Kerala’s Contentious Quarries: Part 1
Recently the government of Kerala wrote to the government of India to make changes to the requirements needed for operating quarries. The minimum distance for quarries from forest land was reduced to 100 metres (m) and that from wildlife protection areas reduced to one kilometre (km) from the existing 10 km. This was expected to pave way for the opening of more than 300 quarries across the state.
At the same time, protests against quarrying by locals living in the vicinities of the quarries have been growing in strength across the state. What is unique is that these protests appear to be localised resistance to the perceived existential threats that quarries pose to those living in their immediate vicinity.
Driven away from the populated areas, quarries have been increasingly taking refuge in the peripheries, pushing civilisational development further uphill. The Western Ghats is slowly being carved of its existence and plantations converted into quarries.
But incidents such as the washing away of a whole village in Kavalappara near Nilambur in Malappuram district in August this year, which was blamed on quarries, have raised alarm amongst residents across the state although the protests have a longer history. While a few protests grab public attention others do not.
The Lede investigates what is actually going on.
Pedena: The Protests Everyone Saw
Bus stops with no names, roads with few vehicles. A school with no children. And “evil” quarry owners. This in essence is the story of Pedena.
As the road twists and turns along the northern most ranges of Western Ghats lying in northern Kannur, a thinning habitation is taken over by spreading rubber plantations.
Across the range, somewhere on the other side lies Karnataka and its hillside towns.
The route from Payyannur to Pedena, 40 km north of Kannur and the railway station nearest to Pedena village is marked by many small settlements.
Pedena is one such settlement and one of the 16 wards of Peringome Vayakkara panchayat under Payyanur Taluk.
Within Pedena, the Government LP School is the only structure of significance, according to the locals.
The school as seen from the roadside is a rusty arch of letters painted over a faded yellow aluminium board perched atop two jaded blue pillars with no gate.
Leading the way, the bluish pillar reads in Malayalam - SSA Kannur 2012-13, Child Friendly Entrance - an official reminder of how the strange entrance came to be.
The arch above reads - Government LP School, Pedena. Founded 1981. Sub-district Payyannur.
To the left, standing still, amidst overgrown wilderness, the old board in a less decorated setting reads much the same. Government LP School, Pedena.
In October 2019, the Government LP School in Pedena gained reputation as the school in which students refused to go to for fear of the quarries nearby.
It soon became the epicentre of the protests against quarrying being undertaken in the vicinity.
While the story said the children could not go to school because of quarrying, that the protests had already begun a week back was hidden in plain sight.
The school itself has two structures with four classrooms and an office room which also acts as the staff room, principal’s room and the storage room.
While the classrooms are all from the older original structure with mud tiled roof and a false ceiling, which has come off in places, in the inside, the office structure called the new building was constructed only in 2007.
With a concrete roof, the new building was built at an expense of Rs 1.5 lakh though the structure itself appears anything but new, much like any other unremarkable government engineered construction.
Built on a terrace cut into a steep slope, all three structures follow the general contours of the slope.
By the front yard, facing the parked car and a few bikes, two dilapidated toilets stand further apart from the rest of the school.
Behind the principal’s office cum office room, on a terrace cut higher than the school building is the kitchen completed in 2015 at an expense of Rs 1.6 lakh. In front of the kitchen is a small yard covered with corrugated sheet and an open area for the children to play.
The kitchen was partly the origin of the protests, for it was here that the plates fell under the impact of the blasts and so scared the children as to keep them away from school.
And the new building which shares its wall with old one is the proof of the damage that has been done to the structure by the quarries.
When The Lede visited the school, there were no children in the classes. “It is the fourth day without children,” principal of the school TNP Krishnan said.
“The parents took the initiative, PTA decided, and the protests began,” said Krishnan.
Krishnan informed his superiors about the decision taken by the parents.
“On 29 October, a few students accompanied by their parents met the Collector of Kannur and conveyed their concerns. Parents and children were scared. Studies were getting affected, they said.”
On 28 October, a letter written to the panchayat raised the issues faced by the children studying in the LP School which had forced them to stop attending classes.
“Over the past two weeks the problem had become acute,” said Krishnan who has been working at the school for three years. “The Tahsildar and the Sub-Collector visited the quarries. They also visited the school and were shown the cracks here.
The school has classes from one to four with a total of 55 students studying,” Krishnan said. “We have four staff and an additional Arabic teacher.”
“Parents of the children who study here are all common people,” said Manoj, a senior staff who has been teaching in the school for six years.
“Only a few are expats working in the Gulf. Most of them are fish sellers or daily wagers.It is not just the school which has issues with the quarries. Even many houses are said to be affected badly,” Manoj said.
When pressed for more details, the staff appeared non-committal. Asked if there really was an issue they said, “We are government servants here. You should be talking to those who are protesting. We are coming here every day and informing our superiors that there are no children here.”
But the president of the mothers’ PTA Khadeeja was more than forthcoming. “The problem here is that none of the children are coming to school. Parents are scared to send the kids. Children are scared too. Fear cannot be treated by a doctor nor by anyone else,” she said.
