Tamil Nadu – Looting tanks and hillocks while farmers denied their rights

October 2, 2012

by R. Seenivasan [1]

By now, looting of minerals and causing destruction of forests and mountains are well known. However, the damages done to the surviving historic water systems like tanks are relatively less understood and poorly articulated. While, the native farmers are denied their long held customary rights to take silt, sand and soil from their tanks the loot by mafia type miner operations goes unchecked. The article highlights such massive loot by the miners of tanks and adjoining hillocks, and the harassment to those who oppose. The precarious situations of tanks that are facing different abuses are pushed into this new phenomenon.

‘Tanks and hillocks destroyed’

In May 2012, the district collector of Madurai in Tamil Nadu based on numerous complaints from farmers about their ‘tanks (water bodies) being encroached and dug up for mining’ made enquiries and prepared a report. Unlike the usual slipshod and eyewash enquiries made on similar petitions from the ordinary people, activists and historians this report was unusually different. The Collector found many of the allegations made in them were true. He reported, from four revenue villages in Melur taluk that over Rs 16,000 crores worth of granites were illegally mined and carried away. At least 35 tanks, of which many holding water for six months drawing from the Periyar reservoir were encroached and damaged by digging or dumping. The net loss to the government through this mining is still debated and the loot is estimated to be several hundred crores within this district. Thereafter, the collector was transferred out [2].

‘Tank soil smuggler shot dead’

In July 2012, an Inspector of Police in Nangunery taluk of Tirunelveli district visited Marukalkurichchi village and killed a man. The name of the village means a ‘habitation with a tank that always surpluses’ indicating its connections with their tank. The inspector alleged the dead man is a ‘smuggler, member of soil mafia gang and dangerous criminal’. The same officer previously arrested the his brother for alleged ‘soil theft’ from the village tank. The dead man’s wife claimed he was shot by the Inspector for his ‘refusal to pay commissions’ (bribes) which others are paying. Locals claimed the man as any other poor householder, a small farmer with a big family- three kids, a wife, a brother and parents. Some newspapers reported he is ‘smuggling soil’ for the local brick kiln from his village tank. For long, soil removed from tanks is believed to be an act of philanthropy, but it has become a theft if done by farmers and cannot be done without paying bribes to police [3].

For many readers, these two news items mean different but they are the same. They show the state of rule of law, financial and moral corruption and colossal looting of water systems.

What is a tank?

Tanks are manmade water bodies that are small and large and they are classed as minor irrigation sources. They are entirely manmade with earthen bunds and formed on rolling topographies, high grounds and even in coastal plains. Most tanks are found in areas with hard rock geology, areas interspersed with rock outcrops and hillocks. They provide many services to the people beyond irrigation. Millions of wells are recharged by them, and thousands of tank beds are used for forestry. Most of the famed Indian inland bird sanctuaries are all found on the tanks in the driest areas of the state. Next to the reserved forests, tanks are the biggest common properties in south India.

Laws relating to tanks

All tanks in Tamil Nadu are ‘government properties [4]’ with some rare exceptions of privately held tanks. Land revenue department is given with powers to deal with this ‘property right’ and hence protecting all tanks and preventing damages including encroachments is its responsibility. Since the days of colonial administration, the revenue board standing orders (BSO) are the main body of law that cared for the tanks and prevented the conversion of tanks into other land uses. In order to ‘maintain and manage’ irrigation, bigger tanks meant for irrigation with over 100 acres are held by the water resources organisation (WRO), and the rest by the village Panchayats and the Panchayat Unions. Unless otherwise it is demonstrated and well substantiated converting a tank to other use is expressly prohibited by the government. Unauthorised occupations made by private parties are also proscribed and made illegal under laws dealing with land encroachments.

As a measure of providing lands to the poor for agriculture and housing portions of several tank beds were liberally given away until the late seventies. The usual reasons cited were to declare the tanks as non-performing and useless. This type of giving away of the commonly held assets is based on a colonial legacy and practice started by the British in order to maximise land revenue from whatever means possible. The dysfunctional tanks in part or as a whole were distributed as dry lands to those who desire to cultivate them instead of rehabilitating them as a water source. However, consistent protests from the tank farmers in several places made the government to bring regulations in the eighties to prevent such an indiscriminate parting away of tank beds and channels.

