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A view of the area where mining was being undertaken by IREL and land loss has been maximum. There can be no mining with zero impact is how IREL sees it. 
A view of the area where mining was being undertaken by IREL and land loss has been maximum. There can be no mining with zero impact is how IREL sees it. |Pic credit: Jeff Joseph
Environment

The Hashtag Protests Of Alappad

The story of how a protest, built on a number of false claims, became a national trend 

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

January was when Alappad village, falling under Karunagapally taluk of Kollam district in Kerala, became the talk of the internet. Just a few months ahead of the much anticipated Parliamentary elections, #SaveAlappad and #StopMining took Kerala’s social media by storm.

Facebook and Instagram became awash with people appealing to save the island where villagers had been on a hunger protest for over two months. At a time when the state was inundated with TV debates over the entry of women in Sabarimala temple, Alappad and its people became a fixation for many on social media.

Meanwhile, a video appeal by a girl from Alappad went viral on 08 January. People responded - with videos and emotional speeches, individuals from all walks of life contributed in their own ways to fuel the protests on social media. With a like here, a share there and a post or comment from the truly motivated, the movement to “save Alappad” started picking up momentum.

Alappad Village This Election Season

Alappad looks lit this election season. On either stretch of the newly laid 17 km road running through Alappad, a longitudinal island sandwiched between the Lakshwadeep Sea in the west and the TS Canal in the east, a flurry of flags line up like a procession of political motifs marching through. The hands, the sickles and the lotuses bloom and wilt in the beach’s bright sun, fluttering wildly with each gust from the Arabian sea.

All parties coexist in Alappad with fairly spread support. CPM workers though insist that they enjoy 60% support.
All parties coexist in Alappad with fairly spread support. CPM workers though insist that they enjoy 60% support.
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

With teenage boys eagerly hitchhiking to and from party offices, old men huddled around playing cards, middle aged men sewing their fishing nets to perfection and womenfolk - bathed and freshly dressed - visiting the numerous temples that dot the island, everything looks serene and settled.

Men cleaning fishing nets
Men cleaning fishing nets
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

For a village which has supposedly lost more than 95% of its land to the sea, where 5000 families have been allegedly displaced due to indiscriminate mining and where an active hunger protest by the villagers had been going on for more than 160 days in the face of apparent political apathy, election fervour and paraphernalia seem particularly out of place.

For, Alappad doesn’t exhibit the anxiety and anger that a drowning island in the midst of an existential crisis would. Nor does it show the helplessness that the online campaign projected.

Something was amiss.

Save Alappad: A Recap

#SaveAlappad began appearing on social media feeds in late 2018. “It all began from the WhatsApp groups,” says Gireesh R, one of the two convenors of the Save Alappad Samara Samidhi and a leader of the All India Youth Federation (AIYF). Gireesh is also a former president of the AIYF. “Ende Gramam Sandhwana Theeram” meaning “My village, consoling shore” is one of the prominent WhatsApp groups that the residents of Alappad are members of. “Almost all the people in the Samara Samidhi are members of these groups”, he says. It was in these groups that the idea of a people’s protest to protect Alappad first took shape; as did its social media avatar.

The origin of the social media campaign remained largely unknown. Many of these posts blamed the traditional TV and print media for ignoring the plight of Alappad and urged the common populace to rise up and raise their voice against this “agenda-driven snub”. Alappad being a fisher village, credentials of the many fishermen who extended their help during the devastating floods were emotionally underscored.

“We had been trying to get people’s attention for some time,” says Rahul R, a second year college student in the nearby town of Karunagappally. “It was then that Troll Quilon agreed to support us. And then the 14 district troll groups also extended support. It was later that groups like Troll Malayalam took up the issue,” he says. Rahul is in his twenties and has been a very vocal supporter of the protests like many other young people in Alappad.

A view of TS Canal: On the left is the mainland, on the right is Alappad. 
A view of TS Canal: On the left is the mainland, on the right is Alappad. 
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

Kerala, with a large and vocal online populace has, over the years, replicated its geo-cultural and political landscapes in the virtual world. First to evolve were the pan-Kerala troll groups such as Troll Malayalam and International Chalu Union (ICU) and later came the numerous district and town level troll pages.

