Extensive sand mining has been happening between the Chavara and Alappad coastline in Kollam since the 1960s. Because of this, more than 6,000 fisherfolk have vacated over the years
The 2019 overview of sand mining in Kerala showed how illegal mining of rivers had played its part in aggravating the 2018 flood situation. Reports revealed that several rivers in the state turned dry and water level adjoining them dropped significantly soon after the floods, despite excess rainfall, which was partly because of the excessive mining and washing away of sand deposits, which used to help recharge groundwater.
Towards the end of 2018, the issue of unsustainable beach mining in Alappad surfaced and the video of a 17-year-old girl describing the adverse impact on coastal villages went viral. The effort earned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) intervention. Meanwhile, the state government agencies kept insisting on continued mining operations in the coastal area. This report provides an overview of the state of affairs through 2019 and 2020 so far.
The coastline between Chavara and Alappad in the Kollam district has a decades-long story of peoples’ battle for survival against mining companies. This stretch in Kerala is where the extensive mineral beach sand mining has been happening since the 1960s. The abandoned buildings are the remains of peoples’ failed agitations and indefinite strikes. One by one, the villages in the area are vanishing from the map of Kerala.
In Alappad panchayat, activists estimate that more than 6,000 fishermen families have vacated over the years due to beach erosion, drinking water scarcity and lack of fish availability. The remaining families in this 23-km stretch of the coastal region (Kollam Neendakara to Kayamkulam) are under the threat of eviction as for the last few years, they have been fearing massive coastal erosion that can engulf their villages. Most of the people have been forced to leave their houses, even without any compensation from the authorities or the mining companies.
In 1968, two public limited companies, Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL), and Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML), began mining beach sand in the region. While a litho map of Alappad village showed 89.5 sq km of land in the area, this shrunk to a mere eight sq km of land by 2019.
In January 2019, 40 km away from the town, aggrieved fisherfolk from the coastal hamlets of Alappad gathered at a village called as Vellana Thuruthu and sat on a relay hunger strike which entered the 68th day in January 2019.
Fishermen say hamlet after hamlet was ‘disappearing’ from the map due to the mining activities by the IREL and KMML. They were demanding a complete halt of the mining activities. However, an official from the IREL said the company was following all the mining norms.
Alappad’s struggle against mining PSUs is as old as its mining history. The mining started around 1912 by private companies and it was later taken over by the PSUs in 1968. But the initial years were largely peaceful. “The fishermen community was ignorant about the mining. There were heaps of sand for them to be scooped up,” said district secretary of Dheevara Sabha, M Valsan, who led many protests against the IREL.
But things started to change when the fishermen realised the mining activities were affecting their livelihood. They were also keen to get a salaried job in the IREL. The first protest was led by former panchayat president of Alappad, P Chellappan, in 1970.
The protests lasted for four years and many were injured in the police action. The second agitation, in 1978, was led by Valsan to secure jobs for the ITI certificate holders in the region. In the next two years, Karayogam of Pandarathuruth and Dheevara Sabha protested for getting a better deal for their land and for getting employment in the IREL, in 1980.
The company recruited 240 locals as temporary workers in 1990. But the resentment against the IREL grew in the aftermath of the tsunami that wreaked havoc in Alappad in 2004. Protesters blocked roads to the mining site and it led to the closure of the sites for over two years. By then the people realised the harmful nature of mining carried out by the IREL. There were demands of stopping sea washing, refilling of land and use of scientific dredging.
As the discontent grew, it resulted in another round of protest in 2009. The Oommen Chandy government announced an increased compensation of land and property leased to the company.
Fisherfolks alleged the IREL, in collusion with private parties, illegally transporting sand beyond the permissible limit. According to the Purakkad grama panchayat authorities, mining of mineral sand from Thottappally harbour was being carried out without the consent of the local body.
February 8, 2019 marked the 100th day of the anti-sand mining protests in Alappad village and the local mood was fire raging bright. Over 120 people had crammed into the small protest tent in Cheriyazheekal. Loud cries of slogans rang the hot air. Inside the tent, 100 residents from Alappad had begun a 24-hour strike (8 am to 8 am) to get the govt to stop mining in their coast.
