The saga of Kerala's rare mineral sand, corruption and coast deterioration | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

The saga of Kerala's rare mineral sand, corruption and coast deterioration

Apr 10, 2024 08:37 PM IST

Locals in coastal villages where mineral sand mining continues are hoping that this will be a potent issue in the Lok Sabha election campaign

The ruins of 476 houses haunt the Thottappally hamlet on the southern edges of Kerala's Alappuzha district. These houses were abandoned by the local fishing community after they sustained long-term damage from recurring sea erosion for which the locals blame indiscriminate mineral sand mining. A temple and two elementary school buildings also stand abandoned amidst dried-up mangroves after copious amounts of sand were mined from the Thottappally pozhi (sand bar) near the sea mouth where the Vembanad Backwaters meet the Arabian Sea.

Mining in progress at Thottappally Pozhi. (Photos: K A Shaji) PREMIUM
Mining in progress at Thottappally Pozhi. (Photos: K A Shaji)

Further, near the village’s gate, environmentalists, fish workers, and other inhabitants are participating in a prolonged relay hunger strike, which surpassed 1,036 days on April 1. The protestors, organised under the banner of the Kaimanal Ghanana Virudha Ekopana Samithy (KGVES), claim that their village is gradually disappearing from the map as a result of the large-scale mineral sand-mining activities being carried out by Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML), a public sector entity they allege is acting on behalf of the private enterprise, Cochin Minerals and Rutiles Limited (CMRL). The protestors are demanding an immediate halt to mining to protect the last remaining coastal villages near the Thottappally Pozhi, Kerala's largest deposit of exceptionally rich mineral sand.

Since the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of Kerala authorised KMML to conduct mining operations – unmindful of local opposition, say the protestors – sea erosion as a result of alleged irresponsible collection and transportation of mineral sand has severely reduced the land area of Thottappally.

In May 2019, the government issued an order permitting mineral sand to be mined from the mouth of the sea at Thottappally, into which the Vembanad Lake merges after channelling waters from the major rivers Pampa, Achankovil, and Manimala. The government permitted mineral sand as part of a larger effort to protect the low-lying Kuttanad backwater region in Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Pathanamthitta districts from frequent flooding and saline water intrusion, which harmed the region's fragile agriculture. It allowed the public sector company to harvest more than two lakh cubic metres of mineral sand at a fee of 464.55 per cubic metre. The arrangement has been renewed annually for the past four years. Protesters however claim that 54 lakh metric tonnes of mineral sand have been mined to date.

What are the sand mine rules?

Private companies are not permitted to mine mineral sand in India, and protesters allege that the state government helped CMRL fulfil its aim to collect sand from Thottappally. KMML allegedly sold the sand containing atomic materials to CMRL for a throwaway amount. Further, it has been alleged that CMRL has made regular payments to T. Veena, CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s daughter, as "compensation" for the government's support of illegal mining activities in Thottappally.

On March 28, 2024, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) presented an investigation report after a case was registered under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002.

The ED’s action was taken in response to a report by the Income Tax Interim Settlement Board (IT-SIB) stating that Veena and her information technology services provider firm, Exalogic Solutions Private Limited, had received 1.72 crore in monthly payments from CMRL, despite there being no record of services provided in return. The public sector KMML, which owns 13.4 percent of private sector CMRL, is also under investigation by Central agencies alongside Veena's company, Exalogic. The Serious Fraud Investigation Office, a branch of the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs, is moving fast to investigate the case, which has become an electoral issue in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Who is CMRL?

CMRL, established in Kochi and supported by businessmen SN Sasidharan Kartha and Mathew M Cherian, has been accused of unlawfully mining mineral sand from Kerala's southern shores. A government of India order dated 1.3.2019 directed premature termination of all mineral concessions of beach sand minerals held by private companies all across India, under provisions of Section 4A (1) of the MMDR Act and also stipulated that henceforth, any mineral concession of beach sand mineral shall be granted only to a Govt. company or corporation owned or controlled by the Government.

"In view of the above, all the companies in India are not in a position to carry forward with the project implementation," the CMRL company annual report for 2020–2021 states.

