Kerala

Panacea or problem?

A view of mineral sand-mining at Thottappally pozhi.

A view of mineral sand-mining at Thottappally pozhi. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

At the crack of dawn on May 22, 2020 a group of men wielding chainsaws entered a green patch close to the Thottappally pozhi (sandbar at sea mouth). A heavy police cordon was set in and around the coastal villages nearby to tackle any potential protest. The chainsaws burred into action, axing almost all the 550 trees on the green patch in no time. 

The trees were on the land of the Irrigation department. The felling commenced after invoking various sections under the Disaster Management Act based on an observation that the patch impeded the floodwater flow from the Kuttanad region into the sea. Ever since the felling, the pozhi and its environs have been witnessing a hive of activity. 

On an overcast day last week, over a dozen excavators were working in tandem. While two long-range excavators were lifting mineral-rich sand from the depth of pozhi mouth, others were helping to shift and load heaps of sand into trucks which were readying to transport it to the processing units of Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML) and Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL), two public sector undertakings in Kollam.

While the authorities call it ‘desilting’ and ‘widening’ of the pozhi to ensure the smooth flow of floodwaters into the sea, local residents, who are up in arms against the large-scale removal and transportation of sand, are in no doubt about what they are witnessing day in and day out: ‘mineral sand-mining’ in the guise of flood mitigation. 

A view of mineral sand-mining at the Thottappally fishing harbour.

A view of mineral sand-mining at the Thottappally fishing harbour. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

The Thottappally pozhi is closed for most of the year and needs to be cut open during the monsoon. “We are not against the breaking of the pozhi, which has been an annual process for several years. Prior to 2020, sand removed for opening the pozhi was kept nearby. Ditching the practice of removing sand in a limited way, the government has opted for indiscriminate mineral sand-mining which is having an adverse impact on the coastal ecology and the lives of people. There is no effective mechanism to calculate the amount of sand removed. We suspect the authorities have colluded with private parties, and a portion of the sand extracted is illegally transported to Tamil Nadu,” says Suresh Kumar S., a resident in the locality, who is also the chairman of the Karimanal Ghanana Virudha Ekopana Samiti (KGVEKS). 

As per the data available on the Irrigation department website, 2,24,935.860 cubic metre of ‘mineral sand’ was removed from the pozhi mouth and the Thottapally spillway channel between May 16, 2021 and November 23, 2021. This year, according to sources, the government has renewed the agreement with the KMML allowing the PSU to extract two lakh cubic metre of sand at the rate of ₹543 per cubic metre. The KMML, within its capacity, struck a separate deal with the IREL, making it a joint venture. 

A few hundred metres north of the pozhi is the Thottappally harbour. A few small fishing boats are anchored closely together and a dredger is floating on the water. A fat pipe pumps a mixture of water and black sand into a man-made pond by the side of the harbour.

A spiral unit of the IREL is nearby. The waste sand dumped by the spiral unit has taken the shape of a small hill nearby bearing testimony to the ongoing separation of minerals from the sand in the harbour.

The so-called ‘desilting’ of the harbour basin commenced more than a decade ago in the name of removing heavy silting for easy navigation of fishing boats. As per the latest agreement between the IREL and Harbour Engineering department, the former has been allowed to remove 50,000 cubic m of sand from the harbour. 

Relay satyagraha against mineral sand-mining at Thotappally completed 428 days on Thursday.

Relay satyagraha against mineral sand-mining at Thotappally completed 428 days on Thursday. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

Sitting in the harbour, Sivadasan K., a fisherman, is fixing his nets and grumbling: “It is a never-ending process,” he refers to the removal, filtering and transporting of sand. “After more than ten years of removing sand, no big fishing boats can enter the harbour. They will get grounded. As much sand they remove from the basin, the same amount is re-deposited by the sea. While the IREL and government are making profits, it is us, poor people who always suffer. Our coastline is shrinking day by day,” laments Mr. Sivadasan, who alleges that mining is causing respiratory and skin diseases in people living close to the harbour. 

While the impact of the ongoing mining activities on the environment and the local people’s health and livelihood is up for debate, one thing is clear: sand extraction is taking place in an area prone to coastal erosion. 

A study published by researchers at the National Centre for Coastal Research, Chennai, in the journal Natural Hazards in 2019 points to the moderate-to-high erosion taking place at the shoreline in this region.

According to the study, the “adverse effect was seen on the northern side of the Thottappally fishing harbour where moderate-to-high erosion was noticed till Ambalapuzha”. The researchers carried out a field survey along the Ambalapuzha coast to examine the condition of the coast at the time of the study.

“A series of 42 numbers of groynes with varying lengths were noticed along this entire stretch to protect the coast. This indicates that the particular stretch was severely affected by coastal erosion,” says the study. 