After the British and uptil now, the local villagers were given with ‘customary rights’ under the BSO, and other laws related to Panchayats and Easements to take sand, soil and earth for agricultural and domestic purposes without seeking any permission from anyone. Excavating or blasting any piece of land or a rock outcrop or a hillock or a tank bed for all types of stones (including granites) can only be done under permit and strict supervision by the government Revenue Department, and the Geology and Mines Department. There exists an elaborate procedure to give licences and permissions to do any kind of mining in tanks by outsiders and non-farmers.

Contrary to all these legal safeguards, the government continued to convert the tanks for other uses, and allow granite, sand and soil miners.

Granite mining

Granites in common parlance means hard stones. Some of these stones fetch high price because of their so called ‘aesthetic value’. Stones bearing shades of different colours and combinations are claimed to be more valuable than the rest. The use of granites is always known as building material for centuries. Grand south Indian temples were built using these granites. In these days, ‘aesthetic granites in different colours and shades’ became a preferred housing material of the neo-rich in flaunting their new found wealth. After many of the destructive mining practices were banned in European countries India became a major source of such granites.

Villages in Melur Taluk, one of the six Madurai district has over 1,200 tanks. Many villages here are ancient and home to Tamil Saivite saints, Jain monasteries, and preserved by the locals. Some villages have as high as forty tanks meant for irrigation, and ponds for domestic uses, and the surrounding hills for grazing. Most of the tanks are formed on hard rocks that are dug out for granites now. In the last fifteen years, numerous complaints were sent by the locals to authorities about demolishing the hillocks and digging the tank beds. Nothing useful happened to stop this damage and the area witnessed an unparalleled destruction. The district collector, a man with some soft corner for the farmers of Madurai assessed the scale of destruction to tanks and hills in May 2012. His report detailed the kind of collusion between the granite miners and the government officers. He estimated just from four villages a loot of Rs 16,000 crores worth of granites and damages to over 400 acres of tank beds and channels in 36 tanks. A few companies operated like a mafia with an elaborate network of using the same government officers and offices that were supposed to safeguard these tanks in pursuing their loot [5].

In the same Taluk, there are several local farmers’ organisations that strive to save their tanks are never allowed to take away tank soil or silt or pieces of stones even to repair the tanks. In 1995, Kottampatti Block Development Officer (BDO) came to visit a tank development project of an non-government organisation PRADAN, sent a penalty notice charging a fine of over one lakh for removing tank soil by the farmer’s organisation. He was so brazen enough to deny the long held customary right of the farmers to remove tank soil and sought such a hefty fine for implementing a tank rehabilitation project funded by the same government. Even today, many such local farmers’ organisations face untold hardships and harassments to implement any useful tank rehabilitation project in the area. A grain of sand, a bundle of wood, a piece of stone cannot move without the notice of these officers. But, yet millions of cubic metres of granite have moved away from these villages to as far as Europe and north America.

Just like the small town chit fund collectors – the Reddy brothers of Kolar becoming overnight billionaires many nondescript small time contractors of Madurai became so using the granite mining and exporting. These miners are digging out tank beds for granites, wrecking many hillocks and dumped the debris in tanks and channels. In the process many of the Madurai’s famed abodes of Tamil Jains were shattered and damaged. There are cases pending in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking prevention of demolishing some more hillocks that are believed to be historic Jain schools and monasteries.

Such is the power of liberalisation giving powers to the looters while denying the long held rights of the local people to look after and benefit from their tanks.

‘Soil mining’

The Tamil Nadu government has classified a few types of soils also as minor minerals and claimed to regulate excavating them. Using the ‘Minor minerals’ Act, permissions were granted for taking soils from tank beds if there is a ‘public purpose’ such as road laying and railway projects. There is not even nominal charges collected from such miners by anyone including the Panchayats who are supposed to benefit from such nominal collections. Several tanks located in southern districts closer to the national highways were damaged to such an extent that they cannot be used for irrigation. They were indiscriminately dug out using huge earthmovers and excavators, in some places up to a depth of fifteen metres thereby preventing gravity flow of water through the sluices. Most of this damage has been done to find soils for the privatised roads built by the National Highways Authority in these districts.

The construction boom in urban areas also created a demand for brick making from tank soils. Brick manufacturers are always allowed to dig and carry soil from the tank bed using carts and tractors after paying a nominal fee. Such an action rarely damages the tank rather makes the user farmers happy since additional water gets stored. Further, the locals always have ‘customary rights’ to dig and carry any amount of soil and sand as they pleased for their agricultural and domestic use within or adjoining their village limits. Hence, many villagers with tractors feed small local brick kilns that produce bricks for local consumption.

