It would not be an exaggeration to state that the net worth of all our natural resources that are abundantly available on the sea bed and shore of South India would take care of the entire debt burden of our T.N.Government. The minerals such as garnet, ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite etc. are found to be rich on the sands of Nellai, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari. But on the contrary, the proceeds of these minerals running to several crores of rupees go to the hands of a few instead of the Government exchequer. There have been a lot of clandestine transactions with the involvement of politicians and officials. These few persons yield a great influence locally and their position is pretty strong.
Local sources reveal that V.V.Minerals, headed by Vaikunda Rajan and his family, is engaged in separating garnet minerals from the general mineral sand spread around 150 KM from Mitalam in Kanyakumari to Vembar in Tuticorin.
Vaikunda Rajan’s competitors are Dayadevadas of Indian Garnet Sand Co. & Southern Enterprises and Thangaraj & Ramesh of Indian Ocean Garnet Sands Co. Statistics reveals that there are about 9 companies only in this area. But Tuticorin Port authorities state that there are 30 companies engaged in this industry exporting garnet. What is surprising is that when there are not adequate companies to filter and separate the garnet from the mineral sand how there can be 30 exporting companies. May be Customs authorities know it better!
In this place there exists a Central Government-owned Company, Indian Rare Earths Co.Ltd.which is involved in the garnet business. The company conducts sand tests to determine the availability of garnet by spending money in lakhs. The effort is to facilitate identification of such places so that the same can be taken on lease for necessary exploitation for the ultimate export business. However, all the relevant information is immediately passed on to the private players. With these timely inputs, the private companies take up the lands on lease instantaneously for their operations. Even if one or two places are taken on lease by the Government companies, the private companies would give them maximum pressure in terms of cut-throat competition and push them out of scene. In addition to this, these companies indulge in other malpractices also including keeping the police under their control and employing hired thugs to threaten new entrants. This is a serious complaint given by the social activists.
Further, if any piece of land is identified containing garnet minerals, it should be surrendered to these companies for a lease. Else, necessary check-post with watch & ward staff would be installed near that land denying even the owners’ entry into his land. Access to police station is otherwise barred since the entire operation is under their effective control.
If the squatter lands containing minerals belonging to Government are available, they will be taken on lease for a throwaway amount, viz Rs.16.47 per annum for a total area of 100 acre land. Whichever party that comes to rule will not question this; rather they will safely close their eyes and hence these owners are able to violate the norms easily and at all times.
Another malady is that in places like Vuari, these criminals encroach upon the fishermen’s earmarked areas by demolishing the bend curves exclusively set up for the benefit of fishermen community. The useless sand after separation is thrown into the sea thus causing damage to the fish-rearing activity. Apart from this the waste water is also allowed to mix with sea water as a consequence of which the colour of the sea in some places becomes red like blood. It ultimately results in severe water contamination and environmental pollution. This is a serious threat to the private land owners as well.
Whoever comes to form the ruling party and also the concerned officers would become unduly close with these mineral sand owners. However, the District Collector of Tuticorin, Asish Kumar was bold enough to bring these to the fore in 2013. He appointed committees to enquire the public grievances and these committees investigated the matter in different places like Vembaru, Vaiparu etc. During this investigation on a particular day, it was found out that V.V.Minerals Co.had taken and literally plundered over and above the permitted quantity. The same night Asish Kumar was transferred from Tuticorin. However, Ashish Kumar had sent a detailed report to the Government stating that huge quantities of mineral sand were being illegally taken out and exported, thus causing substantial loss to the exchequer. Following this, the Government appointed an enquiry committee headed by an IAS Officer, Gagandeep Singh Bedi.
In the meantime, the geological specialist Victor Rajamanickam filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Madras High Court before the First Bench wherein he had complained that certain private mineral sand land owners had been cheating the Government and had, in connivance with the Government machineries and officials, exported mineral sand to the tune of one lakh crores. He pleaded for appointment of a separate committee to look into this offence.
Incidentally, when the matter was under investigation, Victor Rajamanickam suddenly volunteered to withdraw his petition. The then Chief Justice, Sanjay Gowl asked him why he was going back and whether there was any threat or coercion to withdraw the case. Anyway, Victor Rajamanickam was very particular to get out of this and the Madras High Court itself passed an order that it would continue the investigation thus putting more pressure to the Government.
Following the direct intervention of High Court, the T.N.Government was forced to respond positively by issuing an official notification on 27th July 2015 through the Ministry of Industries based on which State level, district level and taluk level committees were immediately appointed to investigate the activities of the mineral sand quarries.
In practice, the export of minerals was not stopped despite Government’s cancellation of quarries being leased out. Karunakaran who became the Collector of Nellai tightened the control over these companies. In line with that, he passed necessary orders cancelling all quarry operations of these companies. However, none seemed to comply with the orders and the normal activities continued as usual.
Even recently, when the State Government and the District administration were so keenly watching the entire activities of these companies, V.V.Minerals showed their audacity by trying to export 420 metric tonne garnet to Dubai from the Tuticoin port on 08.03.2017 against their request placed to the Customs Officer. They had also attached the approval letter issued by the Office of the Collector for export of garnet as sought by them. However, in the light of specific earlier notification cancelling any export of minerals, issued by the Nellai District Collector, the Customs Officer smelt a rat when they received the approval letter issued by the Collectorate of Tuticorin. Hence, in order to clear the doubt, the Assistant Commissioner of Customs, Amithkumar wrote a letter to Tuticoriin Collector Ravikumar on 13.03.2017. In that letter, Amithkumar had expressed his suspicion on his signature and frankly asked him whether the order allowing the export to Dubai was issued by him. However, this letter was also intercepted and was not allowed to reach the hands of the Collector. Over and above this malpractice, a false and forged letter from the Office of Ravikumar confirming approval of 420 MT garnet export was sent. However, on further scrutiny, it was found that the letter did not have the official seal of the Office of the Collector. Quite intrigued, the Customs Officer directly contacted the Collector Ravikumar over the phone to verify the facts. Only then the Collector Ravikumar came to know about the forgery of his letter and signature. Upon further examination, it was confirmed that the Tuticorin Assistant Commissioner in-charge of Minerals Department, Krishna Mohan had been an accomplice in this criminal act and he was dismissed from service.
Following this, sudden raids were conducted in the godowns of these mineral companies at Nellai and Tuticorin and, as required, 15 godowns at Nellai and 19 at Tuticorin were immediately sealed.
Vaikunda Rajan’s elder brother, Kumaresan who is otherwise against all these nefarious activities, raises a pertinent question as to how these companies would have violated the Government orders when there was not any exclusive check mechanism, as available now.
In general, these mineral companies have been in existence and amassing huge profits through exports for nearly about 25 years, that too, violating the rules and cheating the Government machineries. Roughly the loss to the Government is estimated to be 1 Lac Cr.and more.
Vaikunda Rajan’s brother Kumaresan further shares his true apprehension that these companies would have also exported the banned monazite to China, North Korea and other places thus causing vulnerability to the very safety and security of our nation. He strongly feels that unless CBI enquiry is instituted, the truth will not come out fully and is equally hopeful that it would be done in due course.
Finally, it is felt that the initiative taken by the High Court is understandable. But what remedial steps are going to be taken by both the State and the Centre.
Kumaresan has done some appreciable ground work by gathering the following inputs through RTI Act:-
Period: October 2013 to May 2016
Port used for export: Tuticorin
Status of Govt.approval: No approval given; rather ban in force
Quantity of export of garnet and
Ilmenite: 15 L metric tonne
Value of exports: Rs.40,000 cr. (app).