As villagers protest against legal and illegal stone quarries in the state, those who depend on quarries are pushed to the brink
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.
“I don’t know anything else to make a living with,” says Vasundharan K, owner of one of the four quarries shut down by an order of the sub-collector following protests headed by parents of the children studying in the nearby Government LP School.
Vasundharan’s quarry in Pedena in Kannur district is spread across 13 acres. Being the only local quarry owner, he is the target of all protesters.
“My father used to work in the quarries,” he says. “I was good at studies and was hence sent away to Kozhikode where I stayed with my relatives and studied till 10th standard. My younger brother dropped out in 4th itself. He worked with my father in the quarries from a much younger age,” says Vasundharan.
Having dropped out of school in Standard 10, Vasundharan moved back in with the family. “After I came back, I too joined quarry work. With time we took quarries on lease and eventually started our own,” he says.
Originally hailing from Kollam, Vasundharan’s father, a quarry worker, had come to Kannur to work in the quarries there.
Today, Vasundharan and his brother Madhu are the biggest quarry owners in Peringom and its surrounding panchayats and considered influential by locals.
Seated in his two-storey house a few kilometres away from the protest camp, Vasundharan is despondent about the latest round of closure.
“I hold a license for mining till 2021. Now they have stopped it. Even I am fed up. I have loans and liabilities which have to be paid back,” he says.
Once the protests in Pedena grabbed media attention, the sub-collector visited the quarries and ordered them shut under Section 133 (b) of CrPC till the hearing called for was completed and a decision taken.
“In 2012 too there were protests like these,” he says. “Already, the markets are down and there is no demand. These protests and stoppages hit us not just financially. They drain us of our morale to work.
If it rains for more than 48 hours we have to stop work. It is understandable since the land becomes loose during the rains. But this?” he asks.
“There are no damages to any houses,” he says when asked about the claims of villagers that houses have suffered widespread damages. “The crusher has been working there for 15 years now. A mud house within 150 metres from the quarry which is 40-50 years old shows no damage. So there is no possibility of any damage to the houses as is being claimed.”
Asked about the issue of pollution as raised by the villagers he says, “There is no proof for me to say that it has any effect on health. I am not a big businessman who owns a quarry and sits at home comfortably.
When my labourers work in the quarry, I too get down and work with them. I have been working in quarries since 1983 but now I too am fed up. I am continuing with this only because of the liabilities I have. I have no other way. All the money I have has been put back in buying land for the quarry,” says Vasundharan.
When asked if he was nervous about the outcome of the scheduled hearing he said, “I think they won’t take a knee-jerk decision. I am hoping that they will tell us to make corrective changes if any and allow us to operate.
There are 20 labourers, 10 drivers with their trucks and two operators working for me. If we are forced to close, they will all become jobless too. There is no other way left for me. I don’t know what I will do.
My view is that regulation can be put in place. Earlier, we worked with bare hands, now machinery is used widely. With multiple blasts being done at the same time, the intensity has also increased. Maybe, if some kind of a limit is put in place, it will be good.
Maybe they can limit the number of holes to be blasted at a time to five or ten or whatever it is,” he says.
“Just stop these stoppages. You have to understand that all of what I have is a result of my own hard work. I have got nothing for free.”
While Vasundharan had followed his father’s profession, his own sons have taken different routes. While his eldest son is working as an Assistant Commandant in the CRPF, his youngest son has finished MTech recently. “Once they are settled, I will bid adieu to this forever,” he says about his long-term plan.
While Vasundharan can afford to look at retirement as a long-term solution, the more recent entrants have different problems.
Partner of one of the closed quarries in Pedena, Peringome Stone Crushers, who hails from Muvattupuzha also spoke to The Lede. He did not wish to be identified.
“Our company has a total loan of Rs 8 crore. From the generator to the trucks, everything is on loan. We are a total of 10 partners and we are doing this to make a living.
As it is, we started only in December 2018 and now we are in the middle of the second closure. Our work was stalled for long during the rains. And within weeks of restarting we are facing another closure.”
All the 10 partners are businessmen he says.
“We aren’t doing anything illegal. We are following all the rules that are there to be followed without harming anyone. We have license to mine till 2024 and have invested Rs 20 lakh to construct check dams recently as part of drainage control,” he adds.
Asked about the proximity to the school which the protesters have held up as proof of the dangers it posed, he said, “Government has decided the minimum distance of 50 metres after doing necessary tests. It is not decided by us.