Troll Quilon was one such popular page dedicated to Kollam district, one amongst the 14 districts of Kerala, and under which Alappad panchayat administratively falls.

When groups such as Troll Malayalam, which boasted a much larger audience reach joined in, the issue started getting traction and the word spread. The response evoked by this social media campaign was unique and became newsworthy in itself.

Biker groups descended on Alappad to show solidarity with the islanders
Biker groups descended on Alappad to show solidarity with the islanders

Biker gangs and social media aficionados responded by physically reaching out; calls to join them on their journeys to Alappad did the rounds of Facebook and Instagram. When the stylish bikes and repainted classic mopeds arrived, the breeze in Alappad acquired a unique swag of its own. Travelling music bands in vintage vans pitched their tents by the beach and sang in unison.

Some islanders were to later comment that the island resembled a tourist place back then. Many who had come flocking to the island were from the northern districts of Malappuram and Kozhikode.

The import of supporters did not sit well with some in the government, like Industries Minister EP Jayarajan, as did the arrival of opposition leaders.

Leader of opposition, Ramesh Chennithala and other leaders of the UDF (United Democratic Front), much of the top rung leadership of the state BJP and numerous candidate hopefuls, all extended solidarity to the protests.

Though the ruling CPI (M) leadership gave it a miss, their partner CPI sent their top leaders to ground zero. The campaign had got the attention it had craved for.

Media vans came and held discussions and debates. During these interactions, counter opinions were booed into silence. There was no other side, they said. Amidst the melee, government of Kerala called the protesters for talks on 16 January. And now a solution was awaited. The protester’s demand was just one - Stop Mining, Save Alappad.

A study has been commissioned by the Kerala Government to look into the impact of mining in the area.

The Protest Camp

Samara Pandhal, as the protest camp is called, wears a deserted look now. The relay fast though is still going on.

Fasting starts at 8 pm and goes on for 24 hours before the next person takes over. The person on hunger strike sits inside the pandal, a lone table fan keeping watch. On days when a woman sits in protest, one or two women from the Samara Samadhi give company.

The deserted Samara Pandal is proof of waning support
The deserted Samara Pandal is proof of waning support
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

Near the entrance is a stand on which is kept drinking water. On the walls are stuck posters, all related to the protest. Inside, there are a few plastic chairs, unoccupied for the most part; the microphone & loudspeakers lay silent; and a bed, on which the protester sits and sleeps.

Registers keep note of those who sit in protest each day. It also records people’s willingness to volunteer in the coming days. Coordination is done over WhatsApp and phone.

Outside on a black board, written in chalk is the number of days the relay hunger protest has been going on for. Visitors drop by occasionally, friends and family on their way to or from the nearest town. The CPI (M)’s candidate AM Arif, who locals in the village says is tipped to win, also paid a visit.

Arif promised to ensure that mining is carried out without leading to land loss and in the least environmentally disruptive manner. It is not the protesters’ demand, but it is the politician’s solution.

Arif was the first from the party to formally visit the protesters camp. The banner on which was written the purpose of the pandal has lost its colours. The bleached and faded letters in Malayalam read “Indefinite Protest Against Sand Mining”.

Pledge of support
Pledge of support
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

What Were The Protests For?

Alappad lies in the mineral-rich belt in Kollam – these beaches are known as Chavara deposits - the sand here is rich in minerals like ilmenite, rutile, zircon and sillimanite.

Monazite which is mined in Alappad is a strategic mineral and could as well hold the future to India’s nuclear fuels.

Heaps of white sand after separation of minerals
Heaps of white sand after separation of minerals
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

While the protests became a mass movement online, within the village of Alappad, not everyone was onboard for the same reasons.

A few who earned their livelihoods in mining did not want it to be stopped but wanted sea erosion to be stalled. Some whose land was being acquired, wanted better compensation and protection for their lands. The elderly did not want to be displaced in their advanced years. For the youth, many well educated with employment opportunities outside, this was the fight to save their birthplace. A pragmatic lot were okay with mining but wanted better protection for the shores to protect their lands. Many got swept away by the fear mongering and were panicked into action.

