Why a sea of calamity awaits Kerala if mining isn't curbed.
"Once upon a time, there was a place called Alappad in India's Kerala state. It was a thriving fishing village, but Alappad in Kollam district is now under the sea, thanks to unscientific sand mining and government apathy."
This is a possible bedtime story parents would be reading out to future generations if the voices of the hamlet's impoverished inhabitants continue to be ignored. For the uninitiated, two public sector companies - India Rare Earth (IRE), which comes under the central government; and Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) - have been mining black sand in the coastline between Chavara and Alappad since 1968. Life has since been a battle for survival for the people of the region. According to environmental activists, a litho map of Alappad shows the village, which comprised 89.5sqkm of land in 1955, has now shrunk to barely 8sqkm due to massive soil erosion caused by sand mining.
While a #savealappad hashtag campaign and a video shared by one of the girls in the village, 17-year-old Kavya S, have brought the inhabitants' anti-mining campaign into the limelight, the government and independent observers believe there is a business lobby behind the snowballing protests.
The class 12 student's video talks of her fears about her village disappearing from the map due to mining. "Today it's Alappad; tomorrow it may be entire Kerala," she warns. She laments the media's lackluster attitude towards a relay hunger strike launched on November 1 last year and a Guinness record feat by ace swimmer R Ratheesh who swam 13km with hand and feet tied in support of the Alappad campaign.
"To see the land beneath our feet sink away is an extremely sad sight," says Kavya, who has become a household name. Her social media effort to save the village is not in vain as several celebrities have joined the cause after watching the video. "Perhaps if I talk more about this issue, more people will be aware of this," says rising Malayalam star Tovino Thomas.
Noted actor Prithviraj Sukumaran also lent his support on Facebook. "There is a furore when belief is questioned and religion is the debate. At the same time, the fact that the sheer existence of a people and the place they call home is in danger... and for some reason, it's still the poor cousin of the favourite prime-time news," says Prithviraj. "I can only hope. that this voice of mine joins an ever growing chorus, and sooner than later, we make enough noise that action is no longer a choice for the authorities," says the star's FB post.
The Kollam coastline is rich in minerals like ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, leucoxene, sillimanite and garnet. IRE and KMML, which have been doing extensive mining in the area, employ two methods to extract the ores - sea washing, or surface mining, and deep mining.
Journalist Jayan Madathil, who hails from one of the affected villages, tells me that the scale of erosion worsened after the companies resorted to unscientific surface mining which allowed the sea to come inland. In Karithura, a mining site in Chavara, IRE had successfully employed deep mining. Though IRE had rehabilitated people from Karithura with adequate compensation, the company refilled the site and gave back the properties to their original owners free of charge. The people of Alappad are demanding implementation of the Karithura package in their village too, which IRE has rejected.
The advantage of surface mining is since the waves keep coughing up abundant mineral-rich sand, it is an economically cheaper activity. Extensive surface mining by KMML has rendered the nearby Panmana village in Kollam unfit to live in. It now looks like a ghost town. According to Madathil, the abandoned Kattilmekari Devi Temple and heaps of sand are what's left of the once thriving fishing hamlet, where KMML had evacuated around 950 families. Madathil says that 30 years ago, the sea was one-and-a-half kilometres away from the institution. Such is the damage from the mining that the beach is now a stone's throw.
He explains that Alappad is a complex issue that requires troubleshooting at different levels. One that stares the people of Alappad in the eye is the loss of their livelihood. Alappad is also believed to be a playground for lobbyists. A tycoon from neighbouring Tamil Nadu state is rumoured to be mining illegally in connivance with some unscrupulous villagers. The #savealappad protest is seen as the mining lobby's conspiracy to destroy IRE and KMML and usher in global and private players into the lucrative business.
Researchers have warned of grave environmental consequences due to the improper management of industrial waste from the mining activity. Residents have to walk several kilometres to source drinking water as they have been experiencing air, land and water pollution for decades. The researchers say the signs of land contamination are visible in the form of complete destruction of vegetation. Incidence of cancer in the mining villages is among the highest in India while skin ailments and diseases such as bronchitis and asthma have afflicted a large number of residents.
It's a pity that a state which built a 620-km-long human wall to uphold gender equality has no time to listen to a people whose land and homes are being devoured by the sea and mining. These are the same people who risked their lives to save thousands stranded in Kerala's apocalyptic floods last year. A tragedy of similar magnitude is awaiting Kerala if steps are not taken to stop the ocean that's about to invade the state's precious backwaters. It's a thin line between life and death in Alappad.
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