Days after the Tuticorin district collector was shifted after inspecting quarries and reporting a mining company was operating in a larger area than allowed, the experts charged that governments at the central and the state level with not taking any preventive action to prevent illegal mining.
"The issue of illegal mining of beach sand minerals (BSM) like monazite containing thorium was brought to the notice of the Tamil Nadu government last January. I am yet to get a reply (from them)," V.Sundaram, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, told IANS.
According to him, large tracts of land have been leased for mining at dirt-cheap rates so that the leasee can rake in crores while putting at risk the nation's nuclear power programme.
Sundaram said as per his estimates, the loot is worth around Rs.96,000 crore and the issue was also brought to the notice of R.K.Sinha, secretary in the department of atomic energy (DAE).
"We have 50 percent of the world's thorium reserves on the beach sands. This has to be protected," S.Kalyanaraman, a retired senior executive of Asian Development Bank (ADB) told IANS.
Thorium-powered nuclear reactors form the third phase of India's three-phase atomic power programme: The first two being pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR) and the second being the fast breeder reactor -- a reactor that breeds more fuel while it is operational.
Thorium has to be separated from monazite through processing. As per rules, export of monazite with thorium content of less than 25 percent is allowed.
The issue of illegal mining of BSM in Tuticorin has officially come to light with the Tuticorin district administration officials conducting a survey of three villages Tuesday. The same evening district collector Ashish Kumar was transferred out.
Ashish Kumar had told IANS Wednesday that following complaints from fishing community, they inspected mining areas in Vaippar village and found the leasee, given permission to mine in four hectares, was actually doing so in 30 hectares.
"Around 230,000 tonnes of beach sand minerals have been quarried in Vaippar village without permission from the government. We have sent the report to the government and action will be taken," he said.
"We have not quantified the quantum of loss to the government," he added.
BJP MP Hansraj Gangaram Ahir had also raised the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year.
In his letter to the prime minister last October, Ahir had said: "The allegations are that nearly 21 lakh tonnes of monazite have been stolen and exported, which is equal to 195,300 tonnes of thorium.
"There is fear that the encashment of these precious minerals by the enemies of India can also create threat to the very safety, security and integrity of the nation and there is dire need to look into the matter on a priority and take action against the people who are engaged in the illegal business and also stop the heavy loss to the government coffers."
According to him, monazite is found on the shores of Chhatrapur in Odisha, Manavalakurichi in Tamil Nadu and Aluwa-Chawara in Kerala and only Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL) is allowed to process the precious minerals.
In 2007, certain BSMs - titanium bearing minerals (ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene) and zircon- were delisted from the list of prescribed substances under the Atomic Energy Act and are now under open general licence (OGL).
Sundaram and Kalyanaraman contend that the delisting was done without informing parliament.
The DAE in its reply to Ahir April 10 said monazite is still listed as prescribed substance under the Atomic Energy Act 1962 and no licence has been issued for its export to any private entity.
India's total monazite reserves are currently estimated at about 10 million tonnes of which about 30 percent in mineable, DAE said.
Citing the 2011-12 annual report of Chemical and Allied Products Export Promotion Council (CAPEXIL), the DAE told Ahir that the total export of BSM during 2010-11, excluding five tonnes of monazite exported by IREL is estimated at Rs.1,034.45 crore.