While protesters demand that mining be stopped and a study conducted by an eminent environmental scientist like Madhav Gadgil with participation by a scientist of their choice, support seems to be waning. Perhaps there never really was any to begin with.

Exaggerated Claim 01: The ‘Disappeared’ Land Mass

The notice given out from the pandal claims that 81.5 sq km or close to 20,000 acres of land had been lost to the sea based on the lithographic map of 1955. Another claim is that close to 5000 families had been displaced forcibly.

What was once a landmass of 89.5 sq km in 1955, they claimed, was today only 7.6 sq km, a loss of nearly 95% of the village.

For this they blamed the Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL), a central public sector undertaking which started operating in the area in 1970.

An IREL truck passes a temple which has been relocated due to sea erosion in the southern part of Alappad panchayat
An IREL truck passes a temple which has been relocated due to sea erosion in the southern part of Alappad panchayat
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

The first crack in the story appeared when the village officer of Alappad, Abdul Salam posted some missives on his Facebook page. He claimed that as per the 1982 survey, Alappad village had only had a total area of 1600 acres. To lose 20,000 acres of land, the village would have had to be at least 10 times larger.

When asked, Salam gives a figure. “20 acres have been lost in Vellanathuruth where IREL is mining,” he says. “Maybe an additional 5 acres have been lost elsewhere in total due to sea erosion.” Salam, articulates his opinions freely on social media, where he was accused of being on the payroll of IREL by the protesters.

“I support the protest as sea erosion is an issue in Alappad,” says Salam. “What I object to is the attempt to fool clueless people through exaggerated claims and sensationalism. That is wrong,” he insists. “To get a clear picture, we will need to conduct a survey today. As for those accusing me of taking bribes, I challenge them to bring proof.”

Protesters use a visit to Alappad etched in history to back their claim of a much larger land mass that has now been allegedly lost to the sea. The visit of Vikram Sarabhai along with other scientists to Alappad in 1962 in search of a place to build a launching pad and press clippings of the time stating that the area had extensive lands after human settlements is what the protesters base their claims on. Thumba later came to be selected as the site for the satellite launching pad and Alappad was destined to continue to be mined.

Even many old timers on the island have no clear memories of the vast beaches that extended upto 2 to 3.5 km from where it is today as is claimed by protesters. This though doesn’t mean that there has been no loss of land. It is just that the loss is likely exaggerated.

Raju S, 60, says he remembers there being land beyond what it is today but not to the extent of 3-4 km as protesters claim. But we are all scared, he says. 
Raju S, 60, says he remembers there being land beyond what it is today but not to the extent of 3-4 km as protesters claim. But we are all scared, he says. 
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph 

Krishnamma K Allammoottil, 65, still remembers her father-in-law talking about how their ancestral lands extending in acres had been lost to the sea. But she, who was also born in Alappad had never seen them. She married at the age of 20 in 1971, around the time when IREL took over mining in the southern part of the village. She though testifies to the disappearance of a few houses that did exist closer to the shores.

Many villagers say that they believe that mining could have resulted in erosion. It is the only reason presented to them by the protesters. But discrepancy in the area lost glaringly stands out begging for answers.

As per the villagers’ claims, missing is an area more than ten times the present village’s size, lost in less than 64 years’ time – a total of 20,000 acres. This would need land loss at a rate of 26 acres a month or 6 acres a week.

The absurdity of this was never pointed out, but instead reported as a fact by mainstream media. The total land area lost is not the only claim which appears shaky when inspected.

Exaggerated Claim 02: Sea Washing & Its Impact

“If the government comes forward with a written word that they will stop sea washing, the Samara Samidhi will be open to the possibility of talks,” says Gireesh, convenor of the Save Alappad Samara Samidhi.

It was the government’s assurance to suspend sea washing which had ended the stalemate of the January 16 talks, even though Gireesh says - “we had never agreed to stop the hunger protests without banning mining and were tricked by the minister who announced on TV that we had agreed to end the hunger protests.”

