MUMBAI, India – A Catholic bishop in India has been arrested over illegal sand mining on diocesan land in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Bishop Samuel Irenios Kattukallil of the Diocese of Pathanamthitta – belonging to the Eastern Rite Syro-Malankara Church – was taken into custody on Saturday, along with five priests. Kattukallil and one priest, Father Jose Chamakala, were later taken to the Government Medical College Hospital in Tirunelveli due to illness. The clerics were scheduled to have a bail hearing on Wednesday.

They have been charged over a case of illegal sand mining from the Thamirabarani river near Pottal. The diocese had leased a 300-acre plot to Manuel George of Kottayam, who received a licence for storing, processing and consuming rough stone, gravel, crusher dust and M-sand on the land, which is adjacent to a dam on the river.

After an inspection in 2020, officials charged George with illegally mining sand from the land and transporting it for commercial purposes. As the landowners, the diocese had ultimate authority of the land use, was also included in the scope of the inquiry.

Sand mining is necessary for the construction industry, but can causes extensive environmental damage and is highly regulated. This has created a vast illegal industry in India, under the control of so-called “sand mafias.”

Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s Asia-Pacific desk, told Voice of America that this “creates a lot of corruption – corruption of the police, corruption of the politicians and corruption of businessmen … So you have a real network of people who don’t want to listen to the state on this.”

In a statement, the diocese said, “George was contracted to cultivate the land, which had been under church control for 40 years.”

“Diocesan authorities have not been able to visit the site for the past two years due to the COVID period,” the statement said, noting that the illegal activity was taking place during the pandemic.

“The diocese has initiated legal proceedings against Manuel George,” the statement added.

A priest of the diocese told the New Indian Express the land had been being used for agriculture and coconut and gooseberry were cultivated there in the past.

“Later, it was leased to a Kottayam native for farming. But he committed malpractices without our knowledge and carried out sand mining in adjacent plots of land that don’t have title deeds,” the priest told the newspaper.

However, police say the clerics were arrested because they were aware of the illegal operations taking place on the land.

Father Paul Thelakat, the former spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Synod, called the situation a “sorry blunder.”

“It was their land of 300 acres which was leased for 40 years to Mr. Manuel George, who seems to have exploited the lease right. The diocese should have been vigilant as to the way the leased property is used and the legal problems in which they have fallen,” he told Crux.

“I feel sad about the legal blunder in which they have fallen. It was perhaps a foolish way they manged their property that is all,” Thelakat added.