This mining scam emanating from Tamil Nadu is a scam with a difference, it seems to be abetted by the judiciary itself, but the media are blissfully indifferent.
The High Court of Madras has reserved its judgement in a case filed by beach sand mining baron S.Vaikundarajan, challenging an order of the Centre cancelling his licence, but both print and electronic media studiously ignore it.
The approach of the learned judge(s) too should have been scrutinized thoroughly, but so far not. Unlikely it will ever be by a media with their eyes trained elsewhere.
Search the Internet far and wide, no report either on the original petition or on the latest developments, leave alone any analysis of the issues involved.
The Economic Times reports: “V V Mineral is the country’s largest mining, manufacturer and exporter of garnet and ilmenite. The Tamil Nadu government in August 2013 imposed a ban on beach mineral mining along five coastal districts on complaints of illegal mining and ordered an inquiry. Beach mining from mineral sands is found only in coastal states such as Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra. Sands contain minerals such as garnet, ilmenite, rutile, zircon and sillimanite which are used in varied areas such as aircraft and paper industries. Tamil Nadu holds a crucial place in beach mining and the state contributes to around 85 per cent of the country’s total exports of 6.5 lakh tonnes of garnet. V V Mineral accounts for 75 per cent of the beach mineral mining activity in the state.”
Reports in other business newspapers are along similarly bland lines. It is of course understandable that the print media focusing on business naturally elide over dicey dimensions, but why should the rest too follow suit? To the extent not a word either on the original petition by the VV Mineral or the subsequent twists and turns ending up in the reserving of judgment?
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the current scenario on the beach sand mining front, let us first take a look at what transpired in the august portals of the state legislative assembly back in 2007.
AIADMK supremo J Jayalaltihaa herself alleged that Mr. Vaikundarajan was being pressured by the Government to sell his shares. Cases were being foisted against him and V.V. Minerals was forced to close down by the State Pollution Control Board and the Department of Mining and Geology, she said.
A website connected with his group says: “V.V. Mineral (VVM) is India’s largest Mining, Manufacturer and Exporter of Garnet & Ilmenite. At the global level, we are poised to rise above our number two position.VVM is the first private ILMENITE Exporter in India. Established in 1989, we have achieved significant market share in Europe, Middle East, East Asia, Australia and USA. VVM’s huge annual output of 1,50,000 metric tonnes of Garnet Abrasive, 2,25,000 metric tonnes of Ilmenite, 12,000 Metric Tonnes of Zircon and 5000 Metric Tonnes of Rutile is due to our control of a 15km beach area with continuous placer mineral deposits plus another 2,300 acres of heavy mineral – rich land. We are also the first private company in India holding granted license for Mining and Exporting of Ilmenite from the Government of India. VVM has an annual output of 150,000 M.Tons of Garnet Abrasive and 2,25,000 M.Tons of Ilmenite. Garnet Abrasive mainly used for Water Filtration, Sand Blasting, Water Jet Cutting, Surface Preparation and other applications; Ilmenite mainly used for Welding Electrode, Pigment, Glass and other Industries; Rutile mainly used for TiO2 pigment , Welding electrodes, Titanium metal and pigment industries and Zircon mainly used for in the production of opacifiers, glazes and frits, floor and decorative tiles, sanitary ware, glass and steel refractories, metal castings and specialised glass.”
There are all kinds of allegations against the firm.
To examine the authenticity of such claims is beyond the brief of this article. The fact is the group is dogged by controversies on various fronts. In August last there was a raid on the offices of the group, and the district administration later said the company had encroached upon 30 hectares of government land while it had been allotted only 4 hectares by Tamil Nadu for mining.
There was quite a furore. The collector behind the raids was transferred the next day. Apparently reacting to whispers and sardonic smiles, hinting at the known links between the ruling AIADMK and the baron, the the state government appointed a high-level panel under Revenue Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi to inspect the sand mining quarries and submit a report within a month.
Fahtima Babu, an environmental activist and founder, Veeranganai, an NGO fighting for the rights of the women, spearheaded the protests in Thoothukudi in southern Tamil Nadu where the VV Mineral group is based. In a petition to the local superintendent of police, she claimed that mining companies had been plundering the natural resource illegally for 25 years along the sea coast and deprived the livelihood of fishermen. The VV conglomerate have a virtual monopoly in this sphere, it must be borne in mind.
In a related development, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), ordered a complete ban on mining beach sands in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The protests by fishermen intensified.
On September 6, during the Fishermen Grievance Day Meeting at the collectorate, the issue once again came to the fore, with the fisherfolk complaining about the pollution of sea water due to rampant sand mining. They also demanded compensation for the people of the coastal villages.
On September 17, the State government halted mining of beach minerals and asked the Bedi panel to examine the sand mining units in four other districts – Madurai, Tiruchy, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. The report of the Bedi panel has been submitted, but is under wraps still, adding to the mystery of what is going on. The fact remains though that the state government banned mining activities and cancelled transport permits of the VV group in August 2013 and September 2013.
