“If there’s a nexus working that wants the blatant exploitation to thrive, it has to be met with equal force”

She calls herself a ‘daughter of the sea’. It’s not a borrowed label, but one that Jazeera Vadakkan believes in with passionate conviction. She builds literal ties to the description, “I was born at home, right on the Neerozhukkumchal Beach in Kannur (north Kerala).”

Clad in a burqa, surrounded by her three children, Jazeera makes an unlikely sight on the pavement outside Kerala House in New Delhi. As unlikely as when she was protesting outside the Secretariat in Tiruvananthapuram in her home state. But this is no home-maker accidentally caught up in the public sphere. Get closer and you will see that she is conviction personified.

Jazeera’s is a lonely battle, but she is the face of an amazingly courageous defiance against the all-powerful sand mafia that rules the coastal hamlet where she was born. Her zeal is in many ways incredible. Her battle is not built on academic research or environmental laws. It is a personal and intuitive battle. Returning to her village a short while after her marriage she found the landscape virtually unrecognisable, altered by the relentless mining of sand. “Why is it so difficult to see? If the miners can inflict so much damage on one beach in a few months, what will we have left to pass on to our children’s generations?” she asks.

The 31-year-old has been threatened countless times and even physically assaulted. But nothing seems to dent her mission to prevent even a grain of sand being shifted from ‘her’ beach. As she says, the sand being removed in tonnes to building sites has caused severe damage to Kerala’s fragile coastline.

Criticism of Jazeera, an auto driver by profession, ranges from dismissing her as a fake seeking media attention to vilifying her as an irresponsible mother and wife. She protests with her three children in tow, the youngest barely two. When Jazeera moved base from her hometown to the Kerala capital in August this year, her children came along. Her husband, Abdul Salaam, a madrassa teacher in Kochi, is not with her but is a source of support, she says.

The unending monsoon, the harsh heat wave, the criticism, the threats — nothing seems to affect Jazeera and her children. They had become permanent fixtures near the north gate of the Secretariat building. A huge demonstration organised by the Left Front had even veteran vendors a little worried because of the sheer numbers. But not Jazeera, who refused to budge. Her two girls, Rizwana and Shifana, seemed more preoccupied by their colouring books than the crowds and red flags all around.

Finally, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy met her on the third day of her protest. He promised her that action would be taken, but Jazeera wanted a written statement. When this did not happen, Jazeera went to Delhi. “There are laws that prohibit this sort of activity. But when the local people, the police, local leaders are all part of a nexus that wants the blatant exploitation to thrive, it has to be met with equal force,” she says.

None of the attempts to frighten her into going back to her hamlet have worked so far. Jazeera continues to protest, asking for a written assurance from the Kerala government to rein in the sand miners, something the authorities have strangely refused so far. Here is one woman fighting an organised mafia, but with enough courage to beat the odds.

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