As India is going through the phase of rapid economic empowerment and industries are evolving at a significantly higher rate, it requires massive energy. Thorium is the cheapest and cleanest fuel source which can ensure our energy security. But instead of taping this source the successive governments in our country allowed open loot of this natural resource available with India. The apparent illegal sand mining on the Kerala Coast is essentially is the illegal smuggling of our most precious natural resource. Earlier UPA and UDF has tacitly supported by keeping mum on this smuggling while rulers in Tamil Nadu directly benefited from it as revealed in the connections between main accused in the investigative report and political leaders.
Intro: Since 2005, 2.1 million tonnes of monazite, equivalent to 195,300 tonnes of Thorium at 9.3 per cent recovery has disappeared from India in the past one decade.
It is the largest loot the nation has ever suffered. According to media reports over Rs 60 lakh crore worth strategically important beach sand minerals from the coastal lines of the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu were smuggled out of the country from the year 2004 to 2013. The loot is still in progress, unhindered.
It is unfortunate that while we import enriched Thorium from the US and Australia, the Thorium rich Monozite, is being smuggled out to these countries which supply us back the nuclear fuel extracted from our own raw minerals at their prices.
Another Cover Story Parts: Is it a coincidence?
No doubt, this smuggling has compromised India’s energy security and strategic position as a superpower, but those in the Parliament raising in high decibel accusations against Modi Government for not bringing back the black money parked abroad by Indian individuals have seldom yelled in the House for action against the smugglers of the national wealth.
During his Vijayadashami speech, the RSS Sarsanghachalak Shri Mohan Bhagwat had alerted the nation on the constant smuggling of Thorium rich rare earth minerals from the southern costs of the country. He said there was “no visible reduction in smuggling of rare earth minerals from the southern coast”. The administrations, both at the Centre and concerned states, are still in slumber facilitating the blatant theft of precious Heavy Mineral Sand from across the costal lines of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
A report of the Atomic Mineral Directorate (AMD) said Kerala possesses one of the world class deposits of mineral sands in the coastal tracts between Neendakara and Kayam-kulam. “This, commonly known as the Chavara deposit, after the main locality, covers a total length of 22 km and a width of about 8 km in the northern side and 6 km in the southern side. The Chavara barrier beach portion contains concentration of heavy minerals above 60%. The Chavara deposit is estimated to contain 127 million tonnes of heavy minerals with ilmenite content of 80 million tonnes from the total reserve of raw sand of the order of 1400 million tonnes. In the northern portion beyond Kayamkulam Pozhi extending up to Thottappally in Alappuzha district, the total reserve of heavy minerals estimated to the order of 17 million tonnes with ilmenite content of 9 million tonnes from the raw sand of 242 million tonnes.”
The wealth of the state is its source in the mining and metallurgical industry; the power of the state comes out of these mineral resources.
India is endowed with vast reserves of superior quality beach sand minerals. The need of the hour is to plan for an optimum utilisation of resources – there must be a positive growth in production to reserve ratio. The present production to reserves ratio of 0.001% is by any standards abysmally low and this has to be enhanced substantially for sustaining industrial growth. Australia, USA, Malaysia and Brazil, record better ratios.
—G Viswanathan of Atomic Minerals Directorate in his report on Heavy Mineral sand Deposits of Kerala
The World Nuclear Association (WNA), the global body of nuclear industry, has in its report claimed “India is home to 3,00,000 tones of thorium deposit.” Thorium is of strategic importance for both our nuclear energy generation and nuclear warheads. Since 2005, 2.1 million tonnes of monazite, equivalent to 195,300 tonnes of Thorium at 9.3 per cent recovery has disappeared from India in the past one decade.
In fact, India produced its first thorium nuclear reactor, Kakrapar-1, in 1993, as part of a three-stage fuel cycle plan which included designing a new Advanced Heavy Water Reactor. The intention was to use Thorium-based reactors to meet 30 per cent of the nation’s power requirement by 2050. The Bhaba Atomic Research Centre has estimated India’s known Thorium reserves as 3,58,000 GWe-yr (one gigawattyear of electrical power is enough to power a modern city with one million populations for a full year). This could meet our power demands for over a century. Thorium is potentially usable to breed reactor fuel and can theoretically generate 40 times the energy per unit mass compared to uranium.
