Mine your business

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 10, 2018

Milking dry: In 2015, a PIL was filed in the Madras High Court alleging that illegal beach sand mining had caused the exchequer losses to the tune of Rs 1 lakh crore Photo: M Moorthy   -  moorthy

Sandhya Ravishankar

Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar, who tracks sand mining in Tamil Nadu, is facing abuse

I have been following the story of sand mining in Tamil Nadu since 2013, when I was working as a television journalist with Times Now. That year, the then district collector of Tuticorin, Ashish Kumar, was transferred after he conducted a raid on the beach sand mining mafia. I travelled to Tuticorin to report on the issue. Soon, I realised the story was much larger. I interviewed hundreds of people, including fishermen and others who were suffering from myriad illnesses, which they alleged were the result of the unabated sand mining in the area. I did a series which went on air and, soon, J Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, ordered a ban on beach sand mining in the region. She set up a panel to probe the issue and it submitted a report within a month. Jayalalithaa soon banned beach sand mining in five districts of Tamil Nadu.

In 2014, a miners’ collective wrote a letter to The Hindu Tamil, objecting to a report it had filed on sand mining. The letter mentioned my name, and alleged I had accepted ₹50 lakh from a mining magnate to write about his rivals. The letter also said that my husband had been denied a job at a channel run by the son of prominent mining businessman Vaikundarajan of VV Mineral. It was alleged that I had politely threatened them. That was the beginning of many such allegations. I left Times Now in November 2014 and became a freelance writer. In 2015, a PIL was filed in the Madras High Court by geologist Victor Rajamanickam, who alleged that illegal beach sand mining had caused the exchequer losses to the tune of ₹1 lakh crore.

Interestingly, 75 per cent of the leases in beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu is controlled by one company — VV Mineral; and the rest are related to this company in one way or the other. It’s a virtual monopoly, so much so that a story on beach sand mining in Tamil Nadu cannot ignore VV Mineral. So after this PIL was filed, I planned a story for The Economic Times (ET) and reached out to Vaikundarajan. He agreed for an interview, which took place at the ET office. We spoke for about two hours. The story came out on February 1, 2015.

Very soon, the mining company sent the daily a legal notice. Negotiations ensued, and finally ET carried a correction. It didn’t take away anything from the story, which is still available online.

A year after the ET story, my husband and I received a summons from the Tirunelveli JM Court. He was with the ET then and his office had contacted him seeking details about the issue. We realised that the mining company had filed a defamation suit against us. They argued that I harboured enmity towards the company as my husband had been denied a job at their channel. The matter is sub judice and hearings are pending.

By 2016, Rajamanickam’s PIL had become a suo motu plea and the court had taken up the cause. Interestingly, when I was digging into a story about the suspension of eight government officials, I came across an interesting Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) report. The ministry had asked its regional office to probe the matter after the ET report came out and the Tamil Nadu office had set up an expert panel, which later filed a report stating everything was hunky-dory with beach sand mining in the State. Curiously, the official report had mentioned my name. It repeated that I had received money from VV Mineral’s rivals. This was a clear case of abuse of government power as none of the panel members had sought my version of the story or verified it. I wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office, MoEF, and other departments.

I’m yet to receive a response.

By then I had figured out that these illegal activities have been on for at least three decades with the help of government officials. So in January 2017, I wrote a series on these activities on The Wire. Soon after the articles were posted on the portal, online trolling began. They called me Chinna Phoolan Devi of journalism, a paid-news reporter, fake-news reporter and all kinds of unmentionables. My mobile number was tweeted from a Twitter handle with the message “Sandhya Ravishankar is anti-Jallikkattu (the controversial bull-fighting sport)” but exhorted followers “not to call and scream at her”. The trick worked and an ugly chain of threatening calls and abuses followed. Trolls threatened to throw chilli powder in my private parts. This went on for a week, and then I filed a police complaint. But nothing came of it.

I did a follow-up story. And the anonymous blogs got more active. One of them claimed that the miner had hired five detective agencies to follow me and record my meetings with people. They threatened to release my videos online. I went back to the police and updated the existing cyber crime complaint. I met the DGP, chief secretary and several other officials. I wrote to the Press Council of India and other agencies. A few of them issued statements. I had written to the National Commission for Women, but not elicited a response yet.

It is shocking that journalists like me don’t have a support system or union to back them in such situations. I am on my own, but I am not scared to expose illegal sand mining. I know my support circle is small and the mining mafia is gaining ground. But I am sure truth will prevail, sooner or later.

Published on March 31, 2017

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