“This is the only school in the vicinity. So without this school, the children will have to be sent to other schools which the parents here cannot afford. We want the government to take a decision which is favourable to us,” she said.
“At the time of the floods this year, water from the quarries had flooded two of my neighbours’ houses. Their wells were polluted too. But none of these quarry owners extended help. It was the panchayat which took the initiative along with the locals here and cleaned everything up for them,” she said.
“There are five quarries and two crushers within a distance of 2 km from the school,” said Harris, a parent.
Harris PC, who is an auto driver as well as a maulvi living near the school has two of his children studying in the school.
While his eldest son is in fourth standard, ready to move to another school, his younger son still had a few years left in the school.
“Buildings, the madrassa and the masjid here have all developed cracks because of the quarries. A few days back when the plates in which students have food in, which were stacked together in the kitchen, fell off. It scared parents and none of the children are being sent to school now,” Harris said.
The staff of the school passed on the contacts of the members of the Pedena Janakiya Samara Samithi who were protesting against quarries opposite to the Peringome Vayakkara Panchayat Office building.
“They can explain things clearly,” principal TNP Krishnan said.
“Some of the houses have been bought off by the quarry owners. The water table has gone down. One of the tube wells recently had to be dug up to 800 feet to reach water.
The stream which flows through Pedena has been affected by these quarries. It is this stream which flows to the river from which water is being taken by the Pariyaram Medical College.
The LP School has been included in the ‘uneconomical’ list. There are only 55 children in the school. The number of children joining have been reducing by the day. The quarries are the reason behind it.
None of the children are attending classes now as parents have said that they are scared of the damages being done by the quarries nearby and don’t want to send their kids there.
It is difficult to believe that this is happening in Kerala. The situation is shameful,” he said.
“The resistance to quarries here has been going on for longer than the indefinite protests,” says Abdul Rehman, Chairman of the Pedena Janakiya Samara Samithi.
“In August we had met with the ADM (Assistant District Magistrate) Kannur who promised us that an inspection under the Tahsildar and district geologist will be conducted.”
“But this never happened. When we asked, on 22 October 2019 the panchayat replied that there were no illegal quarries here and that all the quarries here had licenses.
We had asked the ADM to look into the illegal quarries which posed threats to human life in Pedena. But since we had used the term ‘illegal’ they replied only on that. Nobody looked into the threats they pose here.
The issue in the schools started on 28 October. The plates stacked in the kitchen fell off in the vibration of blasts. This scared the children who told the parents. It was not connected with us,” said Abdul Rehman. “The only way we helped was to in getting them to meet the Collector and other local authorities which the parents expressed interest in.
Moreover, since we had started an indefinite protest on 21 October 2019, the intensity of blasts had increased manifold. More than 100 blasts were being undertaken every day.
Pedena is situated under a hill with a slope of more than 90 degrees. Even though there are only 4 quarries here, each quarry has 3-4 smaller quarries working inside as sub-quarries. Almost all the 400 houses which are situated under these hills have developed cracks.
Everytime there is a blast, the fridge starts making a strange sound,” says Hamsa H one of the residents of Pedena and who lives just above the school.
“We cannot run the motor nor can we sleep. The floor vibrates and we are often shocked by the intensity of the blast. The only way out is to stop these quarries. There is no other solution,” he says.
“Earlier they used to use gunpowder for blasting,” says Rahnas E. “Now they are using electric blasting using wires. So in just one blast they are able to achieve what couldn’t be done with 300 blasts earlier,” he says. Rahnas’ house is on the lower side of the quarries in Pedena.
“Usually they blast early morning which will be enough for a lot of loads. Some store up as well,” he says.
“Quarry owners like Vasundharan and his brother Madhu own big quarries here. Many of the quarries have been further divided into smaller sub-quarries,” says Rahnas. Vasundharan is the only quarry owner who lives in the vicinity and draws maximum attention from all protestors. Other quarry owners are outsiders, they say.
“Pedena is said to be prone to soil piping,” says Abdul Rehman, Chairman of the Pedena Janakiya Samithi. “We wonder if this has already happened here. Two wells have slumped in similar fashion recently. One is that of Abdulla Darimi and the other belongs to Damodaran, both in Pedena.”
Soil piping was the reason cited for the landslide in Kavalappara this year in which 59 lives are believed to have been lost including the 11 whose bodies are yet to be recovered.
Within a few days of the protests catching media attention the administration swung into action. Visits by the Sub-Collector were followed by an order imposing Section 133(b) CrPC by which all operations in the four quarries operating in the area were ceased for a month.
The owners of the quarries have been given a chance to present their case in individual hearings scheduled to be heard from 02 December through to 05 December.
While the protests in Pedena saw results within two weeks of the protests starting, aided by the media attention brought by the school children, further away, in Vellad, Karuvanchal and Pathanpara lying within Naduvil Panchayat near Alakode in Kannur, the protests have been going on for far longer without much public interest or results.
(To be continued…)