35 metres was found to be enough but we have been told to maintain a distance of 50 metres. The school is at an air distance of one kilometre from the nearest quarry and two kilometres of ground distance. The quarry is not new either.
The quarry we bought last year has been functioning here for the past 25-30 years. There is no possibility of blasts reaching that far.
Moreover, if someone builds a house following the panchayat rules that the minimum distance from the road has to be 3 metres and then once the house has been constructed if the stipulated distance is changed to 10 metres, can we move the house back?” he asks.
“That is what is happening here.”
“The government is not giving us any security. Even if they close us, we cannot do anything. If license is given to do something, then we should be allowed to work at least. We have invested money in all this.
Make the minimum distance 500 metres or even one kilometre but whoever is given permission should be given a guarantee that they will be allowed to work without interruptions,” he says.
Asked about allegations that the District Expert Appraisal Committee (DEAC) Kannur District, which issued them licenses have been dissolved for lack of expertise he said, “It is being said that they will be brought back. But I am not privy to such details.
What has happened with the school is that when the protests were not seeing any success or getting public support, they brought out the children. It was a clever ploy.”
Asked about the allegations that the quarry owners have bought off both the officials and panchayat representatives, he said, “People allege tie-ups with politicians, panchayat representatives and others. These are just rumours. To be honest, no official or representative has taken any money from us nor do we have that kind of money.
If you ask about solutions, the only thing I can say is, we need an assurance or guarantee from the government before venturing into something. We are doing whatever they are asking us to do before starting anything.
Today if we pay these people, the protests may subside, what will we do if someone else starts protesting later? What exactly are we being given licenses for here?
From the outside, quarry owners are made to look like monsters. We are the victims of this system. Nobody does business if they have money. Those who have money will put it in the bank and live peacefully. We are doing this to make a living. Nobody understands our plight,” he says.
Owners are not the only ones who feel wrongly about the frequent protests which force quarries to cease.
People working in the downstream & allied sectors say they are equally affected.
“I have to leave by 3 am Any later, and I won’t get even one load of stone,” says Benny.
Benny, a truck driver from Konoor in Thrissur district of Kerala has been transporting stones for 12 years.
Having started as a driver, he now owns three small trucks, “all on loan,” he says.
Until recently, he took contracts from small and medium contractors to supply stones as needed at worksites. Something which he says has become difficult to fulfil over the past couple of years.
“The protesters force closure of quarries every now and then. It is people like me who are stuck bang in the middle.
Inspite of having all the clearances, often quarries have to stop functioning because of protests. For instance, in Thabore region, in Thrissur, following a wave of protests a few years back all the quarries closed. It has made it very difficult to get material now,” says Benny.
“The contractors keep calling, demanding that we deliver on time as promised. When there are closures without warnings what will people like me do? Where will I arrange stones from?” he asks.
Benny is not alone. Many other drivers The Lede spoke to said the same.
“The quarry we took stones from yesterday and today will not be operating when we reach there early morning the next day,” says Abu Backer, a truck driver. “There won’t be time left for us to reach another quarry.”
“After driving a total of 45 kms, we will have no earnings and will have to cover the expenses still,” he says. “On top of that we have to listen to the complaints coming from worksites.”
“You can’t really blame the contractors as they have labourers waiting for stones, sitting idle at the worksite,” says Benny. “At the end of the day their wages have to be paid, whether there were stones to work or not.”
Benny finds it difficult to get both the orders needed to keep all three trucks running as well as the drivers needed to drive the trucks when in need.
“Many truck drivers have moved on to work in other sectors. There isn’t enough work anymore,” says Benny.
Trucks have been the target of protests as their rash driving is seen as a nuisance.
“We drive in a mad rush as there are people always waiting for us. The stones have to be delivered on time and we have to reach places before ban time.”
Trucks have been banned from plying for two hours in the morning and two in the evening to avoid accidents when school children use roads.
“But the timings are decided within each individual panchayats separately. We have to be mindful of that too. If we don’t reach the quarries before noon, we may never get a second trip.”
Forced by lack of consistent demand and not wanting to burden his finances, Benny now drives one of his trucks by himself.
The other two lie at home and drivers are hired only if there is considerable work. He is not alone in seeing a change of fortune.
“I used to run a small quarry in Puliyanam,” says George, who started off as a truck driver and has now reverted to the profession.
