Western Ghats chain in Kanyakumari looted to fuel Kerala port project

Work continues, despite a recent High Court order from Madurai court to stop quarrying

Years ago, a small road, in the shade of giant banyan trees, wound its way from Aralvaimozhi in the district of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. He made his way through the Western Ghats, the road dotted with lily-filled ponds, bright green rice fields and swaying coconut palms. Over time, this road became the NH 7, and the rice paddies were slowly bordered by concrete houses. Now this road is part of NH 44 and NH 66 and the banyans are completely gone, as are the rice fields, and the mounds you see from the highway have ugly scars: huge chunks of rock have been cut up and everything. what you see is the bare face of a disfigured mountain. On the ledges created by quarrying are rows and rows of houses.

As part of the Gondwana mainland, the Western Ghats were created by dome uplift and the underlying rocks are believed to be around 2,000 million years old. Today, these rocks are carved out of the Ghats of Kanyakumari for use as a building material. Work continues, despite a recent High Court order issued by the Madurai court to stop the exploitation of the quarries.

At every turn on our way to the village of Verkilambi in Kanyakumari, we see trucks carrying huge consignments – including pieces of the Western Ghats. We walk past what we think are glistening ponds of green algae and find that they are in fact old quarries.

Quarrying is going on, eating up chunks of hill.

Quarrying is going on, eating up chunks of hill. | Photo credit: RAJESH N.

Deafening boom

At the Verkilambi crossroads, we are joined by Sobitha Sersy Godsay, 23, member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India. It was his PIL that prompted the Madurai Bank to ask the administration to look into the exploitation of the stone quarries in Kanyakumari. Godsay points out that while 20% of the mined stone is used in the district, the rest goes to Kerala in serpentine fashion.

Heavy drizzle begins to fall as we drive to Thadikarankonam, a village on the border of Tirunelveli. On both sides of the road are rows of rubber trees; inclement weather has kept the tappers away and the cups that collect the latex are now filled with water.

We come out and see a small jungle stream gurgling along the slope, the water milky white from the crushed rock sediment it carries from the quarries just behind the plantations. A deafening boom breaks the stillness. Two dogs run away moaning. A fine dust rolls on the slopes and covers the damp rubber sheets with a layer of white powder.

Quarrying has been going on here for decades, says Anto Cletus Raj, a lawyer who worked on the case. But it was done on a smaller scale, on free-standing mounds. In addition, the process was manual, with small holes drilled into slits and small amounts of dynamite used. But now artificial wedges are drilled in the hills with drilling machines, the holes are then filled with dynamite and blasted. Every day, a minimum of 100 trucks transport up to 21 tonnes of pebbles, entire hillsides in fact.

We meet Suji Malar, 40, and her husband John, 49, in Chithrancode, Kanyakumari, a village about 1.5 km from stone quarries. They talk about the huge noise and clicking of their windows and utensils when there is an explosion. Some houses in the area have also developed cracks. But there is also a feeling of resignation, that there is nothing they can do about it. DYFI is doing its best to educate the local population on the need to protect the Western Ghats. But it is difficult to convince the older inhabitants, either masons or tappers, who believe that quarries are a perpetual source of income.

In recent times, the issue has generated considerable political interest, especially after a team from Kerala, led by Minister of Ports Ahammad Devarkovil, met with Minister of Public Works of Tamil Nadu (buildings, highways and minor ports) in Chennai in September this year. Kerala is seeking assistance from the government of Tamil Nadu in sourcing granite for the construction of the Vizhinjam International Sea Port, licensed to Adani Vizhinjam Ports Pvt. Ltd. The reason given by Kerala is that they are unable to open new quarries due to the stipulation of the National Green Tribunal that a 200 meter buffer zone is required between quarries and residential areas.

Trucks transport up to 21 tonnes of ghat stones every day

Trucks carry up to 21 tonnes of ghats stones every day | Photo credit: RAJESH N.

In October, Tamil Nadu’s Naam Tamilar Katchi party, led by Senthamizhan Seeman, held a protest in Kanyakumari. When contacted, Seeman said the issue was close to his heart. “If you indulge in deforestation, you can fix it by planting more trees. If you destroy water bodies, you can create dams. But if you destroy a mountain, you can never replace it, ”he says.

Fragile ecosystem

Tamil Nadu State Information Technology Minister Mano Thangaraj said many hills in the region are covered by Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA), formed by the government of Tamil Nadu by an order of 1990. A clause requires at least four environmentalists and NGOs working with the environment to be part of the authority. But Kanyakumari activists say the HACA is not active and to their knowledge no meeting has taken place.

The Center, Thangaraj says, should review interstate transportation of minerals, given Kanyakumari’s fragile ecosystem. Lawyer and activist Girinivasa Prasad asks why there are so many quarries in the Western Ghats in Kanyakumari. “Of the stones mined, only 20% are for local use, the rest is sent to Kerala,” he reiterates, alleging a link between the quarry owners and those in charge of the checkpoints. The porous nature of the interstate border contributes to the illegal transportation of stones.

According to Prasad, to extract 100 cubic feet of granite, a quarry owner pays the government 135 but sells it 3,500 in the market. Various departments are contributing to this looting, he says, and adds that according to an electricity board rule, only essential industries can operate 24 hours a day, but these grinding units are powered on all night. According to a union leader from the port of Tuticorin, every other day 1,300 tonnes of granite, extracted from districts in the south of Tamil Nadu, are shipped to the Maldives.

In March 2018, the 1,600 km long Western Ghats chain was recognized by UNESCO as one of the eight biodiversity hotspots in the world. However, as senior lawyer T. Lajapathi Roy points out, this label has no legal value. It only means that in the interests of humanity, the site must be protected. It may mean little to governments, but it’s the reason Roy, Godsay and the others are fighting to save this site.

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