At a time political forces opposed to the BJP are mobilising public opinion against the Adani Group for its crony-capitalist links with the saffron party-ruled Central government, the controversial corporate has found a friend in the Communists of Kerala, who are otherwise known for their anti-capitalist positions.
Even as the Adani Group came under scrutiny for alleged largescale stock manipulation, Kerala’s ruling LDF government granted the country’s second-largest business conglomerate five-year permission to engage in quarrying activities on the slopes of the sensitive Kalanjoor hill ranges of the Pathanamthitta district.
The stone quarries are to be located on the densely-populated foothills of the Rakshasanpara, Kudappara, Kottappara, Kallippara, Pothupara, Padappara, Pakkandampara, and Inchappara hills, and experts say the adverse social impact of the move would be enormous.
Hundreds of families would have to vacate their houses and agricultural lands once the quarries are operational, as they would pose a serious threat to them.
Located on the southeast boundary of Pathanamthitta, Kalanjoor is very close to the Achankovil forests of the Kollam district.
As the Kalanjoor hills are contiguous to the Western Ghats and their upper portions are a veritable storehouse of biodiversity, the environmental cost would be heavy.
As permitted by the government, five mega stone quarries in and around Kalanjoor would be operated directly by the Adani Group in the initial phase for its under-construction multi-crore Vizhinjam international seaport project, located on the southern boundaries of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
More quarries would be started based on demand and need.
According to members of the local community, 18 major stone quarries are already under operation in the Kalanjoor and adjoining Koodal gram panchayats.
They have already adversely affected the local communities and their existence. Extreme changes they caused in land-use patterns have made life miserable in the whole region.
In the meantime, the number of small quarries in the two panchayats has been estimated at 52.
Flora and fauna of the forest fringe have also been adversely affected by the quarrying.
Interestingly, most existing regional quarries are operated by the elder brother of Kerala Finance Minister KN Balagopal.
Pressure on panchayat
Under intense political and administrative pressure from the state government, the Kalanjoor gram panchayat issued its permission to the Adani Group on 7 January.
It remained a secret until the second week of February, when some local activists managed to access the agreement between the panchayat and the business group.
Even panchayat members were apparently kept in the dark about the decision, and there are allegations that the decision was taken by the panchayat secretary unilaterally under pressure from the state government.
The panchayat board was not convened to discuss the demand before issuing the permit.
All the Adani quarries in the panchayat would be located on the government land identified as Poromboke, and they will be located in the foothills.
Making the situation challenging for both Adani and the Pinarayi Vijayan government, a local-level resistance movement is now gaining ground fast, cutting across political lines.
In all likelihood, there would be mass mobilisation when Adani initiates the quarrying work in the coming days.
According to EP Anil, an activist based out of Kalanjoor, the rocky hills of the region can be easily quarried and the products transported to Vizhinjam, which is just about four hours away.
Once the rock is extracted, the hills would subside quickly and soon become a memory.
As per the agreement, Adani can operate the quarries till 2027. The company had to pay a meagre ₹75,000 licence fee and ₹12,500 in labour tax.
Each quarry can dig the soil for about 250 feet to install its machinery.
A total of 30 lakh tonnes of stones would be quarried and transported to Vizhinjam.
As the quarrying is meant for a government-supported infrastructure development project, the local community feels the activity would be indiscriminate.
They also assume that the government agencies supposed to keep a vigil over the quarrying would remain tight-lipped.
As these hills are the source of drinking water in the region and are also factors that regulate rain availability, the primarily farming community in Kalanjoor and adjoining areas are anxious about the project’s adverse impact.
Once it is implemented, the region’s paddy fields, streams, watersheds, and ponds are expected to be badly affected. At least 50,000 families could be directly affected by the quarrying activities.
“In the initial phase, the panchayat will award 11.5 acres of land to Adani to install the quarrying machines. At least 50 acres would be handed over for quarrying after that. The area is already facing the adverse impacts of excessive quarrying, and we have been on the warpath against it. This is against the collective will of the local community,” said Anil.
Cry in the wilderness
According to environmentalists, the Kalanjoor gram panchayat, located close to reserve forests, was the largest area in Kerala to have already been worst affected by indiscriminate rock quarrying.
Protests of the local action groups and environmental activists against the powerful quarry lobby have often become mere cries in the wilderness.
MG Santhoshkumar, the convenor of the local action council, said the existing quarries pose alarming health hazards to the local population, apart from causing disastrous environmental impact.
Kallipparamala is known for its rare cactus species, and late spiritual leader Guru Nityachaitanya Yati led a massive hill protection rally in the area in 1997.
The walls of several houses and other buildings in Kalanjoor and Koodal have developed cracks from unscientific blasting at various quarries.
The noise of the giant quarrying machines, which work round the clock, disrupt people’s sleep.
Huge trucks being operated through the village roads, rocks flying in the continuing blasts, and silica dust emanating from the crusher units are affecting public health and life significantly in the locality.
The action council leaders said a politician-official-contractor nexus is behind the thriving illegal granite quarry business and hill demolition in the district, disregarding the mounting public protests and environmental concerns. The crisis would turn murkier with the advent of the Adani Group on the stage.
The depletion of the water table, dry wells, and lung ailments induced by silica dust are significant causes of concern in Kalanjoor and Kottangal.
In 2019, it was reported that the government had issued 19 quarry permits to Adani in the Pathanamthitta district.
However, following the massive floods of August 2019, the state government temporarily banned quarrying, fearing further landslides.
The Kerala State Biodiversity Board’s report, published after the floods, concluded that quarrying activities in the Western Ghats were one of the causes of the landslides.
Another report by the Environmental Committee of Kerala’s Legislative Assembly identified the adverse environmental impact of Kerala’s rock quarries and crusher units.
The Environment Committee proposed that no permits be issued beyond the 723 quarries across Kerala. The report also recommended a distance of at least 200 meters between the quarries and residential areas.
Minister justifies project
In Vizhinjam, the local fishing community has been on an indefinite agitation against the under-construction Adani port, citing the possible adverse impacts of it mainly on livelihood and environmental grounds.
The first phase of the agitation ended last December following government efforts to crush it brutally.
When contacted by South First, Kerala’s Port Minister Ahmed Devarkovil justified the move, saying Vizhinjam was a priority project of the state government and its construction was incomplete only because of the unavailability of the required stone.
He said Kalanjoor was the nearest area where stone was available on a large scale, and the permission was granted after conducting expert studies.
The minister also said the quarries would not adversely affect everyday life as the quarries would be located on vacant government land.
He said the government would initiate large-scale awareness drives in the area as the lack of awareness is the reason behind the unrest.
However, the local level action committee Janakeeya Samithy expressed extreme anxiety over the proposed quarries, asking why the decision was taken secretly, even by keeping the panchayat members in the dark.
Interestingly, the panchayat had opposed an earlier directive of the state government seeking facilities for Adani to operate quarries there.
Then the group approached Kerala High Court, and the court gave a favourable verdict to Adani.
Without continuing with the old proposal despite the court order supporting it, the government has instructed the panchayat secretary to unilaterally issue a fresh order without consulting anybody.