At a destitute home in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, 75-year-old Darley stares dejectedly at an empty wall.
She says she ended up here after fighting the powerful sand mafia for more than two decades.
Her home on the banks of the Neyyar river in Olathani area, 16 kilometres from the city, collapsed two years ago after miners carved up her land from all sides. Darley says many critics called her insane but she kept fighting with the belief that forests were the lifeline of humankind. But her pleas fell on deaf ears.
Construction industry experts estimate Kerala will consume about 60 million tonnes of sand annually by 2020, a massive incentive for the illegal mining lobby to keep digging while its actions threaten the environment and wipe out vital ecosystems.
Darley says she grew up on the banks of the gushing river, surrounded by lush greenery, chirping birds and sparkling fish. Now the mighty water body is a shadow of its former self, changing course often.
Reckless sand mining to feed imposing concrete structures in the neighbourhood dealt it a fatal blow.
“People who exploit rivers and forests don’t know they are doing a big injustice to the next generation. Like us, animals and birds have a right to live,” Darley said.
Illegal mining well above permissible limits eroded the riverbed and led to loss of precious land. Many turned rich overnight, but the 100 to 150-foot-deep gorges on the banks turned into death traps with around 500 people drowning here every year.
Darley’s is not an isolated case. A panchayat in Thirvananthapuram district’s Pallichal area declared activist VV Vijitha a public nuisance.
The reason: she filed at least three-dozen RTI pleas in the past two years about the flourishing stone and sand quarries in the area.
“In the RTI replies it was quite evident that panchayat authorities and quarry or sand mafia were hand in glove. Stipulations were flouted nakedly and permits were given randomly. Those who raised questions were bullied,” she said.
Residents of Mukunnimala, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, and surrounding areas have been on the warpath for several years, blaming quarry units for their ravaged neighbourhood, pollution, heavy traffic of truckers, water contamination and incessant blasting.
“Authorities are keen to silence those who raise their voices rather than solving the issue that will cripple Mother Nature forever,” Vijitha said. The 33-year-old was arrested twice for leading the movement.
“The mighty Neyyar river is beyond repair now. At many places, it has adopted new courses due to excessive mining. Sadly, we never had the sagacity of a semi-literate granny like Darley,” said activist M Raj Mohan, who also produced a half-hour documentary on Darley, titled “The Daughter of the River.”
Endowed with 44 rivers, Kerala, popularly known as God’s Own Country, now has a frightening tale to tell.
Every river portrays a sorry sight, with banks eroded, valleys slumped and channels dried up, contaminating water in surrounding areas.
Though the green tribunals banned sand mining from riverbeds and coastal areas two years ago, illegal excavation is rampant in many areas.
Expert divers are in great demand as they move in country boats in the dead of the night and hit the river bottom with the prowess of catfish.
At least 60 cases were registered in six months in Kerala, but policemen are often paid off, say sources. Many officials own trucks and boats that ferry sand and top department representatives try to get assigned to regions where mining is raging.
“We are treading a suicide path. At this rate all the rivers will dry up soon. Building laws will have to be regulated to control excess use of sand,” said 93-year-old Gandhian P Gopinathan Nair.
Eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who prepared a report to protect the ecology of the Western Ghats, recently said more than 1,700 illegal quarries operate in this region of the state.
Demand still outstrips supply. Feeling the pinch, some major construction firms are planning to import sand from Vietnam and Cambodia. Kochi port was in the news last year after nearly thousand tonnes of Cambodian sand lay there unsold for months.
“Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the mafia has spread its wings. To feed growing urban needs, rural areas and natural sources are shrinking alarmingly. How can we realise Swaraj and Gandhiji’s dream of the country living in its villages?” asked Nair.