A reporter’s account of the perils of investigating illegal beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu
Chennai: Journalism 101 drills a particular ethic into our heads – the journalist can never become the story. The use of the word ‘I’ is generally abhorred. ‘Attribute, attribute, attribute’ is the mantra. The journalist is the fly on the wall – watching, mirroring and making sense of the world around her.
Drastic situations though, call for drastic measures. A temporary break of the rigid code of journalism, perhaps. All in the interest of the truth – to help the reader make up her mind about whether this journalist’s work is to be trusted or binned. Investigating the rich and mighty, the politically connected, is never an easy job and many Indian journalists have paid the price for daring to do so. Some have even paid for it with their lives. Luckily I have not yet come to that pass.
Since the publication of my series in The Wire on illegal beach sand mining, a number of anonymous online Twitter and Facebook accounts have cropped up to harass and target me personally. Blog posts have been written alleging that I have written stories on behalf of the rivals of S. Vaikundarajan, India’s largest beach sand miner, for an unspecified remuneration. One Twitter handle, after a series of tweets referring to me as “paid journalist” went on to tweet my mobile number along with a message stating that I was against jallikattu and asking people not to call me and abuse me.
Since then, as expected, there have been a series of phone calls, some threatening, some abusive; many of these callers simply fall silent when the phone is answered. By way of abundant caution, I was compelled to file a complaint with the cyber crime division of the Chennai city police. Police commissioner S. George has responded promptly, beefing up patrolling and providing support to myself and my family.
This is the fourth year I have been on the story and the fourth year I have faced harassment and intimidation. What began as a regular news story on the mining of rare earth minerals found in the beach sands of Tamil Nadu turned out, to my astonishment, to be one about large scale illegal mining. One estimate of the loot pegs the amount at least Rs 1 lakh crore – the details of which I have provided in my series of reports. Rare earth minerals include an atomic mineral called monazite – when processed, this mineral yields thorium, a nuclear fuel, which can be used in nuclear weapons (if used to breed uranium-233). My investigations pointed in the direction of massive looting, not just of rare earth minerals but also monazite – a potential threat to national security.
Investigating the companies that mine beach sand also meant investigating mainly one family based in Tirunelveli – S. Vaikundarajan and his brothers – who has a virtual monopoly over the country’s beach sand mining and export industry. Tamil Nadu’s southern coastline is in danger – rampant illegal mining has destroyed the natural ecology of our shores. While a large number of residents of the area benefit from the mining jobs created by the family’s business, a larger number of villagers and fishermen live in fear of this family and their associates. As is usually the case with the rich, they are also powerful – politically connected and protected by the powers that be, no matter who is in the seat of authority in the state and at the Centre.
I knew this was a story that would have enormous and wide ranging ramifications. It would also serve public interest in varied ways. And so my investigation was on.
A raid and a transfer
This story begins in August 2013. It was a lethargic week at the Times Now bureau in Chennai (where I was then employed) as the top story on the channel was that of a young IAS officer, Durga Shakti Nagpal, in Uttar Pradesh, suspended for raiding the sand mining mafia in her state. No connection to the southernmost part of the country – Tamil Nadu – which remains largely and blissfully oblivious to the furore up north. On the morning of August 7, I received a message from an IAS officer whom I was in regular contact with. “Ashish Kumar is raiding illegal sand miners in Tuticorin. Speak to him. Some developments may occur,” I was informed. I called Kumar, then the district collector of Tuticorin, who confirmed that he had indeed raided a few mines and that he would be submitting a report to the state government. I alerted my boss, a senior editor at Times Now, Mumbai, adding that this might turn out to be similar to the Durga Shakti Nagpal case. My boss asked me to wait and watch – and alert him in case any action was taken against the collector.
By around 9 pm the same day, I received another message from my IAS contact in Chennai. “He has been transferred,” it said. I called Kumar once again, who reluctantly confirmed that transfer orders had arrived, dated the same day. “How did you know?” he repeatedly asked me, a question that went unanswered. I alerted my boss in Mumbai – the headline would be ‘Another Durga Shakti Nagpal? Tuticorin district collector transferred eight hours after raiding sand mafia’. But the channel’s editor, Arnab Goswami, had to be alerted first, as the news was sensitive. The Chennai team was primed – they had to move to Tuticorin at any moment, along with the OB (outdoor broadcast) van. Goswami was in the studio, anchoring ‘The NewsHour’ and he came on the line around midnight. “Why aren’t you in Tuticorin yet, Sandhya?” he asked. “Get there now.” A six-member team left for Tuticorin in the early hours of August 8. Our big story had finally arrived. We had broken it hours before anyone else had it.
