Kerala’s Contentious Quarries: Part 2
Further inwards, towards the western Ghats, closer to Kerala’s border with Karnataka, near Alakode within Kannur lies Thurumbi.
Thurumbi is hard to reach and has just two buses plying from Karuvanchal, the nearest town downhill. The other means of conveyance are the jeeps which run at fixed times. With its minimal connectivity, Thurumbi is much more remote compared to Pedena which also explains the relative obscurity of its protests.
In Thurumbi, the protests have been going on for more than two months now. But little has happened as yet in terms of the protesters being able to elicit a response from the administration. Even the elected representatives have stayed aloof.
“The quarries here had started operating without any papers,” says Saji George sitting in the Samara Pandal in Thurumbi which falls within Vellad ward of Naduvil Panchayat.
When The Lede visited, the protest camp or Samara Pandal, as it is called, itself lay mostly deserted but for a couple of people seated on the chairs. Most villagers had gone to attend a wedding of a neighbour while others were at a funeral, both of people from nearby, said the protesters.
A few who were seated too talked about chores they had to attend to, cows that had to be milked and a driver repeatedly spoke about the school children he had yet to pick up and drop.
Thurumbi is the starting point from where tourists on the way to Palakkayamthattu - an up and coming local tourist spot known for its cool pleasant weather year around rents off-road vehicles to go uphill.
With just one shop, a hotel, four houses and a few jeeps, Thurumbi is what it is - a satellite village morphing into the bare minimal resemblance of a rudimentary town which has been aided by the influx of tourists.
One of the three quarries the villagers are protesting against, owned by one Ibrahim Haji in Manjumala, is located close by, uphill.
While the tourists take the left turn to Palakkayamthatt, the trucks to the quarries go right. And it is to the right of the hills that the protesters point to a break in the green slopes or bleeding as they call it; made prominent by a marked red patch amidst the otherwise green hills.
The road leading up to the quarry is private and was blocked during The Lede’s attempt to reach it by a pickup blocking the way. A day before, the protesters’ attempt to march into the quarry had been thwarted by the police, according to them.
“After the people here protested a year ago, they had stopped for a while. Now they are saying that they have got all the papers needed for working,” says Saji.
“This area has been classified as a landslide prone area by the GSI in its report on Macro scale Landslide Susceptibility Mapping in parts of toposheets,” says Saji reading from the report and pointing to the name of Vellad village appearing in it.
“Vellad village is 34th amongst the 41 villages which have been classified as being prone to landslides.
Mavunchal, Thurumbi and Pathanpara are also included in the lists of places which are more prone to landslides. It is here that three quarries are operating.”
The GSI document lists the three villages amongst other areas where incidents of landslides have already been inventoried during field work.
“The collector has exempted Vellad village from the rule which stipulates one year jail and fine for the panchayat secretaries who gives permits for new houses built without rainwater harvesting pits or well refilling systems as stipulated by the disaster management authority and the Kerala Water Authority,” says Saji.
“This exemption was made as the village was deemed as highly prone to landslides.”
“The District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA) which gave environmental clearance for the quarries to operate here has been dissolved by the National Green Tribunal citing lack of expertise in the body.”
The experts included a Course Director of Wood Technology and a Wildlife Biologist among others while having no one with any expertise on quarries or its impact assessment.
“In total 17 quarries or 30% of the quarries for which Environmental Clearance (EC) were given by the Kannur DEIAA have been issued stop memo by the government,” says Saji.
Protesters also allege that the permission from the panchayat was also fraudulently got. The Naduvil panchayat is headed by the UDF (Congress-led United Democratic Front) with nine members from the Congress, six members from CPI(M), three members from IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) and an independent member in the 19-member body.
“It was initially decided in the Grama Sabha not to allow permission for the quarry to function in Manjumala. 19 members of the panchayat had unanimously supported this decision and Naduvil panchayat had even written a letter to Ibrahim Haji conveying the same to him as well.”
“It was after that that in the absence of four members and notwithstanding written objections raised by three members - Baby Odampallil, Shiny Vattakkattu and Shyja Dominic - one fine morning, the other 12 members of the panchayat gave their approval for the quarry,” says Saji.
All three who had opposed the move belonged to the Congress.
“All decisions including the decision to grant permission for the quarry is illegal as far as the people here are concerned.
While during rains the government issues alerts and stops tourists from travelling to Palakkayamthatt citing the risks involved, the government seems least interested in the safety of the people who live here. We who live here have no protection. Inspite of protesting for more than two months, not even the panchayat member has visited us here,” says Saji.
“It is proof of the power held by the quarry lobby. Everyone including the ministers and the opposition leaders are all on the same side when it comes to quarry.
While the rules say that quarries shouldn’t be allowed in places within 50 m from sources of water, here, the sources of water are located inside the quarries.
People are suffering badly. In Pathanpara people do not even have drinking water. Many are developing skin diseases and breathing problems.”
