Ambalayal in Wayanad with its rich biological heritage is on the brink of becoming an environmental disaster. Unprecedented mindless granite quarrying has denuded the land, skewered rainfall patterns and destroyed its pristine heritage. Court Orders have been ignored and licenses for mining have been given to vested interests. An affirmative cursory survey report without taking into account micro-climatic changes and expert opinions, have stymied all efforts made by activists and local people. CKM Nabeel‘s plea for environmental justice is lost in the cacophony of aggrandizement and greed.
Wayanad is situated 2297 feet above sea level in the northeastern part of Kerala, at the southern tip of the Deccan Plateau. It has a very distinct climate as most of the area lies at a higher altitude surrounded by forests. Its rich biological heritage and geographical distinctiveness has made Wayanad beautiful and serene. Natural intuitive experiences are possible when micro and macro factors, along with the unseen, mix seamlessly. Such intricate experiences are unique and always special.
Natural experiences are possible only when different factors merge in a complex manner. A great impact is created when the resultant micro changes combine with small positional changes. This has happened in Wayanad, where recent incidents are flagging danger signs. They are red markers that nature provides before total collapse. These warnings from nature are exhorting us to pause and reconsider so as to prevent us from crossing the threshold and destroying the pristine Ghats of Wayanad. All these signals are warnings that no one needs to cross the Ghats to complete writing the obituary of Wayanad.
The search is on to find the root cause of this predicament. Initial surveys indicate that most of us would stand accused for the present state of affairs. There are people who view that the causes for this dire situation in Wayanad are due to its foremost position in the tourism map of Kerala. It is true to a certain extent, but the causes of the malady are not confined to this alone. It is the lack of insight in development planning, and luxurious lifestyles, in tandem with greed and conspicuous consumption, that have wounded Wayanad. Rampant tourism has destroyed the forests and grass-covered hillocks.
Due to increased construction activities, bio resources have been depleted and flowed from the district. This includes timber and stone moving to different parts of the country for meeting the needs of accelerated development. Mega construction projects are implemented without taking into account the geographical uniqueness of Wayanad and Kerala. The denuding of its forests and Ghats has severely affected the environment, which had evolved through centuries to its richness.
Wayanad today is the global model for climate change. At one time, Lakkidi in Wayanad held the second place in the world for receiving the highest rainfall. The thread-like rain phenomenon, which rained for hours on end in a uniform speed, was a special feature of this rainfall pattern. This rain has decreased considerably and there is a palpable change in the cold climate.
These changes have come out as extreme heat and water scarcity which was previously unfamiliar to Wayanad. Changes in the natural climate of a particular region will become the cause for the transformation of its nature and conditions. This transformation is a decelerating phenomenon, moving from the unique to the unbearable.
Vythiri, Lekkidi and Mepadi are links to these profound changes. They were the first ones in the long list of places that have borne the severe impacts caused by changes in the natural climate. Considerable changes in land usage and mindless greed for resources have decimated forests.
Ambalavayal is another place in Wayanad thatis becoming a desert land because of climate change. It is the unstoppable greed inherent in mining activities that is harmfully affecting the flora, fauna and biological conditions in Ambalavayal. Estimates indicate that there are about 160 granite quarries functioning in Wayanad district. Out of this, about 40 quarries are located in the Ambalavayal Panchayat where the historic Edakkal Cave is situated.
Beginning of mining
Mining activities started in Ambalavayal in the period 1980-1990. The quarries were initially using manpower and producing one or two truckloads to meet the needs of the locality. But very soon, quarry mafias entered the rich rock-strewn area of Ambalavayal. Until then the quarries functioned as a resource to meet the needs of its own people. The aim of the quarry mafia was overexploitation of resources to cater to the increased construction activities ofthe land mafia.
Quarries in Ambalavayal were initially mined using manpower and modern machinery. The smaller players using human skills were soon out of business because they were not able to compete with the bigger players using modern machinery, and soon had to bring an end to their business activity.