Thorium, the atomic fuel for our nuclear programme is being processed from monazite an element abundantly present in the beach sand of the coastal lines of Kollam and Alappuzha districts of Kerala. This precious beach sand is being smuggled with no hindrance either from the state or central government.
It seems the Centre is little concerned of the ongoing robbery of the national wealth. To a question on large scale smuggling of rare earth from Kerala, V Narayanasamy, the then minister of state in PMO in his written reply on December 5, 2013 stated in Rajya Sabha, “Government has not received any official report or information in the matter of large scale smuggling/illegal mining of Rare Earths in Kerala. However, in the recent past, certain press reports and other communications have been received in the matter.”
An investigation conducted by the state CBCID on the smuggling of beach sand minerals has exposed large scale smuggling of the mineral rich beach sand from Kerala coasts. PN Unnirajan IPS, Superintendent of police who investigated the smuggling of beach sand minerals from Kollam and Alappuzha (as per Go (Rt) 2865 /2013/Home dated 22.10.2013) noted in his report has confirmed the “smuggling of “Karimanal” (mineral rich beach sand) by “mafia” to Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu to be illegally exported to countries like Australia, US and China.
The report has repeatedly mentioned the name of VV Minerals of Tuticorin, owned by one Vaikundarajan behind the large scale smuggling. “The beach sand is illegally transported from areas of Alappuzha and Kollam districts after collecting the same in small trolleys and sacks. First these sands are piled up as dunes in the beaches and then transported in small vehicles like auto rickshaws to safe places and then transported to their destinations. It is revealed that the illegally processed beach sand is taken to VV Minerals, a company run by Vaikundarajan at Tuticorin. The Beach sand is even transported in fishing boats to a few such boats were seized by the local police to be released immediately,” thanks to interventions from the top.
The investigating officer has also identified one “Sarasan, Kallupurakkal House” who manages the VV Miineral’ s operations in Kerala coast “from house no xl/118 of Arattupuzha Grama Panchayath in Alappuzha district.”
The report also accuses “Higher police officials did not take much interest and attention” to curb the smuggling of mineral rich beach sand. “They (the police officials) shall also be made accountable for the illicit mining and transportation, as well as their subordinates,” the Superinten-dent of Police said in his report. “No effective patrolling is done by police” to prevent the smuggling. Since the law is not stringent, the accused escape by remitting small fines, he has added.
To establish the complicity of VV Minerals in the smuggling of beach sand from Kerala the report elaborates on the sudden jump in the business volume of the company.
In the year 1999 VV Minerals smuggled from Kerala 12000 tonnes of mineral sand. In the year 2006 the smuggling crossed 1580000 tonnes.
As per reports of AMD annual production capacity of VV Minerals has the capacity produce just 7139 tonnes of ilmenite. But in 2006 the company exported 7,90,000 tonnes.
It is surprising, neither the Central agencies nor the State authorities have probed the disparity between production and export of the said company till date. The report mentions that the VV Minerals “is illegally transporting mineral sands from Kayamkulam Pozhi and the average grade of this region is 40 per cent THM, out of which Ilmenite constitute only 60 per cent i.e. every 100 MT of raw sand contains 40 Mt total heavy minerals and out of which limonite is only 24 MT. The proportion of raw sand v/s Ilmenite is 4:1.” The jump in the export quantity is the direct indication of the involvement of VV Minerals in the large scale smuggling of mineral sand from Kerala. Vaikundarajan is known for his close proximity to powerful political lobby, both in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He is a major stakeholder in Mavis Satcom, the company that runs Jaya TV, the AIADMK mouthpiece.
The smuggling and illegal mining of beach mineral sand started flourishing in Kerala costal lines after 2007 when Ilmenite was delisted from the list of ‘Prescribed Substances’, by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the UPA-I rule. In written reply to a question by Dr Chandan Mitra on May 2, 2013 in the Rajya Sabha V Narayanasamy clarified “Ilmenite, one of the beach sand mineral, has been delisted from the list of ‘Prescribed Substances’ under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 from 01.01.2007 vide Notification No. S.O.61 (E).”
Replying a question from Dr Mitra on the smuggling aspect the minister had said “The Department has initiated steps to put in place comprehensive systems to check illegal mining/ exporting of country's Thorium rich Monazite. Prescribed regulatory inspections of beach sand mining facilities are being carried out by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The Central Board of Customs and Excise has also been requested for monitoring of radioactivity at ports and testing of Beach Sand Minerals export consignments.”
