Confusion and loopholes in legislation to regulate quarries has led to the current mess
While there seem to be widespread attempts to push protests against quarries, environmental clearances and need for licenses for quarrying came into existence only in the recent few years.
The reasons behind the crisis which the industry is in seems to be the result of a long unregulated past.
The Lede finds out.
“Before 2015, the rules governing quarries were rudimentary,” says Dr S Sreekumar, retired professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, Christ College, Irinjalakuda, Thrissur.
He is also an expert member of the State Level Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC).
“It was only after 2015 that a proper attempt to codify rules and make the industry compliant came into being,” he continues.
And this is the basis of the chaos that the industry finds itself in today.
New rules issued in 2015 required that quarries get environmental clearance and licenses for operating. This was new to an industry which had hitherto been unregulated.
The existing quarries went to court seeking exemption.
The Kerala High Court in March 2015 held that no environment clearance was required to operate existing quarries having less than five hectares of area within the state of Kerala.
The Bench also granted the existing lease holders time to submit mining plans to concerned authorities while ruling that environmental clearance, as per notification dated 14 September 2006, will be applicable for new mining projects only.
While earlier, quarry owners just needed permission from the state Department of Geology to operate, new rules had stipulated much more. But new rules were not made uniformly applicable.
While new quarries played by the new rules, older ones were allowed to continue as is. Both produced the same product and sold it in the same market. The absurdity was glaring, but no action were forthcoming to change this imbalance.
In January 2016, the union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) amended the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, and made ECs compulsory for mining of minor minerals in lease areas of any size including those below or equal to five hectares, which earlier did not require an EC.
Here began the problems plaguing quarries and the half-hearted application of the new regulations which are still being enforced today.
According to the new rules, ECs came to be required for mining of all types of minor minerals including ordinary earth (red earth/soil), laterite, clay, granite building stone, granite dimension stone, ordinary sand, river sand among others.
Getting ECs required meeting stipulations and submitting of documents such as:
Pre-feasibility Report of the project (in this case quarry)
Approved Mine Plan
District Survey Report
ECs for quarries with area less than or equal to five hectares were to be issued by the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (DEIAA) chaired by the District Collector.
The District Expert Appraisal Committee (DEAC) was created for appraisal of ECs of small-scale mine leases which would then be issued by DEIAA. They were also charged with appraising and issuing ECs for mining in clusters, where the cluster size was greater than five hectares but less than 25 hectares, with no individual lease being more than five hectares.
It was in the DEIAA & DEAC that the most abuse is alleged to have happened.
“The DEIAA everywhere issued EC to applications catering to the interests of quarry owners,” says Noble M Paikada, the chairperson of the Save Kerala Campaign Committee.
“Even in cases when they held no power to issue clearance, they did,” he says.
“These included cases of quarries operating in what has been defined as clusters where the new rules prohibited new licenses being issued by DEIAA as well as in areas which were deemed hazardous and landslide prone.”
Last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recommended dissolution of the district level bodies across the country.
Making the recommendation, on 11 December 2018, the principal bench of the NGT chaired by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel noted that the District Expert Appraisal Committee (DEAC) “comprises of officers with no expertise or scientific knowledge to assess environment implications.”
But by then, in almost three years of this now defunct body’s existence, licenses had been issued to numerous quarries, many of which were pre-existing quarries with or without licenses, and became compliant according to the new rules.
This, in essence, meant a lot of quarries which would not have met the requirements of the new rules had come to be given ECs. While new applications now came to be looked into by the SEAC ever since the dissolution of district mechanisms, older quarries which had obtained EC through DEAC and DEAA continue to operate, even today.
Quarries in Pedena and many others in Kannur fall under this category.
“What is the purpose of the ruling if it was not to be applied?” ask activists such as Noble.
“If a mistake has been found shouldn’t they be rectified?” he asks.
While new rules have in theory come to practice, the same old quarries had been continuing to operate. Activists say, this shows the scant regard authorities have for the rules which had been brought in with the sole intention of achieving a balance between environmental protection and developmental activities.
While environmental concerns remained unaddressed, it was the people living in the vicinity who started raising objections. And the reasons are many.
Once the EC was given, further licenses and permits were needed, including blast man license, explosives permit, clearance from Pollution Control Board (PCB) and finally the license from the panchayat under which the quarry came under.
Under the justification that the quarry owners had got EC and other required licenses and permits, the panchayat representatives issued licenses to operate almost without exception. They say they have their reasons.
“We have no other option,” was how both President Nalini and secretary Manjusha of Peringome panchayat under which Pedena falls, justified their actions. “By the time the quarry owners and their applications reach us, they would have spent money to get these clearances and permits by following all the rules. Once they have got all the clearances, we can’t just stop them and destroy their entrepreneurial efforts,” said Ammini AV, a ward member of Naduvil panchayat.