Police department is made as a part of the local ‘monitoring committee’ to search and stop vehicles transporting sand and some other minerals throughout the state. Many police stations found in nondescript towns and villages with poor bribe collection records have suddenly become rich using their newly found ‘monitoring role’. They started stopping everyone taking the soil from tank beds irrespective of they are legitimate right holders or not. In southern districts, several farmers, potters and other villagers with legitimate needs to take the soil are arrested, harassed, their tractors seized and made to pay (bribe). Those who asserted their rights like the poor householder in Nangunery taluk, became a ‘soil mafia member’. In his case, there is no report that his ‘soil theft’ has damaged the tank rather his act actually benefitted the tank. Yet he is killed by the police.

Sand mining

On the contrary to such a police action killing an unarmed poor villager asserting his customary right, the government administration is least bothered about those who actually mine the channels, rivulets, rivers and tanks for sand. Sand mining from the rivers and water bodies have become a routine news item across the state and even some officers who tried to prevent the loot were reported killed in broad daylight to teach lessons. There are several high profile cases are ongoing to control sand mining in different rivers including the Cauvery. Sand mined from southern districts of the state has been sent as far away as Maldives crossing the Indian ocean by ships and to neighbouring Kerala state where a bit of popular awareness preventing the loot of their rivers and tanks.

A few years back, after a series of protests to stop destruction, tank farmers from twelve villages in Ettayapuram Taluk of Tuticorin district dared to stop sand mining on their own. They seized huge excavators and trucks that were later released and handed over to the miners by the police without any charges. The farmers were slapped with criminal charges and branded as ‘extremists’ who take ‘law into their hands’. Many farmers were sent to jail for days and charged for ‘unlawful assembly, rioting, obstructing government work and officers,’ under various penal sections of the Indian penal code. Their only ‘crime’ in this case was to prevent the blatantly illegal mining done with the support of the government. Even after seven years, some farmers are said to be attending court cases for leading such protests. This is not a case in isolation but an example of punishing those who get organised to prevent the loot of their local resources. In most other places, the farmers are yet to get organised, and remain muted allowing the loot to happen.

Abuse of Tanks

In general, converting tanks into other uses became so common in these days. If the numerous Public Interest Litigations (PIL) are to be believed hundreds of tanks are damaged for several reasons inviting court actions by environmental activists and farmers. For example, many of the housing colonies developed by the Housing Boards, Government office buildings such as the district Collectorates and courts, Industrial estates, Radio stations, Bus depots, central bus stands are formed by dismantling tanks. The government claims a ‘public purpose’ is achieved by doing so. Since agriculture is dead in many urban fringes government asserts the tanks have no use. With the same logic, several hundreds of tanks and hundreds of kilometres long channels were dismantled in cities like Chennai. Even though everyone knows the fact that the tanks could be retained along with their feeder channels for many reasons. Tanks are useful to prevent flooding, to recharge the ground water, to create a source of recreation and provide a pleasant microclimate and cool breeze within the urban sprawls. But it is rarely done.

The historic city of Madurai itself is called as ‘Madakulak keezh Madurai’ meaning a ‘township commanded by the Madakulam tank’ in the medieval epigraphs and poetry. Pulavar.Lakshmikanthan, a farmer and a poet from Madurai once narrated his experience of saving tanks in a satirical poem. His poem reads like this: “I went to pray the ‘Pudhup Pillaiyar’ (New Ganesha) to save my village tank and realised he is sitting on the bund, an illegal encroachment; Knowing he may not appreciate my prayer, I went to the big officer – the Collector, found his office built on the tank bed; Since he had no time to see me, I went to the district court to seek justice and found it is built on a tank bed; Thinking I may not get justice here I reached the highest of the courts – the High Court and found it is also built on a tank bed. Fed up with life, I went to read my ‘poem of despair’ at the All India Radio and found the station is built on the tank bed. To whom I should go now?”


[1] R.Seenivasan, Ph.D Candidate, University of Westminster

[2] Article in Tehelka – The rise and fall of Madurai’s Granite Mafia 

[3] http://www.savukku.net/home1/1604-2012-07-26-15-19-17.html – A collection of news items related to the incident is available at this Tamil whistle blowing website.

[4] Tamil Nadu Land Encroachment Act defines the tanks as government property along with other water resources like the tank supply channels, streams, and rivers.

[5] http://www.vinavu.com/2012/09/07/granite-mafia/