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Widespread conflicts over sand mining in rivers in Tamil Nadu, India


The accounts of "Social Metabolism" do globally show that the tonnage of materials extracted for the building industry is growing. Thus, according to a UNEP report from March 2014, sand and gravel account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally [13].

In the recent past, a few excellent investigative journalist reports have exposed the rampant illegal sand and gravel mining occurring in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The entire business of extraction of sand from river beds and beaches, is complex and involves an array of stakeholders, starting from the businessmen who are colloquially known as the ‘sand-mining mafia’, to political figures and parties whose election campaigns are funded by this trade, to government officials trying to stop the trade or sometimes involved in providing environmental clearances through bribery, to local villagers being affected by the mining. Laws, be it of the Centre or of the State, remain on paper only and violations of regulations are rampant [1].

Impact of sand mining A State-level public hearing on the “Impact of sand mining in Tamil Nadu”, organised by the Campaign for the Protection of Water Resources–Tamil Nadu, in 2002, identified 15 adverse consequences of sand mining, according to M. Naveen Saviour, a soil science researcher at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. In his article, he states that these consequences include depletion of groundwater, destruction of farmland, loss of employment to farm workers, rights violations, and heavy damage to infrastructure.

The pollution caused by mining even changes the colour of water, both sea and river, into reddish orange. “Low pH, high electrical conductivity, high concentration of ions of sulphate and other toxic metals, low dissolved oxygen and high BOD [biochemical oxygen demand] are some of the physiochemical and biological parameters that characterise the degradation of water quality,” he points out in the article. These “topographical disorders” can be seen at every site of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. According to the guidelines for sustainable sand mining by the government of India [17], the following three recommendations are to be followed in Tamil Nadu- 1. Excess sand deposits identified in the flood plains and in-stream areas only to be mined in order to safeguard and maintain ground water table. 2. Sand mining operation has to be carried out between 6 am to 7 pm. 3. Mining operation should be carried out in a systematic manner without affecting environment and ecology of the area.

In 2015, Frontline [2] published a cover story about the illegal sand mining and its effects on the ecology and availability of water sources in Tamil Nadu, with claims from water experts about the seriousness of the issue. One has to separate Raw Sand and Gravel Mining for the Building and Construction Industry from Beach Mining for Industrial Minerals such as ilmenite, garnet and others. In the EJAtlas we have two separate cases. Thus, in the coastal villages of Tuticorin and Tirunelveli districts, mining of beach sand for placer minerals such as garnet has resulted in the groundwater falling to 300 feet (91 metres), a depth at which salinity renders the water unfit for human consumption. According to Chennai-based environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, “Mining of beach sand and dunes is an invitation to disaster as the sand is a buffer against a violent sea and keeps salinity from invading the coastal freshwater aquifers.” [3]. Here we focus rather on Raw  Sand and Gravel Mining in rivers for Building and Construction. Growth of the Illegal Sand Mining Industry The boom in the construction industry in India made sand mining very profitable since the 1980s [4]. Real-estate investments with multi-storeyed concrete structures created a black market for sand which fuelled the demand to dig deeper into the riverbeds. According to the Frontline report[2], ‘mining using heavy machinery continues day and night on the Cauvery River, on which around 4.5 lakh farmers depend for their livelihood. The dry bed of the Cauvery in Tiruchi, Karur, Kulithalai, Thottiyam, Palar [10] and Musiri is dotted with deep pits from which sand has been scooped out. Illegal mining is rampant in other rivers too such as the Pennaiyar in Villupuram district, the Vellar in Vriddachalam (Cuddalore district), the Vaigai in Madurai and the southern districts, the Amaravati in Karur district and the Bhavani in Erode and Karur districts. Mining is also carried out in the tributaries and other smaller streams. The riverbeds are full of pits and trenches, some even 20 metres deep. People residing in villages on the banks of the rivers now have to struggle to get water, which was once available in plenty. The indiscriminate mining has destroyed hills, eroded biodiversity spheres, denuded forests, contaminated water resources and degraded fertile soil. It has changed the physical characteristics of river basins, impacting heavily the socio-economic condition of local people. Livelihood options of rural populations are drying up at a fast pace, which in turn has triggered an exodus of people to urban clusters, upsetting the economic and cultural balance of a society’ [2].

According to research, sand mining in Tamil Nadu is a Rs. 24,000 crore a year industry [6]. However, Tamil Nadu's budget estimates for 2014-15 peg incomes from sand quarries at Rs 216.82 crore which was in 2013-14 even lower at Rs. 133.37 crore. No one has a definite answer of where the rest of the money goes. However, it does not come as a surprise that sand mining baron Shekhar Reddy was arrested in December 2016 in charges of cheating, criminal breach of trust and criminal conspiracy after the income tax department found unaccounted wealth in crores including 127 kg of gold [7] [8]. Resistance and Violence The resistance put up by local communities is plausible in the light of the violence that the sand mining cartels, with the help of ‘friendly bureaucrats’ and corrupt politicians met out. “Already, affected people in certain pockets have started raising the banner of revolt against indiscriminate mining,” said the activist-cum-environmentalist Mughilan, who has been in the forefront of many struggles.

