Sand-mining rocks Trinco | Sunday Observer

Sand-mining rocks Trinco

3 February, 2019
Rampaging mob in Kinniya
Rampaging mob in Kinniya

Over the years the Mahaweli river has faced the constant assault of sand racketeers as it coursed through the Trincomalee district on its final journey to the sea. Despite causing irreversible damage to the environment the illegal sand miners have only become more brazen in recent times, continuing unafraid and unabated in their illegal venture.

A lucrative business for the powerful, the large scale racket has also benefited the economically downtrodden in the area allowing them to make a quick buck in the process. While the police along with the Special Task Force (STF) and the Sri Lanka Navy has been fighting a tough battle against what can be called the ‘Illegal Sand Mafia,’ on Tuesday (26) tensions flared between villagers and the Navy during a raid conducted on illegal sand mining by Naval Officers in Kinniya.

As to what conspired on the day remains unclear, according to information gathered by the police. In the early hours of Tuesday, the Navy had received a tip-off claiming that a group was engaged in sand mining sans a permit near the Kandalkadu 2nd bridge in Kinniya. Arriving at the scene, eight Naval officers with five firearms had discovered the suspects around 400 metres from the bridge. While the officers had taken the keys of one truck which was on the scene into their custody, they had also proceeded to apprehend four people who were loading sand on to a second truck.

According to Police sources, upon seeing the Navy personnel one suspect had fled into the bush, while another three had jumped into the river in a desperate bid to swim to the opposite river bank and evade arrest. The police source also said that residents in the area claim they heard two gunshots around this time. “We believe the suspects may have fled in fear after shots were fired into the air to stop their escape,” he said. One suspect who jumped into the river successfully escaped, the other two went missing causing panic and confusion in the area.

As a rumour claiming the Navy had shot dead two men in the area spread, an unruly mob descended on the area. Horrifying video footage showed the Naval personnel being attacked with clubs, buckets and stones by the group. Unable to get away, the Police and the STF had to be called to control the group and ensure the safety of the officers who had been brutally attacked by then.

“One officer is in a serious condition. He is currently receiving treatment in Colombo while another three are being treated in Trincomalee” Navy Spokesman Lt. Commander Isuru Suriyabandara said when contacted by the Sunday Observer.

The group had also hampered search operations by the Navy divers to locate the two missing suspects. “We had to provide additional security and close the road as they kept thawarting the search efforts for the two drowned men,” the police source said. Commencing investigations into the incident, the Police have ruled out the claim that the suspects were shot by the Navy. The Judicial Medical Officer’s report confirmed that the two sand racketeers had died due to drowning. According to the Police, the group had no valid permit to mine for sand in the Kandalkadu bridge area.

The police have also obtained statements from the Naval personnel and taken the five firearms belonging to the Navy used on the day into custody. “We have ascertained that shots had been fired by only one weapon,” the police source said.

As for the unruly mob, the source said they have currently identified four individuals who had attacked the Naval personnel. “They will be arrested shortly” he confirmed. According to him, the Police are viewing video footage of the incident to identify more suspects. While calm has now been restored in Kinniya, this recent incident, however, points towards larger problems relating to the illicit sand trade in the region. According to one resident in the area who wished to remain anonymous, the two suspects 22-year-old Mohamed Faris and 19-year-old Mohamed Rameez, were two impoverished and unemployed youth.

Faris, who had married a month ago and Rameez who was taking care of his ailing parents had been extracting sand together to sell the load to large scale illegal sand racketeers. According to the residents, faced with economic hardships, a result of continuous crop failures due to either floods or drought many have turned to illegal sand mining, working as day labourers to make ends meet. “If one extracts around one cube of sand the businessman would pay between Rs.1,500 - Rs. 3,000 for it,” he said.

They also said villagers often benefit from the racket in many ways. While some work as lookouts, they are paid handsomely by the racketeers for tip-offs on approaching Police or any other officials, others work as labourers. Prostitution is also rampant and linked to the trade. “Most lorry drivers do not work from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. according to permit regulations,” the resident pointed out explaining the connection. According to him, as a result villagers often support the illegal sand miners as it is economically beneficial to them.

But illicit mining has taken its toll on the Mahaweli river. “It has widened and in many areas, the banks have been damaged,” the resident said, adding that it was the cause for the serious floods seen in recent times. According to him, often legal permit holders also violate the regulations causing extensive damage to the environment. As sand excavations have caused deeper river beds to form, much lower than the sea levels during droughts salt water often enters the river. “Using this water causes crop failures” the resident revealed.

The Navy has also come under criticism for their conduct following the recent incident. Reaching the spot on the day, Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping Abdullah Mahroof criticised the Navy for trying to take the law into their hands which grants powers only to the police to apprehend the suspects. The police confirmed that no officers belonging to the police or STF had accompanied the Naval Officers to conduct the raid that day.

According to Lt. Commander Suriyabandara, the Navy has now recalled its personnel conducting raids in the area following the incident. “However we will send in our troops for raids according to instructions given in the future,” he said. President Maithripala Sirisena has also expressed his support to the Navy and urged them to continue their fight against illegal sand mining and other illicit activities in the area.

“We have to provide the means for these people to earn an income in order to stop illegal sand mining activities” State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene told the Sunday Observer. According to the Minister, discussions will be held with the politicians in the area. He also confirmed that raids by the Navy will continue. “It may be a quick way to earn money but it cannot be permitted. It is illegal,” the State Minister said.