How elected representatives and the bureaucracy side with quarry owners against protesters
While the protesters demand closure of quarries and others a right to livelihood, added to the mix are the good old bureaucracy and the elected representatives who in ingenious ways are muddling things.
In the fight for and against quarries, the elected representatives are caught up in a brewing storm of their own making.
While the protesting groups cast votes, the quarry owners, by their own admission, refill the party coffers.
Loyalties have been sold and remunerations settled, allege protesters. The results are for everyone to see they say.
The Lede finds out.
In Pathanpara and Manjumala where protests have been going on for more than two months, on December 01, seven protesters were arrested based on a complaint by the Panchayat President, Bindu Balan, who alleged that they used casteist slurs against her, a baseless allegation according to the protesters.
Bindu Balan (who had been elected on a seat reserved for women from the Schedule Tribes) and her local party leaders, the Congress, had already warned of the possibility of arrest if they went ahead with the protests.
The next day, protesters made an effigy of Bindu Balan, calling her a liar for openly siding with the quarry owners.
Talks about teaching the panchayat members a lesson in the upcoming 2020 panchayat elections have been gaining momentum in Pathanpara and the surrounding areas ever since. The protests meanwhile have grown stronger and completed 72 days.
“The future generations should feel ashamed of the leaders and the president who betrayed their own people. They stood with the mafia by showing gratitude for their money and turned against their own people. Boycott them,” read a message circulated amongst protesters.
On December 06, all the arrested protesters were granted bail.
On their way back, the villagers garlanded the freed leaders in the nearest town of Karuvanchal and welcomed them back.
The war cry was now complete. There was no going back. The protesters had their reasons to believe so.
From the beginning, panchayat representatives in Naduvil panchayat where Pathanpara, Manjumala and Mavunchal falls had been apathetic to the protesters and the protests.
Inspite of a two month long protest within their constituency, panchayat members had not bothered to visit.
Ammini AV, in whose ward Pathanpara quarry and the Manjumala protests are focussed, spoke to The Lede.
“The quarry in Pathanpara has existed there for 15 years now. People are saying that they are facing difficulties because of the quarry which they are protesting against.
According to the orders, we have been told that if anyone comes with all relevant papers for licenses to start ventures, we are not to deny them permission,” she says. “The Panchayat Secretary really has no other option than to approve their request.”
Pathanpara and the nearby town of Karuvanchal are not very far from Parthas Convention Centre whose application for permission was denied by the panchayat on flimsy grounds and which so broke the spirit of its NRI proprietor Sajan that he committed suicide.
His tale is often quoted by elected representatives and panchayat secretaries alike when asked why they issued licenses to quarries three to four years back. Questions remain about this religious adherence to ease of doing business explanation as Sajan’s issue came to light only recently.
Ammini AV is a former NRI who returned to India after her long service as a nurse. She says she was forced to stand for election in the woman reserved constituency by the same people who are now abusing her.
“If I take up a responsibility, I have the duty to fulfil them professionally. That is what I am doing. In my short duration in public life, I have learned a lot. You cannot trust anyone. No one is holy here. I haven’t taken a single rupee from anyone. I have nothing to fear.”
She seemed perturbed by the allegations that panchayat members were siding with quarry owners as they had taken money from them.
“I haven’t gone to the quarries even once. Not even for collecting funds for the party. I have nothing to hide. Let them say whatever they want.
Earlier, when some people here had protested against quarries, some of the very people who are protesting now stayed away and didn’t support them. A few women in the Kudumbashree who did take part were pressurised and made to toe the line.
All I have to tell the protesters is - make your protests a success. I have just one more year left. I am not going to stand ever again for any of this,” she says.
Not everyone who are protesting has very good intentions. Some just want to sell their lands,” she says, a widely raised allegation against protesters everywhere. She did not give any proof with regards to any discussion that had been initiated for it though.
“The decision to give the quarry license was initially taken by the Bharana Samithi of 2007-08. We had no role in that. Except me, all the other women members are helpless people. They have no voice. And the secretary had no option.
All I can say is that there was only one man who has been protesting against quarries here since the beginning - Mani Chettan. He is not part of the protests and he is still fighting alone. I can’t vouch for the credibility of the rest of the people.