Remains of a site in the backdrop of the area where sea washing is undertaken by IREL
Remains of a site in the backdrop of the area where sea washing is undertaken by IREL
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

The confusion notwithstanding, sea washing is suspended at the moment. “And so now the beach is building,” Gireesh declares, referring to the sand deposits in the Vellanathuruth sea washing spot.

The protesters had argued that sea washing undertaken by IREL was responsible for the massive land loss which Alappad had suffered. “The beach sand from the northern parts of the village,” they claimed, “was shifting southwards to Vellanathuruth where IREL is conducting sea washing. Because of this, a vast expanses of land has been lost.”

Asked whether their theory was based on any scientific study, Gireesh replies in the negative.

Referring to IREL’s continued mining in just one spot on the island, Vellanathuruth, as proof of sand erosion from other parts of Alappad, K Chandradas argues - “They haven’t acquired land anywhere else even after so many years because all the sand from here flows to fill the depressions there.”

Chandradas, a man in his seventies, and chairman of the Samara Samidhi adds – “This way they get minerals without acquiring land. We want this exploitation to stop,” he demands.

IREL officials turn a vintage laptop in an office setting reminiscent of the 1980s towards this reporter, zoom in to a Google map of the coastal village and explain how this theory is wrong. The reasoning is simple - the direction of flow of the sea is opposite to what the villagers are assuming, they claim.

The northern part of the island has seen less sea erosion and enhanced beach building ever since groynes were installed to prevent silting in the entrance to the harbour, villagers say. 
The northern part of the island has seen less sea erosion and enhanced beach building ever since groynes were installed to prevent silting in the entrance to the harbour, villagers say. 
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

Officials show pictures of the numerous groynes which had been built in Alappad village both by the Kerala government as well as the two by IREL and explain how beach formation is all on the southern side of the groyne as opposed to the northern side.

Groynes are perpendicular projections build seaward using crushed rocks or concrete dykes and are scientifically known to assist in depositional activities.

“This is so because the shape and orientation of the beach means that sea waves lash from the south to the north. Had it been as they claim, the beach formations should have been on the northern side of the groynes,” reason the officials.

Exaggerated Claim 03: The Beach That ‘Vanished’

There are other holes in the stories as well. IREL officials also ask - “The sea walls which had been installed 50 years back are still in place. Had there been such rapid sea erosion, the sea walls should have been in the sea now,” officials ask.

“Why would anyone build sea walls so far inside to begin with? A lot of falsehoods have been spread,” says an official with an air of resignation, reluctant to be named.

K Chandradas, chairman of the Samara Samidhi, when asked about sea walls, initially says they were installed in 1965 and had not been maintained in the last 10 years in many places as proof of government apathy.

When asked why the walls had not been lost to the sea as opposed to vast lands that have supposedly been lost, he replies with silence. Searching for answers he eventually says - “The old walls have submerged and new walls were built further inland.”

Convenor Gireesh, failing to account for the discrepancy in this claim, says - “I am a simpleton. I am not able to articulate it well to you.”

And simpletons there are many amongst the protesters. And they all parrot the same claims far too often.

Exaggerated Claim 04: The Number Of Displaced Persons

Asked about the protesters’ claims about displaced people, Abdul Salam, the village officer whose Facebook post came under attack by supporters of the protest says - “The families who did leave, did not leave as helpless refugees but had voluntarily packed up after taking decent compensation from the company. The figure of 5000 families is an exaggeration,” he adds.

Asked about the 5000 families who have been displaced, IREL officials say “that is hyperbole.” Pressed for numbers, they say - “The entire Alappad stretch of 17 km now has 6000 or so families. How then could 5000 families have existed in a 700 metre stretch we acquired? Exact numbers can be got from those dealing with mining and acquisition.”

To date no exact numbers have been provided despite repeated requests. Officials though claim that the actual number could be “a small fraction only.”

Asked about the 5000 families and where the number popped up from, K Chandradas, chairman of the Samara Samidhi says it is the number of families displaced due to tsunami. Asked for the number of families displaced due to mining, he says, “near 1500.”