At Ottappana, a coastal hamlet, in Purakkad grama panchayat, the seawall and houses close to it are experiencing subsidence. High-energy waves are lashing over the seawall onto the already damaged backyard of Chandira’s house.

The elderly woman, who lives alone, says it is only a matter of time before her house is swallowed by the swelling sea. “Our place has been experiencing sea surges for some time now. But in recent years, especially after the opening of mining sites at Thottappally, the situation has turned worse. Our coastline is getting eroded like never before,” she says. 

Foundation stones of Suku Mulluparambha’s house are for everyone to see after the earth protecting it got washed away by strong waves. Inside, the floor has started to cave in and the four-member family lives in fear of an impending building collapse. Though the family is willing to migrate to another place, they say that the ₹10 lakh government assistance under the Punargeham project will not be enough to buy land and build a new house. 

According to the KGVEKS, 456 houses were destroyed in six grama panchayats — Purakkad, Arattupuzha, Thrikkunnapuzha, Ambalappuzha North, Ambalappuzha South and Punnapra South — in the area in the last five years due to coastal erosion.  The Hindu was not able to able to independently verify these numbers. 

Places close to mineral sand-mining sites are experiencing severe coastal erosion. A view from Ottappana in Purakkad grama panchayat.

Places close to mineral sand-mining sites are experiencing severe coastal erosion. A view from Ottappana in Purakkad grama panchayat. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

K.V. Thomas, a former scientist at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, says indiscriminate sand-mining will adversely affect the stability of the coastline.

“After erosion during the monsoon period, beach formation usually takes place over a period between September and January. At Thottappally and nearby areas, net transport of sand is from south to north. Due to continuous mining at the harbour and pozhi along with the presence of breakwaters, the sand from the south is now ending up at the mining sites. This is impacting the re-formation of the coastline in the north,” he says.

“Heavy siltation in the harbour is caused due to flaws in its design. Instead of rectifying it, the government sees siltation as a source of income. At Thottappally pozhi, mining is done under the pretext of preventing floods in Kuttanad,” says Mr. Thomas. 

Though both the mining sites fall within the Coastal Regulation Zone limits, experts say that invoking the Disaster Management Act at the pozhi and ‘maintenance dredging’ at the harbour have helped the government circumvent the difficult process of acquiring permission for mining.

K.G. Thara, former member of the State Disaster Management Authority and former head of the Disaster Management Centre, has called for sand auditing and sand budgeting at Thottappally. 

“Firstly, there is a need to know how much sand is accumulated there and the sand brought to the shore. Then, if needed, proportionate mining can be allowed. Unfortunately, what is happening right now is indiscriminate mining. It will result in substantial coastal erosion. The government has misused the Disaster Management Act for mining mineral sand at Thottappally,” says Ms. Thara, who demands the government prove that sand removal has helped bring down flood levels in Kuttanad. 

The Irrigation department has justified the removal of mineral sand from the Thottappally pozhi. “The KMML has been entrusted with the work after inviting expression of interest. Removal and transportation of sand are done in accordance with the existing rules. The deepening and widening of the pozhi mouth have helped in increasing the flow of floodwater into the sea. Floodwaters in Kuttanad now recede at a much faster pace,” says an official. 

Both the KMML and the IREL have rejected the allegations levelled against them, including transporting sand beyond the permissible limit and collusion with private players. “What we are doing at Thottappally pozhi is desilting. It is helping to prevent the flooding of Kuttanad. The government entrusted the work with the KMML because the sand contains minerals. After separating minerals, we are re-depositing the rest of the sand in places prone to sea erosion in Purakkad grama panchayat. The KMML has paid ₹25 crore to the exchequer since 2020 as the price of the sand,” says a KMML official.

IREL officials say the work at the harbour is being carried out “systematically and in a transparent manner”. 

As the debate rages over whether sand removal is helping alleviate the flood situation in Kuttanad during the monsoon season, paddy farmers say the intrusion of saltwater through the Thottappally spillway has become intense in recent times.

“In the last puncha crop season, several fields, especially in the eastern side, had to deal with the ingress of saltwater, a direct impact of large-scale dredging of the pozhi. It has resulted in a substantial decrease in yield in some areas,” says P.R. Satheesan, a farmer leader based in Kuttanad. 

A view of mineral sand-mining at Thottappally pozhi.

A view of mineral sand-mining at Thottappally pozhi. | Photo Credit: SURESH ALLEPPEY

Despite facing police brutality for protesting against the mining activities, KGVEKS, which has completed 428 days of relay sathyagraha on Thursday, is planning more protests in the coming days.

But many seem to have lost hope. “We have been protesting for more than a year but to no avail. The State government is not going to stop the mining. Our houses will soon join the vast expanse of the sea. When that happens, the people and power centres whom we opposed will say that they got their comeuppance in the end,” says a woman at Ottappana. 


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Printable version | Aug 25, 2022 7:05:13 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/panacea-or-problem/article65753790.ece