Many who are protesting are the same people who have taken advantage of the quarry money. As for the claims about the anganwadi, it is all bogus. The anganwadi had no children going there anyways. Moreover, the anganawadi came into existence in 2008 while the quarry had started in 2007.
They tried to get children but no one wanted to send their children so far away. The last two children had to come from almost two kilometres down from Pathanpara.
Now, seeing the traction that the protest in Pedena school got, these people have also been trying to show that the anganwadi has been closed because of fear of the quarry,” says Ammini.
“They even brought children studying in LKG and UKG to take photos and make news. No complaints against the quarry has been received by us with regards to the anganwadi. Neither by the panchayat nor by the supervisor of the anganwadi.
You should ask Saji. If he is so opposed to the quarries, why is his own brother working there?” she asks.
That the brother of Saji George who is leading the protests is working in the Pathanpara quarry has been held up by the protesters as proof of how deep the division goes.
“If papers are clear, we have to give permission,” repeats Ammini. “But we have decided that the next time they come for renewal of license, we wouldn’t give them.”
Inspite of this stated stand, the panchayat Bharana Samithi went ahead with the complaint against the protesters and got them arrested, one of them an 80-year-old man charged under sections of the protection of SC/ST act among other.
The protesters claim it was to scare away the support that they had gained and weaken their fight.
“At the end of the day, one has to understand that these are necessities,” says Ammini AV. While Ammini is the ward member and has now a fraught relation with her constituents, the local MLA is missing in action too.
The local MLA KC Joseph of Congress has stayed aloof according to the locals.
Joseph was elected from Irikkur constituency, made famous by the movie Vellimoonga in which the protagonist is an absent leader who wins the assembly election in spite of no support from the constituents and earns himself a cabinet birth by taking advantage of the lack of coalition numbers.
“He is the original Vellimoonga,” says one protester. Vellimoonga translates to Silver Owl, a very rarely spotted variety of owl in Kerala’s folklore.
When The Lede spoke with him he was curt in his replies.
“The geology department has given permission, not me. I am not involved in any way,” he said.
Joseph incidentally has been representing the constituency since 1982 and has also been a minister in the Kerala government for a brief duration.
Pressed further he said, “The local Congress leadership has discussed the issue. The entire district of Kannur needs to be looked into. I have told the collector to take a look at it. We are not involved.”
According to the protesters, the local Congress leadership had indeed called them for a meeting in their party office.
“Instead of talking about the stopping of quarries, they tried to scare us by talking about the cases that have been filed in the station. And that we could be arrested,” Saji George said a day before being arrested.
“We told them not to worry about the false cases foisted on us. But to tell us their stand on the stoppage of quarries. They said they will have to discuss things with the higher leadership. We haven’t heard from them ever since.”
Meanwhile in Pedena, where too the panchayat is in the dock in connection with the license it issued to the quarries, the panchayat president Nalini P insists that, “If a license application is brought in with all the required clearances, there is a standing order from government to issue them license.”
The Panchayat Secretary of Peringome Vayakkara Panchayat, Manjusha said, “We have to prevent instances such as that of Sajan and the Partha Convention Centre. It is part of the business friendly initiative of the government.”
That the largesse is against the very wishes of the people who elect the representatives is what the protesters hold up as a question on the efficacy of democracy.
“It is when we go to get a license for extension of a room in our house or an additional toilet that they find their voice and powers,” a protester in the pandhal outside commented when told of the secretary’s response.
“A quarry which destroys a village if they apply, they have no other option than to approve, but for an additional toilet in a bedroom, they make us run for months,” the protester said.
Peringome Vayakkara Panchayat under which Pedena ward falls is ruled by the CPM with an overwhelming majority, in contrast to Naduvil which is ruled by UDF (United Democratic Front).
While the three UDF members of the panchayat have more or less remained silent, the sole IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) member in whose ward Pedena falls, has extended his active support.
The panchayat president is not backing out either, calling it a political fight.
“They used the children and the media as the trump card this time. The principal hadn’t even complained to us. AEO (Assistant Educational Officer) also hadn’t received any complaints. All of it is a political stunt. The leaders of the Muslim League asked for money from the quarry owners who refused.
