In Kerala’s mining hotspot Alappad, the fear is not if sea will take village, but when

In a state with a rich history of potent environment movements, this beach sand mining, surprisingly, found little resistance. Until now.

In the tiny, charming fishing villages along the coast of the Arabian Sea in southern Kerala, the story goes that it’s famed mineral-rich black sand piqued the interest of the Germans when they noticed the unusual thickness of the ropes shipped from the southern Indian coast. Those days, the women, who worked in coir factories in these coastal villages, had the habit of mixing black sand, without knowing it’s worth, with coir to lend it strength. When the sand was disseminated, geologists chanced upon the presence of rare earth minerals like monazite, ilmenite, rutile and zircon which find application in the production of atomic fuel.

Thus began extensive beach sand mining operations in this stretch of the Kollam-Alappuzha coast, a fragile ecological territory, mainly by two public-sector firms, the Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) under the Centre and the Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) of the state government. Despite the concerns of local communities about coastal erosion and bypassing critical norms of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), the mining activity continued. In a state with a rich history of potent environment movements, this beach sand mining, surprisingly, found little resistance. Until now.

In fact, a drive along the coast helps understand the gravity of the situation. At Vellanathuruth, the southern end of the Alappad panchayat, giant earth-boring machines are at work, scooping copious amounts of sand. A small temple sits amid the giant mounds of sand. Just metres away, a part of the seawall lies fractured, indicating the site of sea washing. A plain narrow concrete road separates what’s left of the beach from the mining site on the other side. Further southwards, the Panmana panchayat begins, where KMML controls extensive mining sites. In this region, as far as the human eye can travel, only sand mounds are visible along with the heavy machinery of the miners. Where once extensive vegetation stood, as Thummarukudy pointed out, white, barren tracts of land remain.

That coastal erosion can invite the wrath of the sea in the form of tsunamis and swell waves directly on their homes is not lost on the people here. It’s not for nothing that such fears warrant serious attention. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami claimed 143 lives in Alappad village alone. To this day, locals here have vivid, horrifying memories of having watched waves as high as a coconut tree. Throughout Alappad, dozens of homes out on the coast lie dilapidated, some with their roofs wrecked, others with deep fissures on the walls. Over 5000 families had to be displaced from this part of the coast after their homes were breached by the sea. Even today, the rumble of an angry sea at night is a cause for worry for many.

“Where else would we go? This is where we were born and this is where we want to die. We stand strongly with the protest,” says Indrani, sitting on sand behind her home cleaning brass lamps. Sajeesh, a policeman and a resident of the village, adds, “If there’s another tsunami, our village will disappear.”

Cibi Boney, a ward member of the Alappad village panchayat and one of the few local public representatives here to have supported the protest, told, “The mining companies are deliberately violating rules by taking more sand above permissible limits. We asked them not to do sea washing. They still do it. This is a question of our survival. Why should we pledge allegiance to these companies who are hell-bent on destroying our lives?”

Boney, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), an ally of the Congress, is part of the minority in the Left-ruled panchayat. So far, the panchayat, with clear political leanings, has resisted any move to shut mining in the village. The two times the panchayat council met, the issue did not come up on the agenda, she said.

Industries Minister EP Jayarajan told reporters on Thursday that the protesters’ demands of putting a stop to beach washing, repairing broken parts of the seawall and forming an expert committee to do a study have been accepted. But stopping all mining works was not, he said.

“These are Kerala’s two large public-sector units. Can anyone be okay with shutting down these companies. I asked them to think. Should such a mindset be encouraged? It’s unfortunate if the protest continues,” he said.

On behalf of the IREL, PR Deshpande, chief general manager (HRM), told via email, “The allegation that extensive mining by IREL has led to severe coastal erosion is not true. IREL is a Central PSE under the administrative control of a sensitive department like the Department of Atomic Energy. Collection of sea wash is as per proper rules and regulations. In fact, the activity of sea wash collection is carried out by the locals of the area, who have been engaged for this purpose by IREL.”

“It is impossible to imagine that the locals would work against their own interest by indulging in any activity which would directly cause coastal erosion. In fact, their engagement provides the right check and balance in this regard. It is also reiterated that the sea wash collection (a replenishable source) is being carried out based on the scientific study done by NCESS (National Centre for Earth Science Studies), Thiruvananthapuram on sand accretion and budgeting. Based on the study report by NCESS, the Mining Plan for collecting beach wash mineral sand per annum has been duly approved by IBM (Indian Bureau of Mines) and AMD (Atomic Mineral Directorate).”

He also denied reports that IREL was mining more sand above prescribed limits. He wrote, “IREL is adopting scientifically proven methods for extraction of minerals. IREL is carrying out two methods for extraction of minerals i.e. winning from sea wash collection and inland dredging at Alappadu Village. Major stretch of coastline i.e. around 16 kms of Alappadu Village is totally protected by sea wall constructed by the Government of Kerala more than 50 years ago. Sea wash collection is being done at the southernmost end of Alappadu Village in a stretch of around 500-meter length where sea wall is kept open for the purpose.”

Courtesy: The Indian Express