From Tuticorin and Tirunelveli to Kanyakumari
Excitement built as we neared Tuticorin. First on the agenda was an interview with a reluctant Kumar, following which we shot the mines he had raided. Interviews with villagers pointed us in the direction of Tirunelveli – the epicentre, we were told, of large scale beach sand mining in the state. “Be careful madam,” I was warned repeatedly by villagers and local activists who had been protesting against indiscriminate mining. “Those guys are ruthless.” We conducted a sting operation on the then Tuticorin superintendent of police, M. Durai, who admitted that no FIR had or would be filed against the powerful miners despite the district collector’s orders. We realised that Kumar had only scratched the surface of a large and powerful mafia.
Our next stop was Tirunelveli. We drove along the beautiful southern coast, interviewing villagers, fishermen and priests from tiny churches in the area. One local activist took us to a village called Uvari. Fishermen there eagerly took us to the place where red beach sand was being mined using diggers (JCBs). Our local reporter, Paramasivam, too had accompanied us to this village. “Don’t worry madam, we will come with you and protect you,” said the fishermen of Uvari. “Many people who have seen this mining have gone missing – they are abducted, killed and thrown into the sea by these fellows. They are ruthless. But as long as we are with you, they will not dare try anything,” they said. A large group followed us to the mining site – around 20 fishermen, residents of Uvari, shielded us as my colleague, Manish Dhanani, filmed the mining activity.
When the workers realised that they were being filmed, the JCBs, equipment and trucks disappeared from view very quickly and soon enough we heard one fisherman mutter – “Adho varaanga paarunga” (See, there they come). An angry group of five workers had arrived in a jeep, asking us who we were and why we were filming private land. “We are journalists from Chennai,” we said repeatedly, as a couple of them stuck mobile phones in our faces, clicking our pictures and filming videos. “Why is he taking my pictures without my permission?” I asked one of them angrily. The fishermen quickly jumped in with soothing words, before a fight ensued. “Please leave now,” ordered the workers. One fisherman spoke on our behalf – “We are leaving, sir, they just wanted to see,” he said rather vaguely with an equally vague smile. Manish and I were quickly ushered back into the village by the fishermen. “We don’t want the mining to take place but we are afraid of him,” said one fisherman as we walked back to the car. “Who is he?” I asked. “Annachi (generic term for brother),” he said. “Who is Annachi?” I asked again. “Vaikundarajan.”
The name Vaikundarajan was first uttered in Tuticorin and by the time our team reached Tirunelveli, I’d gained a fair amount of knowledge about the man and his business activities by calling up other journalists and IAS officers. He was said to be all powerful in the three southernmost districts of the state – Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. He mined beach sand minerals, also known as rare earth minerals – garnet, ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene and sillimanite. Don’t mess with Vaikundarajan, I was warned repeatedly by well-wishers and friends. He is only trouble and politically well connected.
Journalism demands that all sides of a story are given a voice – the alleged illegal miners had to be interviewed too. We headed next to Thisaiyanvilai, the village which serves as the headquarters and base for Vaikundarajan’s mining operations. We parked the car outside a house which we were told belonged to Vaikundarajan and went in without cameras to ask if he would grant us an interview. Vaikundarajan was not there but his brother Jegatheesan, a partner in the company, was. He agreed to talk to us. Manish ran to the car to grab his camera and microphone. “He complained about us, so we were forced to complain about him to higher authorities,” said Jegatheesan when asked about Kumar. “That is why he got transferred.” Once the camera stopped rolling, Jegatheesan asked us to sit down and began questioning me specifically. Was I married, where was I from, how many children did I have and so on. We took our leave on a cordial note, thanking the miner for the interview. “You must be living in a flat in Chennai?” asked Jegatheesan suddenly as we were readying to leave. I nodded slightly, not knowing where this was going. “Hmmm… stay safe. Chennai is a dangerous place,” he said. Nodding dumbly, Manish and I left.
“He was threatening us in a very subtle way,” said Manish, currently a senior video journalist with Times Now. “He was basically telling us to back off or else… that was quite a scary episode!”