In some cases the bigger quarry mafia who were using the latest technologies to exploit this resource bought them. They had the clout to ensure that the revenue land they needed for extracting rocks was converted to commercial property and make sure that permits were given to conduct their illegal, unscrupulous business activity.
The term quarry mafia is not a figurative term. The term speaks of incalculable resource exploitation by ruthless businessmen, their interventions in the systems of politics and law, and their sheer lack of morality in gaining access to resources. They have no regard for the escalating harmful impact they impose on the environment, on human and other sentient beings. The direct consequence is the dangerous potential for future violence. Ambalavayal starkly illustrates the possibility of an imminent catastrophe.
It is important to note that the 13th Legislative Assembly Environment Report underlines that the largest number of cases and complaints related to activities of quarries in Kerala are reported from Wayanad and especially from Ambalavayal. In a single ward of Ambalavayal, there are more quarries than in any other wards in the state. The group of rock formations in Ambalavayal include the literally sky touching big Arattupara, small Arattupara, Kolagapara and Kunjalipara. In these rock formations there are 40 quarries that are fully functional.
The fact is that most of these quarries do not have official permission to function. These quarries, without mining permissions, are engaged in daylight robbery using the explosive licenses obtained by the public works cooperatives. They operationalize their activity under the Ambalavayal local committee of the CPM. From each quarry, about 50 tonnes of boulders go out each day. From the large-scale quarries it is about 85 to 95 tonnes of boulders. Adjacent to almost all quarries in Ambalavayal there are crushers, M-sand production centers and sand making centers.
From all these centers, finished products of a similar quantity are taken for distribution. In addition to the official records, there are unaccounted-for boulders sold for huge margins. Under the garb of the explosive license obtained from the public works cooperative, 300 to 400 tonnes of stones reach the market each day.
The Thahasildar has reported that the Clippy Granite Crusher unit is functioning on encroached land, which has been prohibited by law for commercial activity. Here, about 150 to 200 tonnes of rocks are extracted each day. This is in addition to the rocks extracted from the quarry of Clippy Granites. Beside this there are other units actively functioning covertly in the rock-strewn valley of Ambalavayal. They mine fine sand and sell it after removing the surface soil.
The authorities have taken no serious action, despite protests from the local people against the quarries and their subsidiary units. The mindless business activity is wounding the heart of a place and making the life of its people unbearable.
Whenever the authorities were forced to intervene in the matter due to the pressure of the local people, the attitude of the authorities was to protect the interest of the quarry mafia. Although the Gadgil report had stated that mining cannot be permitted in Ambalavayal and included it in Zone One as it was considered to be ecologically fragile, this was taken out of Zone One in the subsequent Kasturi Rangan report. Later in the government-appointed Umman V Umman committee report, Ambalavayal was not even mentioned.
The Krishnagiri village officer in his report to the Thahasildar stated that the big quarries in Kolagapara and Mattapara were encroaching on plantation land that was in clear violation of the Kerala Land Reforms Act. This document was never brought to light and was stopped from being disseminated.
All the protests of the local people against quarries are handled in the public sphere as anti-developmental. Even when different types of natural calamities occurring in different parts of the country question the futility of our progress, the government and civil society of Kerala are repeating the same clichés and are unable to reevaluate developmental needs.
In the cacophony of the developmental model, lessons have not been learnt from the increasing natural calamities. There is a loss of direction and awareness and certain startling facts are brushed aside. These are lessons that a wise society would have paid attention to, internalizing their implications and objectively considering them when taking decisions.
The ruling parties and the civil society cannot escape from their obligations. They have a responsibility to pay attention to the worries of the people who experience pollution in their daily life. They are hapless victims facing the brunt caused by the exploitation of resources such as stone, soil, sand and timber. Showing a list of developmental projects cannot offset the pervading increase in pollution. The basic reason for increasing levels of pollution is the unmitigated exploitation of natural resources.
This causes damage to the microarrangements in nature, which had evolved over centuries, and in the process destroys the underlying biological system. It is this annihilation that needs to be taken into consideration when sanctioning projects. A direct consequence of this lack of foresight is the miscalculation in weather forecasts and predicting future variations in climate.The fallout is the heavy damage caused by unforeseen natural calamities. Recently devastating occurrences have taken place in Uttarakhand, Kashmir and Chennai.
