In Kerala, residents hit by quarrying demand safe distance norms at NGT hearing

Kerala at present has fixed 50m from residential areas as a safe distance norm but environmentalists have for long been arguing that it is grossly inadequate.
A quarry in Kerala (Pic for representation)
A quarry in Kerala (Pic for representation)

Scores of people from four central Kerala districts affected by quarries turned up at a stakeholder hearing in Kochi on August 24 by an expert panel constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to undertake a study to determine safe distance for stone quarrying. The panel formed by NGT’s principal bench conducted stakeholder hearings on safe distance criteria for stone quarries in Kerala in three sessions this week. 

The hearings will be followed by a scientific assessment of the issue based on which the committee will form conclusions. The NGT, through an order dated July 21, 2020 had approved the CPCB report on the minimum distance criteria for operation of stone quarries at 200m. This was challenged by quarry owners and lessees and following directives by the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court the NGT on December 9, 2021 formed the expert panel for studying safe distance criteria.

At present, the safe distance for stone quarries in Kerala is 50 metres from residential buildings. While quarry owners claim that this distance is more than sufficient to ensure safe mining, members of the public allege that buildings situated more than 50m from quarries have developed cracks and leaks and face the threat of flyrock. Calling the 50m distance inadequate, they demanded that it be increased to 500m ideally or at least 200 m.

The committee is headed by JC Babu, Regional Director, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Regional Directorate, Bangalore. Dr Deepesh V, scientist at the CPCB Regional Directorate, Bangalore, is the convenor of the committee. Professor VS Chaudhury, IIT ISM Dhanbad, professor Ritesh Kumar, IIT Roorkee, Dr RJ Perumal, scientist ‘F’ at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun and Venugopal Swami, Deputy Director, Directorate General of Mines Safety are the other members of the committee.

The hearing for Ernakulam, Thrissur, Kottayam and Idukki districts was held at the Kerala Pollution Control Board (KPCB) office in Gandhinagar, Ernakulam on Wednesday. While many had turned up to depose before the panel only 53 stakeholders including quarry and crusher owners, elected representatives, activists and people residing in the vicinity of quarries were given time to present their concerns. Stakeholders from six other districts were heard in Kozhikode on August 23rd where 350 persons attended the hearing.

The three-hour long hearing was opened by Eldho Kuruvila, who represented the Registered Metal Crusher Units Association of Kerala. He requested the committee to consider the investments already made following the existing rules and argued that increasing safe distance from 50m would lead to a “colossal wastage of resources”. He claimed that the industry provided employment to several people and called it a substantial source of revenue for the government. Kuruvila also put forth the argument that the strict regulatory framework in Kerala and the use of controlled blasting technology like Nonel ensured that mining was conducted safely.

Activist CR Neelankandan of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) asked the committee to take into consideration the diverse geological, hydrological and seismic conditions of Kerala. Arguing against a blanket criterion for safe distance, Neelakandan said that a mapping of the suitability for mining of various areas within the state should be conducted. “The density of quarries in Kerala should be assessed. This should be read together with the increasing number of landslides in Kerala. 59% of all landslides in India in the last four years happened in Kerala,” he said. He also cautioned that environmental practices should be based on precautionary principles.  

Damages to buildings

Several members of the public alleged that quarrying activities in their neighbourhood had caused cracks in their houses. Many others said that their roofs had leaks. Jiffin Jacob and Lissy Elias Vattaparambil, residents of Thirumarady panchayat, alleged that their houses developed cracks due to quarrying activities in their neighbourhood. The pipes and drainage systems too have been damaged. Lissy said that four rooms in her house are leaking.

Aloysius, a resident of Avoli, Muvattupuzha, said that he is agitating in front of the Ernakulam Collectorate seeking action against a quarry and crusher in the plot adjacent to his house. Aloysius, who is 68-years-old, himself is a former crusher owner. He said that his house has several cracks and leaks despite being more than 200 m away from the site.

Flyrock hazard

Varghese from Mookkannoor in Thrissur said that fly rock incidents are regular at his house, despite it being about 250 m away from a quarry. His farmland lies in the area between the quarry and his house. Irregular and illegal blasting makes it impossible for him to carry out any work in the field due to the threat of fly rock. Sheeja from Thriuvaniyoor recounted an incident where a flyrock fell on her father’s shoulder, seriously injuring him. Sheeja too alleged that the quarry operators followed no specific timing for blasting. “We have filed multiple complaints with various authorities but no action has been taken till date,” she alleges.

Health concerns

Stone quarries are also a major source of pollution, several stakeholders alleged. The blasting of granite and their transport on lorries contribute to both air and sound pollution. No quarry operators make any effort to settle the dust from quarrying, they said. Those affected by quarrying cited several instances of lung disease including asthma and cancer in the residents living in the vicinity of quarries. Lissy Elias, who claims to have been a healthy person previously, complains: “The constant exposure to dust has caused breathing issues. There is no history of lung disease in my family. Now I consume very expensive medicines to treat my condition.”

