Quarries are forever
It was a remarkable coincidence.
On October 7th, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision that went largely unnoticed. For, it came exactly when the deep depression in the Arabian Sea was intensifying into a devastating cyclonic storm to wreak rain havoc in Kerala.
The judgment upheld the right of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to take suo motu cognizance on the basis of letters, representations, or media reports. What connects the judgment and the havoc? Granite quarries, the recurrently exploding time bombs we planted inside the womb of our mother earth.
The three-member bench consisting of Justices A.M. Khanvilkar, Hrishikesh Roy, and C.T. Ravikumar, the recently appointed judge from Kerala, has helped Kerala breathe a little with ease. The verdict was passed adjudicating upon two cases. One, an appeal filed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai against an order of the NGT on waste disposal passed on the basis of an online article. The second was a batch of appeals against an NGT order passed suo motu by NGT's Principal Bench on the basis of a representation against the reduction of the minimum distance for quarries from residential buildings in Kerala. The letter was sent by residents of Muthalamada in Palakkad to the Prime Minister with a copy to NGT complaining about a local quarry. The apex court upheld NGT's stipulation that quarries should maintain a distance of 200 Meters from residential buildings. The court dismissed objections from top lawyers like its amicus curiae Anand Grover, Mukul Rohatgi, Dushyant Dave, V.Giri, etc against the NGT's right of suo motu. The court's order could lead to closing down thousands of stone quarries, ravaging Kerala for long.
The prime reason for the unprecedented successive win of the Left Democratic Front in May's assembly polls was the way its government had led the fight against the two pandemics and the two devastating floods. Although there is largely a consensus on the government's admirable efforts taken during the disasters, there are serious complaints about its subsequent performance. They include the steps to rebuild the ravaged state, relief delivery, conception, and execution of various institutional measures that would help prevent and warn about future disasters. Reasons for the lapses could be many including financial constraints, central government's apathy, bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of vision and sincerity of purpose, corruption etc.
There could be two sides to most complaints against the government. But there is one thing for which there is unassailable evidence. The government's open, crude, and criminal collaboration with the quarrying lobby. The spirited and sustained efforts by both the last and the present governments to help the quarry industry in the name of helping the construction sector, are simply shocking.
Before we get into that sordid story, here is a snapshot of the eerie world of quarries in Kerala. There are a whopping 5924 stone quarries in Kerala, of which most are illegal. Most function in forest areas or regions categorized as Ecologically Sensitive. Blasting the womb of Western Ghats -older than the Himalayas and one of the world's eight hot spots of biodiversity- these quarries occupy more than 7000 hectares. And as many as 223 quarries were issued permits within just one year after the 2018 floods! Kavalappara in Malappuram which witnessed the worst toll -46- in the 2019's landslide had 20 quarries within the 10 km radius. This prompted the government to impose a blanket ban on mining only to be repealed within days. Koottikkal in Kottayam, which faced the worst landslip this time killing 10 persons too, had mining in the region which the State Biodiversity Board had recommended to the government to stop as early as 2013.
The twists and turns in the history of the above-mentioned case amply prove the previous and present LDF governments' culpability. Though the UDF too could be blamed for helping the quarrying lobby when it was in power, its role looks far less toxic compared to the LDF's. Interestingly, the UDF now looks less guilty mainly on account of the enforced course corrections by the last Oommen Chandy government affected by the then KPCC President V M Sudheeran and also its 'Green MLAs' led by V D Satheeshan. However, the 'disciplined' LDF and the iron-fisted CPI(M) which do not permit any dissent (read democratic opinion) sadly ensure that their every wrong decision goes unchallenged.
The last Chandy government's first move in 2015 was to exempt smaller quarries up to 1 hectare from the need to secure environment clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This was struck down by Kerala High Court (Justice Vinod Chandran) as a gross violation of the 2012 Supreme court order which upheld the rule that all mining operations in areas under 5 hectares should secure the ministry's clearance. Later the government issued licenses to 17 new quarries and even decided to allow quarrying in assigned laws including forest areas. But this was stalled after opposition from Sudheeran and Satheesan who were President and Vice President of KPCC respectively.
The Chandy government deserved credit for amending the Kerala Minor Mineral Concessions Rules (KMMCR) to double the stipulated distance of a quarry from residential buildings, roads, etc from 50 meters to 100 meters. This forced hundreds of quarries to close down.
Severely tainted by umpteen scams, the Chandy government was voted out of power in 2016 and LDF took over promising to clean up all the misdeeds of UDF. Yet, right from the beginning, the Pinarayi government showed no qualms to openly support the quarrying lobby much more than UDF. Within a year after its coming to power, the LDF government amended the KMMCR again and restored the distance limit to 50 Meters again to help the quarrying industry, making way for thousands of closed quarries to come back. The justification was a report from the Industries department saying that the closure of quarries caused an acute shortage of granite, throwing the construction industry and the economy into a crisis. The State Pollution Control Board also meekly endorsed the decision.
The Supreme court's October 7th order was the culmination of the long legal war sparked by this decision. The government decision was slammed by the Comptroller and Auditor General who said in most states the distance limit was 200-300 meters. But the government's move got the first hit with a memorandum sent by the residents of Muthalamada in Palakkad to the Prime Minister with a copy to NGT, complaining that the new distance rule had made their lives miserable with the reopening of a quarry. It was based on this complaint that NGT took suo motu case and ordered in July 2020 that every quarry while blasting should maintain a distance of 200 meters and while not blasting should keep 100 meters from residential buildings.
But within a month, the quarry owners and the state government jointly fought the NGT direction in the state High Court which ordered an interim injunction. But Justice Alexander Thomas said only existing quarries would be exempted from the NGT order and new operators should go by the distance stipulation. The High Court gave the final order quashing (Justice PB Suresh Kumar) the NGT directive in December.
But soon the government moved to circumvent the High Court's limited restrictions too by extending all the licenses of the quarries by one more year making it unnecessary to seek new permits!
Environmentalists and the residents, distraught by local quarries, then took the case with the Supreme Court. In August they received a breather while the apex court stayed the High court's injunction against the NGT directive regarding distance. Quarry owners and the government decided to fight the Supreme court order saying NGT was not vested with suo motu powers. The hearing on this case began in early September which has now ended in the latest order upholding NGT's so motu powers.
Now, here is yet another shocker. The Pinarayi government has now prepared an ordinance to amend Kerala Land Assignment Rules (1964) to allow quarrying even in assigned lands including forests, a move began but was shelved by the UDF government! Disasters are never to end in God's Own Country.