Around 3,000 people from Alappad village have been on a relay hunger strike for the last one year against the mineral beach sand mining in the coastal area. On the first anniversary of the strike, the protestors formed a human chain ‘Sagara Shayanam’, on the beach near Vellanathuruthu in November 2019. Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey and environmental activist CR Neelakantan joined the protesters. The protesters had also held a coastal march.
“The two public sector mining companies exist here by violating all the rules. Why are our governing systems not taking any action? I offer my full support to the protest in the future and will also do my best to bring the issue to the national and international level,” Sandeep Pandey said while addressing the protesters.
Panel to study the impact: A high-level meeting convened by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in January 2019 decided to set up an expert committee to study the impact of mineral sand-mining in the coastal village of Alappad in the Kollam district.
The meeting decided to temporarily stop the process of sea washing or surface mining of sand that is being blamed for the attrition of coastal land in the Alappad gram panchayat. The process will be suspended till the expert committee submitted its interim report. Mr Jayarajan had earlier made it clear that there was no question of the government stopping sand-mining activities at Alappad as a condition for talks with the action council.
Meanwhile, EP Jayarajan, on January 23, 2019 said the government had no plans to stop mineral sand mining at Alappad.
Jayarajan said that black sand mining in Alappad didn’t have any impact on the region. He was responding to the adjournment motion on sand mining in the village in Kollam district. The motion was moved by PT Thomas of the Opposition.
The Opposition’s demand was to discuss the unscientific mining and the serious environmental impact of it in the region by temporarily adjourning the House proceedings. Since the minister went on defending the government’s move, the Opposition staged a walkout.
A plea in HC: A petition was filed before the state High Court (HC) on January 14, 2019 seeking to initiate steps to stop sand mining at Alappad and implement the recommendations of the Environment Assessment Committees (EAC) for mitigating the dangers caused by mining. The petitioner, KM Hussain, a native of Alappad, submitted the mining by the IREL has threatened the very existence of the Alappad panchayat.
The petitioner also said the environmental assessment committee headed by former minister Mullakkara Ratnakaran had conducted a study on the issue and submitted a report before the Assembly. However, none of the suggestions has been implemented. The committee found unscientific excavation had resulted in sand accumulation, according to the petition.
The NGT seeks report: In January 2019, the NGT asked Kollam district administration to furnish a report within a month after taking note of 17-year-old girl’s viral video on the environmental impact of sand mining activity in Alappad. The matter was to be heard on March 29.
The NGT forms a committee: The NGT had formed a committee comprising representatives from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) to determine the compensation to be recovered for the damage to the environment by unsustainable illegal mining. It asked the panel to submit a report within two months and said it would be open to the concerned regulatory authorities to recover the compensation by following the due procedure of the law.
The tribunal passed the order after perusing a report field by DM, Kollam, and the SPCB which showed that mining volumes have far exceeded the sustainable mining quantity proposed. The tribunal has taken suo motu cognizance of an Indian Express news report titled “17-year-old’s video gets Kerala talking of impact of sand mining”.
Trouble brewing at Thottappally estuary: The move to remove mineral-rich sand from the Thottappally ‘pozhi’ (estuary) in February 2019 met with opposition. The state government in January 2019 had decided to extract sand from the estuary and dredge the leading channel to ensure smooth flow of water from the Kuttanad region through the Thottappally spillway. It directed the Irrigation Department to sell the sand either to the IREL or the KMML. However, environmentalists and local residents said the move was aimed at extending the mineral-sand mining along the Thottappally coast.
Olive Ridley turtles seen at the Thottappally coast: The Thottappally coast is one of the prime locations for egg-laying Olive ridley turtles in the state. “The decision to remove sand from the estuary will spell doom for the ecology of the area. To remove sand, they will have to cut more than 350 casuarina trees. Besides, the area is also home to several species of reptiles, migratory birds, and a large number of butterflies,” Saji Jayamohan, secretary, Green Roots Nature Conservation Forum, said.
