The gruesome murder of Lourdhu Francis, a Village Administrative Officer (VAO) in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, on Tuesday — he was in his office — is a reminder of the lengths to which the sand mafia will go to protect its lucrative activities involving illegal quarrying. The official had been informing the police and his superiors about mafia operations. This is not the first such case in Tamil Nadu. Five years ago, in neighbouring Tirunelveli, a 33-year-old police constable was brutally murdered by the sand mafia when he was about to arrest the culprits who had mined river sand from the Nambiyar. The State has had a long history of attacks on public servants who have sought to enforce the rules governing sand quarrying and book wrongdoers. Over 25 years ago, the then District Collector of Tiruvallur, Jayashree Raghunandan, nearly lost her life when leading a raid on illegal quarrying; the driver of a lorry was arrested on charges of attempting to kill her. The killing of a Deputy Tahsildar near Chengalpattu, in December 2004, is another case. Both the Madras High Court and the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal have, on many occasions, sought to address the issue of illegal sand quarrying and mining. In October 2013, after the High Court came down on the administration of Kancheepuram district (near Chennai), over alleged illegal quarrying, the State government went to the extent of suspending the Collector. Over the past five to six years, the government’s launching of measures such as online system of booking of sand and payment (with plans to fine tune technology applications in this regard) as well as the unveiling of a policy document on “M-sand” (or manufactured sand, as an alternative to river sand), in March this year, are steps that have hardly stopped illegal sand quarrying.
What is critical is that the government should send a strong message: of its zero tolerance towards illegal sand quarrying. Unless this is done in unequivocal terms, any other move to tone up the system will fall short. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin ordering ₹1 crore as solatium and the appointment of a member of the VAO’s family in government service on compassionate grounds should be of some comfort to the family, but the government should apprehend the killers and ensure their conviction expeditiously. At the same time, the government should ponder over the efficacy of the existing system concerning the sale and use of river sand. It also needs to strengthen the regulatory mechanism. The authorities would do well to promote research on the production and quality of M-sand. Regardless of any other steps it takes, the government should not give room for any more murderous violence in the State.