Battling India’s Sand Barons – by Sibi Arasu ( – May 11, 2016)

Environmental activist S. Mugilan confronts the sand-mining mafia in India’s Tamil Nadu state, even as other activists lose their lives attempting to save the state’s natural resources.

In November 2008, a gang of around 70 assailants attacked S. Mugilan and his nine comrades with kadaparais (crowbars) and aruvals (curved machetes). The attack took place at around three in the morning, as they were returning home from sticking posters up across the town of Namakkal in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The posters called on state authorities to shut down a paper factory that had polluted 10,000 acres of land in the district— a factory owned by a well-connected functionary of a leading political party. Mugilan and others had organised numerous protests against the factory.

The attackers were never identified or apprehended, but Mugilan presumes they were goons hired by the factory owner. He and his fellow posterers spent many weeks in the hospital recovering from their injuries. But in the end they won. They continued organizing protests, and, just four months after the attack, the factory closed. Since then, all large factories set up in the district inevitably implement strict pollution controls, for fear of drawing the people’s ire.

For more than two decades Mugilan, now 49, has been taking on polluters across his state. He is currently back in the hospital. This time, the police took him there for fasting to protest their preventing him from handing out pamphlets urging voters to defeat a prominent political candidate from the incumbent party.

Mugilan has had some victories over the years: shutting down a Coke factory in Perundurai, shutting down a highly polluting textile-dyeing factory in Erode, preventing a hill near his hometown of Chennimalai from being mined into oblivion for its sand, helping organize popular opposition to a nuclear power plant on the state’s coastline. And, in an especially shocking case, helping to expose granite miners who were offering narabali (human sacrifice) to improve their business.

Mugilan has had many failures, too, and even more struggles that are still ongoing. The most strenuous among these is his fight against Tamil Nadu’s sand-mining mafia.

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