Understanding the Fishermen Plight in Alappad, Kollam District Kerala

Alappad is a coastal village in the Kollam District of the Indian state Kerala. It is situated on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the TS Canal – the village is approximately 16 km long and its narrowest point is as thin as 33 meters. The village is connected to the mainland by a bridge at the southern part of the land strip, as well as by country boat ferries, operated by the Panchayat and private parties.

Tsunami struck the coastal areas of Kerala on December 26, 2004 at 12.45 pm, leading to the death of 176 and an estimated loss of property of Rs.1358. 6 Cr. Along the Kerala coast, three coastal segments were inundated by the Tsunami. The first two segments of the affected coastal regions, Alappad and Arattupuzha, were completely inundated with seawater. The quality of the ground water sources were affected due to the sudden influx of seawater brought about by waves with heights ranging 4 to 7 meters.

Sand mining

The black sand of Kollam district in coastal Kerala is classified as ‘strategic’ because it contains minerals for atomic energy and defense applications. Therefore, indiscriminate mining of the sand can continue, regardless of damage to the ecosystem and the livelihoods of people. This is the story of a simple people who are cursing the day the world beat a path to their door, or, more accurately, to their shores…

It all began with the discovery that the south Alapuzha coast and a stretch of Kollam district was rich in mineral sand — commonly referred to as “black sand”. This sand is mixed with heavy minerals like monazite, ilmenite, rutile and zircon, which gives it its characteristic black color. And their uses are as exotic as their names: ilmenite and rutile are used in the production of white pigment, titanium metal and as flux for welding electrodes; zircon is used in the ceramics and refractory industries, as a raw material for the production of metal, and as an alloy for use as structural material in nuclear power reactors. Monazite is radioactive because it contains thorium and uranium. It is estimated that the heavy mineral content in the area is 17 million tons out of a total raw sand reserve of 242 million tons (the ilmenite content itself is an impressive 9 million tons).

The four panchayats of Chavara, Neendakara, Ponmana and Alapada, which include the villages of Pandaraturuthu, Cheriazhikal, Alapada, Kuzhithari, Parayakadavu, Sriyikkdu and Azheekal in Kollam district of coastal Kerala, are fighting a losing battle against black sand mining, as bulldozers and JCB machines continue to take huge bites out of the sea front.

“The sea is being blamed for land loss, but Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML) cannot distance itself from it. Mining started here way back in 1902, as part of an Indo-Norwegian project. Then, the East India Company expanded the scope of mining and widened the area being mined. After Independence, Indian Rare Earths (IRE), a Government of India undertaking, and Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd took over the mining, and so it has been ever since. However, IRE’s activities here have been interrupted for the past 10 months because of protests against mining by people living in and around the project area,” says Krishna of Sewa Mandir, an NGO spearheading agitations against black sand mining in Kollam and the surrounding areas. He adds: “Because there is no formal organization leading these largely spontaneous protests by people in project-affected villages, some political parties have jumped into the fray if only for the sake of political mileage.”

To make matters worse, in 1998, the Department of Atomic Energy reviewed the policy of beach sand heavy mineral exploitation and published an extraordinary notification allowing private sector participation in setting up plants. With the way clear, the Kerala government issued a mining lease to Kerala Rare Earths and Minerals Limited (KREML) in April 2003, without, however, conducting any ecological studies to assess the impact of its decision on the shoreline. This was too much for our people to swallow. Incidentally, KREML is a joint venture between Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Limited (CMRL), a private sector company that has been exporting mineral sand for years, Indian Rare Earths, a public sector unit engaged in black sand mining in Chavara, in Kollam district, for more than 80 years, and Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation.”

In the village cluster of Alappad, the situation is bleak. A 16 km strip of land, Alappad is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and a canal and is, at places, less than 50 meters wide. Yet, bulldozers are busy gouging out black mineral sand between the tides, unmindful of the sea hungrily lapping at the main road in the village. Alappad was one of the worst affected coastal areas of Kerala when the tsunami struck, and there are signs of it everywhere. But, while the tsunami may have temporarily halted the sand mining, today it’s business as usual despite local protests and court interventions. If mining continues unchecked and is driven purely by economics instead of ecological determinants, then there is a very real danger of the sea breaching the shore at many places and encroaching inland. It is estimated that 60,000 meter cube of sediment arrival per one kilometer of shoreline, and the quantity that can be mined should ideally be 60%-70% of this number. This could be sustainable. More mining would bring a great risk of damaging the local ecology permanently.

As if the sand mining were not enough, indiscriminate construction of seawalls to stop the sea from encroaching further inland is another problem for local inhabitants since it hinders fishing by damaging boats and fishing equipment. While there is no denying that “certain areas need seawalls, these must be constructed scientifically, and maintained periodically. Before the land was swallowed up by the sea, people were able to fish near their homes, as in Kambavala village. This village had nearly 100 people engaged in fishing in a half-kilometer radius around the village. Now it’s not possible largely because of erosion and the construction of a seawall. Now the fisher folk have to go out to sea to fish, making fishing a very expensive process. Some families are resorting to growing kitchen gardens.

The KMMC is offering us compensation of Rs 17,000 for every cent of land if the people move out (one cent is 1/100th of an acre; in square feet, one cent is 435.6 square feet). How can this be enough? What will the people do with this paltry sum? The company wants them to move immediately and is not giving us any employment either. It seems there is a larger political game behind this.

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