The Purakkad panchayat authorities said that they were not consulted by the government before taking the decision. “In the case of the ongoing harbour dredging and the recent decision to extract sand from the estuary, the local panchayat had been totally side-lined. The decision to take sand from the estuary in the name of floods was nothing but a blatant looting of rich mineral-sand deposits. We would stand with the people of the region and will not allow the government to remove sand,” said an official with the Purakkad panchayat.
Rescuing the Olive ridley turtles Overcoming the challenges posed by the August deluge, the heatwave and other impediments (sand mining), environmentalists and local people incubated and released 226 hatchlings of endangered Olive ridley turtle to sea at Thottappally coast. Jayamohan said the floods and sea erosion had eroded around seven acres of the coast that used to be the main nesting sites of Olive ridleys.
Other than the mineral sand mining at the Thottappally harbour, the move to extract mineral sand from the Thottappally estuary will adversely impact the nesting of turtles.
Government goes ahead with mining plan amid protest: Amid protests, the major irrigation department (MID), in May 2019, decided to go ahead with the plan to extract mineral sand from Thottappally ‘pozhi’ (estuary).
A senior officer with the MID said that both, IREL, and KMML had submitted their expression of interest for mineral sand mining from the estuary. “They be given permission for removing mineral sand this week, and we are waiting for the government order in this regard. Both KMML and IRE will extract the mineral sand from the estuary as a joint venture,’’ said the MID official.
Purakkad gram panchayat authorities had come out against the state government’s move to remove mineral-rich sand from Thottappally. Speaking at a news conference on May 6, 2019, Purakkad panchayat president Rahumath Hamid had said that the state govt was gearing up for large scale mineral sand mining in the area in the name of Thottappally spillway renovation, which was within their local body.
Residents against tree felling at Thottappally Local residents were up in the arms against the govt move to cut down more than 500 trees close to the Thottappally estuary. In August 2019, the residents prevented the Forest Department officials and the contractor from felling the trees.
A high-level meeting in May 2019 had decided to cut the trees by invoking various sections of the Disaster Management Act. The decision was based on an observation made by the Irrigation Department that the trees were impeding water flow from the Kuttanad region. Following this, the district administration directed the Forest Department to chop 524 trees, mostly casuarina trees on a land parallel to the Thottappally spillway. Besides the decision to chop trees, the high-level meeting had also given its nod to the Irrigation Department to go ahead with the planned removal of mineral-rich sand from the estuary. The Irrigation Department was set to sell the sand to the IREL and KMML.
Environmentalists and local residents alleged that the decision to cut trees and extract mineral sand was interconnected. Local residents said that the large-scale extraction of mineral sand would result in the intrusion of salt water into Kuttanad. “They are cutting the trees so that they could easily extract and transport mineral sand from the area,” said a resident.
Strike against mining at Thottapally: A dharna was organised under the aegis of the Samara Samithi at the Alappuzha district collectorate. On May 22, 2020 around 550 trees, mostly casuarina trees, close to the Thottappally estuary were axed. Prior to the felling of trees, the KMML had started removing sand deposit from the estuary. The removed sand is being transported to its unit at Chavara.
Although the fishermen community is not against sand removal from the estuary, which is an annual process to ensure the flow of floodwaters into the sea, it is up in arms against the transportation of the mineral-rich sand. The fishermen alleged that the trees near the estuary had been felled to extract more mineral-rich sand from Thottappally, which would be detrimental to the environment and the fishermen community. Apart from removing sand deposit and the steps to widen the estuary, the Irrigation Department has launched work to deepen the 11-km leading channel of the Thottappally spillway. Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran said the actions were intended to prevent flooding in Kuttanad.
For Flowing Rivers … a Prelude: Dr Manju Vasudevan, River Research Centre
A red moon rose above a tranquil river in Arangali village in Kerala. People had begun trickling in to the sand banks for an event called “The Song, the River and the Full Moon.” These sand banks in the lower catchment of the Chalakudy river are testimony to the struggles of the local community against years of illegal sand mining. It was not incidental that the Arangali’s sand banks were chosen for the music gathering — to celebrate the river and its free flow. And perhaps also to remind us that there is hope when people come together for protecting all that is withering away on this living planet.
