The mighty Arabian Sea appears to be under the impression that Kerala’s Alappad panchayat belongs to it. The sea began claiming the 17-km long region from December 2004 when the tsunami struck India’s coast. Alappad had lost 129 lives in the tragedy. Since then, the sea has been eating into this once thriving fishing village where the public sector company Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) remains engaged in indiscriminate mineral sand mining.
In most areas, the panchayat — located between a backwater region and the sea — has turned into a narrow strip with a width of no more than 500 meters, with some portions as narrow as 33 meters.
Poorly erected seawalls are failing miserably in preventing sea erosion and protecting the Alappad from a total wipe-out. “By the next monsoon, the sea will reinforce its attempts to claim the land by breaching the remaining sand wall. Doomsday is not far away and Alappad will soon disappear from India’s map,” laments Cibi Boney, a local panchayat member of the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RSP).
After 70 days of relay hunger strike by residents demanding an end to the mineral sand mining and efforts to safe keep the panchayat for future generations, the youth in Alappad started a hashtag campaign #SaveAlappad on social media.
The campaign caught wide public attention as young people across Kerala shared the hashtag on Facebook and Twitter. As prominent personalities including film stars and social workers shared the campaign, Kerala’s mainstream media which had ignored the panchayat and its protests for long was forced to sit up and take notice. Malayalam film actors Prithviraj, Jayasurya and Tovino Thomas and Tamil star Vijay were among those who shared posts on Alappad’s plight.
The spotlight on Alappad has angered Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and its social media campaigners, who say the movement is sponsored by private interests in the state’s mineral sand mining sector and targets a public sector company that supports a number of families in the entire coastal belt of Kollam and Alappuzha districts. On social media, LDF supporters have also accused the movement of soliciting the Sangh Parivar’s support.
“From where did the struggle get this sudden fillip? Sea erosion has been an issue since December 2004 after the tsunami hit the region. There is an organised bid to thwart the public sector mineral sand mining and to facilitate entry of private players,’’ Kerala’s fisheries minister J Mercykutty Amma told HuffPost India.
However, Boney says the local protest movement has no partisan politics, just a collective will for survival.
“There is not even an iota of truth in the response of the minister and the CPI(M) sympathisers who are engaged in a counter campaign against us on social media. You can see the reality and be convinced yourself. This is no longer a thriving coastal hamlet as it once was. The panchayat is now almost a frail sand ridge dividing the sea and the inland waterway,’’ says Boney. The erosion has forced the over 5,000 families to move from their homes, she says.
20,000 acres gone in 20 years
Going by land records the protestors possess, the area of the panchayat has shrunk from 89.5 sq km to 7.6 sq km in the last two decades. This means the sea has swallowed over 20,000 acres of land.
Public sector companies IREL and Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) began sand mining on the Kollam-Alappuzha coast in 1965. Its immediate impact was the vanishing of protective mud banks from the shore. Traditional fish workers, who formed the majority of local residents, had to relocate to other places in search of livelihood.
A study conducted by the Institute for Ocean Management in 2008 showed that the highest coastal erosion in Kerala was reported from Alappad and the adjacent Arattupuzha, Thrikkunnapuzha, and Purakkad panchayats.
“What Alappad is witnessing now is a blatant violation of the National Mineral Policy, Environment Protection Act, Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), and Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act. Only two weeks ago, the sea entered the backwaters at Vellanathuruthu, a mining site in the panchayat that had a width of 3.5 km,” points out environmental activist and lawyer Hareesh Vasudevan.
“The government move to silence the affected villagers must be condemned at any cost. Without state government permission, no private player can enter this area. It is an open secret that Aluva-based Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited (CMRL) and Thoothukudi-based VV Minerals Limited are the two private players in the field who wish to further exploit the Kollam-Alapuzha coastal region. All political parties in Kerala are mainlining good rapport with these two companies. The government has to expose that unholy nexus first,’’ says Rahul Sathyan, a local youth engaged in the hashtag campaign.
The residents of Alappad are demanding a complete ban on mining. “The companies argue that they have permission till 2020 for engage in mining. But, by then, there will be no Alappad. The government which has turned a blind eye to our struggle so far, is now spreading canards” says local action council leader K.C. Sreekumar.
In spite of the counter campaigns, the unexpected support pouring in from all quarters has made residents hopeful. “Social media has made our struggle more visible and now the government is left with no option but to intervene,” says Sreekumar.
People say the sea erosion has exposed a vital water supply pipeline through the panchayat, and a pipe burst is imminent. For the region, which is below sea level and has close to 7,000 houses but no wells, the pipeline is the only source of drinking water.
Sand mining - public vs private sector
The sand dunes on the coast of Alappad are rich in the minerals ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, leucoxene (brown ilmenite), sillimanite and garnet. Sand mining in the area poses grave environmental as well as livelihood problems not just in Alappad but also for the nearby villages.
“The Valiyazhikkal-Thottappilly stretch is a highly erosion-prone coastline. The mineral-rich sand coast had acted as a sea wall protecting the area from erosion, and prevented sea water from flowing on to the rice fields in Kuttanad, which are close to this area as well as below sea level,’’ says advocate and environment activist Hareesh Vasudevan. The indiscriminate mining has taken away this natural protection, destroying crops in Kuttanad, he says.
Walking around Alappad, one can see abandoned houses, temples, schools and other buildings as well as dried up, red-coloured ponds and mangrove forests can be seen in the panchayat.
“Most people of Alappad have been forced to leave their houses because of the sea erosion. Neither the government nor the mining companies had provided them any compensations’’ says Boney.
In 1991, following the union government’s economic liberalisation, private investment was permitted in the mineral sand mining sector. By 1998, the union government had even permitted mining collaboration with foreign companies. But Kerala has been resisting all attempts by the Centre to allow private players and foreign capital in this sector. The state government feels that any attempts to weaken the public sector companies would turn into an advantage for the private players, eager to reap huge profits from the region.
“We will stand with the state government to resist any attempt to allow private players here. Our concern is land, livelihood and survival. In order to protect them, we will continue to remain vocal about the evil impacts of mining by public sector companies,’’ says Seekumar.