From the South to the North-East – Protesting 3,900 km apart
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.’ Living in a democratic society, we are equipped with the prerogative to protest, a climacteric weapon that is even more important when exercising it implies urging institutions to conserve and enhance the biological diversity of unique ecosystems. This blog attempts to highlight the shared objective of two recent events in India, which although occurred 3,900 km apart are similar in their effort to prompt the establishment to ensure sustainable and equitable use of resources.
The protests below the Tropic of Cancer occurred in Ponmana, a village in the coastal Alappad panchayat in southern Kerala. According to a lithographic map, the panchayat which covered 89.5 km2 decades ago has shrunk to 7.6 km2. The uprising above the Tropic of Cancer concerns the Amazon of the East, the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, which is spread across an area of 111.42 km2, peripherally surrounded across 937 km2 by the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.
Commissioned between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Alappad panchayat is a narrow stretch between the Trivandrum-Shoranur (TS) Canal and the Arabian Sea. The Indian Rare Earth (IRE), a Central Public Sector Undertaking (PSU), and the State government-owned Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML) together have been engaged in mining activities along the beach off the Kollam coast since the 1960s.
The mining four thousand odd kilometres away began in 1973, when a mining lease was given to Coal India Limited (CIL) for 30 years after the expiry of which, CIL was supposed to re-apply for forest clearance. CIL re-applied only in 2012 and carried out mining activities inside the forest for 16 years since 2003. The Centre gave an in-principle (Stage-I) clearance to the PSU major for mining in 57.20 hectares inside the Dehing Patkai forest in December 2019 and was accorded the final approval (Stage-II) (provided it fulfils 28 conditions) by the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) in a meeting held in April 2020.
Locals are up in arms against beach sand mining, against a backdrop of abandoned homes, a deserted school, heaps of sand, a lone temple and dried up mangroves. Hamlets after hamlets are disappearing from the map due to sea erosion which eats up their lands. Seeking to save their remaining villages, the people of Alappad and nearby hamlets have demanded a complete halt to the mining activities. In Ponmana village, only two families remain, who themselves are facing eviction from the land they spent their lives growing up and residing.
People have been demanding on social media a ban on mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve too. An online petition in this regard has already attracted over 82,000 signatures. Coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai will harm the ecological balance of the area, and if the final approval is given to the company for mining inside the forest, nobody will be able to save it.
If the strip of land erodes any further, the backwaters would irreversibly merge with the sea and turn the river waters saline. This, in turn, would damage paddy fields of the rice bowl of Kerala, upper Kuttanad, which is below the sea level. The saline water will enter the Pallickal and Achankovil rivers towards the east and ultimately the paddy fields of central Travancore. The sand mining in Cheriyazheekkal-Alappad area affects the ecological stability of Ashtamudi Lake and other associated freshwater fluvial ecosystems. Non-sustainable beach sand extraction leads to the destruction of sandbanks and widening of the Pallickal river mouth and through summer when the water content is low, it will lead to the influx of marine water into the river. This unusual intrusion of marine water would alter the natural niches of aquatic organisms, leading to ecological stress related to biological activities like the exchange of respiratory gases, fertility and survival of younglings.
Contrary to the claim that the mining sites fall under Saleki, which is outside the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, the site falls under the Elephant Reserve and is just three kilometres from the main sanctuary. Dehing Patkai has rich biodiversity and any step to tamper with its characteristics cannot be accepted and the NBWL move for approval is not appreciable. The sanctuary is home to some endangered species, unique orchids and many other habitats and coal mining inside Dehing Patkai forest will harm its ecological balance. The continued activities would also lead to a significant rise in man-elephant conflicts in entire Upper Assam if their home in Dehing Patkai is touched. At the risk of oversimplification, if Dehing Patkai is destroyed, the entire North East will suffer.
The last word
In light of the agitation, the Kollam district administration had conducted multiple hearings and the Government of Kerala has suggested concentrating on inland mining and reducing sea mining; in case of the latter, advising companies to make groynes, rigid hydraulic structures built from an ocean shore or a bank that interrupt water flow and limit the movement of sediment. The Government of Assam which has become aware of the protests has stated that mining is not approved in eco-sensitive zones, after finding CIL to be grossly violating the Assam Forest Regulation, 1891, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. In a democracy where protests are the hallmark and whose logic demands that the voice of the people be heard by those in power, people participate not only during but between elections – manifested by the recent unprecedented protests; thousands assembling to re-assert that Black Lives Matter and to demand a rethink of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens. At the end of the day, if we destroy our only refuge, we destroy our only chance. So, let us join the race to make Mother Earth a more sustainable place.
Sidharth B. Pai
A B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Gujarat National Law University, India, he enjoys debating, and creative writing and takes an active interest in Numismatics, Political Science, and Gender Studies. He attempts to avert the dystopia by contributing his sustainable share