Intel report had alerted government on mining gang threat The State Special Branch had apprised the government of the extent of the activities of sand and soil mining gangs in the state, but not much follow-up actions were taken on the report. The report was discussed in detail during a high-level meeting attended by the district collectors in December 2019. The Special Branch report had given an exact number of gangs operating in each district. “Specific instructions were given on the measures to be taken against mining rackets. But the instructions have not percolated down to the lower ranks,” said a senior officer, who was privy to the meeting.
Sources said the reason for the tepid response of the authorities towards the issue is the proximity that the mining mafia enjoys with politicians. “A lot of illegal mining gangs enjoys political patronage at the grassroots level. This helps them evade police net,” said an officer. In certain cases, police officials were found to be hand in glove with the mining mafia. The special branch sources said they have filed a report in this regard with state police chief.
Assuring actions against involved cops, a senior officer in Thiruvananthapuram police range said that other departments concerned, such as mining and geology, and revenue, should be more proactive.
Penalty for illegal mining to go up 20-fold: The Cabinet meeting on January 29, 2019 decided to amend the Kerala Protection of River Banks and the Regulation of Removal of Sand Act, such that the penalty for violators will be raised from Rs 25,000 to Rs 5 lakh. The additional fine for subsequent violations will be upped to Rs 50,000 from Rs 1,000 per day. The existing provision is to sell the seized sand to the Kalavara store run by the Kerala State Nirmithi Kendra, as per the rate fixed by the Public Works Department. This will be amended so that the district collector can auction off the sand to individuals or institutions.
FAC clears proposal to remove sand and silt at Pampa-Triveni: The FAC in its meeting on January 15, 2019 approves proposal for the “Removal of Sand and Silt accumulated at Pampa-Thriveni near Sabrimla, Kerala State” as one-time case saying, “The FAC observed the special nature of the issue, which was a result of the unprecedented flood in Kerala in the last season.” No cost of NPV or Compensatory Afforestation.
Mineral sand-mining row at KMML resolved: The issues related to the mineral sand-mining from the premises of the Ponmana Kattil Mekkathil temple was reportedly solved at a meeting chaired by minister EP Jayarajan, the KMML managing director K Raghavan said. In a statement on February 12, 2019, Mr Raghavan said: ‘‘It has been decided to continue mining keeping a distance of 125 metres from the well in the temple yard and 100 metres from the banyan tree.”
MP flays privatisation attempt: Mr Premachandran told reporters on September 16, 2019 that CM Pinarayi Vijayan should clarify whether the move initiated by the Industries Minister EP Jayarajan was in line with the Left Democratic Front policy. The Centre had framed a rule saying that mineral sand-mining should not be opened to private sector.
‘147 quarries given mining license after the 2018 floods’ The state government has given mining license to 147 quarries after the August 2018 floods, industries minister EP Jayarajan said. However, no quarry had been given operational approval in flood-hit and ecologically sensitive areas, he informed the State Assembly.
Legal steps had been initiated against eight illegal quarries, functioning in the 20 km radius of Kavalappara, a hilly hamlet in Malappuram district which had suffered massive losses during the floods this year, he said. Steps had also been taken to close down illegal quarries in the State after its operations were brought to the notice of the government. VT Balram (Congress) wanted the government to make environmental impact study mandatory before granting mining licenses.
‘Entrust PSU with beach sand mining work’ CPI leader and chairman of public undertakings committee C Divakaran asked the government to ensure that the mining of mineral-rich beach sand found along the coast of Kollam and Alappuzha be retained in the hands of the public sector undertaking KMML. Private mining lobbies have been trying to wrest control over this, and many a time, the govt has acted soft on such attempts, he said.
