P athanamthitta, the land of Lord Ayyappan, is a scenic district in Kerala, known for its rocky hill ranges. The district is also infamous for its stone quarrying activities. Many illegal quarries continue to operate in this region, resulting in machines mowing down these hills, one day at a time.
This indiscriminate quarrying has led to a series of agitations across the district – especially in areas like Konni, Athirungal etc.
One man has been at the forefront of this agitation. Meet 80-year-old manual labourer Natarajan, fondly known as Achan (father), who has found the most unique way to protest against this large-scale quarry mining. As quarry owners continue to accumulate more land in the region, Natarajan, in a bid to protect the environment, has distributed 50 cents of his land to poor families. Here’s a discussion with this ordinary man who has done an extraordinary thing.
Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself?
A: I’ve been living in this hillock in Konni for the last 45 years. I’ve been a manual labourer all my life. My wife and I live in a small tin shed here. I don’t have any savings. Over the years, I’ve managed to buy one-and-a-half acres of land here. The rest of the money I had was spent on marrying off my two daughters.
Q: How has life changed in all these years?
A: Actually, I can’t even remember a time when this used to be a quiet area. Granite quarries and stone-crusher units have mushroomed all over the district. According to government records, only around 169 quarry licenses have been issued. But the truth is that over 800 quarries operate in this district.
Q: What problems have you directly faced from them?
A: See, my house is very close to the biggest granite crusher here. So naturally, as they expand their operations, they wanted to buy my land as well. Because this is a remote area, away from the town, we don’t have access to water. Even today, my wife Kalammma needs to walk a lot to fetch drinking water. So some people advised me to sell off my land and then go live in a better place with access to water and electricity. However, the quarry owners, who were eyeing my land, did not quote a fair price. They also threatened me with goondas and were forcing me to part with my land, for a paltry sum.
Q: How did you tackle this problem?
A: I revisited my decision to sell. I didn’t want to succumb to pressure and also harm the environment. So, I distributed 50 cents of my land among 10 poor families. They have now constructed huts and have started living here. This is the part of my land that is closest to the quarry. I think that if more people are living in this area, it will be more difficult for them to find ways to make us leave.
Q: What if these families come under pressure from the quarry mafia and are forced to sell?
A: Though I have made the title deeds, I haven’t distributed it among these families as yet. What if these people (goondas) forcefully snatch it away from them? And to ensure that the land doesn’t end up in the wrong hands, I have made a clause which says that the land can be transferred to another person only after 70 years. I believe by doing this I have protected these 50 cents of land.
Q: What has been their (quarry owners) reaction?
A: They think I have gone crazy, distributing the land for free. They have also tried to intimidate me by sending theirgoondas a couple of times. But, I don’t fear them. Neither does my wife.
Q: Do the people in the region support you?
A: See, initially a lot of people stood up against the quarry mafia. There are plenty of health problems among the people, especially respiratory troubles, as a lot of dust comes from the quarries. Water is getting polluted and there is always a lot of noise going on. People cannot live in peace. However, fewer people complain now. I hear that these guys are going around bribing people with money, rice etc. So if ever a problem happens, I can’t be sure how many people will stand by me. Even the authorities in this area turn a deaf ear towards our problems. I’m sure these officials are in connivance with the quarry owners.
Q: Do you foresee things getting better in the future?
A: I doubt things will get better for the people living in these areas. I just hope the identity of this district (hills) isn’t compromised due to this mad fascination we have with development. In all these years there is one thing that I’ve learnt and it is that this world only belongs to the rich. There is no place for the poor here and there is certainly no justice for people like us.
All photos: Shameem Kunnumathige