A freelance journalist has exposed the illegal mining racket in Tamil Nadu
Journalist Sandhya Ravishankar isn’t answering phone calls from unknown numbers. Since her exposé on illegal sand mining in Tamil Nadu for the Wire.in, not all the calls she gets are congratulatory.
“I am avoiding calls from unknown numbers. I am sick of hearing new Tamil gaalis [abuses] every time,” she told Newslaundry.
In her series, Ravishankar exposed how S Vaikundarajan, owner of VV Mineral (VVM), and his estranged brother Chandresan, owner of Industrial Minerals Company allegedly looted the state of 13,70,409.28 metric tonnes of sand.
The sand men are, obviously, not happy with this.
The first part of her series, The Countdown Begins for Tamil Nadu’s Beach Sand Mining Cartel, was published on January 27. The very next day, a blog post cropped up alleging Ravishankar’s personal enmity towards VVM as the motive for writing the story. The reason, the blogger claimed, was the refusal to appoint Ravishankar’s husband, V Prem Shanker, as the head of a news channel by VVM –News 7. Shankar, now Chennai bureau chief of the Economic Times, was back then involved in his own business.
The blog Vetri Vel, by the way, apart from calling out journalists and praising VVM, also claims expertise in recipes of mango pudding, jeera rice, pomegranate rice and the health benefits of eating okra.
Another blog was created on the same day, claiming much the same thing, albeit poorly phrased and hurriedly written. No points for guessing the title of the blog – VVM Employees Association.
Since then Ravishankar’s Twitter timeline has been inundated by random accounts citing these two blogposts, questioning her journalistic integrity.
Initially these were just limited to tweets casting aspersions on her motive for writing the story, but eventually a more newsworthy allegation came in – jallikattu.
“One Twitter [user] had been saying that I had taken money and I am a paid news reporter. And then out of the blue that handle said, she is anti-jallikattu and this is her number,” said Ravishankar.
This was on Saturday night, and since then the air around Ravishankar has been positively blue with curses and profanities. On Sunday, she filed a complaint with the cyber cell.
“I filed a cybercrime complaint saying that they’ve put my number out on social media. The next day I met the commissioner [of police],” she said.
The commissioner assured her that the police would take care of the issue. Now, every two hours a police patrol vehicle swings by to check up on her.
Despite all this, Ravishankar isn’t intimidated. In fact, she seemed amused.
“It was expected. This nonsense has been going on intermittently for three years. I do a story and something happens, either a legal notice or some nonsense blog will crop up,” she said.
Ravishankar started reporting on the issue back in 2013. She was a reporter with Times Now following a story on Tuticorin District Collector, Ashish Kumar.
“I got information the previous day that he was going to conduct a raid on the mining mafia. I called him the next morning and he confirmed that a raid was in progress. And then six hours later he was transferred,” she recalled. She followed the story and realised how big the ramifications were. She ended up doing an entire series on the issue. That was when she first heard of Vaikundarajan and VVM.
“We got one Superintendent of Police on spy cam telling us very clearly that no FIR will be filed against Vaikundarajan. He wouldn’t tell us why, but kept smiling and saying that FIR wouldn’t be filed,” she said.
But her first brush with the Vaikundarajan’s legal notice happened after she did a story for the Economic Times (ET) in 2015 about the illegal leasing of monazite mining by the Tamil Nadu state government to VVM.
“They sent legal notices to me and ET. Because ET did not want to get involved in a lawsuit, a clarification was issued by them to avoid that,” she said.
A year later in 2016 a defamation case was filed by VVM against Ravishankar. The case also named Times Internet. Ravishankar’s husband was also sent summons.
“The Times Internet guys brought in their lawyers, and currently the hearing is pending. But in the Madurai bench we got an order saying we don’t need to appear in the court for the remainder of the hearing,” she said.
This time around, no legal notice has made an appearance yet. But even if it does, Ravishankar is ready: “I am hoping that my friends from the legal fraternity will save me if there is a case,” she said.
For most reporters, legal cases and the might of the mining mafia is what keeps them from covering the issue. Ravishankar, as a freelancer with little or no organisational support, has stood her ground in the face of it all.