Thottappally fishermen said that uncontrolled mining of mineral sand has harmed the shoreline as well as the people's homes and livelihoods. Citing professional assessments, locals say that mining mineral sand from the sea mouth has led to a large-scale incursion of saline seawater into Kuttanad's backwaters, destroying paddy cultivation in low-lying areas. This stands in stark contrast to the government’s assertion that removing the sand will lower the risk of flooding and seawater incursion in Kuttanad.

Even though the IT-SIB report revealed that several politicians in the state, including Vijayan, Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, and Indian Union Muslim League leader PK Kunhalikkutty, had accepted large sums of money from CMRL, all of these politicians explained that the money was a donation to their respective parties' funds.

Background of the controversy

The controversy began in 2019 when Sasidharan Kartha filed a settlement application with the IT-SIB. This was in reaction to an income tax department check of the company's premises in Aluva, near Kochi. The inspection revealed the alleged illegal money transfers. According to the IT-SIB findings, CMRL is now facing charges of making illegal payments to the chief minister, his daughter, politicians of all stripes, police officers, pollution control board officials, and several media businesses.

Purushan Eloor, an environmentalist based in Kochi, alleged that the law could be dodged only with the cooperation of all of the state’s major political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party. He believes that the IT department’s exposure sheds light not only on the financial transactions but also on the tacit support of political parties for indiscriminate mining, which has adversely impacted the coastal areas of Thottappally, Thrikkunnapuzha, Arattuvazhi, Alappad, Chavara and Kayamkulam in Alappuzha district, and parts of Kollam district as well.

"The information that has surfaced is just the tip of the iceberg. Politicians along the entire coast sold out coastal communities and their very survival to private monopolies," Charles George, a state-level fish worker leader, said. "We cannot compel a CBI probe or a judicial investigation into the deeply entrenched unholy alliance. The lawmakers' betrayal will be discussed in every village along Kerala's southwestern coast during the Lok Sabha election,'' he said.

The impact of mineral sand mining on the coastal ecosystem in Kuttanad

It wasn't until the 1920s that the minerals ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, leucoxene (brown ilmenite), sillimanite, and garnet were discovered on the Kollam and Alappuzha coastlines. Mining for these minerals began on a large scale in the 1960s. The mining process mostly extracts monazite and ilmenite. India cannot completely process these minerals. Because the rutile materials are exported, it is multinational companies that profit. "Mineral sand is a natural resource, and it must be used properly, rather than allowing a few private lobbies to exploit it," P Sreekumar, an activist in Alappad, said.

The consequences are most visible in the Alappad panchayat in Kollam district, an example of the financial, livelihood, and environmental consequences of indiscriminate mineral sand mining. It was 90 square kilometres in size in 1955, but now it covers only nine square kilometres owing to uncontrolled mining. Residents in Alappad said that more than 6,000 families of fish workers had left the area due to significant beach erosion, a lack of drinking water, and an insufficient supply of fish.

In the village of Panmana, where thousands of fishermen once lived, there is now simply a pile of sand and an abandoned shrine. The government does not retain records of those who have lost their homes without compensation, and tainted drinking water sources have not been thoroughly investigated, said P Seleena, former president of Alappad Grama Panchayat.

Despite local complaints, public sector entities Indian Rare Earths Limited and KMML continue to carry out significant mining operations in Alappad.

The most severe shoreline erosion in Kerala occurred around Alappad and the nearby panchayats of Arattupuzha, Thrikkunnapuzha, and Purakkad, according to an analysis by the Institute for Ocean Management in 2008.

According to environmental activist and lawyer Hareesh Vasudevan, the sea entered the backwaters of Vellanathuruthu, a mining site in the Alappad panchayat with a breadth of 3.5 km, only two weeks ago. "The coastal segment from Valiyazhikkal to Thottappally is highly prone to erosion”, he said. Vasudevan notes that the mineral-rich sand shoreline previously served as a sea wall, shielding the area from erosion and preventing seawater from flowing onto the rice fields of Kuttanad, which lie nearby and below sea level.

"Without this sea wall, the area would have been prone to erosion," Vasudevan said. He claims that indiscriminate mining removed this natural protection, resulting in agricultural damage in Kuttanad.

"Land, means of subsistence, and survival are our top priorities. We shall continue to speak out against the negative effects of mining by public-sector companies on behalf of vested private interests," said Cibi Bony, a campaigner in Kollam.

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