The local people of Ambalavayal are strongly against the claims made by ruthless businesses. They have been unrelenting in their opposition to those who argue and propagate the falsehood that there are enough rocks to mine for years in Kerala and that commercial mining should not be stopped.
Lekkidi, in Wayanad, was once known as the Cheerapunji (place in Meghalaya, reputed to have the highest rainfall in the world) of Kerala. At one time, the place received the most rain out of any place in Kerala. This was followed by Ambalavayal, which also received a substantial amount of rain.
Farming and the day-to-day needs of the residents of Ambalavayal were dependent on these rains. There is not a single irrigation project meant solely for agriculture in Wayanad. The rainfall that filled sholas and the streams that coursed through the state and different parts of Wayanad richly watered the district. The sholas and the streams were alive – they were the tapestry, the weave, and the warp and woof of life.
Ambalavayal was one of nature’s unique gifts. It was magical; its rhythmic cycle of development, created by the evolving rainfall pattern and its water resources, infused the land with life. The degree of influence of the rain and natural water resources in Ambalavayal can be understood when we consider that most of the 3000 residents of Ambalavayal were immigrant farmers and agricultural laborers. There was a marked symbiotic relationship between the local rainflow and the rock formations. The black rocks, seemingly inanimate and rooted to the spot, provided fertility to the region.
The most important factor ensuring the availability of water in Ambalavayal is the summer rains. In addition to the widely spread monsoon rains, the summer rains are locally distributed. The summer rains are made possible by the seven high black rock formations surrounding Ambalavayal. They are not only responsible for the rains, but can act as natural rainwater reservoirs. Even though rocks do not absorb water, tree canopies over them can retain rainwater to a certain extent. When it rains, some water flows down the gaps between the rocks. At the same time, multi-staged tree canopies, the airy spaces between them, and organic wastes can absorb water like sponges, allowing water to ooze in and maintain wetness. Water that oozes in is collected in the soil. Rocks also play a role in controlling the direction of groundwater. It is logical that water flows from comparatively higher regions to lower regions; however, if the rocks were not arranged in such a manner, the precise flow of groundwater would not have happened.
The life of the soil used to be in the wetness of the sholas and streams, flowing down from the peaks of the black rocks. As a result of this wetness, the people of Ambalavayal flourished. The cold, high rock formations ensured not only local rains, but also the formation of mist. These rock formations worked as a link to weld together different factors to form a unique climate for Ambalavayal and maintain its original characteristics. It is because of this that even though there were fewer forests and trees in Ambalavayal than in other areas of Wayanad, Ambalavayal had a climate of high humidity, regular rain and mild heat. These circumstances were favourable for human existence.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the seekers of indigenous records register Edakkal Cave and the rock formations in Ambalavayal near it as being of historical significance. They have affirmed that its valleys were a habitation of primitive people.There are still preserved remains of caves and burial chambers of ancient people opposite to quarries in Arattupara in Ambalavayal. These signs are not mere remains. They constantly remind us of certain truths. The black rock formation and the clay mixed with shining soil may seem infertile, but they produce shola streams and regular rains that helped the agricultural needs of primitive people. As a result, human lives flourished in the valleys of the rock formations of Ambalavayal.
It was the continuation of such a past that until recently paddy cultivation was still practiced in Ambalavayal. But this continuity was broken a few years back because of the unprecedented severe water scarcity experienced by the farmers in Ambalavayal. To be precise, the farmlands were destroyed after the unlimited drilling and exploding of the rock formations. There is an inseparable relationship between the climate of a region and the possibility of life surviving in its environment. When this is gradually lost, a peaceful living place will become uninhabitable and its distinctive past and historical experiences will be inevitably lost.
The larger impact of quarrying in Ambalavayal was measured in places where quarries were centered. The quarries, included in the minor mineral category, affect the climate in the immediate area where the quarry functions.