There are many instances where voices of resistance have been silenced permanently or removed geographically. Many senior officials such as former Madurai District Collectors U. Sagayam and Anshul Mishra and former Tuticorin Collector Ashish Kumar initiated legal proceedings against illegal sand mining in their respective districts, as a result of which they were transferred away [2]. Sam Devasagayam, an 81-year-old retired teacher who had been actively campaigning against the mining going on in the Tamiraparani near his village despite the Madras High Court banning it in 2010 for five years, was hacked to death at Kongarayakurichi village near Srivaikundam in Tirunelveli district on July 15, 2014. On July 20, of the same year, Head Constable G. Kanakaraj, 43, attached to Thakkolam police station near Arakkonam in Vellore district, was run over when he attempted to stop a tractor transporting illicitly mined sand from the Kusasthalai river. Brothers Rajesh, 24, and Karthick, 30, were hacked to death in Mathur village in Pudukottai district in October 2013 when they opposed illicit mining in a jungle stream. In March 2012, an ITI diploma holder, Satheesh Kumar, 24, son of Estaak Vincent, a pump operator at Kottaikarunkulam village near Mitaadarkulam in Tirunelveli district, was killed by a speeding lorry that was transporting sand illicitly mined in the Nambiyar river. A group of village youths, including Satheesh, had been on guard duty against the mining that night. In November 2014, Thanikachalam, 65, of Mathanur village in Vellore district, was murdered when he filed a case against those who had encroached on water channels. Prabhakaran of Elachipalayam in Coimbatore district, who got a stay on illicit mining in the Pudupalayam village tank, was beaten up by a gang of rowdies on May 26, 2015. A farmer, A. Raja, of E. Mallampatti village in Melur taluk in Madurai district, lost his left hand when gangsters chopped it off because he refused to part with his land to the granite mafia three years earlier.

Another tactic used to silence protesters is by slapping them with criminal charges and branding them as ‘extremists’ who take ‘law into their hands’. They are then sent to jail for days and charged for ‘unlawful assembly, rioting, obstructing government work and officers,’ under various penal sections of the Indian penal code.” This was done to protesting farmers from 12 villages of Ettayapuram in Tuticorin district and women protesting in Kalathur, a village on the Palar [6].

“Despite these threats, people’s opposition is gaining momentum though a few officials in all districts are in collusion with the mafia. The struggle against illicit mining in the Palar river in Kalathur village in Vellore district, which has a sizeable population of Dalit farmers and agricultural labourers, is a shining example,” said Mughilan [4].

One reason why the protests aren’t as strong as can be expected is because the sand mafia donates money generously to temple festivals, attends weddings in the village and condoles with the bereaved [11]. The outcasts and the unemployed, weak links in a tight and conservative village community system, are lured into their web. They are encouraged to form local cartels, which in turn take care of silencing any voice of dissent against the mining activities. “In brief, the entire village administration is controlled by these elements,” said another activist.

If the residents remain united despite these enticements, the miners whip up caste tensions to divide them. Raju, who heads the “Save Vellar River” movement in Vriddachalam, said that with the connivance of the local police, the sand mafia that looted the river attempted to divide the people. “Fortunately, we were able to defeat their evil designs. We have remained united against all inducements,” he said.

Most recently, in January 2017, Sandhya Ravishankar, wrote a four-part series based on extensive research, detailing the plunder of beach sand for industrial minerals in Tamil Nadu by a few extremely wealthy and politically connected individuals. She has been under police protection due to excessive online harassment and phone call threats [3].

However, her articles, as also many other reports on illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu, along with the growing scarcity of water has helped in spreading awareness and mobilizing people. This had also led in a few victories in the recent past, at least judicially .

The judiciary seems to be in favour of stopping river sand mining, as can be evidenced when the Madras High Court on March 2, 2017 directed the Tamil Nadu government to consider the representation made former MLA M Appavu to ban sand mining in rivers [14].

On 5 March, 2017, the district administration in Vellore, through which Palar river flows declared the closure of 8 sand quarries, after they were denied approval to function by the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority [15].