Back in the car, we met a very rattled Jayaseelan, the young man who had been driving us around since we left Chennai. “A group of four-five men came and looked all around the car and under it,” he informed us. “They asked me who we were. I told him the reporter is inside Ayya’s house. They noted down my vehicle number. Please, let us leave right away,” he said.
As we left Thisaiyanvilai, our hearts beating rather wildly, we noticed two burly men clad in white shirts and white veshtis (dhoti), thick gold chains around their necks, on motorbikes – one on each side of our car. They would speed up, glare at Jayaseelan and me, and then drop behind. A few minutes later, in tandem, they would speed up and glare menacingly at us again. This continued for 10 kilometres. Once we were sure they had finally stopped following us, we stopped the OB and the car and almost cried in relief.
By this time the entire crew was rattled, so we decided to head to Kudankulam, where we knew some people who were protesting the nuclear power plant. “That is the only safe place I can think of now and it is getting dark,” I said. The team concurred. We had never driven that fast to any other destination before – and haven’t since.
Daylight brought with it renewed courage. We headed onward to Kanyakumari and found a derelict, abandoned beach mineral processing plant. As Manish and I walked around it, filming, we heard a shout. “Run, Sandhya,” said Manish who saw the man before I did. A man in a lungi (kind of dhoti) was running towards us with a sickle. “Wait Anna (elder brother), we are not doing anything,” I shouted out to the man. He lowered his sickle as he neared us. “What are you doing? You cannot take any photographs here. Get out right now,” he warned. Manish and I left quickly.
Times Now played our stories repeatedly on the channel, along with the hot issue of the UP IAS officer Nagpal. Tamil Nadu was in the headlines and ours was the top story for a week. (Two of the stories are appended below, others have been archived here, here and here.
Our relentless coverage of the issue appeared to have had its impact. Tamil Nadu’s chief minister at the time, J. Jayalalithaa, announced the creation of a special team to probe allegations of illegal beach sand mining in Tuticorin district in August 2013.
I continued my reportage on the issue with a follow-up story questioning whether thorium was being illegally exported out of the country.
A month later, after the probe team headed by bureaucrat Gagan Singh Bedi had handed in its report, Jayalalithaa banned beach sand mining across the state and directed the same team to probe illegal beach sand mining in four more districts – Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Trichy and Madurai.
Angered by this move, in August 2014, an organisation of beach mineral workers, backed by Vaikundarajan, sent out press releases to popular news organisations accusing me of “taking money to the tune of Rs 50 lakhs from Dhaya Devadass, a rival miner.” Another journalist with The Hindu’s Tamil daily who had also written about the issue was named in that press release as well. Along with this, blog posts with similar allegations began circulating online, all of which I ignored.
By November 2014, I had decided to go solo, quitting Times Now after the excitement of election coverage. I wanted to write, do some meaningful stories – real grassroots journalism. In January 2015, a PIL (public interest litigation) was filed by geologist Victor Rajamanickam in the Madras high court. Between 2013-2015 – since I began investigating illegal beach sand mining in the state – a number of activists, rival miners and some officials from various state governments had got in touch with me and offered me various documents. Times Now, busy with the high voltage election campaign, was not interested in pursuing the story at the time.
The PIL alleged a loss of over Rs 1 lakh crores to the exchequer due to illegal beach sand mining. It asked the Madras high court to form a special investigation team to investigate the same. I now had in hand a large number of documents that allowed me to do a detailed story. I pitched the idea to the Economic Times, whose Sunday edition carries freelance contributions. The editor was excited and my story was published in February 2015.
While working on the story, I had written to Vaikundarajan’s son V. Subramanian, asking for a response to the allegations made in the PIL. Their company, VV Mineral, deputed a PR agency based in Delhi to contact me and organise an interview with a director of the firm in Chennai. The interview was to take place in the Economic Times‘s Chennai office and the PR agency’s head promised that all my questions would be answered. Vaikundarajan himself arrived for the meeting which lasted for about two hours and was audio taped with his permission, with the head of the PR firm simultaneously recording the same conversation. The meeting was cordial and fascinating, to say the least.
Following the story’s publication, a legal notice was issued to the paper’s editor and me on the same day and Vaikundarajan’s lawyers descended on the paper’s team like a ton of bricks. They alleged flaws and factual inaccuracies in the story. My response to all their allegations was sent to the Economic Times’s legal team, which held negotiations for months. Finally a few months later, an innocuous clarification was printed in order to avoid a lawsuit and a drawn out court battle.