But the pamphlet given out by the protesters all mention 5000 displaced families.

Land, Ownership And Compensation History

The discovery of the mineral riches of the beach sand around Alappad was an accident. Back in the days when coir was exported, womenfolk worked in coir while menfolk ventured into the seas.

It was professional trickery to sprinkle brackish sea water and the beach sand onto the coir as it would add weight and fetch more money. Sea water would make black sand, weighing three times as much as white sand, stick to the coir even when dried.

The sparkling sand on coir caught the attention of a German chemist CW Schomberg who identified in it the presence of monazite in 1909. Later, he set up a plant at Manavalakurichi in 1910 and another one at Chavara, south of Alappad village.

Mining has thus been going on historically in and around Alappad for over a century. Several private companies came to operate in the area referred to as the Chavara mineral belt.

In the early days, ships were filled with sacks of beach sand loaded using cheap labour. This made the 1427 acres profitable for mining. (Chapters in the Chemistry of Less Familiar Elements by B. Smith Hokins, Vol. I, page 15)

It was in 1970 that the Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL), a PSU under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy started its operations in the area.

The beach sand deposits in the area were divided into eight blocks and four each allotted to Kerala Metals and Minerals Limited (KMML, a rechristened state PSU whose earlier name was FX Pereira and Sons) and IREL.

Out of the four allotted blocks, three blocks iv, vi and vii allotted to IREL fell under Alappad village panchayat.

IREL is presently carrying out operations in block iv comprising of Vellanathuruth and Pandarathuruthu of Alappad village panchayat. IREL sells the separated ilmenite to KMML, Travancore Titanium Products Ltd (TTPL) and other downstream industries in the country.

In Vellanathuruth, located on the southern-most end of Alappad Panchayat, IREL carries out two methods for getting minerals - sea wash collection and inland dredging.

Inland dredging being carried out. These lands would be refilled and handed back, IREL insists.
Inland dredging being carried out. These lands would be refilled and handed back, IREL insists.
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

Sea wash collection is a mineral collection process wherein minerals brought ashore by the waves is collected. Inland dredging involves surface mining to prise out the mineral rich sand deposits on land. It is for collecting sea wash that the sea walls which run through the entire length of the shores of Alappad had been kept open in Vellanathuruth. And it is here that land loss has been the most dominant.

Further north lies Puthunthura where IREL has handed land back after mining and a quirkily named Kodeeswaran Colony, translated as ‘Crorepati colony’ owing to its relative opulence, has come up. Kodeeswaran colony in Puthunthura is the company’s showpiece project.

“The refilled land today holds three-storied buildings. That is the quality of our land filling,” stresses a senior official of IREL. Pandarathuruth, where land acquisition is yet to be completed, is proposed to be a leasing package wherein acquired land will be returned within three years of the lease agreement being signed. Acquisition in Pandarathuruth which is next in line to be mined was still underway when the latest protests broke out, but this time it was against mining.

Parting With Land

Rajeev Kallummoottil, a carpenter living near the bridge connecting Alappad village to Karungapally says that the sale of his 14 cent land has been delayed as the prospective buyer’s land acquisition has not been completed by IREL.

“There are many on the island who are just waiting for the process to be completed,” he says. “They are facing problems because of these protests.” Yet, he had supported the protest because he feels, “more needs to be done to protect the island”. So had those who had submitted their property documents to IREL for acquisition.

“Every week, 10-15 people from Pandarathuruth still come enquiring about why there is delay in acquisition,” says a senior IREL employee on condition of anonymity. He is not authorised to interact with the media.

“What do we say? First they went and gave their land documents to IREL pressing them to buy their land, now they are protesting against mining,” opines a woman married into an Alappad family who refused to be named.

In her thirties and working in one of the temple Karayogam offices on the island, she fears cyber-attacks by supporters of the ongoing protest, a fear echoed by many other residents. Asked why then are these people supporting the protests, she breaks into a chuckle and says - “To get more money for their land.”

Her colleague, in her twenties, born and married in the island adds - “No one we know of had given their land unhappily.”

