Illegal mining Muttur’s sandy secret Hundreds of tons of sand taken away at night

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By 2017-11-19

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Muttur, where Sri Lanka's greatest river, the Mahaweli joins the Indian Ocean, is one of the most beautiful parts of our country. It is a place of hundreds of freshwater pools teeming with fish and prawns, where elephants roam and peacocks dance. But the avariciousness of man is now destroying this paradise.

Every night, hundreds of tipper trucks – some say 700 per night – rumble out of this place, taking with them hundreds of tons of sand mined from the river bed, to feed the building craze in the greedy metropolis of Colombo.

The mostly illegal mining operation is also a major threat to the flood bund that protects thousands of acres of paddy fields and villages.

Ceylon Today witnessed the colossal destruction to the river and surrounding environment by way of the sand mining that is in operation. The pristine environment around Oddu Padukaadu and its surroundings where over 400 tractors and fleets of tippers ply up and down in the nights transporting sand dug up from the nearby Mahaweli River, causing utter devastation.

A stretch of more than four kilometres is being used for sand mining starting from Theethen Thetty. The river is totally ruined in Iraal Kuli, Iral Paalam, Kuruwiththeevu and Paal Thurai in the Muttur Division. According to the people of the area, sand mining is carried out in a vast area at Theethen Thetty and Wella Naaval.

When we drove passing through the area, we saw several mounds of sand on paddy lands waiting to be transported elsewhere.

This paper reported two Sundays ago about a disputed 100-acre private paddy land in Oddu Padukaadu that Civil Security Division (CSD) and traditional farmers are fighting over, with each side claiming ownership.

While farmers are officially barred from cultivating the disputed paddy land, a thriving business of mining sand for sale is being carried out at the other end of the paddy land onwards where temporarily paved roads to transport sand through the disputed paddy land have been constructed.

Source of income

About 400 tippers full of sand could be seen on these temporary roads, on their way to the main Muttur-Trincomalee Road.

Inquiries from several persons revealed that most locals don't oppose the sand mining as it is currently a source of income for poor youth in the area. It is quite routine for these youths in their hundreds, to gather by the roadside till their sand mining bosses' tipper comes to pick them up to take them to the Mahaweli River.

It appears that while villagers are aware that this sand mining is illegal, they dare not talk about it to strangers as it is a source of income for them. An official from the Province's Land Commission who spoke under the condition of anonymity said that nearly 400 to 500 tippers transport sand from the river daily, mostly to areas outside Trincomalee District.

Clearly the demand for sand is not in the Trincomalee District and is being sold for higher prices in Colombo where there is a building boom.

Mining permits

The process to get permission for sand mining begins at Divisional level. When applications are received for a sand mining licence at the Muttur Divisional Secretariat (DS), they are forwarded to the Land Use Committee.

Then the applications are sent to the Central Environmental Authority and then for further verification to the Forest Department and Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB). Once applications are cleared by the GSMB, they are returned to the DS and the District Land Use Committee would decide on the final list. It is then that the DS and Government Agent would issue a licence for sand mining.

In the Serunuwara Division we learnt that the quasi-military Civil Security Division (CSD) has been issued with sand mining permits. When questioned, Serunuwara Divisional Secretary P.R. Jayaratne admitted that the CSD were also issued with a licence for sand mining.

He said that the CSD head office is constructing a building in Colombo and therefore sand is sent from Muttur.

The Law

According to the law, sand mining and distribution of sand within the Trincomalee District should take place between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. However, there were no tippers to be seen leaving during that time.

When a large number of tippers full of sand did actually move out, it was between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. – the time given to transport sand outside the district.

According to reliable sources, although about 20-30 licences for sand mining in Muttur have been issued, this has been exploited and there is large-scale illegal sand mining taking place. Most are issued with a one-year permit for removing 250 metric cubes of sand, but that is not monitored.

Evading arrest

Officials also told Ceylon Today about a sudden raid by the DS or GA's office where they witnessed sand miners throwing their shovels and fleeing from the site.

"So far, hardly anyone has been arrested," one of the Land Officers in Muttur said, adding, "Since it's an illegal activity that they are engaged in, they have also learned to flee from the site when they are tipped off via mobile phones."

Villagers say that while several tippers are taken into custody by the Police in various places, the river is being dug up for sand continuously, without a break.

What is striking is that with all this destruction taking place, Muttur DS still receives applications requesting licences for sand mining. An official attached to the Muttur DS told Ceylon Today, that in the last two weeks alone, his office received 15 applications for sand mining permits. They have decided to reject the applications.

A beautiful part of our country is being completely and irreparably destroyed due to the rampant corruption of officials and greed of big businesses.

GSMB assures probe

Deputy Director GSMB Sajjana de Silva, following an inquiry by Ceylon Today into large-scale sand mining in Muttur, stated that he would find out all the details and reveal it to this paper.

When questioned as to whether GSMB monitors the activities of sand miners and whether they know that nearly 400 tippers transport sand from this area, the engineer said that he will only be able to answer after contacting various officials over the matter. He also thanked Ceylon Today for bringing this issue to his notice.

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