As it happened problems were mounting up for the VV group on the Delhi front too. They had failed to apply to the union Ministry of Mines for renewal of licenses before the expiry of mining lease period, viz. 31.03.2013. They should have done so 120 days before expiry, viz. in December 2012. Waking up, VV Mineral appeals for renewal in Oct 2013, but the application is returned, citing various defects. A revised application is submitted in January this year, only to be rejected yet again. Eventually on 19 March 2014, the Ministry of Mines suspended licenses of Vaikundarajan with immediate effect. The letter of Regional Controller of Mines, Chennai also marked a copy to state government “with a request not to allow dispatch of mineral from the mine till revocation of this order.
The unit affected by the Centre’s order, the Transworld Garnet India, is a 100% EOU for processing garnet rich beach sands. But then the mining activities had already been suspended across the board by the state government, as mentioned earlier.
It is in these circumstances Mr Vaikundarajan approaches the High Court with a plea to quash the central government order, but he doesn’t breathe a word on the state government’s own crackdown. He very ingeniously claims that the order of the state government banning transport of minerals is a follow up action of central government’s order. But that particular order is issued only in March this year, whereas all mining activities were suspended late last year, it may be recalled.
Technically only the Centre can ban mining activities, but crippling transportation in effect paralyses the industry. Machines, caked with sand stand idle, the factory area is silent with just a few workers watching over the yard, – till a few months ago, the unit processed mineral-rich beach sand to extract ilmenite for exports, rued a report in the Business Line of June 2 this year. But the VV group skirts the issue altogether.
One can see some striking parallels to the ever elusive M Natarajan, husband of Jayalaltiha’s confidante Sasikala. So many times he has been ticked off, those close to him have been harassed and imprisoned, and he too, on specious grounds. But never once will he directly challenge her. All that he would say is “I am innocent. Justice will triumph.” And it would. For he will be a free bird in no time, doing whatever he was doing earlier !
There was this sensational case of a girl named Serina who was arrested back in 2003. The police claimed to have seized a huge stash of currency, running to crores of rupees, as also ganja from her residences. She was produced before the courts after all kinds of speculations in the media, and she complained of torture. Eventually it took Kapil Sibal to fly down from New Delhi and plead her case for her to be enlarged on bail. No one knows the subsequent fate of the girl. To this day, neither Natarajan nor the girl would say a thing about the state government’s actions.
So then our mining entrepreneur Vaikundarajan too is treading the time-tested path of carefully avoiding any kind of confrontation with Amma and tries to make it look as if it was the Centre that had erred. In their media interactions, the VV officials, even while solemnly noting that the ban on mining was impacting Indian firms’ reputation as trusted partners with customers overseas, causing an annual loss of around Rs 300 crore to the state exchequer, would not refer to the raids or the ban on the transport of minerals.
Now look at the way the courts respond. Justice S Karnan, a colourful figure who never tires of flaunting his Dalit identity and is in the news for all the wrong reasons time and again, passes an interim order permitting the VV Minerals to dispose of the minerals already mined. When the case came up yet again, an NGO wanted to implead, but the judge got furious and sought to tick off the counsel saying they were wasting the precious time of the court and that they had no locus standi.
The Centre didn’t seem to play ball with the group either, not placing its arguments before the court. “We are awaiting instructions my Lord,” the counsel pleaded. This made the Lordship even more furious and he wondered whether justice should wait till the Centre made up its mind ! Still he was forced to adjourn in the absence of a response from the Centre.
Meantime the acting Chief Justice Satish Agnihotri allotted the mining portfolio to another judge, but during the next hearing too, it was Karnan who presided. The central government counsel mumbled some excuses and sought time again.
The judge’s reaction was interesting. He asked the counsel angrily: “You are hoping the next hearing will be before another judge and get a favourable order, isn’t? No way, it will be I myself who will be writing the judgement in this crucial case.”
He also asked the VV group’s advocate to make his final submissions. But the environmentalists sought to press their case again, sending Karnan up the wall. He declared solemnly that revenue-fetching projects should not be stalled, but the counsels stood their ground and stressed huge damage had been done already and that the people were agitated. They also submitted the report of a fact-finding committee to the court. After some heated exchanges Karnan rose for lunch, announcing the hearing would continue in the afternoon.
The court convened again, but the VV case was not taken up at all. Karnan wound up for the day, announcing, “Judgement reserved!” That is, to the end the environmentalists never got to have their say at all.
Thus the judge insists on retaining the case under him even after the portfolio is moved to another, is so solicitous about the plight of the mining group, doesn’t give a chance to activists to intervene and abruptly reserves orders even before the central government counsel could explain its stand clearly.
One is only reminded of former AIADMK Speaker P.H.Pandian who boasted of his sky high powers. Seeing Karnan has got away with so many other things, he could yet again, and the media contenting itself with a bland report of the verdict.
(The Tamil original is far racier, much of its charm might have been lost in the translation and some revision. So with due apologies to the author –T.N.Gopalan.)