Surendran, a representative of the Kunjalipara Samrakshana Samithi, Thrissur, said that dust-induced asthma and cancer was becoming common in his native of Mattathoor. He told the committee that “environmental considerations should prevail over economic considerations.” Another speaker, Sivadas from North Mazhuvannoor, said that his family faced several health complications as their house is covered in dust. MJ James from Manakkad, Thodupuzha, who lives 90 m from a quarry, said that he is a lung disease patient and his wife is asthmatic.

Leena Sughavas, a former member of the Elanji grama panchayat, said that she and other residents in the scheduled caste colony atop the picturesque Koorumala are facing serious threats to their life and property due to the intense quarrying activities further downhill. “In addition to the threats of quarrying, the toxic fumes from the tar mixing plant operating in the quarry is causing lung disease among many residents. The food we cook is often contaminated as a result,” she alleges.

The sludge from crushers is also a major health hazard, said Mathew John from Avolimattom, Muvattupuzha. In addition to polluting water sources, it has been found that people who took baths in a check dam contaminated by sludge developed skin diseases, he alleges.

Eco-sensitive regions

The hearing also saw residents from several eco-sensitive regions protesting against the operations of stone quarries in their neighbourhood. Reena Varghese, an environmental journalist from Manjalaruvi, a village near the Periyar Tiger Reserve, said a safe distance of at least 300 m is a must if Kerala is to be safeguarded for the coming generations. She said that quarry operators are carrying out blasting even on the pretext of creating ponds in her village.

Vice President of Thirumarady panchayat, MM George says that seven quarries function in his jurisdiction at present while three more are pushing for licences. “One of the proposed quarries will directly affect a small waterfall in the region. Our request is that at least this quarry be prevented from functioning in order to protect the environment,” he says.

Risk from landslides

Abhilash TB of Poovanchira, Thrissur, said that a quarry less than 2 km from the Peechi wildlife sanctuary posed a threat to about 500 houses downhill as the area is landslide prone. Leo Kunnappilly of Karimannoor, Thodupuzha too questioned the logic of granting environmental clearances to quarries in his native which, according to him, has a history of landslides.

Distance as a criterion for safety in quarries is irrational, according to social activist Mohandas. He argues that scientific parameters other than distance should be used to grant licences to quarries. “The decision should be case-specific and mindful of the diverse terrain of Kerala,” he said. Sadiq, representing Myladumkunnu Samrakshana Samithi, Thrissur, echoes this view. A common safe distance criteria is not ideal. Instead, safety criteria should be case-specific, he says. “Kadangode, where I hail from, is one of the few cluster mining sites in Kerala. Yet, no studies have been conducted to analyse the impact of cluster mining here,” he accuses.

Eloor Gopinath, a representative of the All Kerala River Protection Council, said that a special study that focuses on the impacts of small quarries below 5ha should be conducted to understand Kerala’s specific conditions. Calling the existing laws as those made to favour the “quarry mafia”, Gopinath said that safe distance should be increased as Kerala is highly prone to landslides.

Quarry and crusher owners’ justifications

Muhsin, a representative of the quarry owners, claimed that only legal quarries function in Kerala. He accused the general public of having the false assumption that cracks and leaks due to poor construction of buildings are caused by quarrying. He cited the example of the controlled implosion of flats violating CRZ regulations in Ernakulam’s Maradu to argue that new age blasting technologies have minimal external impacts. He went on to claim that the recurrent landslides in Kerala were the result of recent heavy rains and not quarries. Muhsin also said that pollution due to sludge was not the result of mining and said that authorities should conduct regular supervision to ensure that dust pollution is under control.

Several prominent members of society came out in support of the quarry owners. T K Ramakrishnan, former director of the Directorate of Mining and Geology, said that while uncontrolled blasting can be disastrous, chances for such incidents are considerably reduced with new age technology like Nonel. AM Yusuf, former MLA from Aluva, said that quarries are necessary to ensure that Kerala is self-sustained to meet the demand for resources. Baby Paulose, former mining engineer at Tata Steel and a quarry owner, said that there is no dust pollution from quarries. He claims, “Vibration is minimal with Nonel technology. Sound pollution too is restricted to 85 decibels.”

Some of the quarry owners accused the complainants of having vested interests. EA Jafar, Idukki district president of the Quarry Association, said that increasing the safe distance beyond 50m would affect the employment of many. Manish, secretary of the Ernakulam district Small Scale Quarry Association, too demanded that safe distance be maintained at 50 m.  

Jayaprakash, a member of the public and resident of Ramapuram, Kottayam, said that while quarry and crusher owners have various associations and forums to lobby in their favour, the general public do not even have a forum to register a complaint when their life and property faces serious threats. 


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