What about those displaced? “They all were compensated well. My aunt still complains about how her land acquisition has been delayed. She is happy to give,” she smiles.

When asked about the eagerness to part with land, a 48 year old islander who refused to be named said - “There was no drinking water. There were no roads, no facilities back then. People were happy and eager to dispose of their lands,” he says referring to Vellanathuruth and its surroundings.

“Even now wells turn brackish every year. The delay in acquisition is thus an irritant for those in line to be acquired.”

The protests against mining though originated in parts of the island which were not under acquisition.

Asked about delays in acquisition, IREL officials explains that IREL needs a plot of at least 20 acres to start inland surface mining by dredging pits 6-10 metres deep, a process wrongly referred to by villagers as deep mining.

“Often there are always a few who do not want their land to be acquired and keep negotiating for better rates. This causes delay as even if there is one house left out, we need to maintain facilities like water connections, electric posts, and roads which lead to a lot of mining around the plots which are yet to be acquired. We also need to leave a safety area around the structures to avoid caving in,” he said.

“Sometimes the unwilling few are forced to hand land over to the company once all their neighbours leave,” says Sudhi SC, a 48 year old resident of Alappad.

This is a point stressed by protesters as proof of the disruptive effect of mining in Alappad. But it is not as black and white as the protesters insist it is.

“A good majority of those in line to be acquired in Pandarathuruth, for instance, prefer acquisition, albeit with better compensation. Only a few don’t,” he adds.

“If someone doesn’t want to part with their land, we don’t force them. We are a government undertaking,” insist IREL officials.

Earlier, when IREL had acquired the land in Vellanathuruth, a few families refused and continued living in the area. They continue to remain there.

Confused Stands & Lok Sabha Polls

The Samidhi is split as to the way forward. “Some talked about boycotting the elections, some said NOTA but we can’t take such a stand because of the nature of people here,” says K Chandradas, chairman of the anti-beach sand mining Samara Samidhi.

“People here are obsessed with political parties. Everyone has their own ideologies and supports their parties. Even within the Samara Samidhi, people have diverse thoughts when it comes to politics,” he adds. “Even they don’t want to stay away from electoral politics as they are also in public life. So we have asked them to vote as per their own conscience”.

“We can make announcements like boycotting elections or putting up a rebel candidate and the media would be all over us. But, after the elections, they will trample us using the same results. The total population of our village is near 25,000. We know our limitations. We all know what happened to Irom Sharmila, don’t we?” he asks.

The analogy is jarring – Sharmila’s fight was based on truths. Alappad’s battle appears to be built with steroids on a bicycle.

While Alappad lies within Kollam district for all administrative classifications, it falls under Alappuzha constituency in the Parliamentary elections. When asked about what she wanted from the elections, Rajamma Kuttimoottil, 55, says - “We want the sea walls to be strengthened and top-up applied.”

Top-up is a process wherein rocks are refilled on the sea walls to compensate for the portions which grind itself under continuous wave action. “And we want more groynes. Also, sea walls should be built using big concrete dykes like has been done in Kollam.”

Asked about whether she expects the candidates to do these, she says, “They will promise all this before elections, but after the elections they won’t do anything.”

IREL has promised, as a protective measure in its mining area, to build four groynes of considerable length designed by IIT Madras at a cost of Rs 6 crore. Work on two groynes is being executed by the Irrigation Department of Kerala but this has been slowed due to the “ban on quarrying” in force.

Quarrying has been banned in areas owing to protests from people who hold them responsible for loosening slopes leading to landslides.

In Alappad, villagers protesting mining await more stones to arrive.

The elections mean different things to different parts of this small island itself.

At the northern end of the island, in Kazhuganthuruth, a small hamlet within Alappad, by the roadside, below the election paraphernalia hangs a large poster which reads - “People of Kazhuganthuruth boycott the elections to protest the problem of drinking water shortage.”