This is but a mere excuse, is what activists and protesters allege. “They are hand in glove with the quarry owners,” say environmental activists like Abdul Rehman, Chairman of the Janakiya Samara Samithi heading the protests in Pedena. This allegation is repeated by villagers and protesters alike.
The reason according to the likes of Suresh Keezhattur, the man who led the protests in Keezhattur is that, “it is the quarry owners who fund the political parties. They just can’t go against the wishes of these businessmen.”
“Out of the total of 80 quarries which were issued EC in Kannur district, violations exist in 55 quarries,” says Noble M Paikada. “We are protesting to shut them down.”
It is only once the licenses are issued and the quarries start operating that the villagers comes into the picture.
“For quarries up to 25 hectares, there are no provisions which requires the holding of a public hearing,” says Dr S Sreekumar, member of SEAC.
This in essence means that until a quarry is given final license to operate and starts operating, the public have no say in deciding whether a quarry should be allowed to come in their neighbourhood.
“The only way for people to make themselves heard is through protests,” says Dr Sreekumar.
“There are no real time monitoring mechanisms which can look into violations either,” he says, thereby laying the added onus on the public to be vigilant.
But these protests require those living in the vicinity to be alert enough to be able to organise themselves and mobilise opposition to quarries. Which is where groups such as the Save Kerala Campaign Committee become an existential requirement for many.
From the side of the quarry owners, it is not only the protests which has been standing in the way of running of quarries.
In September 2019, the Chief Forest Conservator wrote to the Director of the Mining and Geology Department asking for adherence to the rule that quarries located within a distance of 10 km from areas of wildlife protection get clearance from the Wildlife Board first.
On 10 October 2019, the director ordered closure of a total of 20 quarries within Thrissur district, 16 of them large scale mining units with an area between two to five hectares and four smaller quarries of less than a hectare.
“There are a total of 41 quarries for which license has been issued within Thrissur district. Out of them 21 are closed. Many others are not working because of various other reasons such as issues with locals,” says Nandakumar, an official with the Department of Mining and Geology in Thrissur.
“The 10 km eco-sensitive area (ESA) limit is as prescribed by the Government of India. Kerala government has now asked the distance to be reduced to one kilometre,” says Dr S Sreekumar, member of the SEAC. This was expected to benefit 300 of the now illegal quarries which fall within this prescribed ESA.
“This ESA limit is not to be confused with the existing limit of 100 metres prescribed for the distance of quarries from areas such as rivers and forests which are marked as ecologically sensitive. It is already one kilometre in states such as Goa. It is just that Kerala government has recommended the change now. The decision really lies with the central government. If they accept it, the change shall come into force,” he says.
“If I were to be asked, if the government were to make the distance required to be maintained from forests uniformly as one kilometre, it will be a revolution,” says activist Noble M Paikada of the Save Kerala Campaign Committee. But that is not the plan.
“This one kilometre amendment is strictly with regards to distance from areas of wildlife conservation such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries,” he says.
The state government decides what the ecologically sensitive zones are. This includes rivers, areas marked as forests and the like.
“In some places such as the Thalakavery, the ESA is marked as 0,” says Noble M Paikada. “The governments always side with the interest of the quarry owners,” he alleges.
“With people’s representatives themselves taking up the interests of private business as their own, people’s voices are conveniently forgotten,” says Suresh Keezhattur. “How will they lead protests then?” he asks.
This, Suresh claims, has necessitated people like himself and the many others coming up from amongst the people to raise their voice about people’s issues.
One of the reason cited by protesters for the special interest that public representatives have in siding with the quarries is that the representatives themselves have ownership stakes.
“A new trend among quarries is that there are a lot of partners in each quarry. These numbers are between 10-15,” says Suresh Keezhattur. “We believe many of them are benami owners who represent politicians.”
“While earlier, businessmen used to bribe politicians for getting things done, now, everything has been made compliant and through proper channels,” he says.
“There are no bribes involved anymore. They take profits. It is purely a business transaction.”
“In Kerala if you look, almost all major politicians have stakes in quarrying,” he says.
The solution according to TV Sajeev of Kerala Forest Research Institute who had mapped the number of illegal quarries in Kerala is in removing private players from quarrying.
“Like all the sectors of mining. Quarries are also a common property resource which should be owned and operated by the state under public trust,” says Sajeev. “That in itself will remove almost all the ills associated with the industry today.
It is a non-renewable resource and as it is we should be careful and judicious in our use so that we leave enough for the future generations.
All things undertaken by the private sector is undertaken with the sole motive of profit making. And this results in invention of uses. A lot many unnecessary usages are being found and encouraged today.
