Life is not a beach

LATEST COMMENTS:  Marvellous.from: G.BALASUBRAMANIAN. Jul 19, 2015 at 20:09 IST

Mining for beach sand minerals poses a threat to the economic and social fabric of fishing villages along Tamil Nadu’s coast. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

SANTIAGO, 73, has been at sea for nearly 60 summers of his life. The old fisherman from Periyathalai village in the coastal district of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu is, however, now dejected that the sea, which he calls his “soul and life”, is getting alienated from him. “We have not ventured into it for the past couple of months,” Santiago said. Periyathalai and neighbouring hamlets are known for huge lobsters, white pomfrets and other premium marine varieties. But the catches “are increasingly becoming rare and poor”.

Many fishermen like Santiago in several villages that dot the 90-kilometre shoreline along the three districts of Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, which have mineral placer deposits of high value on their beaches, share his feeling of desolation. These precious minerals have lured miners to the beaches in droves, leading to many social and economic problems. “Outside forces have alienated the sea from us. They have infiltrated our close-knit communities, caused divisions, corrupted our men and started exploiting our community to achieve their nefarious objectives. Today we stand divided,” said Santiago. He attributed many of their problems to illicit mining in non-leased areas and overexploitation of minerals in permitted pockets.

Periyathalai and nearby Uvari have been in the forefront of a struggle against the indiscriminate mining since 1995, which is gaining strength in other coastal areas like Padukkapathu in Tuticorin district and Kudankulam in Tirunelveli district. Beach sand mining, fishermen say, has destroyed the fishing economy of the entire region besides causing health hazards and massive sea erosion.

The State’s coastline of 1,076 km along the Bay of Bengal constitutes 15 per cent of India’s total coastline of 7,500 km. The Tamil Nadu coastline has 571 fishing hamlets in 13 districts. Mineral deposits such as garnet, ilmenite, zircon, rutile, sillimanite and leucoxene are found on the southern coast. A geological study says that four million tonnes of garnet is available in the 40-kilometre coast of Tuticorin district alone. Before private players entered the scene, the government-owned Indian Rare Earths at Manavalakurichi in Kanyakumari district was the sole miner.

Santiago’s wife and former Periyathalai village president S. Susheela, 65, attributed the searing heat “that engulfs us not only in summer but all through the year” to the large-scale mining along the coast. She claimed that a large number of women had miscarriages because of problems associated with mining.