The rock formations are responsible for micro-level climate changes in their immediate surroundings. This cannot be understood when a whole region is taken into consideration, due to the influence of other varying factors. Therefore, we have to depend on certain cross-sections of records in order to understand the influence the quarries have over a larger region and the influence mining exerts on climate. Residents of Kumbaleri, where most of the quarries in Ambalavayal exist, experience the sweeping changes that have occurred after mining’s inception.
Residents share concerns about the irreparable damage and loss of rhythm to their life brought about by climate change. Due to uncontrolled quarrying, shola forests and streams originating from the rocks have disappeared. Quarrying has put an end to the water resources that residents of Kumbaleri had depended on for a long time. They were using the water for agriculture and their day-to-day needs. The shola forests and streams are gone forever due to the collapse of surface soil and the wastes in the quarries that have accumulated because of powerful explosions. This has changed the course of the water that oozed in through the cracks in the rocks. The explosions caused by drilling holes from the top of the rocks and filling them with explosives have plugged the shola streams at their origins.
In no time, the residents began to realize that the paucity of water supply was impacting their lives. The regular rainfall pattern had changed. The summer rain that had ensured availability of water in Kumbaleri and Ambalavayal stopped coming because the summer rainclouds were formed fromthe vapour produced by the contiguous, non-contiguous bushes and the tree canopy enshrouding rock formations and streams.
The high rock formations prevented the wind from carrying away the rain-swollen clouds. As the rock formations lost their height and positioning due to quarrying, there were changes in the nature and quantity of summer rains. The rate of evaporation also decreased as the number of quarries and granite product-producing units (Crusher, M-sand) increased.
A number of studies on climate change have taken place in Wayanad. Among them, the most notable was the studyconducted by the Rural Agency for Social and Technological Action, Wayanad, and the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore.
This study observed that, as in other villages in India, Wayanad too depended excessively on the local climate for livelihood, and therefore even small changes in the climate influence (overtly and covertly)not only the environment, but also the lives of its people. In the case of Kumbaleri, this observation had great importance.
Normally, the living conditions and the economic and social needs of immigrant farmers and agricultural labourers of Kumbaleri were arranged based on the monsoon rain of June-September and the October-November rain received in Ambalavayal. The changes in the monsoon and the eastern rain have shattered the lives of the farmers in Kumbaleri. Compared to northern Wayanad, the drought conditions in Southern Wayanad have been more severe, particularly in the Ambalavayal region. Cold conditions have been more acute because of its distinct geographical features and its rock formations embedded in the soil.
The root causes of environmental destruction in Wayanad are deforestation and large-scale construction works. In Kumbaleri, the root cause is untrammeled digging of quarries and quarrying. Before the quarry mafia established their dominance by drilling the rocks, exploding and powdering them, the main economic income sources of the residents of Kumbaleri were paddy and pepper cultivation. These income sources were based on local rain, water availability and mist. Changes in the frequency of rainfall due to mining destroyed the structural distinctiveness of the region. Pepper and paddy cultivations were no longer economically viable.
Due to quarrying, the June to September monsoon rain and the eastern monsoon rain which came in regularly with the onset of the monsoon season came to abrupt end. Instead, the rainfall was irregular, lasting for a few days or raining heavily for days on end. The rainy season was unpredictable and left the farmers in a quandary, unable to plan their crop cultivation. Sometimes, there was very heavy, unexpected rain that often risked lives and livelihoods. This was not suitable to the geological conditions of Kumbaleri. The natural lines of water were no longer in place and there were no paths for the rainwater to flow into areas where local people needed it most. The heavy rainwater remained uselessly stagnant in the pits formed by the rocks.
Paddy cultivation was eventually brought to an end as the regular pattern of rain stopped and there was not sufficient water supply to plant and harvest crops. The local farmers and environmental activists bear witness to the end of the Nanja paddy cultivation, which was dependent on the copious rains of June. The rain had dwindled considerably, and the water flow in the streams completely disappeared.