In 2013 and 2014, Frontline magazine too wrote a number of reports on the issue, for which they too received legal notices.
That was the end of that. Or so I thought. I was wrong.
Summons here, slander there
In February 2016, my husband V. Prem Shanker and I both received a mysterious summons from a Tirunelveli court. Deeply engaged with covering the state assembly election campaign at the time, we were mystified by the case. We had been summoned to appear in person in May 2016. Prem heads the Economic Times bureau in Chennai and he requested his organisation’s legal team to find out what the case was about. It was a defamation case filed by a lawyer who worked with Vaikundarajan. One whole year later, they had decided to file a case against Times Internet and me, dragging Prem into the mix with bizarre allegations. The Madurai bench of the Madras high court has since dispensed with its demand for personal appearances for both of us. But the case is sub judice and therefore, I will not comment further on that.
In early August 2016, eight state officials were suddenly suspended by the Tamil Nadu government. These included a former chief secretary of state and the commissioner of geology and mining. Enquiring into the suspensions, I found out that these had something to do with Vaikundarajan and a report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). “They have dragged you too into this madam,” said an IAS officer but refused to elaborate further. “You will find out yourself, I am sure.”
Curious, I began to dig once again. The Madras high court offered me answers in the form of a document submitted by VV Mineral’s counsel for its defence against the very same PIL that Rajamanickam had filed in 2015, which had since been taken up suo moto by the court. Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Mahadevan were hearing the case.
The damning document was an official report compiled by the union Ministry of Environment and Forests titled, ‘Joint Inspection report of mining lease hold areas and their adjoining areas in the coastal areas of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari districts from 24.04.2015 to 27.04.2015’.
My 2015 Economic Times story precipitated an inspection by the MoEF, which instructed its regional office to investigate the claims about illegal beach sand mining in my report. Accordingly, the ministry constituted an 11-member team with officials from the regional MoEF office in Chennai, the state mining department, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board as well as other experts and geologists.
The report, while giving a clean chit to Vaikundarajan, went on to include statements in which he had slandered the author of the report – me. On page 7 of the report, Vaikundarajan is quoted as saying:
“Further, it was appraised that the Reporter Mrs. Sandhya Ravichandran has of late developed enmity towards V.V. Mineral for not getting employment to her husband Mr. Ravichandran in their TV Channel News 7 owned by the other partners of V.V. Mineral. Mrs Sandhya has reported to have threatened the VVM people from August 2014 itself and this has been documented in an article by the employees association president letter dated 21.08.2014…”.
The truth is that in 2014, my husband Prem, who is a senior journalist, had quit the Tamil channel Puthiya Thalaimurai and started a media solutions firm called Delta4Cast along with two of his friends and colleagues. Prem was contacted by a senior journalist in Chennai – who in turn had been approached by Vaikundarajan and his son – to launch a new channel called News7. This senior journalist has known Vaikundarajan for a number of years. Since the journalist had a print background, he wanted Prem to help him set up the television channel as his number two. Prem informed the journalist that he was not interested in joining the company as he had just launched his own firm. The journalist, however, insisted that he meet with Vaikundarajan’s son Subramanian, who was heading the channel. Prem again reiterated that he did not think it was proper, as his wife – I – had written exposes about the mining company and Vaikundarajan himself. The journalist told Prem that he could tell Subramanian this when they met.
When they did meet, Subramanian was insistent that Prem join News7 as the head of operations. Prem refused the offer. A business proposal was discussed instead, whereby Prem, acting as a consultant, would train reporters and the input team, although Subramanian continued to insist that Prem come onboard as an employee. Prem refused but sent a proposal for the training. Subsequently News7 hired another journalist to launch the channel. A warm series of emails were exchanged between Prem and Subramanian – Subramanian informing Prem about roping in the new editor and asking him to follow up on the proposal with him and Prem congratulating him on the good choice of editor and wishing him the best for News7. Prem did not pursue the consultation project and Subramanian did not communicate with him after that. In 2015, Prem even received a signed New Year greeting card from Subramanian in 2016. I too received a number of wishes – for Diwali, New Year and the like – from Subramanian over WhatsApp, as did Prem.