“Rule which stipulates that the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA) cannot give clearances to quarries in areas where there are more than one quarry within a distance of 500 m,” says Saji George.
“The clearance can only be given by the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority after conducting an environmental impact assessment.
But here, within 500 m, three quarries are operating and environmental clearance has been given by the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA).
The distance from Saj Quarry Mavunchal to that of Ibrahim Haji’s quarry is 287 m and there is only 82 m from there to the quarry owned by CA Sharafuddin Pinarayi.
The distance from Sharafuddin Pinarayi’s quarry to Saj Quarry is 393 m,” he says.
“This should have been considered as a cluster of quarries and the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA) had no authority to issue environmental clearances for the quarries here.”
Pathanpara, a little distance away from Thurumbi, where one of the three quarries is located, wears an isolated look. Abandoned shops, flattened houses with the steps overgrown by wilderness and the frequently passing trucks sums up the village.
“Pathanpara was earlier known as the land of communally owned bus and communally generated electricity,” says Vincent Augustine, locally known as Siju, a resident of Pathanpara.
“Today the village is a ghost of its former self. People have been moving out for a while.”
“The quarry owners had bought land on the hills initially claiming that it was for a coffee plantation. But later they started quarrying and with the damage done to our lands and the consequent crop failures, people have been left with no other option than to leave,” he says.
“The quarry has destroyed our water springs. Since it is a hilly area, we are dependent on springs for water. Because of the quarry almost all the springs here have dried up. That is also forcing people to move elsewhere. How can anyone survive without water?” he asks.
“Just 150 m from the quarry is forest land. NGT stipulates that quarries be kilometres away from forests. All laws are being flouted here,” says Vincent.
“Our drinking water has been polluted,” says Elsamma Isaac, a resident of Pathanpara. “When we told Pramod, who runs the quarry, about our problem a few years back, he asked us why we were not moving out. Their aim is to push us all out and extend the area under their quarries.”
“We have been living here for 40 years. We just want to die in our lands. Our area is landslide prone. In the recent rains, the other side of Pathanpara suffered from a big landslide with boulders being pushed down the hill. Even though it wasn’t directly caused by the quarry, it shows how big the dangers here are,” she says.
“We have been living in Pathanpara for the past 35 years,” says Suja Tommy, another resident of Pathanpara which has seen a thinning of population as a result of people leaving the village to move elsewhere - forced out by the quarries, according to the villagers.
“The quarry in Pathanpara has been operating for 15 years now. The anganwadi nearby which used to have 30 children earlier, today has no children as the parents are afraid to send their children there,” she says. “The walls, the buildings and the windows have all developed cracks,” she says.
“Just above my house, there was a small landslide which brought small rocks and stones towards the road. Had they come further down, our house would have been affected.
Though we are from Pathanpara, we are protesting together with the people from Vellad in Thurumbi just to make people listen to our plight.
Some of the people who have left Pathanpara are living on rent further down,” says Nejo John another resident of Pathanpara. “There are not many people left behind,” he says.
“All the shops here lay abandoned. There was a whole village which lived here not so long ago. The quarry has pulled us apart. Unless the quarry is stopped, Pathanpara will be no more,” he says.
“The quarry people have placed a CCTV camera in front of my house,” says Vincy Jenish, mother of two children living with her in-laws while her husband is working in the Midlle-East. What the camera is for has made Vincy apprehensive. Her house, just across the road from the Samara Pandal, was the first to be targeted thus.
“This is a small village. There is no need of a CCTV camera here. I am scared as to what it is for. I have complained to the police,” she says.
Asked about the response of the political class, the protesters allege that they are all unapologetically siding with the quarry owners.
“The local UDF party leaders called us to the party office for a meeting. When we went there, they tried to scare us by talking about cases filed against us in the police station,” says Saji.
“We told them not to worry about our cases as we will handle them ourselves but to give us an answer on closing down the quarry. They sent us back saying they will have to talk to their leaders.”
A new proposal to approve two new quarries is meanwhile under consideration of the Panchayat. The focus of the protesters is now split between protesting to stop the existing ones and preventing newer ones being approved.
This is not mockery of democracy they say. The villagers are now splitting themselves up with one section looking after the elected representatives while the other groups keeps note of the trucks which are carrying loads from the quarries and matching them with the online passes issued by GSI daily.
"We are ready to fight these goons. Any truck without a valid pass will be stopped", they say.
Pathanpara, Manjumala and Mavunchal are not the only quarries against which protests are being carried out across Kerala. In Thrissur district, the protests against Edathadan granites crushers located in Kunjalippara recently completed 100 days. Elsewhere too similar protests are mushrooming.
The repeated floods witnessed in the past couple of years as well as the landslides have further influenced the general opinion on the need for quarries.
The pay off now seems far smaller compared to the risks involved.
While the protesters everywhere are convinced that stopping of quarries altogether is the only way forward, the quarry owners and those making a living out of quarries say they have a different tale to tell.
(To be continued…)