Taking on the sand mafia

India
01-03-2017-mugilan-590.jpeg

In defence of nature and local people, Mugilan has taken on plunndering and polluting corporations. © Sibi Arasu

The latest attack came on 13 December 2016. At a bend in the road a lorry blocked the route along which S Mugilan was travelling with an activist colleague and his three children. They were driving back at night from a public meeting against the plundering of sand from the River Cauvery by politically connected contractors and sand-mining agents near the town of Karur in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

A dozen hired thugs fell upon their car. ‘Managing to open the door, they pulled me out legs first but I clung on desperately. They grabbed my throat and asked me to leave Karur and never come back,’ says Mugilan. ‘Even though it lasted for only about 10 minutes, they managed to hurt me pretty badly. The locals, seeing us being attacked, rushed to the car and the thugs dispersed. The children were traumatized.’

Later that night, they went to the district collector’s house and went on a dharna (sit-in), asking for a case of criminal assault to be registered. It took many hours of persuasion to do so.

The next morning they heard that a counter-charge had been registered, alleging that Mugilan and company were the perpetrators of the violence.

‘This is what usually happens. It’s just another day in the life of anyone like me who the powers-that-be are afraid of,’ says Mugilan. ‘At least now we know that we are making a real impact here.’

This incident is the latest in a line of assaults that Mugilan has faced in a lifetime of human rights and environmental activism.

A tradition of protest

‘My village, Chennimalai, located in the “textile belt” of Tamil Nadu, has always had a history of protest,’ says Mugilan. ‘Even 200 years ago, when the East India Company was trying to collect taxes here, the king of this region, Chinna Malai, defeated the British army thrice in battle, albeit with the help of the legendary Tipu Sultan.

‘More recently, the people here have executed long-standing protests for labour rights in the textile industry. This inherent celebration of socialism as well as this tradition of protests definitely shaped me.

'I realize the path I have chosen is risky. Every day, the greatest happiness is that I'm alive to see tomorrow'

‘My first exposure to ideas of social justice was when I was 9 or 10. The owner of a barber shop I was often taken to was a great admirer of the then newly formed DMK or the Dravidian Progressive Party. He was illiterate, though. Every day he would get a copy of the party’s official news organ Murasoli and my task was to read it out aloud.

‘My father was a farmer and my mother took care of our household. Even though they weren’t actively involved in political agitations, they never discouraged my siblings and me from doing what we thought was right. When I was in college, my father was summoned many times to be informed about my student activism. Not once did he scold or raise his voice against me.’

Poongodi, Mugilan's wife, receives constant threats to her family.

Sibi Arasu

With no graduate college in his district, Mugilan enrolled on a mechanical engineering course in the town of Pollachi, around 100 kilometres away. ‘The 1980s were turbulent times in Tamil Nadu and, unlike now, students were at the forefront of everything,’ he recalls.

‘College was the time when I discovered Marxist texts and the socialist philosophies of the self-respect movement, inspired by Periyar, here in Tamil Nadu.’

The only time he was outside the activist fold were the four years (1984-88) he worked as an engineer at the state Public Works Department. ‘That place was not for me. You were expected to turn a blind eye to a lot of things and I just couldn’t do that.’ Discovering the Tamil Nadu Marxist Party, he lost interest in the job.

‘How we dealt with things as a party was a great lesson for me which I still hold dear, even though I am out of the official party now. We protested against the rampant availability of alcohol and drugs, the caste system and overreach of government officials and the police. We always had the people on our side, though, and that is one reason why I’m protected even today. As long as the people you are agitating for protect you, there is relative safety from hired thugs.’

Destruction in the name of development

Mugilan first got involved in environmental protest in 2005. ‘The Noyyal River was excessively polluted by leather factories and dyeing units. We targeted the particularly polluting units and were reasonably successful in shutting them down.’ This was not without consequences.

In November 2008, Mugilan and his comrades were attacked by about 70 men armed with kadaparais (crowbars) and aruvals (curved machetes). They were left with injuries which required weeks of hospitalization.

Asked about how she deals with constant threats to her family, Mugilan’s wife Poongodi says, ‘When they call, I just tell them to do whatever they can. There’s no point in being afraid of these people.’

'There's no point in being afraid of these people'

While involved in a three-year-long agitation against a nuclear power plant in the town of Koodankulam, Mugilan was confronted with the theft of beach sand by the mining mafia there. The sand mining on Tamil Nadu’s east coast is so rampant that entire stretches of beaches have dis­appeared. Just one case filed in the Madras High Court alleges that $14 billion worth of sand was illegally mined by a single mafia boss and his company. ‘In the village of Idinthakarai, there are many who have been brutally killed for raising their voices against mining.’

In the last decade, Mugilan has been at the forefront of protest against environmental degradation. Sand mining of the 1,076-kilometre coastline and of all the 17 major river-basins that fall within the state’s border is an illegal trade of epic proportions, generating billions in black money. It has led to river basins sinking 10 metres or more below ground level in the past two decades. He has also led protests against a proposed hydraulic fracking project, a natural gas pipeline, air and water pollution by industry, and a project to establish a neutrino observatory in a reserved forest area, among others.

‘This state’s natural resources are being destroyed in the name of development. The politicians here, like how dogs like to come lick everything, they come and take a lick – that is, get a cut from whatever project is going on, regardless of how badly it will affect their own people,’ says Mugilan.

‘First, people need to understand that natural resources are their common property. Then, that they have to protect them from those who are trying to exploit them for commercial purposes.’

Mugilan considers the people he organizes and works with as the real revolutionaries. ‘I believe there are three types of people. The first, who only think about themselves, the second, who think they can’t do much but are willing to help those who do. Finally, the third type are those who are determined to change how things work. Having a fundamental care for my society, I belong to this type.

‘I realize the path I have chosen is risky. Every day, the greatest happiness is that I’m alive to see tomorrow. Tamil Nadu, like many other parts of the world, is being swindled and destroyed beyond recognition. The job is for working people all over the world, not just here, to come together against such swindling. We’re up against big capitalists and imperialists. Great strength is needed to defeat them.’

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Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai; @sibi123.

mag cover This article is from the March 2017 issue of New Internationalist.
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