A lone woman’s fight against sand mining

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Mother courage Jazeera V with her three children at the protest site near Jantar Mantar
Mother courage Jazeera V with her three children at the protest site near Jantar Mantar Photo: Ankit Agrawal

It’s 10 am and Jazeera V, a tall, burqa- clad woman, is having breakfast with her three children near Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. A 31-year-old autorickshaw driver, she has come all the way from Kerala to raise her voice against illegal sand mining on the beach near her village, Puthiyangadi, 30 km from the district headquarters of Kannur. She had seen how the rampant sand mining was causing erosion of the beach.

Sitting on a pavement in front of Kerala House, she has turned the little patch into her personal zone of dissent. She asks this reporter to wait until she finishes some daily chores: sweeping the spot where she has been doing a sit-in since 6 October, fetching water and helping her youngest child, 18-month-old Mohammad, have a bath.

Jazeera was born in a conservative family. “I was not allowed to play or read story books,” she recalls. Not one to be cowed down easily even as a child, Jazeera resisted this discrimination by going outdoors to play, just like the boys. But her family stopped sending her to school when she turned 14, and three years later, in 1999, forced her to get married.

However, three days after the wedding, she realised she could not imagine a life together with her husband. “He used to get drunk and have extra-marital affairs,” she says. “When I protested, my brothers thrashed me and locked me up in the house.” They insisted that she must protect the family’s “honour”. She said her husband, too, must fulfil his responsibilities towards her. Finally, in 2004, she shifted to Ernakulam with her elder daughter Rizwana, leaving her younger daughter Shifana with her mother.

At Ernakulam, she worked first as a domestic help and then as a saleswoman for a publishing house. Despite her family’s repeated attempts to make her return to her husband, she remained firm that that she wanted a divorce.

Later, Jazeera broke another gender barrier when she learnt to drive an autorickshaw in Kannur and bought one with financial assistance through the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana. She moved to Kottayam and started working there as an autorickshaw driver. In 2011, she married Abdul Salam, a teacher at a local madrassa.

“It was in December 2011 that I first noticed the erosion of the beach near my village due to illegal sand mining that had been going on for at least four years,” she recalls. “I was expecting my third child and had come to visit my mother in Puthiyangadi.” She was shocked to learn that one of her brothers was also involved in the illegal mining. “I was pained by the damage being done to the coast. I was born there, so I took it personally,” she says. She told her brother that she would complain to the police if he didn’t end his involvement with the sand mafia. The threat worked. This was Jazeera’s first victory in what would turn out to be a long struggle.

Initially, Jazeera was the only one in her village to stand up against sand mining. The other villagers were not keen to join her as the illegal mining provided them with a source of livelihood. Moreover, several powerful people were allegedly part of the sand mafia.

Jazeera decided to carry on her struggle alone. She lodged a complaint with the local police and provided them photographs of the mining activities as evidence. No wonder the sand mafia saw her as a threat and attacked Jazeera and her children, not once but thrice.

Following her protest, the Kannur district administration set up a checkpost on a 1½ km stretch of the Neerozhukkumchal beach in the immediate vicinity of her house. That was not enough to stop the illegal digging as this was a stretch that had already been mined so intensely that there was little sand left. The mining was continuing unabated elsewhere on the beach. When Jazeera confronted the guard posted at the checkpost, he said he couldn’t do anything about what happens in other parts of the beach.

Convinced that the district administration did not really intend to stop the illegal mining, Jazeera took her fight to the state capital Thiruvananthapuram on 2 August this year, and sat in protest outside the state secretariat. On the third day of her sit-in, CM Oommen Chandy invited her for a discussion but refused to give any written assurance on steps to be taken to stop the illegal mining.

Jazeera decided to continue her protest. An NGO was allegedly roped in to take her children away from her in the name of “rescuing” them. A determined Jazeera somehow managed to thwart that attempt. Even as she is completely immersed in the struggle, she says she is taking “proper care” of her children and “they are not begging on the streets”. This reporter saw Elizabeth Philip, a documentary filmmaker, teach Jazeera’s children at the protest site in New Delhi.

“We know how much our mother cares for the beach,” chips in Rizwana, Jazeera’s 12-year-old daughter. “That’s why we are also protesting with her.”

After 64 days of the sit-in protest at Thiruvananthapuram, Jazeera took her fight to New Delhi. Several human rights organisations have come out in her support. Following media reports, on 10 October, the statutory apex human rights body, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), issued notices to the Kerala government and the Kannur district administration. In its reply to the NHRC, the district administration claimed there was no sand mining on the Neerozhukkumchal beach. However, Jazeera has been demanding an end to illegal sand mining on the entire coastline of Kerala, not just that one beach.

The state revenue department also replied to the NHRC citing the action taken under the Kerala Protection of River Banks and Regulation of Removal of Sand Act, 2001. On 18 November, the rights body observed that this law didn’t apply to the seashores and reprimanded the department for not stating if any steps were taken to stop illegal sand mining along the coastline.

In October, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to Chandy in support of Jazeera’s demands, but the CM is yet to reply. Social activist Medha Patkar also wrote to Chandy, reminding him of recent judgments of the Supreme Court and directives of the National Green Tribunal.

Though leaders of some political parties have shown their support for Jazeera’s cause, no party has taken a public stand yet on the issue. “Our state secretary visited her to show solidarity,” says CPI leader Annie Raja, who is also the general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women. “Unfortunately, Jazeera is fighting alone but it is not as if we don’t care for her cause.”

F Faizi, an ecologist with the Convention for Bio-Diversity Alliance, says that sand mining is happening on a large scale in Kannur, Alappuzha, Kollam and parts of Thiruvananthapuram. Though Jazeera’s agitation has ensured that the extent of mining is somewhat reduced at the moment, the mining mafia’s clout leaves no room for complacence. Currently, Jazeera is mulling over filing a public interest petition on the issue.

While this reporter was leaving Jantar Mantar, Jazeera was talking to a family who had come to show their support. Perhaps, people like these are Jazeera’s greatest strength.

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