In one of the meetings held in which all panchayat members and quarry owners had participated, one of the quarry owners had openly said in front of all their people how he had given Rs 20 lakh to Muslim League leaders. They didn’t protest,” she alleged.
“Pollution board and geology department has said that everything is going on as per stipulations,” she said a few days before the Pollution Control Board officials came to check for violations.
How the president could know about the results of the tests which had not been conducted is unknown.
That the tests were being conducted at a time when the quarries and crushers were not operating was raised by the Chairman of the Pedena Janakiya Samithi, Abdul Rehman, who said he has been told that a case is being filed against him for obstructing public officials in their duty.
“Because of the closure of quarries, developmental activities are being held up,” says Nalini. “These very people will blame us for the bad roads in the panchayat at the time of the elections.”
Asked about allegations of corruption which is making the panchayat side with the quarry owners, Nalini said, “There is no corruption. The protesters had asked for Rs 25 lakh from each of the quarry owners. No one gave them money and so they started protesting.”
None of the quarry owners The Lede spoke with confirmed the claim to be true.
Asked specifically if he thinks politics is behind the protests, one of the quarry owners said, “No there is no politics. These are people from around here only. Two of them had told me they were starting the protests and that their aim is to bring in better regulation.”
But the panchayat president insisted otherwise.
Pressed on the monetary donations the quarry owner had said, “We do make small donations for local issues, occasionally."
Initially hesitant to reveal what the amount of donations made, he eventually said, “Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh for public buildings and other such things for which leaders seek donations.”
“If the other departments revoke licenses they have issued, we too will revoke the license given to the quarries here,” says Nalini president of Peringome Vayakkara Panchayat, shifting responsibility from the Bharana Samithi.
“Irrespective of anything that is happening here, we want to have better control of the quarries,” says Nalini. “That is the general opinion and we support regulations,” she said.
Even when elected representatives unanimously say that they want to better regulate the quarries, their inaction in heeding to the protesters’ demand to cancel the licenses makes their positions seem less convincing.
They all say that they do not want to be the ones to close down a venture. Whether this stems from their concern for entrepreneurship or from their necessity to keep alive the honeypot that the quarry owners are is anyone’s guess.
While they take a stand which puts them in direct collision with the protesters, from inside the glass domes of bureaucracy, things look different.
“The rule is that a quarry should be at a minimum distance of 50 metres from nearby buildings, structures, roads and canals,” says Suraj S, a geologist with the Department of Geology in Palakkad district which also has been seeing a rise in local protests against quarries.
“If you inspect, no quarries will be working without following the 50 metres rule. But people are protesting even when this distance is being maintained. And that is at the root of the problem in many places. Locals can complain. But shouldn’t there be substance to whatever they say?” he asks.
“People talk about random cracks appearing in the houses or buildings and raise alarm. It is for the PWD (Public Works Department) to ascertain whether there is any merit to these claims.
The PWD engineers who inspect cases issue vague sounding reports which could be interpreted either which way. They cannot be used to resolve problems.”
Inconclusive reports in turn act as ammunition for further protests down the line, says Suraj.
“In effect, there is nothing conclusive coming out of the studies or about the protesters’ claims.”
“If a quarry against which a complaint has been raised is found to be at a distance greater than 50 metres, nothing can be done by us. That is where our expertise ends.”
The department of geology is charged with collecting from the quarry owners Rs 40 per cubic metre of stone as royalty to government of Kerala apart from the other fees they collect depending on the size of the shaft in crushers. Quarries work with a plethora of other clearances, not just from the geology department.
“For a quarry to get license, we are just one of the many authorities, they need to get licenses for using explosives, clearance from Pollution Control Board, blast man license, environmental clearance from the statutory authority and finally permission from the panchayat in which the quarry is to be set up and only once they have all these can they start operation.”
While PRI (Panchayati Raj Institutions) representatives find a place in issuing licenses, the people seldom find a chance to raise their concerns. Suraj says it is because of the rules.