Although these look successful cases of action towards banning river sand mining on paper, we are yet to understand how effective it will be in reality. The case of the Kancheepuram ban can be an example to substantiate this claim. In 2013, sand quarrying in the entire river beds of Kancheepuram District was originally banned for a period of one year from 13.11.2013 as per the District Gazette Notification No.10 dated 13.11.2013 and the said ban order was further extended for one more year from 13.11.2014 as per the District Gazette Notification No.16 dated 13.11.2014, and then continued to be extended for another year, yet there were complaints filed at the National Green Tribunal (the apex judicial body regarding environment in India) and further orders issued on 7 May 2015 for the proper enforcement of these bans [16].  

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Widespread conflicts over sand mining in rivers in Tamil Nadu, India
State or province:Tamil Nadu
Location of conflict:Widespread occurrence in the state of Tamil Nadu
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Mining exploration and/or ore extraction
Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Specific commodities:Sand, gravel

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The offical record according to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for 2014-15 show Rs. 109.1 crore as revenue earned from sand mining [17]. Officially, it has 29 leases for mining in area less than 10 hectares, 14 leases for area between 10-15 hectares, and 42 leases for area more than 15 hectares [17]. However, according to newspaper reports, sand mining in Tamil Nadu is a Rs. 24,000 crore a year industry [6], i.e. approx. 4 billion USD, 2% of the state's GDP. (Tamil Nadu has the second largest economy in India with an official GDP of USD210 billion. Per capita GDP of Tamil Nadu was UD$3,000 in the year 2014–15, the third highest in India).

Level of Investment for the conflictive project4,000,000,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/2000
Relevant government actors:Tamil Nadu state government
Courts of Justice, including National Green Tribunal
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:One main environmentalist: S. Mugilan, 49, author of book "Thathu Manal Kollai" (The Stealing of Beach Sand), 2014, has taken on polluters in Tamil Nadu for more than two decades. He has had victories: shutting down a Coke factory in Perundurai, closing a polluting textile-dyeing plant in Erode, and organising major protests against a nuclear power-plant on the coast. In one especially shocking case, he helped expose granite miners who tried to shore up business by offering narabali – human sacrifice. He has had many failures, too, and the one struggle which is always ongoing – his fight against Tamil Nadu’s sand-mining mafia.[12]

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Noise pollution, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Floods (river, coastal, mudflow)
Health ImpactsVisible: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (undecided)
Violent targeting of activists
Large number of deaths of "environmental defenders" at the hands of the so-called "sand mafia" exploiting rivers and beaches for sand and gravel for the building industry, and also exploiting beach sand for industrial minerals.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Illegal sand mining is still very rampant in Tamil Nadu. It is a violent business. "Tamil Nadu has witnessed several mining-related murders since 2000, and those killed include local people, political activists, enforcement officials and even a policeman. On a few occasions, professional gangsters have been hired to do away with “opponents” of the illicit trade. The majority of the murders have taken place in the districts of Tirunelveli and Kancheepuram, mostly in hit-and-run incidents involving sand lorries." [4]

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[16]- The National Green Tribunal order for effective enforcement of river sand mining ban, which was declared in 2013 in May, 2015

[17]-Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guideline, September 2015 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India

High Court order related to sand mining regulation in 2010 in Tamil Nadu

The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Act, 1957

River Sand Mining in India in 2016–III – Judicial Interventions (in Tamil Nadu and other states of India, posted on January 7, 2017 by SANDRP, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

[1]- Full history of the nexus between politicians and illegal sand miners in Tamil Nadu for the last 3 decades

[2]- Frontline investigative report from 2015

[3]- Harassment and threats to the journalist for writing about sand mining mafia in Tamil Nadu

[4]- Report on the numerous murders related to protests against sand mining in Tamil Nadu over the years

[5]- Article about the scale of the illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu

[7]- Report about the arrest of sand mining baron Shekhar Reddy

[8]- Report about the arrest of Shekhar Reddy in December 2016

[10]- Report about rampant mining in Palar basin

[11]- The reasons why there isn't enough protest against sand mining

[14]- Recent directive of the High Court to the government of Tamil Nadu to consider ban on river sand mining, March, 2017

[15]- News about the ban on sand mining in Palar river in Vellore District effective from March, 2017

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[12]The Wire. Holding His Ground Against the Sand Raiders of Tamil Nadu. By Sibi Arasu on 26/06/2016

News report on bureaucrat being transferred for lodging complaints against sand mining in Tamil Nadu

Detailed report on the sand mining mafia in India

A short clip of the ridges in the bank of river Thenpennaiyar and the many trucks extracting sand

The Wire. After Sand Mining Exposé in The Wire, Reporter Complains of Harassment, Intimidation. The Wire Staff on 16/03/2017

Other documents

[13] Report on the effects of Sand Mining by UNEP, March 2014

Meta information

Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2779



[6]- Calculation of money earned from sand mining


Sand Mineral Processing unit


Sand Mining Quarry in Tamil Nadu


Beach sand mineral processing unit in Tirunelveli