Quarrying has been taking a heavy toll on Kerala's undulating terrain, altering the geo-physiological characteristics of the much-flaunted ‘God's Own Country'. There is, perhaps, no other place in Kerala as affected by quarrying as Pathanamthitta district where there are an estimated 800 quarries. A close look at the slow devastation being wrought in the district by the quarries even as the larger policy and ecological imperatives call out for attention.
The rocky hill ranges of God's Own Country, an essential geographical feature of the land, one of Nature's singular blessings which make Kerala so endearing, have been suffering the deep gashes inflicted by man's greed, threatening to flatten them and leave a wasteland behind.
Mad material pursuits chisel away at these towering formations, their majesty bent and broken with impunity, all leading to an environmental catastrophe.
Granite quarries, rock crushers, and manufactured-sand units have cut swathes of havoc in the hill district of Pathanamthitta, product of a neo-liberal culture which cares two hoots for the wellbeing of the environment.
Pathanamthitta is regarded as the district with the dubious record of having the largest number of granite quarries and crusher units in the State.
Though the Mining and Geology Department records show only 169 major quarry licencees in the district as on March 13, the actual number of quarries will be somewhere near 800, added up by the permits given by the Revenue Department and the many unauthorised operations.
The Kalanjoor grama panchayat near Konni, nestling in the hilly tracts adjoining reserve forests, is perhaps the part of rural Kerala worst affected by indiscriminate rock quarrying.
Agitations of the local action councils and environmental groups against the powerful quarry lobby have often become mere cries in the wilderness.
Official records show that the Mining and Geology Department has granted quarrying licence to 18 granite quarries in Kalanjoor and Koodal in the panchayat. This is besides the permits given by the Revenue Department for quarrying from Revenue ‘poromboke' lands and unauthorised quarries.
M.G. Santhoshkumar, convener of the People's Action Council in the village, says that a random survey conducted by the council has identified 52 quarries in an area of 10 sq km in the panchayat, most of them within a 3-km radius, posing alarming health hazards to the local population, not to speak of the disastrous environmental impacts.
A wall goes down
Many rocky hill ranges in Kalanjoor and Koodal, with many historical and mythical tales to tell, have been regarded as a natural wall separating the human habitation from the adjoining forests.
Mr. Santhoshkumar laments that large-scale mining is in progress at various historically significant rocky hills, such as Rakshasanpara, Kallipparamala, Pothuparamala, Padappara, Pakkandampara, and Inchapparamala.
Kallipparamala is known for its rare species of cacti (‘Kallimulchedi' in Malayalam), and the late Guru Nityachaitanya Yati, a spiritual leader, who belonged to this village, had led a popular hill protection rally to the hill way back in 1997.
Giant machinery has been erected at various granite crusher units and manufactured-sand units at these places, giving the poor village folk sleepless nights. All these historical hills will vanish in the near future, Mr. Santhoshkumar says. Walls of many residential and other buildings in Kalanjoor and Koodal have developed cracks from unscientific blasting of explosives at various quarries.
Even the laymen in Kalanjoor are well aware of the rules and regulations of quarrying, showing the effectiveness of the public awareness campaigns launched by the local action councils that have been crusading against the quarry menace in the village for the past 15 years.
Sulochana, a homemaker at Athirumkal whose husband is a quarry worker, says the villagers have their sleep disturbed by the sound of blasts and tremors. This is when blasting activities has been banned from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. by the district administration, she adds.
The operation using explosives and drills, rock crushers, and other heavy equipment have become a significant source of mild man-made tremors, damaging buildings, alleges another woman at the local Anganwadi situated on the border with a granite quarry.
Huge trucks plying through the village roads, rocks flying in the blasts, and silica dust from the crusher units affect public health and life in the locality, Mr. Santhoshkumar says.
Shafi, a local youth, says that trucks pass through Athirumkal junction every three to five minutes during day time. The traffic continues at night, violating the norms.
The action council leaders allege a politician-official-contractor nexus behind the thriving illegal granite quarry business and hill demolition taking place in the district, disregarding the mounting public protests and environmental concerns.
Mallappally taluk in the district houses a number of giant rocks and hills and these have not gone unnoticed by the quarry lobby. The agitation against a controversial granite quarry and crusher unit on the boundary of the reserve forests in the Kottangal grama panchayat has become a major public issue, which is now in the Kerala High Court.
V.N. Gopinatha Pillai, action council spokesman, alleges that the rocky terrain where rock blasting is under way is part of the Karavallikkad hills, also known as Avolimala, which was identified as the 60th of the 3,500 great trigonometrical (GT) stations in the country by the Survey of India 209 years ago.
Depletion of the water table, dry wells and lung ailments induced by silica dust are major causes of concern in Kalanjoor and Kottangal.
The crusher unit operators deny these allegations, saying that they have obtained clearances from the Mining and Geology Department, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, the Inspector of Factories and Boilers, the District Medical Officer, and the local body, besides licence from the Department of Explosives of the Union government.