Residents of Kazhuganthuruth announce their boycott of elections against non-availability of drinking water. It is located farthest from the mining area.
Residents of Kazhuganthuruth announce their boycott of elections against non-availability of drinking water. It is located farthest from the mining area.
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph

“Parliamentary election is not where we can show our strength. Upcoming legislative elections as well as the panchayat elections are where we can show our strength,” the protesters insist.

What exactly the protesters against mining stand for is very hazy as sometimes the talks heads towards caste-based consolidation and at other times towards protecting their way of living and livelihood and at others to the longing to die in the land of their birth - all this depends on who and when one talks to.

Each person has a different understanding of what the protests are for. “We are not against national interests. But what about us?” the chairman of the Samara Samidhi asks sometimes.

“The land they live in belongs to them but the mineral wealth underneath is the state’s,” say IREL officials. As for the people and their rights - “We are doing our best to make the dealings as democratic and respectful as they can be.”

Even if one gives the government the benefit of doubt, in Alappad, people have voiced their fears that mining was responsible for sea erosion in their village. This is a question which has to be settled sustainably even if the campaign is on doubtful grounds and testimonies seem bolstered only by repetition.

The months of June, July and August are known to be when the seas are particularly rough.

Storm surges lash inward, over the sea walls which are in dire need of repairs, splashing sea water into the houses located near the shore leveling walls, polluting wells and causing problems to those living on the western side of the newly laid road. Many families live in fear that come monsoon, they will face the wrath of the sea.

Waves lash on to the slumping sea walls. Come monsoon these waves would go higher and further.
Waves lash on to the slumping sea walls. Come monsoon these waves would go higher and further.
Pic credit: Jeff Joseph 

When asked what went wrong IREL officials are clueless. “Somewhere our communications with villagers got lost.”

But For What?

Finding motive is like looking for a needle in a haystack. “Maybe for private players to enter the area,” says an IREL official as he points to the ban on mining of beach sand by private entities which came into force on 20 February 2019. There is no proof to validate this accusation either.

Some villagers do concede that a few of them used to smuggle sand for private players when out of work. IREL officials attest to the presence of Q-grade (Quilon grade) minerals in Tamil Nadu as proof.

“Where did they get them from?” they ask. “And what happens to the dunes of sand that disappear in the dead of the night? There are big players involved,” they allege. Protesters in turn accuse the IREL officials of being hand in glove with private players.

IREL had been running in losses for the past few years and turned profitable only recently. Questions have also been raised about its competence to carry out mining. An Intelligence officer in the know points to the fact that “if a PSU makes losses for five continuous years, there could be a look into restructuring.” There are many private players who would wish for such a restructuring, he adds.

“It was due to internal management problems,” claims a senior IREL official. Were these problems intentional, is a question for the government to probe.

Who Is Sreekumar?

The mysterious coordinator of the protests, KC Sreekumar, is the brain behind putting Alappad on the national map.

Sreekumar has a history of environmental activism and is credited by the Janakiya Samara Samidhi members as having devised plans for the protest, for putting them in touch with environmental activists of varying hues and for bringing the media to them. The social media campaign was taken up by a younger tech savvy lot.

He was instrumental too in bringing to Alappad the likes of CR Neelakandan, noted environmental activist and now state convenor of the Aam Admi Party (under suspension since 21 April for unrelated reasons), Vilayodi Venugopal of the Plachimada protests and Rajendra Singh, the Waterman from Rajasthan, according to Samara Samidhi chairman K Chandradas.

Sreekumar has for long been part of the Theera Dhesha Samrakshana Samidhi (Coastal Area Protection Council), an action group meant to preserve the seashores.

“But we haven’t taken any material support from anyone,” Chandradas insists. The funds with which programs were organised by the group “Ende Gramam Sandhwana Theeram” is, by all accounts, “contributions from NRIs” but there is not much by way of accounting for the same.

Sreekumar himself holds no formal position within the Samidhi, but was the most widely quoted in the press and in television debates. “The articulate ones speak for the rest,” says Ayana S, a second year BSc student.

So why has Sreekumar stayed in the background?

