Society for Conservation of Nature





The recent announcement of the Tamil Nadu Government about the action taken to encourage the production of M-sand and its usage as alternative for river sand appears to be absurd. How can they manufacture M-sand? Boulders are required for that. From where will they get the boulders? They have to destroy the hills and hillocks for that purpose. How many hills and hillocks are there in the state? How can they ensure the sustainable manufacture of M-sand throughout? Before the announcement made, the Government should have thought of all these things. But it appears that just to convince the builders and other consumers only, this announcement has been made without applying the mind. This seems to be highly ridiculous.

Hills and hillocks become one of the important terrestrial ecosystems.  We have to clearly recognize the difference between the hills and hillocks. While Yercaud hills, Kolli hills, Sirumalai hills, Kodai hills, etc., are called hills, Thirupparankundram, Pazhanai malai (where Pazhaniyandavar temple is located), Viralimalai, etc., are hillocks. Though generally mountains, hills and hillocks are called Malai in Tamil, they have got their own difference.  In Tamil Nadu state, there may be about one thousand hillocks. Hills and hillocks play a crucial role by providing valuable ecosystem services. With the available soil, air and water they support a variety of plants and animals including microorganisms. Thus, they not only provide shelter for various species of animals, birds, reptiles, insects and microorganisms through the grasses, herbs, shrubs, climbers, creepers and trees that have grown on them, but also absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen,  conserve the soil and water in addition to moderate the climate of the particular region.

When we have hills and hillocks, the plant community on them harvest the rain water and store underneath. The rain water is gradually released as springs, finally taking the shapes of streamlets, streams, rivulets and rivers.  These water bodies make the area fertile wherever they pass through. Eventually when they join the sea, they provide life to the marine organisms besides carrying valuable minerals with them. Only an Environmentalist, Ecologist, Naturalist or Scientist can understand all these intricacies.

But, fortunately many hillocks are the abodes of Gods of various religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Islam. Because of the spiritual protection, they are safe to a certain extent. We must be ever thankful to our ancestors in this regard. Even then, many hillocks have been vandalized by the greedy quarry contractors of the districts like Madurai, Kanyakumari, etc. Certain hillocks have been notified by the Revenue authorities as water bodies in district like Madurai.  For example, the Pancha Pandavar hillock, an archaeological site has been listed in the revenue records of Madurai district as a water tank in Keezhavalavu panchayat. Likewise, as the hillock with Jain stone beds dated back to 2nd century BC has not been entered in the Prohibitory Order Book (POB), this hillock has been quarried, even after repeated representations by Keezhavalavu Panchayat President to the Collectors.

How to overcome the hurdles of over exploitation of river sand as being experienced presently? Transparency is needed while permitting the river sand mining. Presently, it is permitted to remove the sand to a depth of 1 metre only. No machinery is allowed. But against the rules framed, machineries are used and mining takes place to a depth of more than 12 metres in almost all the places. As a result, ground water gets depleted and the people are suffering badly due to non availability of water both for irrigation and drinking.

As everyone knows pretty well that sand bed in a river maintains the ground water table. When the sand is exploited beyond the permissible depth by using machineries, naturally the ground water is lowered making the people deprived of their genuine requirement. Then there is hue and cry for their reasonable demand.  This problem has made the Government to make an announcement in a hasty manner without studying the real impact of encouraging the manufacture of M-sand.

One kilogram of boulder may yield an equal quantity of M-sand while manufacturing. When big size boulders are put into giant size machines, they are broken into 40 mm metal first and then into 20 mm metal. On further processing, they are crushed to 4.75 mm, 3.5 mm and 2.36 mm granules, called M-sand. If manufacturing of this sand is permitted, within no time whatever hillocks are there in the state may disappear. Then the manufacturers may gradually encroach upon the hills which are found on the Eastern and Western Ghats and then try to swallow the hills of other protected areas in the name of development thereby depriving the people of the state, the essential ecosystem services like pure air, quality water, fertile soil, food, shelter, etc. The attractive slogan like ‘eco friendly and economical alternative for river sand’ by M-sand manufacturers is really a bogus one. This is the right time for everyone to rise up and put up a vigilant fight against M-sand as the manufacturing of the same may cause irreparable damage not only to our ecosystems but also to our basic survival.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) made by the committee appointed by the Environment Department also is not able to function effectively because of the pressure from different sources. That is why while the assessment is made, the adjoining villagers of the particular site, selected NGOs, noted Environmentalist, Ecologist, Scientist, media persons and even political parties also should be allowed to participate in order to avoid any problem in the future. The nearby villagers should be informed through ‘tom-tom’ about the visit of the EIA Committee. And if needed ‘no objection’ certificate also should be made mandatory from the concerned Panchayat to make it more effective.

