Samuel Mar Irenios (69), the catholic bishop of Pathanamthitta, and five priests attached to the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church of Kerala’s Pathanamthitta were arrested for their role in illegal sand smuggling. Since the illegal mining and exploitation happened in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, CB- CID officers from Tamil Nadu are handling the case and the accused were arrested from Ambasamudhram. Church-appointed lawyers tried their best to get them bailed out on Wednesday but failed after the court denied the six of them any leniency.
Jose Chamakala (69), Shaji Thomas(58), George Samuel (56), Jose Kalaviyal (53), and Jijo James (37) are the other priests involved in the scandal. Earlier, the Tirunelveli district court remanded all of them to judicial custody but Irenios and Chamakkala feigned illness and got themselves admitted to the Government Medical College Hospital, Tirunelveli. The rest of the clerics are lodged in the Nanguneri jail.
In late 2019, it was estimated that 22.67 lakh cubic meters of river sand had accumulated in the eight major rivers of Kerala. Tamil Nadu also has been a victim of floods ever since 2015 and the church took this as an opportunity, albeit an immoral one.
Irenios owns 300 acres of agricultural land at Pottal village on the banks of the Thamirabarani river bordering the Vandal Odai check dam in the Tirunelveli district. In the past, coconuts and gooseberries were farmed in the bishop’s land. In late 2019, the Pathanamthitta church ‘leased’ it to one Manuel George from Kottayam for running a quarry business. Manuel obtained a license for processing and storing stone, gravel, crusher dust, and M-sand.
M-sand or manufactured sand is produced by crushing rocks and is environmentally friendly when compared to river sand. The issue with M-sand is that it consumes more cement when used in high-grade pumpable concrete and naturally, greedy contractors prefer river sand. Back in 2015, one cubic foot of river sand cost Rs 55 in Tamil Nadu but it was Rs 80 in Kerala and today it costs almost double and triples immediately after the rains/ floods.
The sand mafia conspired with corrupt local politicians and officials from the mining and geology department and started large-scale illicit mining of sand from the river, the reservoir, and the adjacent areas. It continued unchecked for almost a year before the Cheranmahadevi sub-collector inspected the premises in September 2020. Assessments estimated that 27,774 cubic meters of sand had been illegally mined and transported for commercial purposes but the actual quantity is said to be much more.
A penalty of Rs 9.57 crores was imposed on the bishop and the Veeranallur police sub-inspector was suspended for aiding the accused. The church has multiple infrastructure projects and it was selling illegally mined sand to private operators. Though the bishop and his cronies were summoned for interrogation, they claimed that George indulged in sand mining vast plots of adjacent government land and committed the malpractices without their knowledge.
Police had earlier arrested George and one Mohammed Samir last year. Samir is married to Sabitha, the deputy director of mines and minerals in Tamil Nadu. Astonishingly, even though it was clear that Samir had helped the sand mafia, Sabitha was merely transferred to the adjacent district of Thoothukudi. A fake journalist named John victor, Paulraj, and a couple of others were arrested for aiding and abetting the illegal sand smuggling.
Though the accused fooled the local villagers, environmentalists and natives knew exactly what was happening and started a campaign that took the sand mafia to the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court. Last year, the court ordered that the case be transferred from Kallidaikurichi police station to Tamil Nadu CB-CID for further investigations. The CB-CID gathered evidence and arrested the bishop and five priests after the investigators found that the illegal activities were carried out with the connivance of the owners of the land and based on the proof, the court remanded them.
Missionaries who have indulged in child abuse, sodomy of nuns, forced conversions, and financial irregularities are now involved in stripping the earth of its precious wealth that puts both the environment and citizens residing along riverbanks at risk. Having destroyed large tracts of land along the highly vulnerable high ranges of the Western Ghats, the missionaries had moved down to plains to exploit the river sand deposits. They knew very well that illicit sand mining has altered river beds, forced rivers to change course, eroded banks, and more importantly led to severe floods.
It has destroyed the natural habitat of aquatic animals, eliminated whole ecosystems, and affected groundwater recharge. Undeterred, they moved ahead with their evil plans. This illegal sand mining and smuggling still continue but the detention of the missionaries has come as a rude shock to the people of Tamil Nadu.
Incidentally, the Thamirabarani river is like Ganga and local Hindus consider it holy due to its perennial nature. This is exactly why it finds references in the Mahabharat. This could also be the reason why the conversion mafia that has no issues raping and plundering the earth as their colonial masters did, chose this river. It originates from above Papanasam in the Western Ghats, flows east before it meets the Bay of Bengal. Various dams and check dams make sure that water from this river irrigates huge tracts of agricultural land.
Latest heard, the church shamelessly tried to defend itself when it issued a statement that said that they were included in the investigations only because they are the landowners. They tried to pin the blame exclusively on George and added that they have initiated legal proceedings against him. If recent court orders are to be referenced, these pastors too may go scot-free in no time.