Roads are being built wastefully were there are no need to. Projects are planned and designed using public money just to pocket the money. These things itself result in a lot of consumption.
Owners are bribing officials and politicians are finding newer ways to make money.
It is not just an environmental disaster. It is polluting our democracy itself,” he argues.
“If you compare it with the liquor industry. Once the liquor industry was brought under government control we have had no major cases of illicit liquor related deaths. Not only have further tragedies been averted, it is today amongst the biggest sources of income for the government of Kerala.”
“Quarry is a similar sector. It is up to the government to take things into their hands and clean them up,” says Sajeev.
“There won’t be any further protests anywhere if they do. People are being forced to protest as they are left with no choice.
Government should look into rationing stones, as is done with teak by the forest department. Whoever needs should be able to buy it from the government itself. What is the need of these private profiteers?” he asks.
“Right now the prices are being decided by the private owners themselves and bigger quarries have a disproportionate say. Why should common people be made to pay unnecessarily high prices for a common property resource?”
Dr Sreekumar also recommends that the government taking over quarrying. “Beach sand mining has recently been reserved for the state,” he says. “Something similar should be done with quarries too.”
“As things stand today, nothing can be done about the pre-existing quarries which have got licenses and EC to operate. We do not have provision for retrospective application in this regard. Until they come for renewal of licenses and apply for fresh ECs nothing can be done.”
A few contentious quarry owners The Lede spoke with, held licenses till 2024 and beyond.
“The SEAC has been rejecting a lot of applications that are coming our way. In particular, those coming from attempts to convert plantations into quarries. It is a dangerous trend,” says Dr Sreekumar.
The lower returns in rubber, coffee and other plantations have seen attempts to convert them into quarries across Kerala, with some quarry owners and truck drivers even demanding that quarrying in plantations be legalised as they would not disturb human settlements.
But SEAC member Dr Sreekumar cites a standing Supreme Court order which prohibits conversion of plantations to quarries.
Activists Noble M Paikada and Suresh Keezhattur hold that the quarry owners find other ways to overcome the stipulations. “First they will get papers ready saying the land is unfit for agriculture and then they use provisions which allows conversion of land unfit for agriculture for industrial purposes,” says Noble. “They have work around for everything.”
But the SEAC is vigilant says Dr Sreekumar. “We have been rejecting such applications that are coming our way,” he says.
“Another important aspect to be actively looked into is the need for building regulations across the state,” says Dr Sreekumar. “For such a small state with a small population and high population density, we have an awful lot of houses.”
“The sizes are unregulated and while people are building bigger houses every day, 15 lakh houses are said to be lying vacant across the state. If the government can look into re-assigning the vacant houses, maybe some solution could emerge for the building needs.
The number of malls and commercial structures coming up are also on the higher side. They need regulation. We are also dumping a lot of stones into the sea in the name of building sea walls.
As for quarries, the way forward is to increase and improve the real time monitoring mechanism of operating quarries. That has to happen. But I doubt if any of these will ever come from the side of the government, it will happen only if there is sufficient protests and if activists pin the government down, forcing it to do it. Else the lobbies behind quarries are too strong to allow anything like that to happen.”
Whether such a mechanism comes up or not, the number of protests being undertaken against quarries are increasing day by day. If things stay the way they presently are, the closure of quarries due to protests will only increase in the near future.
While quarry owners and those dependent on them, call for the right to livelihood, the unregulated history of quarrying in Kerala demands a strict imposition of the rules. This calls for action from the state government and its policy makers.
A good point to start with would be to make rules uniformly applicable to begin with. That newer quarries are compliant while older ones continue to be exempt. This is itself an absurdity that should not be allowed. All quarries should be made to become compliant within a stipulated period of time irrespective of the number of years they hold licenses for.
Public hearing which is at present not a requirement for smaller quarries has to be made the first point of acceptance of a quarry application. Unless the people in the vicinity agree, there is no point in going ahead with a quarry.
This culture of public consultation will only do good to any undertaking that is coming up. The present system of oiling the party coffers or entertaining the elected representatives cannot and should not be allowed to go on as a valid method of getting licenses. It will end up discrediting the democratic system itself.
Creating a grey zone by proper study of suitable areas devoid of human settlements for quarrying and the state itself undertaking the activities there is what all experts suggest as the long term solution.
Being one of the election promises of the Left Democratic Front which is in power today, the onus lies on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to keep his word.
At the same time attention also needs to be laid on faster development of building regulations across the state with separate specifications for each land type to help regulate the demand for building stones.
Reduced demand will help reduce environmental degradation and for a state which is cramped for land as it is, will also be a welcome relief.