The Ponmalai hills, in Chithiramcode, is a granite quarrying hub in the Kanyakumari district, with almost 10 quarries and 5 crusher units.

A quarry in Chithiramcode in Kanyakumari district
Delve Environment Tuesday, December 07, 2021 - 16:49

Around 14 kilometres from Marthandam, a thriving commercial centre in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, lies the small town of Chithiramcode. Driving to the town on a narrow road that connects a string of villages – Manalikkarai, Manakkavilai, Andamparai, Kandamkadu, Aatukonam – you find numerous mini lorries and huge tippers. The vehicles are coming and going from the quarries that lie in and around Chithiramcode.

This is the hub for granite quarrying and crusher units – machinery to cut the rocks and make manufactured sand (m-sand) – in the Kanyakumari district. There are 10 quarries and five crusher units working here. Chithiramcode has narrow streets – 15 to 20 feet wide – and a few shops. But it is difficult to move around because of the trucks. There is also the constant blasting of hillsides with explosives and the loud machinery used in the quarries, giving rise to dust and noise pollution – making living in the town a nightmare for its residents.

Though there was small-scale granite quarrying in the region for more than a decade (since 2018), residents and activists say that the hills in the area are being overexploited as more companies have come in. “This was a beautiful place, with huge hills surrounded by plantations. It was a place where there was a lot of agricultural activity due to abundant water availability. Now see the pathetic condition,” says Anto Cletus Raj, a lawyer who grew up in Chithiramcode.

The Ponmalai hills, which is part of the Western Ghats and surrounds the town, have been sliced away and bear huge scars –  the trees are covered in dust, the water running in the narrow streams is ash-coloured and polluted, and the roads are potholed. The quarry pits are filled with greenish coloured water everywhere, which serve as a reminder that there once existed a hill.

Selvin Kumar lives in Chithiramcode, close to two quarry sites. After working in Dubai for many years, he saved up to build a house and moved back five years ago in the hopes of leading a quiet life in the village he grew up in. “My wife and I had a baby 10 months ago. But I cannot bring my baby home as the dust from the quarries is unbearable and moreover, there is noise 24/7.”

Selvin Kumar

He points to the walls in his home, where there are huge cracks, and says, "From 2 pm to 4 pm, every day, explosives are used in the quarries to break the rocks. Then the whole village trembles. My house shakes and I feel like it will fall at any moment. There are cracks everywhere. How will I bring my family here?” Selvin now stays at his wife's house.

Selvin’s neighbours share similar troubles. Palraj, Thangaraj and Suresh and their families say they can't sleep at night as trucks pass through at all hours, babies and senior citizens cannot rest during the day because of the noise, children cannot go outside the house to play due to the dust that covers everything. They add that the streams near their homes are polluted and they, too, live in fear that their home might fall one day. “But where else can we go?” asks Selvin.

Nearly 2 km away from the quarries, lives Jeni. His house, too, bears cracks. "Every afternoon, the window panes shiver, every other day new cracks appear on the walls, we can literally feel the ground tremble,” says Jeni. People, who live in houses on either side of the main road are disturbed day and night by the rumbling vehicles that travel to and from the quarries.

Partially sliced hills

In the last week of November, around 100 residents protested at Chithiramcode junction and blocked the trucks from the quarry. They demanded that the vehicles stay off the road during the time children go to and return from school, and at night. “These trucks carry more than their capacity and there was an incident where small stone pieces nearly fell on a boy who was walking to school," says Thadeus, who was one among the protesters. Following this, the quarry companies agreed to stop the movement of trucks through the junction in the morning from 8 am to 10 am and in the evening from 4 pm to 6 pm.

However, the vehicles continue to move throughout the night and the residents still have to complain about the constant honking and dust.

Health issues

Many of the residents in the area even suffer from health issues due to the pollution from the quarries. They complain about allergies, constant cough and cold, breathing difficulties as well as headaches among other things.

Thadeus, who lives near the Chithiramcode junction, keeps his windows closed at all times due to his allergies. The window panes in his house are ash in colour and covered in dust. Selvin Kumar, too, says he suffers from breathing issues.