There has been no enmity between any of us, as alleged by the miners. There has been no question of revenge, because there was no question of a slight, perceived or real. What did happen is simply a continuation of the modus operandi followed by Vaikundarajan – if blandishments don’t work, then threaten. If unable to threaten, file cases, twist statements and events to suit the situation and slander and defame anyone perceived to be a critic. I hold no grudge against Vaikundarajan or his family. I have met him only once – for the interview in January 2015. I met his brother, Jegatheesan, for the Times Now interview in 2013. I have never met any other member of his immediate family, except his estranged stepbrother’s son, Sundaresan, whom I met recently in connection with some allegations, when there was a press conference on the subject.
The MoEF report was a surprise, to say the least. Upon seeing this, I wrote a series of emails to various officials in the union MoEF, demanding an explanation for why slanderous statements against me had been included in an official report, when I was not even contacted by the team for my version of events. I also pointed out various factual errors in these statements, including my name and my husband’s, and requested the ministry officials to clarify whether they stood by the report or not, since it was now a public document in court.
After weeks of relentlessly calling the offices of environment minister Anil Madhav Dave, principal secretary to the prime minister, Nripendra Misra, and joint secretary in charge of mining in the MoEF, Gyanesh Bharti, I am yet to receive any response. Bharti however, spoke to me over the phone once and admitted that personal attacks should not have happened and said that he would look into the issue and respond. His response, however, is yet to arrive. On October 17, a joint director from the ministry called me to inform me that my “petition” was being “processed”. After carefully hearing me out, he promised to have an official response for me by the ‘end of the week’.
This is where things stand as of now. More material has been unearthed in the course of my investigation, as well as during the court hearing itself. Publications that I approached were unwilling to publish the story for fear of legal repercussions and harassment – no editor wants to stand in court rooms all over the Tamil Nadu, responding to defamation cases filed for no other reason than to harass them. Finally The Wire agreed to publish a series on the vast illegal beach sand mining mafia that has almost literally taken over the southernmost parts of Tamil Nadu. I laid my cards on the table at the very beginning with the editor and warned that the publication is likely to be targeted legally. “As long as you have the documents, we will carry it,” the editors said. And so this story was written.
In January 2015, when I, as an independent journalist writing for the Economic Times, contacted the founder of VV Mineral, S. Vaikundarajan for a response to the allegations against him, he conceded to the request and gave a freewheeling interview – an audio recording of which is with me as well as the VV Mineral team.
In 2016, in view of the recent developments and with the larger public interest in mind, I contacted Vaikundarajan via a detailed email, asking for responses to the many allegations surrounding him and his firm, and also inquired if he had anything further comments or clarifications to add. He was also informed that excerpts from his January 2015 interview would be used.
Vaikundarajan responded with this email on August 31, 2016 – marked not only to me but to editors of all the top news publications and television channels in the country – both English and regional language media.
Thank you very much for the mail.
In the previous occasion also you asked some clarification from me, which were answered and we showed you all the documents and handed over copy of all the relevant documents. But the article did not cover any of our explanation, it was purely biased and one sided and focused only on a bogus PIL. The clarification asked by you and replies given by me are not reflected in any your previous article, even though you recorded the whole audio. All this only makes me believe you may be biased and are supporting our competitors Mr.Dhaya Devadas and Victor Rajamanikkam. The very fact that you are only asking about small baseless allegations on us, and you are not willing to talk anything about 39 lakhs tonnes seized form Dhaya devadas is only supporting my belief. None of your previous article talked about the 39 Lakhs M.Ton illegal mining of Dhayadevadas and the Monazite, Uranium, Thorium available on above said 39 Lakhs M.Ton, which was also confirmed by his own gang member Victor Rajamanikkam in the Mining plan. Copy of the same also was handed over to you.
Hence whatever reply I answer, I know that your article will definitely target me and will be against me. Moreover a lot of these issues are sub-judice and doesn’t warrant my comments.
We have already such enmity with you and criminal cases / proceedings are pending in Judicial Magistrate Court, Tirunelveli as well as Honourable High Court Madurai.
I reserve my right to initiate legal proceedings, if any adverse news is published by you against me or our companies in any name.
With kind regards
Vaikundarajan | Managing Director
Another legal threat. Another set of slanderous allegations hurled at a journalist doing her job. But the show must go on.
Sandhya Ravishankar is a Chennai-based journalist who has been investigating illegal beach sand mining for years. She tweets at @sandhyaravishan