sand mining operations in the State.

Before the High Court directive on stopping quarries in Karur and Tiruchi districts came, the newly formed PWD (Mining and Monitoring Division) authorities were aiming to scale up the number of truck loads from 2,000 a day in July to 15,000 a day by August end. The ambitious ramp-up would still not have been enough to satisfy the soaring demand. But the High Court put paid to that through its ban, citing irregularities.

This is not the first time that quarrying of river sand has been sought to be regulated.

Earlier too, there were attempts to standardise mining and the sale of river sand. Administrative and legal interventions in the past, aided to a large extent by the struggle of committed environmentalists, had brought in some order.

The comprehensive legal directive in August has put the sand mafia in the dock, although the legitimate needs of the housing sector have been hit too. “Not just the construction industry, but we truckers have also been greatly hit. We are being vilified unjustly for the high price of sand at the customer end. Till three months back, we were able to get one load of sand at least once in three days though we paid an exorbitant Rs. 6,000 a load at the quarry. Now we are paying only Rs. 1,800 a load but we have to wait 35 days to get a load. Many sand lorry operators are now looking to sell their trucks as they are opting out of business. The online sale is commendable but has been pushed through in a hurried manner without a comprehensive assessment of all the factors involved,” rued Sella Rajamani, president, Tamil Nadu Sand Lorry Owners’ Federation.

“We are able to operate only up to 4,000 loads a day against a demand of 25,000 loads across the State,” said S. Yuvaraj, president, Tamil Nadu State Sand Lorry Owners Federation, another truckers’ forum.

“We have been facing problems sourcing sand for Chennai since the time when sand mining was banned in Kancheepuram district. Now, we are unable to get a lorry load of sand even if we wait for a month,” said Mr.Yuvaraj.

Seeking intervention

Chennai alone needs 6,000 loads of sand daily. But, only 1,000 lorry loads are being supplied. Members of the federation plan to represent the issues to the Chief Minister at the Secretariat on September 25. “The Water Resources Department has to operate about 30 quarries to ease the sand shortage,” he added. If the sand crisis persists, members plan to meet the Governor in October.

Meanwhile, sand prices are going through the roof. A truckload comprising 300 cubic feet of sand now costs up to Rs. 35,000 in the Chennai suburbs. It was priced at Rs. 18,500 about six months ago, recall sand lorry owners. In the Coimbatore market, the sand prices reign at about Rs. 42,000 a truck load now. “What we need is a sustainable solution and not just a knee-jerk reaction,” says K. Padmanabhan, former national vice-president, Builders Association of India.

The road ahead

Though the State government is creating awareness on the use of M-Sand as an alternative to river sand, many builders are still sceptical about its use. R. Panneerselvam, coordinator of Tamil Nadu Stone Quarry and Sand Lorry Owners Coordination Committee, said there is a fear among builders that M-Sand is adulterated with quarry dust, which is unsafe for buildings.

At present, one tonne of M-sand is priced at Rs. 1,100. Nearly 15,000 loads of M-Sand are sourced from 50 quarries. The government must ensure availability of river sand and initiate steps to check quality of M-sand, he said.

Civil engineers in Tirupur say that people are taking to M-Sand gradually. “People in the belt have adapted to M-Sand on a larger scale due to the awareness we created from the environmental and convenience angles during recent times," said M. R. Navaneethakumar, former president of Builders Association of India, Tirupur.

Meanwhile, PWD officials say a blanket ban on river sand mining in Tiruchi and Karur districts may do more harm overall than good. A senior official pointed out that sand quarries on the Cauvery and Coleroon rivers in Karur and Tiruchi districts contributed nearly 80% of the State’s output. Fifteen quarries in the two districts have been closed since August 16. The quarries functioning in Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts together account for an output of about 3,000 loads of 200 cubic feet each a day. The normal average demand in the State is about 8,000-9,000 loads a day, he said, adding that the demand projected by sand lorry operators was exaggerated. “This being a rainy season, the demand is still less,” the official claimed.

The various measures put in place to streamline sand mining in the State would be highlighted in the affidavit to be filed in the court, the officer said and hoped that the court would take these into consideration in deciding the issue.

“We need about six months to streamline the system fully and plug leakages, including inter-State transport of sand,” he said.

( With inputs from Syed Muthahar Saqaf in Salem, S.Ganesan in Tiruchi, K. Lakshmi in Chennai, M. Soundariya Preetha in Coimbatore, R. Vimal Kumar in Tirupur and S.P. Saravanan in Erode ).


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