Years ago, a small road, under the shadow of giant banyans, twisted its way from Aralvaimozhi in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district to Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. It wound its way through the Western Ghats, the route dotted with ponds filled with water lilies, bright green paddy fields, and swaying coconut trees. With time, this road became NH 7, and the paddy fields were slowly edged out by concrete houses. Now, this road is part of NH 44 and NH 66 and the banyans are entirely gone, as are the paddy fields, and the hillocks you see from the highway bear ugly scars: huge chunks of rocks have been sliced away and all you see is the naked face of a disfigured mountain. On the ledges created by quarrying sit rows and rows of houses.
Part of the Gondwana landmass, the Western Ghats were created by a domal uplift and the underlying rocks are said to be around 2,000 million years old. Today, these rocks are being carved out of the Ghats in Kanyakumari to be used as building material. The work continues, despite a recent High Court order passed by the Madurai Bench to stop the quarrying.
At every turn on our way to Verkilambi village in Kanyakumari, we see trucks carrying huge consignments — comprising bits and pieces of the Western Ghats. We pass what we think are ponds shimmering with green algae, and find they are in fact defunct quarry pits.
At Verkilambi junction, we are joined by Sobitha Sersy Godsay, 23,, a member of Democratic Youth Federation of India. It is his PIL that pushed the Madurai Bench to ask the administration to look into stone quarrying in Kanyakumari. Godsay points out that while 20% of the quarried stone is used within the district, the rest makes its serpentine way to Kerala.
A heavy drizzle begins to beat down as we drive up to Thadikarankonam, a village on the border of Tirunelveli. On both sides of the road are rows of rubber trees; the inclement weather has kept the tappers away and the cups that harvest latex are now filled with water.
We step out and see a small jungle stream gurgling down the slope, the water a milky white because of the the sediment of crushed stones it carries from the quarries just behind the plantations. A deafening boom shatters the stillness. Two dogs scurry away whimpering. A fine dust rolls down the slopes and covers the wet rubber leaves with a coat of white powder.
Quarrying has been going on here for decades, says Anto Cletus Raj, an advocate who has been working on the case. But it was done on a smaller scale, on standalone hillocks. Also, the process was manual, with little holes being drilled in clefts and small amounts of dynamite used. But now artificial wedges are drilled into the hills with bore machines, the holes are then filled with dynamite and blasted. On any given day, a minimum of 100 lorries carry away up to 21 tonnes of stones, entire hillsides, in fact.
We meet Suji Malar, 40, and her husband John, 49, in Chithrancode, Kanyakumari, a village that lies about 1.5 km from some stone quarries. They talk of the tremendous noise, and of how their windows rattle and utensils fall down whenever there is a blast. Some houses in the area have also developed cracks. But there is also a sense of resignation, that they can do nothing about it. DYFI is trying its best to create awareness among the local people on the need to protect the Western Ghats. But it is tough convincing the older residents, who are either masons or tappers and who believe that the quarries are a perpetual source of income.
In recent times, the issue has generated keen political interest, especially after a team from Kerala, headed by Ports Minister Ahammad Devarkovil, met Tamil Nadu Minister for Public Works (Buildings, Highways and Minor Ports) in Chennai in September this year. Kerala is seeking the help of the Tamil Nadu government to source granite for the construction of the Vizhinjam International Seaport, the concessionaire of which is Adani Vizhinjam Ports Pvt. Ltd. The reason given by Kerala is that they are unable to open new quarries due to the stipulation laid down by the National Green Tribunal that a 200 metre buffer zone is required between quarries and residential areas.
In October, Tamil Nadu’s Naam Tamilar Katchi party, under the leadership of Senthamizhan Seeman, staged a demonstration in Kanyakumari. When contacted, Seeman said that this issue was close to his heart. “If you are indulging in deforestation you can rectify it by planting more trees. If you are destroying waterbodies you can create dams. But, if you are destroying a mountain you can never replace it,” he says.
Tamil Nadu’s State Information Technology Minister, Mano Thangaraj, says that many of the hillocks in the region are covered under the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA), constituted by the Tamil Nadu government by an order of 1990. A clause mandates that at least four environmentalists and NGOs working with the environment should be part of the authority. But activists in Kanyakumari say that HACA is not active and to their knowledge no meetings have been held.
The Centre, says Thangaraj, should review the inter-State transportation of minerals, considering the fragile ecosystem of Kanyakumari. Advocate and activist Girinivasa Prasad asks why there are so many quarries in the Western Ghats in Kanyakumari. “Of the stones that are being quarried, only 20% is for local use, the rest is being sent to Kerala,” he reiterates, alleging a nexus between quarry owners and the officials manning checkposts. The porous nature of the inter-State boundary helps in illegal transportation of the stones.
According to Prasad, for mining 100 cubic feet of granite, a quarry owner pays the government ₹135 but sells it for ₹3,500 in the market. Various departments aid this plunder, he says, and adds that according to an electricity board rule only essential industries can function 24 hours but these crusher units get power through the night. According to a union leader from Tuticorin Port, every alternate day 1,300 tonnes of granite, quarried from Tamil Nadu’s southern districts, are being shipped to the Maldives.
In March 2018, the 1,600 km long Western Ghats range was recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s eight hotspots of biological diversity. Yet, as senior advocate T. Lajapathi Roy points out, this tag has no legal binding. It only means that in the interest of humanity, the site should be protected. It might mean little to governments, but it is the reason why Roy, Godsay and the others are fighting to save this site.