The media had widely reported in August that the landslides in Kavalappara that killed 59 people were caused by quarries. But is that true?
When The Lede visited Kavalappara and the adjacent Pathar village just across the hill, both of which witnessed devastating landslides followed by flash floods on August 08, the locals appeared baffled by our queries about quarries.
While the rest of India believed quarries were behind the landslides, the villagers claimed otherwise.
The Lede investigates why.
Located near Pothukallu in Malappuram district, Kavalappara was once a settlement believed to have had 36 houses, most of which are now no more.
In their place now stands mountains of red dirt brought down by the devastating landslide in August this year.
Located some distance away from the Chaliyar river, the streams flowing through Kavalappara as well as Pathar are its tributaries. Carrying rain water from the forest lands further uphill, the streams swell every monsoon and flow parallel to and on either side of the range on which the settlements once lay.
Facing Kavalappara, across the now trickling stream, are older settlements situated on less dangerous seeming slopes.
Though many houses here escaped disaster, most bordering the stream in between still lay vacant.
One of the first to be re-occupied houses is that of Shanthamma T.
“They have gone to other places and moved into rented houses,” said Shanthamma Thekkevilayil when The Lede asked her about her neighbours. “A few sponsors had offered help by paying their rents,” she said.
Shanthamma is one of the oldest settlers in the area, having lived there for 40 years. Her house opposite to the hill on which Kavalappara once stood, is newly built after the floods last year.
“They haven’t abandoned them totally. They may return,” she said. “Their rents were paid for 6 months. After that they will have to come back. Whether they will, I don’t know.”
Shanthamma’s newly constructed house was used as a camp by the rescue forces who headed the rescue efforts in August this year.
“At around 7:30 pm on August 08, there was a huge sound,” she said recollecting the landslide. “There was no electricity. And it had been pouring heavily. We couldn’t see anything, but we knew something terrible had happened in the vicinity.”
The road just below her house meanwhile flooded, forcing her to move uphill in the dark.
The entire settlement of Kavalappara had been buried and the debris was spread everywhere.
“We shifted to camps the next day. And returned only after 24 days,” said Shanthamma. “When we returned, there was an overpowering stench everywhere. It has disappeared only recently,” she said.
In front of her house, the heaps of debris with the arecanut and rubber trunks standing out and the pools of oily water, are the only remains of what once was a settlement.
At the top of the steep hilly slope, exposed bed rock, devoid of all top soil, attests to the danger that Kavalappara perhaps always was.
65-year-old Shanthamma too appeared puzzled when asked about quarries in the vicinity.
“There are no quarries here,” she said.
When told about the claims that were widely circulated about the twenty plus quarries which had caused the landslides, she said, “I have been living here for 40 years, if there were any we would know. Won’t we?”
From the tea shops to the houses which narrowly escaped disaster, everyone insisted there were no quarries in the vicinity.
“When we had come down to settle here 40 years back the entire hill was just a grassland,” said Shanthamma pointing to the settlement that is no more.
“Later, the land was used by the government to settle the SCs and STs (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes). They used to travel down the slope and use this road in front of my house.”
One of the name boards on the way to Kavalappara had read “Bhoodan”. Donating unworthy and unusable lands was the norm when the Land Ceiling Act first came into force in 1976.
Shanthamma suggests, the settlement in Kavalappara was the result of one of those.
Shanthamma’s own family had migrated from Karunagappally near Kottayam in southern Kerala decades ago.
“First my father had come here and later, over time, he brought us all,” she said. While the migrant settlements grew in strength, the grasslands fast changed form.
“Over the years the land there changed ownership and the last occupants, many of who are no more, came to live there.”
“Meanwhile, the floodplains by the stream in the front changed from being paddy fields to arecanut plantations. Rubber plantations came up on the higher slopes.
Ever since they got another road giving them direct access to the settlement, we no longer had frequent interactions,” says Shanthamma about why the survivors know very little about the people across the stream.
“So over the years we came to know lesser and lesser of each other. It is very unfortunate what happened. Last year everyone had been vacated saying there is a possibility of landslide. This year there was no evacuation and this happened.”
Kavalappara was identified as a landslide prone area by the authorities, but no action was taken to relocate them says Shanthamma. This worries her.
“I am scared to continue living here,” she says, her husband Sadhanandan looking on. “Officers who came here told us that even this place is landslide prone. But they haven’t told us anything about resettlement.”
While Shanthamma is clear that she doesn’t want to continue living in Kavalappara, she says she has very small chances of getting relocated.
“I had lost my house in the rains last year. It was with help from the CM’s disaster fund that we managed to build this house. They gave us Rs 4 lakh and I borrowed Rs 2.5 lakh to complete the construction.”
It was just a month after moving into the new house that disaster struck.
“I apply the oil that the people who visited us gave to sleep in the night. It is difficult. I don’t feel safe here,” she says.
Shanthamma continues to live in the newly built house facing the settlement that is no more.
Pressed on about quarries, she said, “You must be mistaken. There are no quarries anywhere near. Further up are forest lands. We have been living for 40 years. Maybe you should ask in Pathar.”
