Quarrying in Chembanmudy hill has turned a verdant village into a dustbowl

A land famed for its verdure and calm turning into a dustbowl, its people turning ill, anxious and frightened. A towering hill letting loose ogres of dust. Ideal plot to spin a yarn for children.

At Naranammoozhy, in the hilly tracts of Ranni, children — in fact, all people — live this harrowing tale.

Look up to Chembanmudimala, 3,825 ft above the mean sea level, from the village. Granite quarrying and crushing has been going on in two giant quarries and crusher units in the hill for a decade. When the dust worked up by quarrying started taking its toll on public health, protests erupted.

The people, under the banner of the Chembanmudimala Samrakshana Samithi (protection association) and an action council, have been on a 315-day mass movement against quarrying and crushing. The protesters, majority of them women from nearly 100 Kudumbasree units in the panchayat, marched to Chembanmudy on March 21, forcibly bringing to a halt the operations.

Bose Varghese Kaithala, Shaji Pathalil, Saji Kottarathil and Anu Samadhanathil, action council leaders, told The Hindu that 150 people, 10 of them children, in the locality had cancer, chronic bronchitis and lung ailments.

Bronchitis is a common ailment, and silicosis is also reported, Renjini Thomas, panchayat member, says.

The blasting and crushing of rocks releases silica dust. Quarry dust settles over residential areas and affects vegetation, crops included. Diesel emissions and quarry dust cause cancer and trigger asthma and other lung ailments.

People, especially quarry workers, overexposed to silica dust are at a high risk of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis, Kurien Oommen, senior chest specialist, says.

This is besides the danger posed by the relentless flow of heavy vehicles on the narrow village roads, the council leaders say. As many as 125 giant diesel lorries ply on the Chembanmudy-Chembanoly panchayat road that passes by houses, including in Lakshamveedu colonies, Anganwadis and schools, they add.

The Chembanmudy agitation attracted State-wide attention as prominent socio-political leaders and environmental activists started calling on the people, extending solidarity with them.

Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan; Philipose Mar Chrysostum, senior Metropolitan of Mar Thoma Church, K.R. Gouri, Janadipathya Samrakshana Samithi leader; Kummanam Rajashekharan, Hindu Aikyavedi general secretary, and A.G. Unnikrishnan, Bharatiya Janata Party State unit secretary, had visited Chembanmudy in the past four months.

Twelve Communist Party of India activists were arrested for laying siege to the taluk office following a landslip at Chembanmudy on May 5.

Peelipose Thomas, All India Congress Committee member and former State Planning Board member, alleges that the quarries are functioning in blatant violation of the law of the land.

The quarry operators have been violating the directions issued by the grama panchayat and the grama sabha, he alleges.

The then District Collector, V.N. Jithendran, visited the hill on April 3 and directed the Revenue Divisional Officer, Thiruvalla, to conduct an inquiry into the allegations that the quarry operators have encroached upon government property and the panchayat road. Also in the remit of the inquiry was the degeneration of two natural streams, Karnamkuthithode and Erumelythode, originating from the hill.

The Collector directed the Ranni Tahsildar to submit a preliminary inquiry report. The Revenue Divisional Officer banned the functioning of Kavumkal Granites and Manimalethu Quarry and Crusher Unit.

A team of experts from the Regional Cancer Centre visited the place, and the Health Department conducted a medical camp in April.

GSI report

An expert team of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), comprising R. Sajeev and Gourav Kumar Singh, geologists, inspected the landslip site.

The GSI experts found that “unscientific quarrying activity and dumping of overburden material, mainly laterite, along the south-western flank of the Chembanmudy hillock” was the main cause for the landslip.

The GSI report said the south-western flank of the hill was extensively quarried and the hill slope and the drainage channels were unscientifically modified by the quarrying activity.

Fifteen streams of the first water originate from the hill, seven from its southern flank. The GSI team observed unscientific drainage modification, extensive quarrying of the south-western flank and huge dumps of manufactured sand (crushed granite) and granite chips produced by the crusher unit along the hill slope.

The report said the concrete water tanks near a buried stream-course had created additional pressure on the loose “overburden” material. The GSI team observed unscientific hill slope modification and alteration of natural streams for quarry-related activities as key factors leading to the landslip.

The report mentioned about a large pond created by quarrying in the hill at an elevation of 275 metres above the mean sea level. The pond was separated from the break-in slope of the hillock with a nine-metre thick column of earth material.

The report warned against chances of a catastrophic pond-break during the peak monsoon, if the separating column containing filled debris material caved in under pressure created by the rising water in the pond.

The geologists have strongly recommended against blasting without attending to the future threats and corrective measures.

The Naranammoozhy panchayat cancelled the D&O (dangerous and offensive) trade licence granted to Manimalethu Granites at Chembanmudy. The quarry operator, Tomy Abraham, moved the Ombudsman of Local Self-Government Institutions against the panchayat’s decision. The Ombudsman stayed the panchayat’s decision.

The people intensified the agitation as Manimalethu Granites got a no-objection certificate for operating its quarry two weeks ago. However, the quarry operator could not resume operations following strong public protests.

Mr. Peelipose Thomas alleges that the district administration has taken a negligent attitude towards the GSI report.

Though the Revenue authority has issued a temporary ban on quarrying, the administration has failed to issue even a notice to the person who has been illegally operating such a giant quarry there for the past nine years, Mr. Thomas alleges. The district authority appeared to be keen on excluding one of the quarry operators from the ban, he alleges.

P. Prasad, Communist Party of India district secretary, alleges that Chembanmudy comes under the Environmentally Sensitive Zone-I in the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by Madhav Gadgil, and hence, the administration cannot permit any sort of mining there.

Mr. Thomas says Dr. Gadgil will visit Chembanmudy on November 7.

District Collector Pranab Jyotinath told The Hindu that the administration had given the no-objection certificate as Manimalethu Granites had produced the documents required.

He said the administration was bound to provide police protection to the licencee, if requested for, in the event of a law-and-order problem.