“Rhinitis, eye or nasal allergy throughout the year, persistent eye irritations, asthma, bronchitis, shortness of breath and chronic cough are health issues developed by people who are constantly exposed to this kind of dust,” says a Kerala government medical officer from Thiruvananthapuram. He further adds that longer exposure can cause severe and more serious health issues and lead to decreased lung function. “In India, proper studies on the health issues faced by people who live near quarries are hardly done, probably because power and politics are involved when it comes to quarrying,” he says.

A stream with polluted water

Writ petitions

The villagers allege that the quarry owners silence whoever goes up against them. "Whether it is activists, government officials or politicians, they will be silenced by giving money," Thadeus alleges. Anto also alleges that he was offered money many times to stop protesting against the quarries.

The villagers recall how the present Tamil Nadu Minister for Information Technology and Padmanabhapuram MLA T Mano Thankaraj fought against the quarries in the area when the AIADMK was ruling the state from 2016 to 2021. During that time, the quarrying decreased. "However, ever since he came into power in the recent elections, he has changed sides and the quarrying has started again," Thadeus alleges.

Anto Cletus filed a public interest litigation (PIL) for Sobitha Sersey Godsey, a DYFI leader, in the Madras High Court in September 2021 against the quarries, citing that they are functioning against Tamil Nadu's Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) regulations, Tamil Nadu Minor and Mineral Concession rules 1959 and Mines and Minerals (development and regulation act) 1957.

Another writ petition was filed in March 2019 against quarrying in the area by Jose Fredy Miller, who also resides close to the quarries and has huge cracks in the walls of his house. He filed a PIL as a representative of the people living in Meycode, Ponmani, Velimala and Surlacode villages (within 5 km of Chithiramcode). The petition also stated that the hills in the region, where the quarrying is taking place, were protected under HACA. The writ says that there are a number of houses, places of worship, schools, hospitals and canals within 300 metres from the quarry sites, which is against the rules. The Tamil Nadu Minor and Mineral Concession Rule (1959) has clearly mentioned that no lease permission should be given to quarries if there are settlements within 300 metres. The petition says that several lakes and canals have already been encroached upon by quarries and have been destroyed. The petition also cites health issues faced by the villagers due to the dust from quarrying.

"The government officials failed to consider the plight of the affected residents of the said Meycode village, Ponmani village, Surulacode village, and Velimalai of Kalkulam Taluk at Kanyakumari district, which are notified ecologically sensitive areas where any mining/ quarrying activities are totally prohibited as per government order no. 44 dated 2/4/1990 and guidelines issued by the wildlife division in February 2011," says the petition.

Rocks taken to Kerala?

According to activists in the area, for the last 15 years, small-scale quarrying has been happening in the villages. However, the residents say they were okay with it initially as it was mostly manual quarrying, where people carve the stone out of the rock using hand tools, thereby causing less damage to the hillside. "But in 2018, bigger companies owned by private individuals came in. They brought in huge machines and started plundering the hills. Gradually, the huge hills started disappearing," says Anto.

The villagers also allege that a major portion of the stones cut and the sand that is made in the crusher units are being transported to Kerala. There were protests earlier by activists in Tamil Nadu over the sourcing of rocks from Tamil Nadu for the construction of the Vizhinjam Port near Thiruvananthapuram by the Adani group. The Adani group had proposed the names of 19 quarries in Kerala to source the rocks, but only three were given permission. Kerala Minister for Ports Ahamed Devarkovil had in September submitted a memorandum to the Tamil Nadu Public Works and Mini Ports Minister EV Velu, seeking unhindered transport of rocks from Tamil Nadu to Kerala.

Ahamed Devarkovil had said that he initiated the memorandum as there were reports that some District Collectors in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were blocking the passage of trucks carrying rocks for the construction port.

However, those living near the quarries in the Kanyakumari region think otherwise. "There is a saying in Kerala that if money is given to Anna (people of Tamil Nadu), they will give up anything. That is how we are being looted. Kerala has protected their resources by not giving permission and decided to take rocks from us," says Thadeus. 

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.