Government to look the other way as shut quarries in ESZs to resume operations In October 2019, the Mining and Geology Director K Biju had issued a stop memo to nearly 130 quarries that were within 10 km of the 28 wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala on the grounds that they did not have the approval of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). The union environment ministry has made an NBWL approval mandatory for quarries to function within 10 kms of a wildlife sanctuary boundary. These were likely to resume operations in March 2020.
Building contractors demand nod for mining in rivers The office bearers of the private building contractors’ association demanded in the backdrop of the recent floods. It was in 2015 that the state government imposed a complete ban on sand mining in five rivers and a partial ban on mining in six rivers based on a sand audit conducted in 2014. The Kadavu (river beds) were allotted by the government based on a sand audit conducted and unluckily, the audit found that all major rivers in the district were lacking sufficient volume of sand for mining. The sand audit will measure the sand volume in different river beds in the district and then only we will be able to recommend the lifting of the ban, said an official with the revenue department.
Allegation of mining in the name of river cleaning: After the public protest at Ayyankunnu panchayat, the work was stopped on May 14 as residents and panchayat authorities alleged that in the name of the cleaning, they were planning to remove sand. “Panchayats have the right to collect the sand but here the company is taking away the sand in the name of cleaning and the committee at the local body level has not been informed about this,” said panchayat president Sheeja Sebastian.
‘Sand mining a threat to Poyya road’: Sand mining and unscientific construction of road were the reasons for damage of Poyya Valley Road during the recent floods, Minister for Local Self Government AC Moideen, who visited the place in August 18, said. The decision on the reconstruction of road will be taken only after testing the structure of the soil, he said. According to the Geology department, stagnated water in the pit formed after sand mining caused the sand to slide. It poses threat to the nearby houses.
JCB knocks down man: Sand mafia killed a man with the mechanical arm of JCB for resisting mining from his compound at Kattakada on Jan 24, 2020. Sangeeth of Sreemangalam in Keezharooril was hit with the machine in front of his family.
Activist attacked: In yet another case of whistle-blowers being intimidated by mafia groups, Mahesh Vijayan, an RTI activist, who fights against the illegal soil mining in the district, was attacked by a four member-gang on February 11, 2020 night at his residence at Nattassery. Mahesh was earlier attacked on the premises of the Kottayam municipal office on January 22, 2020 by some sand mining contractors, injuring him seriously. Later, Mahesh was threatened by another contractor over phone for moving against illegal sand mining.
In November 2019, the struggle of Alappad villagers completed one year. The protest seems to be still going on and has successfully halted the coastal mining operation there. It’s shocking that the decades-old mining operations by the IREL and KMML has eaten away about 80 sq km sea shore along the 23 km coastal region between Neendakara and Kayamkulam in the Kollam district. In the process, scores of villages have been wiped out and lives and livelihoods about 6,000 fisherfolks stand threatened to sea erosion. While the government committee has not prepared the report, the industries minister continued to favour mining operations. The HC and NGT also appear to have forgotten their plight.
The continual and proposed mining activities in Thottapallay estuary in Alappuzha district again by IREL and KMML have been proving detrimental to the eco-system and local people there. It is being done on the pretext of flood safety. However, residents say real motive is to mine valuable minerals and sand and the move would lead to sea water intrusion apart from destruction of the Olive ridley nesting site. It seems, it’s another Alappad kind of impact in the making there forcing people to oppose and protest.
However, the private builders and beach miners are seen putting pressure on govt to allow more mining in rivers and alongsie beaches. Although the state government has increased the penalty on illegal sand mining several times, there are reports of organized illegal mining rackets active in the state.
Without involving local bodies, the sand is being removed from the rivers in the name of cleaning work. The floods, groundwater recharge and erosion are also being overlooked in the process. Similarly, the murder and attack incidents of people opposing illegal mining, show all is not well in Kerala which is presented as leading state in health, education and governance parameters.
At the same time, the ongoing Alappad protest and now local resistance in Thottapallay, highlights that organized people’s movement can rein in mindless mining. The report on struggle of Arangali villagers in Thrissur district to protect their sand banks against illegal mining is also encouraging.