Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The sand is slipping away

It has been a week after tragedy struck his family, but Estaac Vincent, 56, a tank operator in Mitatharkulam, still weeps and rolls uncontrollably on the cemented floor of his living room.

At around 3 am on March 11, his eldest son Satish Kumar, 22, was run over by a sand mafia lorry. Estaac, Satish, his brother Pon Kumar and a few other villagers had gone to nab sand thieves digging on the banks of Nambi River, barely 1.5 km from their homes, when the incident happened.

The death sent shockwaves among the 350-odd residents of this tiny hamlet who claim to have been fighting the sand mafia for the past 20 years. “My son died for the village,” says Estaac. “He had gone to save the village and our livelihood but was brutally run over by the lorry owned by an AIADMK councillor. There is no justice in this land. The culprit is still at large.”

While illegal sand mining has been a curse destroying the fragile ecosystem of Mitatharkulam and hundreds of other villages on the banks of the Nambi, police denied receiving complaints from Mitatharkulam in the past few years.

“Last month, we received at least half-a-dozen written complaints and 20-30 phone calls reporting sand stealing. We also seized over 20 vehicles. But no complaint has been received from Mitatharkulam,” said Vallioor DSP N.K. Stanley, adding, “Most complaints have come from Oorumankulam, Perunkulam and Anaikarai.”

But residents swear illegal sand mining is thriving along the river bordering Mitatharkulam.
Some point to an unholy nexus between smugglers and villagers. “Nobody is bothered about environment or putting an end to sand smuggling. People here see money when they look at sand,” a policeman said.
Probe into the brutal murder of Satish has revealed a racket booming for years in

“Smugglers come every other day. Whenever a lorry or truck drives down the mud path away from Mitatharkulam Bridge, a team goes from the village to nab sand smugglers red-handed. But out there in the barren land bordering the dried up riverbed they strike a deal.

“After getting money, villagers allow the lorry to go,” police sources said. If a driver does not pay, his lorry is taken to the village where local leaders call up the owner and demand a higher price. At no point are police and revenue officials alerted. While a cut goes to the village committee, the rest of the money is split among those who seize a vehicle.

At around 2.30 am on March 11, Mitatharkulam villagers were tipped off about the arrival of a lorry belonging to Tenzing, the local AIADMK councillor. “Estaac, Satish Kumar, Pon Kumar, former village head R. Pandi and a few others rushed in a tempo and on two-wheelers to catch the thieves,” said Augustine Anthony, headman of Mitatharkulam.

While police and villagers give different accounts of what happened in the next few hours, a visit to the crime scene reveals that the vast stretch of grassland has been plundered again and again by sand smugglers at night. Villagers claim they did not alert police as it could not be trusted, while police says it was never in the loop as villagers had learnt to make money from sand smugglers.

Several arrests have been made following the murder of Satish Kumar and revenue officials have put up a check post a few 100 metres from the site. “A village administrative officer, police constable and a village head will guard the check post round-the-clock until further orders,” senior revenue officials said.

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