- Kerala has a total of 5924 functioning stone quarries while the number of those which hitherto obtained mandatory permission from the Department of Mining and Geology stands at 750. As per prevailing rules, those which are functioning without permission are illegal quarries.
- The state has experienced 115 large scale landslides in the period between 1983 and 2015. Seventy-eight of them have occurred in areas where stone quarries were functioning in one km radius.
- In general, quarries are being built by removing the surface level soil. This is affecting the natural absorption of water into the soil causing mudslides and landslides.
- Kerala assembly’s panel on environmental affairs is suggesting a comprehensive mining policy which strictly adheres to guidelines issued by the NGT and the Supreme Court. In the place of the existing practice of issuing quarry operation licenses to individuals, they must be brought under strict government control, the panel said.
Almost a year ago, a survey initiated by two scientists of Thrissur-based Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) had identified 33 stone quarries in the ten-kilometer radius of Kavalappara, a highly sensitive portion of ecologically fragile Western Ghats, where 59 people were buried under a massive landslide that occurred during the early morning on August 8, 2019.
Located close to Nilambur town in Kerala’s Malappuram district, Kavalappara now looks almost like a ghost town, with those who survived the tragedy relocating to other places. The remnants of the destroyed houses and buildings portend dangers of unregulated quarrying of granite in a state with a unique ecosystem involving high rocky hills, over 40 rivers and a unique backwater system linked to the sea.
“Devastating climate change-induced heavy rains, which became an annual phenomenon in Kerala since 2018 might have triggered the landslide at Kavalappara, the severest among those which occurred in Kerala in the recent years. But the satellite images we took from the area are clearly explaining the reason which aggravated the impact of the disaster. The quarries have changed the landscape of the region and made the hill unstable. It’s almost clear that the authorities had given permission for quarry operation in this area without conducting any environmental impact study,’’ said V. Sajeev, who heads the forest health division at KFRI.
In the report submitted to the state government last November, the KFRI team which included scientist T.J. Alex along with Sajeev, has strongly recommended the need for advance specific studies before permitting mining in environmentally sensitive areas of Western Ghats. “Mining is crucial for construction activities. But they must not be at the cost of environment, life, livelihood, and safety of the people,” Sajeev told Mongabay-India.
However, Kerala, it seems, learned no lesson from the Kavalappara and several similar kinds of tragedies occurred in the last three years in which over 600 people have been killed and vast stretches of cultivable land areas have been destroyed permanently. The state is yet to address the issue of indiscriminate quarrying and the way it impacts forests, environment, and livelihood.
As per another study by KFRI, Kerala has a total of 5,924 functioning stone quarries while the number of those which hitherto obtained mandatory permission from the Department of Mining and Geology stands at 750. As per prevailing rules, those which are functioning without permission are illegal quarries. In total, the stone quarries of Kerala are occupying 7157 hectares of land and their impact is more felt in the Western Ghats region, especially Pathanamthitta, Idukki, Malappuram, and Wayanad districts. There are 2438 quarries in northern Kerala while central Kerala has 1969 and south Kerala has 1517.
While the majority of the quarries are smaller, there are 19 large scale quarries and each of them is conducting blasting and mining in more than 20 hectares of land. There are seventy other large scale quarries and each of them is operating in over 10 hectares of land.
“We are yet to wake up to the danger lurking around. The state has experienced 115 large scale landslides in the period between 1983 and 2015. Seventy-eight among them has occurred in areas where stone quarries were functioning in one km radius. In general, quarries are being built by removing the surface level soil. This is affecting the natural absorption of water into the soil causing mudslides and landslides,” said N. Badusha, president of Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy, a leading environmental organisation.
According to him, quarries along with an underground water erosion phenomenon called ‘soil piping’ are emerging as major threats to the hill regions of Kerala. During the last three monsoons, the Kerala government had issued orders preventing all kinds of mining activities in the state. But the same government had revoked those orders whenever the rains receded.
Within three months after the deluge of 2018, the union government had approved the state’s request to exclude 4,000 square kilometers of land in Kerala from the ambit of a 2013 law that banned quarrying in ecologically sensitive areas.
As per a reply given by Kerala industry minister E. P. Jayarajan in the state assembly in recent days, 147 new quarries have come up in the state since August 2018, when the state had massive floods. Now the state government is all set to permit quarrying activities in agricultural lands allotted to private individuals by amending a rule which came into force in 1964. However, the government claims that no quarry had been given operational approval in flood-hit and ecologically sensitive areas.
But environmentalists are not ready to accept this theory. When the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had directed the state governments to permit stone quarrying only if it is 200 meters from houses and public buildings in case blasting is involved, and 100 meters in case blasting is not involved, the quarry operators have approached the Kerala High Court and managed to obtain a stay. The court has ordered that quarries during their valid period of license or lease need not fulfill the distance norm of 200 meters and there is a growing demand from environmentalists to the government to approach the Supreme Court and get an order quashing the High Court order. Quarries need to maintain only the distance norms of 50 meters as contemplated in Kerala Mineral Concession Rules, the High Court had said.
In its order, the NGT had observed that the state government’s decision to permit quarries at a distance of 50 meters from habitations was improper and it would have a deleterious effect on the environment and public health whenever blasts occur. It was in this context; Kerala Assembly’s panel on the environment has urged the state government to formulate a comprehensive mining policy facilitating bringing of all existing quarries under government control.
Panel chairperson Mullakkara Ratnakaran told Mongabay-India that no quarries other than the licensed ones must be permitted to function in the State. The panel has also recommended the cancellation of approvals issued to those who violated the rules. “The state is requiring a comprehensive mining policy strictly adhering to guidelines issued by the NGT and the Supreme Court. Such a policy only will make quarry and crusher unit operations in the state environment-friendly and scientific. In the place of the existing practice of issuing quarry operation licenses to individuals, they must be brought under strict government control,” said Ratnakaran.
The committee has also urged the Central Pollution Control Board to issue more stringent conditions for quarry operations, mainly about the distance from human settlements and environmentally fragile forest areas.
“Despite the prevailing grim situation, the state government and its enforcement agencies have turned a blind eye to the blatant violations carried out by quarries. The government must accept the panel’s recommendations without any delay and bring all quarries under government control,” said environmental activist Vinod Payyada.
“The current environmental clearance term for quarries is five years. It must be reduced. The existing practice of using chemicals like ammonium nitrate for rock fragmentation in quarries must be prevented by regular inspections by the mining and geology department. Also, there must be steps to cancel licenses of quarries that fail to use non-electrical technology (NONEL) for blasting. The minimum distance between quarries and human habitations must be increased to 200 meters,” he said.
According to Ratnakaran, the government must evolve a comprehensive mechanism for monitoring quarries permanently. “Regional monitoring committees are needed to be formed and they must involve representatives of local self-government, environmental organisations, non-governmental organisations, and government officials. Such committees are needed to ensure that rules are followed. There must be proper monitoring mechanisms at the village and panchayat levels,” he said.
According to him, only the government must possess the power to control the price of rock as it is a natural resource and to it, everyone has an equal right. BPL families must get rock at subsidised rates, he said.
In the meanwhile, the Kerala High Court has directed the state government to constitute an expert committee to identify the ways and means to significantly reduce the demand and consumption of rock in the construction sector and road maintenance.
Editor’s Note: A quote in the copy and in the bullets has been corrected on November 30.
Banner image: A granite quarry in Kerala. Photo by Shafeeq Thamarassery.