“I had to shut the quarry down,” he says waiting in line by the roadside for his turn to head to the quarry early morning.
“Small quarries are owned by up and coming people. Their acreages are small and they can’t afford to pay people off to keep things running. Thus they shut faster,” he says.
“I know small quarry owners who are now in dire straits. Suicide is the only option left for many of them really. We are just pushing things along somehow.”
“When quarries stop operating, the drivers and other people in the vicinity who, with trucks or other pick-up vehicles, used to transport material are also caught up,” says Benny. “Their vehicles are bought on loans which have to be serviced regularly. Many people I know are trying to sell their vehicles but there are no buyers anymore,” he says.
“As it is, work is low in the construction industry. There is very little happening all around, and then this. We are in a bad situation,” he says. “Not just us, everyone in the construction industry is affected.”
Scarcity of building material have delayed projects being undertaken in many parts of Kerala.
“People are opting for concrete foundations. It will still need crushed stones as well as m-sand (manufactured sand). But that is where things are going. Many are building walls of aluminium sheets. Those are the alternatives,” says Benny.
Such changes in usage pattern in turn puts many at risk of being rendered redundant in the labour market.
Prime among them are the stone masons, a skill which used to be one of the highest paid amongst daily wage workers in the construction sector.
Ramakrishna Vidyadhardas was a head stone mason with 13 people working under him. With no stones to work with and no work, he says the sector is in the grip of a stagnancy.
Going by his nickname Karingallu Das, a name he says was given to him by locals to distinguish him because of the work he did, Das has all but dismantled his team.
But what worries him most now is his general inability to service debts.
“In today’s scenario, everyone has taken loans from women headed groups,” Das says referring to the widespread penetration of micro-financing in Kerala through SHGs such as Kudumbashree or ESAF (small finance bank). This in turn has increased the general debt of households across the state.
“It was of great help when they extended loans but now it is problem with no solution. The repayments are collected in small installments collected twice or thrice weekly by women who visit each other’s houses. If one defaults payment, the other women come and sit at home asking for money,” he says.
According to Das, with no regularity of jobs, defaults are on the rise.
“Imagine the mental condition one has to live in,” he says. “To be honest, people are being pushed to suicide by the mental pressure.”
“While earlier head masons used to be competing against each other for the quality of work we were doing, now we ask each other if there is any work to be found so that we can find work even if it is under someone,” says Das.
“Many have gone into other professions. Some are assisting tree fellers even though they know nothing about it. And since they lack the skill, they get paid far lesser than what they used to get doing stone masonry. Some have begun working as helpers in masonry, others are selling lotteries.”
An effect of the falling demand for workers according to Das is reflected in a growing demand for lotteries according to Das.
“The demand for lotteries has increased manifold. If you stand in a junction, you will see that all the lottery sellers are able to sell all of their tickets every day. Even though there are no jobs in the market, people are taking lotteries.
It is not because they have a high interest in lotteries. People need work to make money. Since there is no work, we are forced to look elsewhere. Going to temples and churches won’t help with money although it can give a moment some peace.
Lottery is the way out to find money. That is why people are taking lotteries more and more now. Even I take one ticket a day. It is an experiment,” he says.
“We are experimenting with our own lives now. At my age I cannot go to the Gulf or anywhere else to make money. There are not many options left either,” says Das.
“I take a ticket and then pray. If I win, I can pay off my debts. That remains the only hope. It isn’t just me. Most others like me are living like this.”
Das has not won anything substantial except for Rs 100. Yet, he says some way or the other he takes a ticket every day.
Das now finds work as an extra in film sets, a job he says is easy although it does not pay as much and is irregular. “I am acting with Fahadh Fazil in his latest movie,” he says. “They give Rs 700 a day and food. But we have to travel far sometimes with no sleep. That is the downside.
Those used to making a honest living cannot become thieves and robbers overnight. We need to find work to survive. For that, quarries have to become operational again. There is no other way.
Government has the responsibility to protect our livelihood. We don’t stop using buses just because there are chances of an accident. Do we?” he asks. “Quarries have to be allowed to operate. There is no other choice really,” he says.
While those dependent on quarries like Das, Benny, George, Vasundharan and more argue that there is no other way but to allow quarries, those opposed argue there is no place left for quarries.
The middle path, while it may seem to be the need of the hour, is yet to be found. But there is more to quarries than meets the eye.
(To be continued…)