For decades, the granite industry in Tamil Nadu has been making and supplying ‘monuments’ — a euphemism for tombstones — for customers abroad, mainly Europe. Today, it appears to be in need of one itself.
The industry has come to a standstill. There are some 900 quarries in the State, but none in operation. They are closed for want of environmental clearance from the State government. And, this is because of ‘administrative delays’.
Illegal mining alleged
Of the 900-odd quarries, about 175 in Madurai district have been shut since 2012 because of legal tangles with the government. They were accused of fudging data to pay lower royalty to the State.
The State government believes it has lost about ₹15,000 crore to illegal mining of stone from land outside the leased area. Industry insiders say that while a handful of companies (3 or 4) may have indulged in illegal mining, the government is wrong in painting everybody with the same brush. Another charge is that the industry has been under-recording production to save on royalties. The industry strongly refutes this. The matter is before the High Court.
Loss of jobs
In 2010-11, Tamil Nadu exported granite worth ₹6,800 crore, 13 per cent of exports from India. The domestic market is typically a tenth of exports. Thus, substantial economic value and about half a million jobs have vanished. In Madurai district alone, about 1 lakh jobs have gone. According to Maha Suseendran, President of BJP Madurai district unit, some 2,100 trucks that used to move granite have been seized by vehicle financiers and 111 people have committed suicide.
The BJP has taken up the issue. On January 2, it organised a protest rally and escalated the issue to the National Commission on Scheduled Castes. A sizable chunk of granite industry labourers belong to Scheduled Castes.
How it began
The travails of the granite industry in Tamil Nadu began in 2011 when the then Collector of Madurai district, Ubagaram Sagayam, received a petition about illegal granite quarrying in the district. Sagayam swung into action, visiting quarries and checking vehicles with a crusading spirit.
In a May 19, 2015 letter to the State Chief Secretary, Sagayam estimated that the State was short-changed by approximately ₹16,338 crore, including ₹617 crore in lease rent, because granite companies were under-stating production and mining in unauthorised land. The industry said the allegation was “baseless.”
Afterall, only 10-15 per cent of mined stone turns out to be salable granite; the rest goes as waste due to various defects such as cracks, fissures and discolouration. Sagayam’s calculations were on 90 per cent recovery, instead of 10-15 per cent. The State government-owned granite miner, Tamilnadu Minerals Ltd (TAMIN), too, recovers only 10 per cent.
On the charge of illegal mining, sources admit that a few companies were guilty. “They finished off entire hillocks,” one industry insider, who asked not to be identified, said. In the letter, Sagayam said he had “personally confirmed” that Olympus Granite Pvt Ltd and PRP Granites were guilty of illegal mining.
Sagayam was soon transferred out but his successor, Anshul Mishra, picked up the thread from where Sagayam left off, conducting raids, ordering quarry closures and filing FIRs. And, soon enough, Sagayam, too, was back, this time as the High Court-appointed Legal Commissioner, with a mandate to probe the issue, thanks to a PIL filed by anti-corruption crusader ‘Traffic’ Ramasamy.
The industry believes that the government has since got convinced that things are not all that bad in the quarries and that its officials may have erred, but is not prepared to back down at this stage. However, the bottomline is that, due to a few errant players and bureaucrats, a thriving industry is shut.
R Veeramani, a doyen of the industry and Chairman of Gem Granites, said, “I have an image as a pioneer and an authority on the stone industry, but unfortunately all these are nullified by these allegations.” Visibly upset, Veeramani, a former President of the World Natural Stone Association, often rues having given up his law profession for the industry. Legal Commissioner Sagayam submitted his report in November 2015, estimating that the total loss to the State exchequer was ₹1.1 lakh crore. The State government rejected the figure, as well as his call for a CBI probe. Though even his detractors admit he is incorruptible, many in industry leaders feel the mess was created by his over-zealousnesa. (He once famously spent a night in a graveyard to prevent exhumation and destruction of bodies of people he believed were killed in human sacrifice by granite companies, so as to preserve evidence.)
The case is stuck in the court — there has not been a hearing in the last one-and-half years — and the government is not willing to withdraw.
Now, with the BJP taking up the matter, the issue has acquired a political hue, but industry insiders are hopeful that something good will come out of it.