“The rules stipulate that the environmental clearance for quarries measuring greater than 5 hectares mandates a public hearing. In other cases the panchayat represents the public.
For a quarry to get clearance from the DEIAA (District Environmental Impact Assessment Agency) or SEIAA (State Environmental Impact Assessment Agency) as the case may be, the quarry owner has to get approved a detailed mining plan which specifies how much stone can be used in a year and how. It is not all random lawlessness as is projected.
As per the new rules, which have come into force since 2015, mining can only be done in the form of bench cutting. Which reduces chances of landslides. No new license can be issued which allows quarrying in places falling inside the Red Zones as demarcated by the State Disaster Management Authority.
A minimum of 100 metres has to be maintained from areas demarcated as forest lands and 10 km maintained from wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas so as not to disturb wildlife.”
As for the claims of pollution and vibration coming from the quarries, he says, “Since last year, we have been encouraging use of non-electric detonators. The waves won’t travel as far and could in a way help ease the fears of those living in the surroundings.
The issue with non-electric detonators though is that they use plastic tubes which become very fine inseparable pieces upon blasting. And when the stones are crushed, they affect the quality of m-sand produced. This leads the crusher owners to be less inclined to use stones from the quarries using them.
As for allegations of over blasting and over use, we issue online passes which tracks the number of loads and the vehicles which carry loads. It is simply not possible the way it is exaggerated.”
But the villagers of Pathanpara, Manjumala and Mavunchal who sit in their pandhal making note of each truck which carry load from the quarry, say these are never followed.
The Lede too had spoken to a truck driver in Pallissery, who was carrying load without the pass which costs an extra Rs 200 per load.
The driver in turn told The Lede that he will be using less used roads so as to go undetected. It not only increases his profit margin per load, but also helps the quarry owners make more money by escaping paying of royalty to the government.
While the department officials claim online pass system exists for all quarries, the Pathanpara quarry where the protests are active had no pass system.
Another quarry in Thrissur district which The Lede visited had a manager, a man in his twenties, sitting at the entrance to the quarry in a makeshift shack noting down the registration numbers of the trucks carrying loads. The quarry in Pallissery again in Thrissur district, had no online passes.
“There is no internet,” was the explanation given. But the officials in charge of oversight insists it is not the norm.
“Village officers as well as the police can check each passing load for relevant papers and if found not to be in possession of valid documents, they can stop them. It is an added layer of protection for ensuring adherence to the conditions under which licenses are issued to quarries,” says geologist Suraj S.
“If caught without papers, the minimum fine is Rs 25,000,” he says pointing at how stringent the punishments are. Something which truck owners say encourages bribing.
“When people raise protests, quarries are being stopped temporarily. For example, in the case of Edathadan granites, a high level committee has been formed on court’s order to look into the allegations raised by the protesters.
If people keep stopping quarries from operating thus, quarries will eventually stop altogether in Kerala,” he expresses his concern.
The reason for the protests Suraj says are at times, unverified fears.
“Many of the places where landslides happened for instance are in areas where there are no human interference. Landslides occurring during heavy rains is a natural calamity,” he says.
While all looks hunky dory from the official point of view, activists paint a contrasting picture of corruption, despair and chaos made possible by elected representatives and bureaucracy who act as if they have their heads buried in the sand.
Noble M Paikada who is Chairman of the Save Kerala Campaign Committee and is helping coordinate the many protests against quarries within Kannur district holds that the official machinery far too often takes a very lenient view of violations.
“There are a total of 80 quarries for which licenses have been issued for by the government in Kannur. But there are a total of 200 quarries which are operating within the district. Thus, there are 120 quarries which are illegal.
There are no official numbers for the number of illegal quarries in Kannur. Many of them have been working since before 2015,” says Noble.
“Earlier, just getting a permit from the Department of Geology was enough to start a quarry. It was after the ruling of Jeevan Kumar vs State of Haryana in 2012 that it became compulsory even for small mines to have permits.
In 2015, new changes were brought in which made it mandatory for mines to have environmental clearances to be operational. Many mines closed for a while since they didn’t have the necessary papers.
In January 2016, as per a Ministry of Environment and Forests notification DEIAA was formed. Before this only SEIAA and CEIAA could issue ECs (environmental clearances).
