I have travelled through the districts of Namakkal, Salem, Erode and Karur during the past few weeks. The mighty Cauvery has completely dried in these districts since the end of March, 2017. This happened for the first time after the construction of Mettur Dam during 1940s. All canals, tanks, and wells dried up. Standing crops are dying, tall coconut trees are falling, and long queues are kept for drinking water supply. People try to engage more bore-wells to dig deeper. A lot of them failed to fetch water even after reaching close to 1000 feet.
The failure of groundwater sustainability is attributed to the unregulated extraction of groundwater as anyone can read in every state and academic studies and reports. However, there have been very little mentions about sand mining in these reports. The ill effects of legal and illegal sand mining in the river basin are more than visible. More specifically, anyone can see and understand the following effects of sand mining:
- The river has gone down few feet below the historical levels; the water withdrawal points have gone down below the canal level at inlets. The Public Works Department (PWD) had to make temporary arrangements to dam and naturally lift the water into canals.
- The wells close to rivers, dams and tanks are immediately dried after the flow of the river stopped. This has lead to the failure of crops and drinking water supply schemes attached to this river system.
- Lower and so far hidden (presumably foundation) parts of the bridges are visible; thereby endangering the lives of all commuters over these bridges.
If all these evidences are visible, what is the reason for the continued extraction of sand in the river?
River sand has become a more precious natural resource because of stricter regulation in the neighboring states, especially after Kerala enacted a law to curb sand mining during 2001. However, Tamil Nadu continues to regulate sand mining through executive made regulations. Whenever adherence to these norms and irregularities questioned before the courts, the judiciary affirms the rules with certain extra conditionality.
The principle lease hold for all sand mining in Tamil Nadu remains with the PWD and the sub-lease holders are private players with lesser legally sanctioned role in terms of maintaining the river sustainably. But in practice, the private players are all powerful. They hold more than sovereign powers in the River basin. They control the River area for beyond the lease hold and the paths in and out of these places. The neighboring village presidents, politicians, legislators, executive, media and every other person interested in the river is taken care; they are bribed or threatened. There were also few reported murders of officials in relation to sand mining.
The sand mining rules are not just failed to protect the sand mining; but they are drafted with inherent features to promote sand mining beyond all prescriptions, i.e., sand miners dig deeper, use more area than legally prescribed, and operate machinery beyond prescribed capacity, number and time. Public are least informed about the happenings in the lease areas which are inaccessible to public including the leaders of farmers’ associations. Transparency is a failed term in the whole process of sub-leasing of sand mining. Except PWD, no authority has full control and powers over the river system; to put it otherwise, PWD maintains the River system, PWD is the leaseholder for sand mining and authorized to sub-lease, and it finally certifies the promptness of sub-leasers. If you have heard anything about ‘Public Trust Doctrine,’ you should have also understood ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
The farmers’ agitations for the past few weeks have resulted in nothing significant. The state at large, academia, public and media are relatively silent about murdering a river system; which is state’s lifeline and future. There is an immediate need to stop sand mining in all Tamil Nadu rivers until an enacted law is brought into force with provisions for stakeholders’ involvement in the decision making process.