'Quarrying horror in Ayyappan's Abode'- The News Minute brings you an investigation into Kerala’s mining country Pathanamthitta
Pathanamthitta district is a country within God’s Own Country with its own “welfare” schemes. In the first week of every month, jeeps go around the many of the villages, distributing supply kits to the households. These contain rice, other food items and money. Widows get a pension of Rs 1,500, and so do the sick people.
The men who distribute these supply kits aren’t from the Kerala government or even the Indian government. They are associated with the 520 stone quarries and 38 crushing units that operate within the district, causing health hazards, pollution, accidents, water shortage, and generating an unbelievable amount of dust.
Despite all this, there was hardly a murmur of protest when one visits the villages.
“When we began to protest against the quarry there were 500 of us. Now we are just 40 people,” says Rema Shaji of Athirungal village which has five large quarries, and several smaller ones.
Earlier, the whole village stood opposed to the increasing number of quarries.
But with time, popular protest turned into popular silence as the quarry-owners splurged money on a populace that was largely dependent on daily-wage work. Unlike rich folks, neither could they migrate in search of work, nor could they continue to fight Goliath.
There is also praise for the “welfare measures” provided by the jeep-men.
“People come here with camera and ask me questions. I don’t want to speak to them, because they (quarry owners) are the ones who help me. I am old and I can’t go work. They give me money, and rice, sometimes clothes as well. Yes, their vehicles cause pollution but how long can we fight?” says 85-year-old Janakiamma of Athirungal.
In an apparent attempt at rationalising the quarry owners’ actions, she added: “They said they will stop everything once they finish the work. Everyone has to work to earn their living.”
If the elderly appear to be mollified by the benefits provided by this parallel government, they have a very different appeal for young men who live in these villages.
“They are their main strength, the young boys. Some boys are given work in the quarries; but they are also used to threaten activists who protest against the quarries,” says Aji, the secretary of the Konni unit of the Western Ghat Protection People’s Action Council and a native of Kalanjoor village.
Aji says there are around 20 quarries working in Kalanjoor and that migrant workers are appointed to ensure that outsiders aren’t allowed into the premises.
“They intentionally appoint migrant labourers for goonda work. If they find you taking photographs or entering their premises, they will assault you. It is a big mafia you cannot object to them,” says a local politician who sought anonymity.
Aji was once severely assaulted. “Once I was attacked by a group of people. It was a murder attempt they hit my head with rods. I was in hospital for some time. That is how they react to activities (that they perceive are) against them,” Aji said.
Even villagers who are not taking quarries and crushing units head on, they fear being mowed down by tipper lorries that transport the stones in the night.
“A tipper lorry rammed my husband last February. I am sure that was not an accident. Now it is almost a year and the police have not even identified the vehicle. He is still bedridden,” Rema said.
Other activists allege that “false cases” have been slapped against them to harass them.
“I have at least 10 cases against me under different sections (of the law). All of them are fake cases just to trouble us. We have to get bail in each case and keep going to court each time the case is called. A lot of time is lost in it,” says activist and college professor NB Thankachan. “They suppress the poor by giving goods and money others are threatened. However they rule the land with their own tactics.”
One thing that both quarry supporters and opponents unanimously agree on, is that the mafia was all powerful within the district.
“Politicians both local and state, even ministers, government officers and police are with them. When they are all against common people, how can we fight against them and win?” says the local politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.