As per the new ruling, quarries having area of less than 5 hectares could be recommended for environmental clearance by the DEIAA. Quarries bigger than 5 hectares and less than 25 hectares was to be recommended for EC by the SEIAA and anything above 25 hectares could be recommended for EC only by CEIAA.
These regulations were applicable for all mines across the country. But it is not followed at all.
In India, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been entrusted with the responsibility of looking into environmental related violations and clearances. But what has been happening is that NGT has been made non-functional across the country,” says Noble.
It is under NGT that the DEIAA, SEIAA and CEIAA functions as the assessment authorities studying environmental impacts and making recommendations to issue clearances.
“The tribunal was designed to have regional benches in Chennai, Pune and Delhi. But appointments have been delayed forever. The appointments that are made are also questionable.
For instance, in Kannur DEIAA if you see, out of the total 66 licenses issued by it during the short duration of its existence, 52 have been found to be faulty.
Clearances have been issued by the DEIAA in landslide prone areas as well as in areas where the DEIAA has no jurisdiction. Inspite of the faults, all the 52 quarries were working.”
Protesters at Thurumbi have held that 17 quarries have been stopped through stop memos issued by the government, including the four that have been halted in Pedena.
“The constitution of the Kannur DEIAA itself is funny. Out of the 11 member body, eight are government officials and only three are from outside.
While these three are supposed to be subject experts, in Kannur DEIAA, the members were Malik Fasil Madala, Assistant Professor, Department of Forestry, Sir Syed College, Taliparamba; R Roshnath, Wildlife Biologist and Dr C Mohanan, Course Director, Wood Technology, Kannur University.
What subject expertise does a director of wood technology or an ornithologist (R Roshnanth) hold to make them eligible to decide on issuing environmental clearances for quarries?” he asks.
“The only expertise needed is that they be pliant to the leaders and the interest of the quarry owners. On 13 September 2018, NGT dissolved DEIAA citing lack of expertise in the bodies. But the quarries which this now redundant body had issued clearances for continues to operate.
The issues don’t end there. The government notifies the limit of ecologically sensitive areas. For the Talakaveri Wildlife Sanctuary, the ecologically sensitive zone is notified as 0 km. Can it get more absurd?” he asks.
“The government shamelessly change rules according to the needs of the quarry owners. There are also attempts underway to allow quarries in plantation areas even though at present it isn’t allowed,” he says.
“Since 2017, the rules mandates that quarries without EC cannot work. Now that they have dissolved the DEIAA, shouldn’t they also look into the clearances that have been issued by the now redundant body?” he asks.
“Now that everything has been handed over to SEIAA, shouldn’t SEIAA be reviewing the clearances issued by DEIAA? If one knows that mistakes have been made, shouldn’t one look into it immediately?
As things stand, there are no monitoring mechanisms for quarries. Each quarry is supposed to maintain a website where they publish their quarry management plan. Environment related monitored data also has to be published every six months. But none of the quarries do that. Most quarries do not even have a website.
In Kannur; quarries in Peringome, Manjumala and Thrippankottur have to be closed as they are located in landslide prone areas. While cluster of quarries are not allowed as per the NGT, in all these places multiple quarries operate side by side. By allowing them to operate, we are inviting disasters like that of Kavalappara.”
Kavalappara, located in Malappuram district of Kerala witnessed a landslide on 08 August this year.
Weighed by the torrential rains, the landslide buried a whole settlement. 59 lives were lost and 11 bodies have not yet been recovered.
“Kavalappara was in a safe zone which was marked as a landslide free area. But we know what happened,” says Noble. “Why are we allowing quarries to function in areas which are in the hazard zone then?”
Kavalappara features prominently in anti-quarry protests across Kerala as the most devastating proof of the threat that quarries pose. Activists and protesters, The Lede spoke to, spoke at length about the story of a people buried alive because of illegal quarries.
Widely circulated in mainstream media as well as social media was the existence of more than 20 quarries in the vicinity of Kavalappara.
In the next part of the series, The Lede visits Kavalappara to find out how these many quarries came to be concentrated in a small locality.
(To be continued…)