It is pathetic, Indian Rare Earths Ltd. (IREL) a Public Sector Undertaking under the Department of Atomic Energy, the only entity which has been permitted to produce monazite in the country is increasingly siege form a group of motivated environmentalists to stop mining and processing mineral sand.
“These so-called environmental activists are funded by the smugglers to provoke the local residents against sand mining so that theft could continue unhindered. IREL officials, police, political leaders all are hand in glove with the sand smuggling mafia. It is difficult to oppose this mafia. We are compelled to be mute spectators of the ongoing theft of our national wealth,” said a former Panchayat president and an ex-employ of IREL who requested anonymity.
“The theft is happening even during the day time. The milk tankers are now used for smuggling out beach sand. One can spot such tankers anytime in this area. The police never bother to check them.”
A local leader belonging to the ruling UDF has also confessed their leaders have been silent on the smuggling for various considerations. “We tried to generate public awareness among the local residents against the sand smuggling, but hardly got any support from the top leadership.” He said the smugglers have purchased some ‘local leaders’ to deal with those opposed to the smuggling.
To hinder the production activities of government owned companies like IREL and KMML (Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited), both engaged in mining, separation of minerals and processing of titanium, the smugglers through some foreign funded local NGOs are trying to scare the residents through publishing reports on the “after effects of sand mining”. Some reports say, mining of beach sand make the local residents prone to cancer. Another report tries to prove, the mining will result in the erosion of the beach in total.
The scientists who have done extensive research counter “such findings”. Dr KP Thrivikramji, Professor and Head of the Department of Geology, University of Kerala in his report on Mineral Sand (MS) mining in Kerala coast has clearly noted “MS deposit is renewable like ground water.” The report was prepared for the Department of Industries, Government of Kerala (Vide. GO (MS) No. 9/2003/ID).”
After the onset of monsoon, the report pointed out, the beach receives “deposition of tremendous volume of imamate rich sand on the back shore and the upper shore face. During the monsoon the beach face goes through initial erosion which is closely followed by a phase of deposition.”
Regarding the possibility of radiation hazards the reports says, “Monazite of the MS is a source of possible radiation with potential health hazard. BARC (2001) reports no perceptible effects due to the HLNRA (High-Level Natural Radiation Area) in coastal Kerala. Truly, MS collection from the beach will effectively remove the source radiation.” According to G Viswanathan of the Atomic Minerals Directorate (Exploration and Research) “In the futuristic applications, there is no modern technology without titanium–titanium is the metal of future are the compliments for titanium and its alloys on account of their growing industrial applications. With this back drop, if we look at Kerala it is by far the best in India in terms of Titanium mineral placer resources—especially of ilme-nite, with—60% of contained TiO2in the world’s leading ilmenite deposit at Chavara.”
In his report on Heavy Mineral sand Deposits of Kerala Viswanathan further elaborates, “India is endowed with vast reserves of superior quality beach sand minerals. The need of the hour is to plan for optimum utilisation of resources – there must be a positive growth in production to reserve ratio. The present production to reserves ratio of 0.001% is by any standards abysmally low and this has to be enhanced substantially for sustaining industrial growth. Australia, USA, Malaysia and Brazil, record better ratios.”
In 1998, the then Vajpayee-led NDA government had taken some steps to curb the smuggling of mineral-rich beach sand and exploit the natural resource for the purpose of nation building. An extraordinary resolution, (no. 8/1(1)/97-PSU/1422, Govt of India Department of Atomic Energy) was brought on October 06, 1998. The resolution says “Considering the growing demand for these minerals and/or their value based products in the domestic as well as international markets and the potential available in the country, setting up of new plants for exploitation of the deposits. It is therefore, necessary to allow the private sector to set up such plants within the framework of some broad guidelines. The resolution further said “Government of India has recently approved a policy to encourage further exploitation of these mineral deposits through a judicious mix of public and private sector participation.” But the successive governments at the Centre and in the states, instead of implementing the resolution tried to bring in legislations that indirectly help the illegal mining and theft of the precious minerals.
Suresh Kumar (The writer is Bureau Chief, Hindustan Samachar, Kerala)