One woman’s fight against the sand mining mafia in her hometown in Kerala to save the beach she grew up on.
Originally from the Madayi Gram Panchayat in the Kannur district of Kerala, Jazeera has been living on the streets of Delhi since October this year. She, accompanied by her three children – 12-year-old Rizwana, 9-year-old Shifana, and one-and-half-year old Mohammad – has settled on the pavement outside the Kerala House on the Jantar Mantar Road in Central Delhi.
Their make-shift home is a tent made of old, thick blankets. Inside, they have a cot on which Jazeera and her children take turns to sleep. One has to be extra cautious when living without a door. A travel bag is dragged in and out from beneath the cot for fresh clothes. The dirtier ones are tossed on a plastic chair outside the tent, adding to the pile of dirty clothes on it. Three more chairs along with a tiny plastic chair are lined outside the tent for sitting. The clothesline, tied from tree to tree, has a few clothes hung on it for drying. Rizwana, after sweeping the pavement near the tent, rides a brand-new cycle on the road, away from the traffic. Shifana fetches water in two buckets from a water tank at a distance, while Jazeera prepares food. This is how a normal day passes for Jazeera and her children.
This way of life is borne out of a larger cause that Jazeera is fighting. The 31-year-old auto-rickshaw driver is protesting the rampant exploitation of the seashores of the Neerozhukkumchal beach in Kannur because of illegal sand mining by the local sand mafia.
Jazeera lived with her husband in the district of Kottayam, but when she was pregnant with her third child, she came over to her hometown to live with her mother. During that time she found out about illegal sand mining in the area when she saw several trucks loading sand everyday.
“We were the first people to come to the shore and live. My family came here before I was born,” Jazeera says. “I felt a sense of loss because I have loved it [the sea].”
Environmental organizations have said that illegal sand mining is rampant in the southern state, and rare minerals such as Ilmenite and Thorium are excavated and smuggled to neighbouring Tamil Nadu from where these are exported, thus, creating a scarcity of these minerals. This scarcity leads India to import these minerals from outside to fulfill its raw material needs for development and defence purposes. Also, Illegal sand mining in most areas has been on the increase due to the demands from the real estate and construction sectors.
After Jazeera found out about illegal sand mining on the beach, she approached some school teachers amongst other people who were in a position to debate matters of concern before the panchayat. However, everyone discouraged Jazeera, telling her that taking a stand against the issue could get their windowpanes broken or worse, harm their children. Even as she had people agreeing to her on illegal sand mining affecting the sea and putting human lives in danger, and on it ruining the landscape, she failed to make people take action.
When she didn't receive any support, she decided to take a stand on her own. Her first task was to withdraw her brother who, like several young local men, depended on illegal sand mining for his livelihood. After she made her brother quit, she called up the police whenever the trucks came to load sand. The police would ask her to provide them the vehicle numbers, but before they would arrive on the beach, the trucks would have long left. This made Jazeera suspect police-sand mafia nexus. So now she confronted the miners herself. Her first victory came when she sat in protest in front of the trucks to block their path, leading the miners to unload the truck and dump the sand back on the seashore. The illegal sand mining stopped for a while, but later women from the Schedule Caste were hired to load the sand onto the trucks. When Jazeera opposed them, the women would beat her.
“Many women dumped the sand in a place, and later during the night men would take them away. It is like selling our own land,” Jazeera says. “It happened in front of my eyes. Therefore, I opposed it. Otherwise, I would have overlooked it because the villagers are most dear to me. But I saw a mafia behind it [mining]. That is my reason to stop them [villagers].”
Jazeera was beaten up every time she protested. The Additional District Magistrate of her area asked her brothers to get a letter from Jazeera’s mother stating that Jazeera was insane and needed treatment. “If in Kerala, people speaking the truth are branded insane, then Jazeera is insane. If showing courage is terrorism, then Jazeera is a terrorist. If truth is victorious, then I only want victory,” Jazeera says.
Jazeera protested outside the Payangadi police station where the Tehsildar (revenue administrative officer) assured her that strict actions would be taken. But nothing changed. She then sat outside the Kannur Collector’s office, demanding a check-post on the beach. After public support swelled up, a check-post was sanctioned on the ninth day of her protest. The police were ineffective in curbing the illegal mining as they patrolled only outside her house.
When she went to the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, she found out that illegal sand mining was never checked because politicians had a stake in it. Her protest outside the Secretariat lasted for 64 days, but it did not affect illegal sand mining in any way.
Jazeera saw the need for a political action on the issue, and to her, Delhi seemed like a place where issues like these could garner larger support, and people at the helm of affairs could be moved to take action. But coming to Delhi was a tough decision. Although she wanted to spread her message against illegal sand mining, language was a hurdle. Besides, she was told that life in Delhi was tough.
Jazeera says that her occupation as an auto-rickshaw driver with little formal education has limited her understanding and knowledge of certain things. For instance, it was only when environmental activists approached her while she sat outside the Payangadi police station that she found out what she was doing is called ‘protest’ and what she was fighting for is termed ‘environment’. “When I used to read in newspapers about people hugging trees when they were axed, I used to laugh. I thought ‘Don’t they have any other work?’ I never realized the importance of trees. Now I understand the feelings of the people who cry when a tree is axed.”
On October 6 this year, Jazeera came to Delhi with her children on a train. Since then she had been living on the pavement outside the Kerala House demanding implementation of appropriate laws and curbing illegal sand mining. On November 18, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) sent a notice to the Kerala government seeking an explanation on the administrative and legislative actions taken by the government to prevent illegal sand mining on the shorelines of Kerala. The NHRC notice also seeks an explanation from Kerala Revenue Minister Adoor Prakash who accused Jazeera of having terrorist links.
However, by and large, the issue is at a standstill. Until the administration in Kerala takes concrete action against illegal sand mining, the pavement outside the Kerala House will continue to be Jazeera’s home. “Once a decision is made, then there is no backing out. I am not going to withdraw.”
Special thanks to K. Rajesh for translating Malayalam into English, and to G. Mamatha for dubbing in English for the video.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick