The report of the John Mathew Commission, released on 7 June by the Kerala Government has created concern, confusion and anxiety among the people living on the seashores of south Alapuzha district and among environmentalists. The report recommends that mineral-sand mining can be allowed in the area, subject to certain conditions. "The report is to be rejected outright", says V M Sudheeran, former Congress MP and leader of the region's anti-mining agitation. "It is a fraud on the people and the result of nefarious influence exerted by the sand mining lobby on the political leadership and the top bureaucracy", he says.

Mineral sand dumped by waves at the Arattupuzha beach. Pic: Quest Features.

The 17 kms stretch of seashore where sand mining is proposed is unique in the sense that it is situated between the backwaters and the sea. Its maximum breadth is 500 meters and it tapers to 50 metres at certain points. Areas coming under Arattupuzha and Thrikkunnapuzha Gram Panchayats are among the state's worst hit by the December 26 tsunami. Two years ago, government had accorded permission to start mining and this had evoked furious public protests. Local citizens, environmentalists, NGOs, and political parties alike, all joined hands. The government was forced to abandon the project. During the post-tsunami rehabilitation efforts early this year, all that changed.

Protests, tsunami and then the commission

In February 2005, local people were struggling to live down the impact of tsunami. 27 people had died and several houses and shops were destroyed in the tsunami. Fishing boats and nets were washed away. The fishing folk of the area are yet to return to normal life. Fish have deserted the local sea and there has been no point in venturing out. In these two panchayats, about 30 families are still in temporary sheds -- makeshift relief camps. A number of people are surviving on the money and food-grains doled out by voluntary organizations.

Residents are apprehensive that the state government is using their sad plight to set the stage for commencing sand mining. One former MP alleges that the construction of sea-wall is being deliberately delayed even six months after the December 2004 tsunami.
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It was then, amidst the post tsunami mayhem about inadequate relief work, that the Congress-led UDF government hastily constituted the Mathew Commission in secrecy. Constituted under the The Commission of Enquiry Act, the state government asked the commission to study the environmental impact of the sand mining on the coasts of Arattuppuzha and Thrikkunnappuzha. The commission was asked to submit a report on the feasibility of mining taking into consideration all the concerned factors and the views of concerned people, organizations and scientists. It was to collect opinions and data, make an assessment and come to a conclusion.

The tsunami disaster accentuated the need for fortification and protection of the seashore. Studies had already been done by several organisations including the Institute for Coastal Development, an NGO working on environmental and health issues in coastal areas, Kerala Sastra Sahityaa Parishad (KSSP) and the Janakeeya Prathirodha Samithy. They highlighted the potential disasters that awaited the 30,000 odd fishermen in the region, should sand mining begin. Mining would affect the ecosystem of the land and the coast, and aggravate sea erosion in an area which is even otherwise prone to the fury of the waves.

"If extensive mining takes place, the sea will enter the backwaters. If the backwater is destroyed, it will affect the paddy fields of Kuttanad", says B Madhusoodana Kurup, scientist and head of the Department of Industrial Fisheries, Cochin University of Science and Technology. The Kuttanad area is often referred to as the rice-bowl of Kerala.

The original agitation had died down only after the then chief minister A K Antony assured that no projects would be implemented against the will and wishes of the people. Still, the government had promised to constitute a commission for studying the ecological and other impacts of the proposed sand mining in the narrow strip of land wedged between the backwater and the sea. But things changed when Oommen Chandy took over the helm of affairs on the resignation of A K Antony. The government's move to setup the commission had evoked some mistrust and suspicion.

Mineral wealth brings in sand mining

The sea coast of south Alapuzha and a stretch of Kollam districts are rich in mineral sand called 'black sand' in common parlance. The sand contains several heavy minerals like, monazite, ilmanite, rutile and zircon. Ilmanite and rutile are used for production of white pigment, titanium metal and as flux for welding electrodes. Zircon is used in ceramic and refractory industries besides acting as basic raw material for the production of metal and alloys for use as structural materials in nuclear power reactors. The mineral 'monazite' is radioactive as it contains thorium and uranium. The heavy-mineral content in this area is estimated at 17 million tons out of a total raw sand reserve of 242 million tons. The ilmanite content in the heavy minerals is nine million tons.

For years together, a public sector company, Indian Rare Earth was separating ilmanite and then dumping the waste back at the seashore. In 1998, the Department of Atomic Energy of the central government reviewed the Policy of Beach Sand Heavy Mineral exploitation and published an extraordinary notification to allow private sector participation for setting up plants. In this backdrop, the Kerala government issued a mining lease to Kerala Rare Earths and Minerals Limited (KREML) in April 2003. The hurry with which the government then issued mining lease to the company, without undertaking any ecological studies made it suspect in the eyes of the people. (See: Mineral sand coast under threat)

KREML is a joint venture between Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Limited (CMRL), a private sector company that has been exporting mineral sand for years, Indian Rare Earths, a public sector unit that has engaged in mineral sand mining in Chavara in Kollam district for more than 80 years, and Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation. CMRL holds 76% of the equity has caused apprehension and fears of a sellout by the government.

Concerns about the commission

The commission was headed by K John Mathew, a retired high court judge. The other two members are Dr K K Dwivedi, retired Director of Directorate for Atomic Minerals Exploration and Research, Hyderabad and B C Poddar, retired Dy. Director, Geological Survey of India, Kolkotta. N Krishnakumar, who is also the Director, Department of the Mining and Geology, was the member-secretary of the commission.

The public was not aware of commission's existence till V M Sudheeran (Congress) began a boycott of the body. In fact, it was through his statement that the media became aware of the commission. "This commission was constituted without informing any one concerned with the issue", says Sudheeran. "The commission was working in absolute secrecy and such a body cannot be accepted", he adds.

Discrepancies begin in the very constitution of the commission. It is in variance with the guidelines issued by the government of India. As per the 1994 Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification (under the Environmental Protection Act), any committee or commission that is making an 'Environmental Impact Assessment' should have as its chairman an expert in that specific field. The law also stipulates that there should be an expert each from the areas of environment, ecology, groundwater, soil, etc.

But chairman John Mathew is a retired high court judge. The other two members Dr K K Dwivedi and B C Poddar cannot claim to be too familiar with the topography and environs of Arattupuzha.

The commission asked interested citizens answer these four questions in their statements: "Whether mining in the above areas will cause any adverse scientific social or environmental impact? Can such impacts be corrected by any appropriate measures/methods? Whether mining will provide employment opportunities? Is there any economic advantage (to mining)?"

The very first item in the commission's agenda ought to have been a visit to the proposed site of mining; the seashore villages of Arattupuzha and Thrikunnapuzha. "Even a casual visitor will be convinced that any large-scale sand mining will wipe these villages, off the map due to sea-erosion", says Shafeeq, president of Mathsya Thozhilai Congress and a resident of Arattupuzha. The commission also could have gauged the mood of the people. Instead, the commission chose to hold its sittings at Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram which are at least 100 kilometres away and do not have even a remote connection to the issue. "Why is the commission afraid of collecting evidence from the people?" asks K Mohanan, President of the Thrikunnapuzha Panchayat.

As mentioned earlier, the tsunami disaster accentuated the need for fortification and protection of the seashore. But the construction of a sea-wall has not been completed even today in Arattupuzha. The people are apprehensive that the government is using their sad plight to set the stage for commencing sand mining. Sudheeran alleges that the construction of sea-wall is being deliberately delayed even six months after tsunami, since it would severely restrict the scope of mining.

During the initial days of rehabilitation, the government wanted the people to move over to the other side of the backwaters, leaving the seashore free for 'other activities', which local people allege is nothing other than plans for mineral-sand mining. The large majority rejected the offer for houses on the other side, in protest. Also, they were reluctant to move out of their natural habitat despite the risk of natural calamities. Sanyal, Arattuppuzha Gram Panchayat member of Ward 5 and several other citizens aver that mining lobby agents were active in the locality with offers for buying their lands at throw-away prices.

"Yes, we are indeed worried over the future. But we are not prepared to abandon our homes on that count. It is sheer injustice even to talk about mining when we are somehow trying to shore up the bits and pieces of our lives", says veteran K K Kunnath, who has been in the shoreline protection front for the last two decades.

Concerns about the commission emerged early on, before its report came out. At a statement made soon after a sitting at Thiruvananthapuram, Judge Mathew revealed that the commission had received 142 written submissions and that 85% of them supported sand mining. Normally, no enquiry commission comes out with such statements midway through the proceedings. The untimely public statement by the commission had set rumours agog that the 'mining lobby' is active again. Most submissions to the commission were by post, and some in person.

The commission's final report has given names and addresses of the 142 persons who gave submissions. But some entries mention the name with an incomplete address. For instance: "S Deepu, Harippad; P Shamsu, Edavanna, Ajithkumar V M, Perunbavoor, Adv. S Gopakumar, Alappuzha; Sabu, Attingal.." Not even the district has been mentioned. One submitter's entry does not even have a name. Also, the report does not mention who favoured or opposed mining, even though the list says many statements were from Thrikkunnappuzha and Arattupuzha.

"We never went to the commission. On the top of that we are supposed to have deposed in favour of mining, which is quite contrary to our consistent stand against sand mining in this area", fumes Sreekumar, Secretary of the Kerala Dheevara (Fishermen) Sabha.
Noushad, an activist at Arattupuzha, Kunnath, as well as Shafeeq and Sanyal aver that the submissions could have been fake, and that the letters may be a trick played by the 'black sand lobby'. Krishnakumar, Secretary to the commission responded to our query on how they confirm the veracity of the submissions received. "The submissions were affidavits, where the signatories swore to state nothing but the truth", he says.

There are also allegations that names and even views of those who had never been to any sittings of the commission have been included in the report. "We never went to the commission", says Sreekumar, Secretary of the Kerala Dheevara (Fishermen) Sabha. "On the top of that we are supposed to have deposed in favour of mining, which is quite contrary to our consistent stand against sand mining in this area", he fumes. He further alleges that there were several duplications in the 142 names listed.

Recommendations and risks for the coastline

The commission swept away fears about sealine erosion and environmental disaster by stating that there is regular replenishment of sand by a natural process. Mineral sand is available on the shore, but a larger quantity is available in the sea basin near the shore. Hence dredging will have to be resorted to if mining is to be done. Dredging is the process by which a canal or river or shallow sea is deepened by clearing or removing mud and sand from the bottom. It is an artificial intervention.

How the 'natural forces' were going to react to dredging is exactly the bone of contention. It is the most important aspect to be brought under the scrutiny of experts. The commission failed to do this. This may have something to do with the very constitution of the commission, which was flawed. There were no experts on beach sand mining or even a marine geologist on the commission.

"The commission's stand is that the sand-losses incurred in the mining activity will be replenished. The fact is only the sand along the beaches is replenishable. The sand 50 meters inward will not be replenished", says R V G Menon, former president of KSSP and also a scientist.

Major recommendations of the K John Mathew Commission

1.Beach sand mining in the Chavara area has had no deleterious impact on the stability of the barrier beaches, as replenishment of high-grade sand annually along the beach has been a regular process. Thus ‘harvesting’ of minerals in the Arattupuzha and Thrikkunnapuzha areas is not likely to damage the beach leading to sea incursion provided a barrier of 50 metres is left between the high tide line and the backwater.

2. Replenishment in the post-monsoon period cannot be quantified, but it is a sure source of valuable minerals.

3. Large dredgers would not cause harm as the heavy mineral percentage is low and hence over 80 percent of the volume will be backfilled and so the reclamation would be rather immediate as the dredging progresses.

4. Proper planning and negotiations can avert problems related to rehabilitation in the area with a relatively higher population.

5. In view of lack of experience in lake-bed mining by IREL it may be necessary to have collaborative efforts with foreign companies for this type of work.

6. Value addition through the production of titanium metal should be taken up. The synthetic rutile is marketed at approximately $ 2000 per tonne while titanium metal costs around $20,000 per tonne.

7. Mining is likely to provide additional employment and wealth to the local fishermen community.

8. The government is likely to gain by way of royalty, excise duty, corporate tax and income tax.

9. All the safeguards in the MM (D&R) Act, 1957 and the Rules have to be strictly enforced before and after grant, ensuring the safety of the people and mining area.

10. A special office under the Directorate of Mining and Geology should be established exclusively to oversee the mining activity in Arattupuzha and Thrikkunnapuzha panchayats to ensure compliance with the provisions in the Act and Rules and recovery of minerals as per licence terms and conditions.

The commission also made a comparison to 'Chavara' in Kollam district. Chavara is part of the 150-km coastline of the districts of Alappuzha and Kollam. This region is also rich in minerals, though not to the extent of the more contentious localities. sand mining in this area has been going on for years. The difference is that the beaches at Chavara are extensive and is not separated from the mainland by backwaters as at Arattupuzha.

The commission's reference to Chavara is misleading because the contentious 17 kms stretch is entirely different. As already stated, the Arattupuzha area is a narrow strip between the sea and the backwater with a maximum breadth of 500 metres and at certain points as low as 50 metres. It is also to be noted that the backwaters are 1.5 metres below the sea level. A casual statement that leaving a barrier of 50 metres between the high tide line and the backwater will prevent sea erosion is neither scientific nor convincing.

Did the government thwart the commission's independence?

"The Chief Secretary wrote to the commission that the Government is favourably inclined towards mining. On what authority or mandate such a letter has been written?" Sudheeran asks.

Transparency should have been the key in every move of the government. Instead, there has been concealment, confusion and subterfuge all-around. What the government seems to have attempted is to obtain legal sanctity for its long-term actions by securing a favourable opinion from the commission. This could very well be used to put psychological pressure on a people reeling under the impact of the tsunami wave and the dilemma created by the black sand lobby. Perhaps this is the explanation to the timing, constitution and conclusions of the commission. (The Quest Features & Footage)