Kerala construction boom threatens ancient Catholic shrine

Proliferation of rock quarries could inadvertently pose a danger to Indian pilgrimage site
Kerala construction boom threatens ancient Catholic shrine

Locals say that many owners of the quarry operations that could threaten the ancient shrine are themselves Catholic (Credit: ucanews.com)

ucanews.com reporter, Kochi
India
November 3, 2014
The booming sounds of blasting echo around the serene hill of Kurisumudi. According to tradition, St Thomas the Apostle prayed here during his early evangelization mission to India. But these days, trucks now rumble through, carrying loads of rock along the hilly paths the apostle is thought to have treaded.

The hills of Malayattoor, which include Kurisumudi, have now become an industrial belt, housing more than 150 rock quarries that threaten the surrounding villages and an ancient shrine dedicated to the apostle.

The quarries sit near the St Thomas International Shrine, which attracts some five million pilgrims each year. The shrine’s rector fears it may soon collapse if the quarrying continues.

“The destructive operations threaten to destabilize the shrine,” said Fr Xavier Thelakat. “… We have been fighting against the powerful quarry owners for the past four years.”

This budding friction between the modern and the spiritual is merely representative of larger trends throughout the area.

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Kerala, a densely populated state of 30 million people, has been home to a construction boom, fueled in part by foreign remittances sent home by an estimated three million migrant workers. Soaring population growth and a buoyant business environment have sparked a surge in housing and business developments, ensuring a constant demand for building materials.

Data from the state’s Mining and Geology Department shows that Kerala has 2,437 licensed quarries. Almost one-third of them are found in Ernakulam district, Kerala’s financial nerve center, where the shrine sits. Locals say there are many more quarries operating outside the boundaries of the law.

“Look at the trucks plying the roads,” said Francis Njalian, a resident who has been protesting the quarries. “It tells the story of illegal mining going on here.”

Njalian, who is the secretary of a local village’s protection council, said the government should not be able to issue mining licenses near the heart of an area he calls “ecologically fragile”. Yet he says there are 13 active quarries within a three-kilometer radius of the shrine.

Njalian contends that the quarries pollute the environment, including village water sources, and they trigger landslides that threaten households and farmland. Despite these problems, critics like Njalian and Thelakat say a powerful lobby — they call it a “quarry mafia” — has allowed the operations to continue.

Njalian, 50, said he has been beaten up and threatened three times for his attempts to expose illegal quarrying. And the threats aren’t just physical. Njalian said quarry owners often take their critics to court, filing criminal and civil cases in an attempt to silence and intimidate opponents.

His wife, Christine, said the family lives under constant threat.

“My husband is not a thief or a criminal but he was charged with 13 criminal cases,” she said. “We have lost our peace of mind after we started living here.”

Ironically, the quarrying operations that may threaten the ancient shrine are run by businessmen who are themselves Catholic, says John Peruvanthanam, an environmental activist.

“They don’t care if Kurisumudi is an international pilgrim center,” he said. “For them, it’s easy money and they get protection from the government.”

Just seven kilometers away in neighboring Thattupara village, 400 families have staged a sit-in demonstration for the past five months. Taking turns, some 50 people sit from dawn to dusk in front of a mining company office.

“We are poor people sitting here demanding action against the quarry mafia,” said CC Benny, convener of a local village council’s anti-quarrying committee.

“The government is with them and the officials are with them. We are doomed to perish.”

“Literally, our sleep was destroyed after the quarrying started here,” said Saji Pavithran, another protester. “The blasts, the trucks and the dust make our life unbearable.”

The ongoing protests earned state-level attention after VS Achuthanandan, leader of Kerala’s political opposition party, visited and offered his support.

“The quarry operations in the Malayattoor villages are illegal, violating the norms and rules. It has to be stopped,” he told ucanews.com. “But the quarry mafia was allowed a free hand because of corruption in the government.”

However, one local operator says the criticisms are off base. Joemon Joseph says quarrying operations are carried out only under licenses permitted by the government.

“We have licenses for mining and [we are] doing our operations legally,” said Joseph, who is also secretary of an association of quarry owners in the area. Critics, he says, “are making wild allegations against our industry”.

James Varghese is a state official responsible for regulating local village councils. He says the quarry miners are taking advantage of “loopholes” in the bureaucratic system and that is causing problems. But he says officials will address the issues.

“Age-old systems govern mining operations in Kerala,” he said. “With new blasting technology, there is no effective monitoring. Now, the government is planning for a series of amendments to restrict mining.”

But revamped efforts to regulate the industry won’t come soon enough for affected residents. Thelakat, the shrine’s rector, is skeptical.

“The quarry owners are very powerful and money-rich,” he said. “They use mafia and police to silence our protests. We have already spent more than one million rupees to fight cases in various courts.”

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