“In the aftermath of the tsunami, during relief and rehabilitation, Sreekumar had organised protests and a highway blockade during which a travelling judge’s car was pelted with stones. This led to the arrest of a few youth. He gained a bad reputation in the village for that. But he insists he wasn’t involved in the stone pelting. It was done by someone to break the protest from within,” explains Chandradas.

In the mid-1990s a protest he was part of had ended with a policeman dying of heart attack as he was being chased by stone pelters. “They gave jobs to entice the villagers later,” Sreekumar says explaining how the protests died down then.

IREL had promised to take 30 villagers on their rolls, which later increased to 240 workers doing menial jobs over time.

For those who aren’t pacified by enticements, he says - “They arrest the young in the family of those who protest against the company.” Accusing the company of scheming to put down protests, he adds that this carrot and stick treatment is “to break it from within.”

When asked about why not many people in the village support his demands, he gets worked up and says - “You are talking to the wrong people. They are all ‘company’ people,” he claims.

Sreekumar has taken an emotional pitch to bolster the campaign for Alappad. “They ignored the fishermen of Alappad,” was his claim in September 2018, two months before the hunger protests against mining had begun; later in April, he would use the same claim at the start of the hunger protests.

In the aftermath of the 2018 floods, the Kerala government felicitated many fishermen who had worked in rescue and rehabilitation.

With nearby Karunagapally having been badly affected, the people of Alappad who had extended help, expected a share in the laurels. But government lists featured people from Kollam and Trivandrum, people who had acted after being requested by the administration to help. The suo motu caring souls of Alappad who had taken it upon themselves to help in rescue and rehabilitation work, went unrecognised.

Sreekumar seized upon this grouse. “Selective felicitation of fishermen who took part in rescue operation is an attempt to destroy the unity of Kerala fishermen,” he had said at the time.

It was a point he reiterated when explaining the slight suffered by the fishermen of Alappad at the hands of the Kerala government in the context of mining too.

The issue took on a communal colour as the more organised Christian fishermen were seen to be pandered to by the government as opposed to the Hindu fishermen who did not stand on one platform.

In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami too, similar communal tensions arose when BJP leader Kummanam Rajashekharan, now the Thiruvananthapuram candidate for the BJP, alleged that the relief work by Christian organisations in the northern parts of the island would be used as a vehicle to converting Hindus.

Sreekumar, despite not openly speaking of religion, is definitely alluding to it.

As for the sand mining in Alappad and land loss estimates were concerned, as early as in 2013 when KC Sreekumar was featured as one of the leaders of isolated movements in India by countercurrents.org, there were estimates available.

The article mentions a report submitted after study by the Cochin University, upon direction by the Kerala High Court in response to an RTI filed by a retired government servant Bhagvan Singh.

The study, the article says, had found that 18 acres had been lost in Vellanathuruth in Alappad where sand mining was going on. This was much in line with village officer Abdul Salam’s estimates.

By all counts KC Sreekumar was aware of the extent of land loss. Hyperbole, it appears, was a tool to sensationalise and bring attention to an ‘isolated protest’.

What Next For Alappad?

The protesters now prepare to launch themselves politically in the coming days. Opinion surveys and door to door campaigns are being silently undertaken to increase their support. A political battle awaits somewhere in the future. But it will be an uphill task, for many villagers don’t see the necessity of these protests.

What they want, by and large, is added protection for the seawalls, more groynes for beach building, a higher and speedier compensation system from IREL and time-bound handing over of the lands once mined.

In Alappad, there are lessons for all. For the online warriors - investigate, research and know what you support. It is easy to be led astray by false flags.

For the state and IREL it is time perhaps to rethink as to how it communicates and connects with the affected communities. To allay fears, do the necessary and regain trust, dialogue needs to be flexible and accommodating.

For the villagers, awareness on how they could be swayed and swindled - a whole state was fooled once in the name of a dam.

“There are some in the village who will only settle with the end of IREL,” says a villager when asked about the brain behind the brouhaha.

The villagers continue to live in fear. The protest camp lay deserted. There are no plans for the 180th day, says the chairman.

A peripheral protest group perennially protesting against mining being undertaken by IREL has used all tools within its reach to work up a village and a state in mass hysteria.