Pathar which lies on the other side of Kavalappara also witnessed landslides followed by flash floods on the same day this year.
Though the spread was wider than Kavalappara, timely evacuation ensured that no lives were lost.
If an entire settlement that got washed away in Kavalappara, in Pathar, the landslide followed by flash floods carved the banks of the small stream flowing through it, widening it and exposing the loose rocks underneath and loosening them.
With a newly constructed bridge, a culvert really, replacing the old one which got washed away, Pathar is still not healed of the scars.
The ground under two-storeyed houses had moved, the upper storeys intact while the ground floor destroyed.
By the ice cream rickshaw parked in what is essentially the middle of the path of the flash flood, Joby Karimanath recalls the hour when tragedy stuck.
“The landslide began inside the forests uphill,” he said pointing to the top of the stream. “There a bridge has also got washed away.”
Joby was present in Pathar at the time of the landslide. This was just a few hours before the tragedy struck Kavalappara on the other side of the hilly divide.
“The slide had begun at the top. We went up after the landslide at around 10 am. Then we vacated all the people living here downhill.”
“By 4 pm we had evacuated everyone off to camps in buses. 10-15 minutes after we reached Pathar junction where we halted for tea, the water in the stream began to rise. Soon we spotted coconuts floating in the stream. After a while coconut trunks appeared and in no time the entire place was flooded.”
The two storeyed tea shop by the stream where he was having tea was flooded too.
“My phone got wet in the water as we waded to safety,” says Joby. Now left without a working phone, it worries Joby. “I wish someone gets me a new one. When people came here, many told me they will help me get one. Nothing has happened.”
Asked about quarries, Joby said “There are no quarries here. Maybe 5-10 kms away somewhere. There are none in these areas.”
Asked what then caused the landslide he said, “The landslide began in the forests uphill. It had nothing to do with quarries. There are no people living there. The Garbham Kalakki rock there had come off, starting off all this,” he said.
“If it rains the way it rained that day, any place will have landslides,” said Joby.
The Lede visited the said rock, located at the topmost part of the stream, flanked by rubber plantations on either side.
Further uphill from where the rock stood, remains of a very thin stream with a few boulders strewn across suggested the path where rain water once flowed. The vertical undercutting reflected the steep slopes that lay further uphill.
Down below, where the stream widens, the bridge that got washed away on the morning of August 08 stand replaced by a temporary bridge made of arecanut trunks tied together and placed on the pillars of the old bridge.
The steep slopes appeared to have accentuated a rather small landslide in the forests resulting in the flash flood which devoured Pathar down below.
If there were any springs, none were flowing at the upper regions of Pathar although down below, the stream in Pathar was still carrying water.
Today, Pathar is as much a tourist location as Kavalappara, with visitors - students from nearby schools in buses and visiting NRIs in SUVs, inspecting the disaster that has befallen the villages.
While all the villagers in Pathar and Kavalappara insisted there were no quarries in the area, the more widely accepted wisdom continue to suggest otherwise.
This, inspite of officers insisting that there is no basis for whatever is being propagated.
“There are no quarries in a 10km radius of Kavalappara,” says Raghavan.
Raghavan M is the district geologist of Malappuram district under which Kavalappara falls in.
“The reason for the landslide in Kavalappara were the deep pits that had been dug up for rubber plantations on the higher slopes of the hills there using JCBs. The clayey soil at the bottom came loose and soil piping led to landslide under the excess rains on 08 August 2019.”
“The media reports were probably the result of confusion over the name of the village. There is another Kavalappara located in Palakkad district which is surrounded by quarries. But the landslide had occurred in Kavalappara near Nilambur in Malappuram district.”
The local reporter of the daily which did carry the news, Malayala Manorama, vouched for the fact that there were no quarries near Kavalappara and that the news was the result of someone sitting in the bureau preparing a write up using quarry data available online.
But they had got a lot of things wrong beginning with the place.
Experts were quick to add in a word of legitimacy to the theory which had been floated by arm chair experts.
When told about what had been found in Kavalappara, Noble M Paikada, the activist coordinating protests across Kannur and who had raised Kavalappara as the proof of what will happen if quarries were not stopped said, “Kavalappara was in a safe zone. Within a radius of 10 kms there were 23 quarries operating. And the area is marked as landslide free. You can check it on environmentalclearance.nic.in.”
The irony seems to be that while all and sundry debated and shared their wisdom on television channels at the time, none had actually cared to visit.
Kavalappara, in reality, had no insights to offer on quarries, the dangers they pose or anything at all when an entire state sat in TV studios and debated an issue with no basis whatsoever.
Kavalappara and its 17, 23 or 26 imaginary quarries, depending on who one listens to, was not the origin of anti-quarry protests in Kerala. It was just one of the more sensational talking points in the armour of those trying to mobilise support against quarries.
It then begs to be asked, who are the real people behind the anti-quarry protests? What is their motive?
The answers to these are found in a very vocal protest which just a few years back threatened to create a Nandigram in Kerala - Keezhattur.
In the next part of the series, The Lede visits Keezhattur.
(To be continued…)