Even where Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) is applicable, many of the concerned Government officials are not aware of the rules and regulations. As a result, valuable ecosystems are destroyed making the biodiversity to vanish from their original homes. After allowing everything to go ahead smoothly without any objection, there is no point in raising hue and cry when there is adverse impact because of the misuse and over exploitation of the natural resources.

The solution is very simple. This can be achieved through a wise decision after discussing the issue   with the scientific community. The present depth of sand removal may be increased to 2 metres. Mining should be done only by the Public Works Department. Machinery can be used but the depth should be strictly followed. The Environmental Impact Assessment Committee, before submitting any report about the inspection of the sand mine to the Government, it should conduct a public hearing with the nearby villagers and conservation oriented NGOs. The Committee Members must be able to convince the people and remove the suspicion from their minds. After that only, the report has to be submitted to the Government. Wherever there are permitted quarries, there should be a hoarding displayed in a prominent place mostly along the road clearly mentioning the extent, period of quarrying, quantity permitted, etc. The quarry site should be clearly demarcated on the ground with semi-permanent structures. The payment for sand can be made through debit card or credit card only.

The Scientific community may oppose the idea of permitting the sand mining to a depth of 2 metres instead of the present 1 metre. Once there are a few rains and there is very good flow of water in the river, then the entire stretch of the river will be filled with sand. So, unnecessarily the people or the NGOs need not fear about this. Otherwise even after having a formal discussion with the Environmentalists, Ecologists, Naturalists and Scientists, the suitable decision can be taken accordingly.

The demand created presently for sand appears to be only artificial. It is the duty of the Government to bridge the gap between demand and supply. The PWD should jump into action to regulate the sand mining and take up the responsibility of protecting the rivers as they are the only source of water during this period of time with scarce rain fall. The Government also should involve the stakeholders, NGOs, Revenue Authorities, Police Authorities, etc., to have free access to the mining site so that any suspicious activity can be brought under check. If periodic check by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption wing of the State Police Department and a team of experts as ordered by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is arranged, definitely it may reduce much of the problems.

These measures are to be followed for ensured supply of sand without any shortfall continuously to meet out the ever growing demand of the state. At the same time, the export of sand to other states and countries should be strictly banned. The Government with its elected representatives, various political parties, the officials concerned, the stakeholders and the NGOs should act earnestly to have assured supply of water through proper management of sand mining without giving room for any violation as it is the need of the hour. Likewise no more fresh permission should be granted for establishing new crusher units in the state. The crusher waste can be processed further for using as an alternative for sand with the scientific inputs given by institutes like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

Note: Certain interesting events that took place while I was working in Kanyakumari as DFO.

  1. When a hillock was attempted to be destroyed during 2010 near Erachakulam located about 10 kms from Nagercoil by a group of Doctors in the name of building a college with the permission of the District Collector, it was stopped by pointing out the implementation of the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) by me. The Collector immediately cancelled the order issued by him and the hillock is still in the very same condition. During my visit during 2015, the hillock was seen by me.
  2. When a factory for manufacturing M-sand was established near Kaliyal bordering Kerala in Kanyakumari district, it was strongly objected by me as DFO, Kanyakumari. It was a fully automated factory. Once the funnel is fed with big boulders at the beginning, it is broken into stones of different sizes at various stages and finally released as M-sand. No manual work is needed. Everything is computerised. They were obtaining the boulders from the nearby hillocks.
  3. Based on these instances, a seminar was organised by (Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) about ‘Conservation of Hills and Hillocks’. It was to be inaugurated by the Collector with the keynote address by me. But, since the Collector was away at Trivandrum on that day, it was inaugurated by me during 2010.
  4. When a so called educationist who hailed from the same district with many colleges in Chennai wanted to quarry Sagunthalai Malai, a hillock, contiguous to Therkumalai West Reserve Forest in Kanyakumari district for constructing a port, the attempt was thwarted by the joint effort of the then Collector and me with the support of the PWD authorities, though there was heavy pressure from the higher ups.