The fate that befell pepper cultivation is no different. The vines of pepper planted in the rains of June put down their roots as the rain becomes active, and grow spikes in the cold and wet climate in July as the rain increases. The one-week gap in the rain during the month of Karkkidakam (July) was favourable for pepper’s growth. When the rains became erratic, favourable conditions were gradually lost, the irregular climate patterns began to cast a negative influence, and eventually pepper cultivation collapsed as well.
There was a time when most of the farmers of Kumbaleri earned a sizeable part of their income by selling pepper harvested at the end of the year. With the drastic change happening to the climate, the pepper vines failed to grow spikes and the farmers abandoned them completely. Pepper cultivation became a burning memory of the past. Jacob Chettan, a resident of Kumbaleri and an active member of the anti-quarrying struggle, spoke about the disaster that fell upon Kumbaleri and the lives of its residents due to quarrying.
Jacob used to produce about 35 quintals of pepper per year, but now he harvests only about 5 quintals of pepper. Even this he considers to be great luck. However, he does not hide the memories of the past and the helplessness of the present as he says, “When the soil became wet after the rain, if a pepper vine was planted near a tree, it was only necessary to go to it to harvest the pepper burrs growing on the spikes. It was a free gift that is becoming lost.”
Ambalavayal region had a temperate climate, a mixture of cold and mild heat. When asked about climate change and the reduction in rainfall, Jacob Chettan’s reply was, “You can’t say it is hot, it is a sort of burning. A sort of burning without a drop of sweat on the skin.” When one approaches Kumbaleri after Kalpetta and Meenangadi, one can experience what Jacob Chettan said. According to experts, the reason for the change in the temperate climate is the dust cover formed in the atmosphere, created by the thick smoke that is mixed with rock-powder dust. This is due to the explosions in the quarries and the dust from the crusher M-sand units, which prevent the penetration of sunrays and the evaporation process. Jacob Chettan and his family live a few feet away from one of the quarries.
When the local people protested against the scarcity of water, the groundwater department came for inspection. But they reported after the inspection that there was no water scarcity in Ambalavayal, including in Kumbaleri where the quarries are concentrated, and they could not find any reasons or factors for water scarcity.
But these reports cannot hide the reality that is experienced. If there was no water scarcity, why did the Panchayat authority and quarry owners supply drinking water? This was a new experience for the residents of Kumbaleri. Drinking water distribution is becoming common. How could it be otherwise? “The borewell in Jacob Chettan’s land, which had not gone dry even in summer before, is now going dry,” says Dharmarajan, who approached the court in opposition of the legal and illegal uncontrolled resource exploitation of quarry owners.
When he was asked whether there was any relationship between quarrying and water scarcity in Ambalavayal, including Kumbaleri, he said with clarity, “We lived here before quarries started and other units mushroomed. Then, there was water and rain. There was good climate and farming. The streams started to disappear one by one when the quarries increased. The summer rains decreased when the rocks were drilled and exploded and the broken rocks were carried away in lorries. The availability of water also decreased. For agriculture and other needs, water is not available as it was in the past. It rains whenever it feels like it. Even if it rains, the land has completely lost its capacity to collect and conserve the water as that much of the rocks have been broken by explosion.”
Dharmarajan concluded like this: “Those who have the capacity to influence the authorities influence them and continue overexploitation of resources; the lives of the people who depend on soil, local resources and the climate are withering. The discomfort, hardship, loss and destruction the people experience, in accordance with the resource exploitation, are not included in records or surveys.” This is an unverified fact, an opinion made by the exploited, who have said it many times before.
The unaccounted pollution experiences
The records of rain and temperature from the Regional Agricultural Research Centre in Ambalavayal do not give any indication of the change in rain and temperature in places where mining has destroyed the local environment. Kumbaleri, a prime example of this exploitation, is not even mentioned. This, in spite of the fact that one can hear and see the experiences of those who are forced to face the dire circumstances of their changed scenario. They have to cope with the realities of decreased rainfall and increasing cold weather.
The stark fact before us is the dichotomy between the records and the reality experienced by the local residents. It reveals the shortsighted approach towards the impacts of climate change.
