The Kerala Minister for Industries P K Kunhalikkutty announced in the Assembly in late April that a 17-km stretch of state owned land from Valiyazhikkal to Thottappilly in Alappuzha district would be leased to Kerala Rare Earths and Minerals Limited (KREML), a joint sector company, to conduct mineral sand mining for twenty years. The KREML is a joint venture company with mineral exporter Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Limited (CMRL), Indian Rare Earths, a central PSU, and Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation as its promoters. The latter will have a total equity of not more than 26 per cent.

The sand from the coast, rich in ilmenite, rutile, monocyte, siliconium and sillimanite would be mined to make value-added products by the company headed by Sasidharan Karta, a former NRI and chief of Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Limited (CMRL), which has been exporting mineral sand for years. The CMRL was set up to export mineral sand obtained from the Chavara-Kayamkulam belt where mining has been taking place for over 80 years. The area is known for its titanium dioxide content.

The cabinet decision met criticism from all corners. First, the unprecedented haste with which the lease was awarded evoked suspicion. No preliminary, authentic study was done before deciding to lease the land which is the means of livelihood for over 30,000 fishermen, apart from hundreds of coir workers. Further, it was announced that an expert team would study mineral sand mining in the area, but the company need NOT wait for its report to begin its work. Secondly, even before getting the lease permission the KREML had bought land in Lakshmithoppu in Pallana village, about 600 metres off the coast to set up its factory for the Rs.400-crore project.

Sand mining in the area poses grave environmental as well as livelihood problems. The area has a fragile eco-system. As it is, the Valiyazhikkal-Thottappilly stretch is highly erosion-prone. It experiences sea rage even in summer. Added to this is the proximity to the Vembanad lake – the largest water body in Kerala. Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, and the entire water tourism industry revolve around this lake. The sea along this stretch, between Valiyazheekkal in Arattupuzha panchayat and Thottappilly in Thrikkunnappuzha panchayat, is above the normal level. The mineral sand coast now acts as a sea wall protecting the area from sea erosion, and preventing sea water from flowing on to the rice fields in Kuttanad, which are close to this area as well as below sea level.

While the company promises to give jobs to a maximum of 500 people in its factory, this is no match for the loss. Since the work is highly mechanised, the job prospects are not as rosy as it is claimed.
People and opposition politicians, led by local Congress MP V M Sudheeran, are opposing the mining proposal, though the company vouches that it will replenish the mined area with gravel. But scientists are not convinced. “The mineral sand has a specific gravity of 4.5 where as the gravel’s specific gravity is just 2, which makes it prone to sea erosion,” says Dr Joseph Mattom of Institute for Coastal Development, an NGO working on environmental and health issues in coastal areas. “It is depriving the shore of its sand cover, and not mineral sand mining. What can sufficiently replace a natural sea wall formed over millions of years?” he asks. “In many areas along this stretch, the distance between sea water and the Vembanad backwaters is less than 20 metres. If sand mining is allowed, the sea will take over the area in no time,’’ he adds. The result would be catastrophic as the Vembanad lake cuts through Alappuzha and Kottayam districts and has several residential and tourism pockets on its banks.

The Chavara-based Indian Rare Earths has been mining mineral sand in the Chavara-Kayamkulam belt, in Kollam district, south of the proposed site, for the last eighty years. The central PSU has no satisfactory history of replenishing the mined areas, which makes villagers highly doubtful about the claim of the KREML.

Residents of the area complain that 'mud banks', which were regular in 70’s and 80’s and formed the backbone of the fishing community here, have become non-existent now. Mud banks are the sudden appearance of fish in large groups which occur in May-June-July months. Each catch during mud banks will be worth lakhs of rupees. This is the `bonus’ time for fisherfolk since most of them save up the money got during this season to make up for the following lean period. Mud banks were a regular feature on the Kerala coast and are becoming scarce, confirms Dr B Madhusudana Kurup, a professor in the fisheries department of Cochin University of Science and Technology. Kayamkulam coast, where mining has been going on for years, has been one of the worst-affected. Dwindling colloidal wealth will no more entice the fish to come in clusters, he explains.

The area has the largest shrimp production in the state – almost three times more than the other coastal areas of the state. Dr.Kurup says mining can alter the coastal configuration and affect the breeding pattern of the fish wealth here. “These backwaters are the nursery for the shrimps and soon after they need to go to the estuary. If mining is allowed, in a couple of years the sea-backwater divide will vanish,” he feels.

Radiation-related diseases have been reported from Chavara and the fear of this replicating in Alappuzha is only justified. “Asthma, skin diseases, mental retardation and abortions are on a high in the areas where mining has been going on for years. The coating deposit acts as a guard and once it goes there is a higher possibility of radiation,” says Joseph Mattom. “Chavara coast is a victim of accumulated radioactive waste. Care has to be taken not to replicate this in Alappuzha,” he warns.

If mining is allowed, the fisherfolk will have to be rehabilitated and they will have to find new means of livelihood. While the company promises to give jobs to a maximum of 500 people in its factory, this is no match for the loss. Since the work is highly mechanised, the job prospects are not as rosy as it is claimed. Sasidharan Karta, managing director of the KREML was not available for comments.

The local people are divided on the issue. Some of them feel the company should be allowed to set up factory and start work soon, to end the unemployment in the area. They point out that illegal sand mining has been going on here for years. “Poor people fill sand in sacks and give them over to smugglers for Rs 5 per sack,’’ says CH Sali, member of Thrikkunnapuzha panchayat. “When sand is smuggled, no one is benefited, except the smuggler. If the factory comes we will at least have jobs and the sea will again deposit what we are taking away,’’ he is confident.

The people do not know whether to believe the government or the scientists. Says Sasi, a resident of the area for 30 years: “None has bothered to tell us what the reality is. But one thing we know. If the factory is good, we want it, but if it has harmful side effects, we will protest it at any cost.”

The panchayats of Arattupuzha and Thrikkunnapuzha also oppose the mining. K Mohanan, president of Thrikkunnapuzha panchayat fears the displacement and ecological hazards will be catastrophic. P N Vishwanathan, president of Arattupuzha panchayat, too echoes his apprehensions. Both panchayats had met Chief Minister A K Antony and Industries Ministries P K Kunhalikkutty urging them to stop the move.

The MP, Sudheeran, is unhappy that no preliminary study was done before the government hurriedly decided to award the project to the company. “The project has to get environmental clearance before anything else,” he says. “While availability of sand on the Kerala coast has been studied many times, no one has conducted a study on how much of this sand can be mined,” rues Joseph Mattom.

Partly to due the public criticism on the manner in which the mining lease was awarded without requisite clearances, the state government has since forwarded the proposal, albeit belatedly, to the Union Government. According to the state Industries Minister, the government will have to wait for the clearance of the Central Mining and Environmental ministries as well as the Atomic Energy departments before going further. MPs Sudheeran and Ramesh Chennithala, the panchayats and several environmental organizations have already made representations to the Union Environmental Ministry.

Interestingly, V V Minerals, a Tamilnadu-based company had also applied for permission to lease mineral sand, but the state government had turned down the company application. The TN company then petitioned the Kerala High Court, questioning the permission given to KREML. In response, the state government submitted an affidavit stating that the mineral sand mining was to improve the conditions of the people living in the area as well as enhance the basic facilities there.

In the meantime, the Union Ministry of Mining at New Delhi has recently sent back the proposal to the state government, apparently stating that it was unclear and incomplete. It has given the state government a month’s time to send a reworked proposal. (Quest Features and Footage)