The rain gauge and the thermometer in the Regional Agricultural Research Centre, Ambalavayal, which is about ten kilometers away from Kumbaleri, collect the general climate data for this area. It is thus virtually impossible to monitor and distinguish micro change that is taking place in the climate, prevalent in the quarrying areas. The official records would thus not show climate change taking place or impacting the quarrying areas. The subjective experiences of those who bear the impact of resource exploitation are not considered in the official records. The records are established by objective scientific analysis and do not take into account the ground reality of the people bearing the brunt of the climate change. There is very little chance that they will be included in the survey of government agencies. The official records exist, but they have not taken into account all relevant parameters. Its nature is not inclusiveness but exclusion.
Kumbaleri is an example of exclusion. The basic reason for exclusion is that attempts are not made to incorporate systems that accurately evaluate the changes in local conditions. The official records do not consider the microclimate changes that visibly affect a particular place, its people and its animate beings.
The lack of functioning systems creates challenges when discussions are held about climate and the activities undertaken to fight against the impacts of climate change. When discussions and dialogues are taken forward based on available information and data, which is limited, there is no way the problems can be approached responsibly and creatively. A vital component that is rejected is the local and micro climatic changes.
It is evident that discussions about climate change and the resistance against resource exploitation are short circuited by not taking into account and experiencing the reality of Kumbaleri. There is disproportionate difference between the records and the unmitigated difficulties faced by the local residents.
There have been arguments and counter arguments for instituting a mandatory environmental impact study before issuing licenses to the quarries in the state. The stand of the government is that the small quarries do not need environmental impact studies. It was written in a cavalier manner when the K.M.M.C.R. was modified by the state that large-scale quarries require environmental impact studies. But in practice, most of the small and large-scale quarries in Kerala are functioning without having had any sort of environmental impact study. In the case of making environmental impact studies mandatory, even courts have taken different positions. It is the practice only in Kerala to give short-term permits for mining minerals, even including the minor mineral category. The Kerala government made the decision that small quarries do not need environmental impact studies for getting licenses, arguing that the notification issued by the Central forest and environmental ministry making environmental impact studies mandatory does not say anything about short term permits.
However, the High Court of Kerala decreed that all quarries need environmental impact studies when environmental and anti-quarry activists approached the court against the decision of the government of Kerala. Against this action, with the connivance of the government, the quarry owners filed an appeal in the Supreme Court that decreed that small quarries do not need environmental impact studies. This verdict creates a clear contradiction to another verdict of the Supreme Court, where in the case of Haryana Vs Deepak Kumar, the court decreed that irrespective of the nature of mining, all types of mining needs environmental impact studies.
Different stands on the same matter are based on statistical data. It has to be understood that there are circumstances that influence the verdict. Statistics and records cannot be submitted as evidence as they do not reflect the fact that mining makes micro changes in the local environment. The government argues that mandatory environmental impact studies for issuing licenses will delay development and affect construction activities in the state.
In the current scenario of aggrandizement, what is lost is habitable land, the dilution of the essence of our intervention, and dialogue for environmental justice.
Report (Regarding the working of quarries in Kerala) – 13thKerala Legislative Environment Committee
Decoding the meaning and beliefs associated with petroglyphs in Edakkal rock shelter, Kerala, India; Ajith Kumar, Valcamonica Symposium.
Environmental and social impacts of stone quarrying–case study of Kolalumpur district
Climate trends in Wayanad: Voice from community; Dhanesh Kumar, Pavan Srenath; 2011.
Wayanad District Groundwater Department Report, 2010.
K.M.M.C.R. recognised by the Kerala Government on 7 February, 2015
EIA notification, 2006
India – Deepak Kumar and Others v. State of Haryana and Others, I.A. Nos. 12-13/2011in SLP (C) 19628-19629/2009 (2012.02.27) (Supreme Court of India) (Order) (Environmental Clearance required for mining leases under five hectares)
This article was originally written in Malayalam. Translated to English by Louis Figaredo, and edited by Suresh Mathew.