Daughter of the sea

Published: Fri, 11/22/2013 - 07:59 Updated: Sun, 02/02/2014 - 20:33

A dogged, solitary woman takes on the powerful sand mafia in Kerala

Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi 

On October 7, 2013, outside Kerala Bhawan, Jantar Mantar, Delhi, a curious crowd had formed around a dark, lanky woman, and her three kids. As she narrated her story in fluent Malayalam, her well-wishers translated it for the audience, many of them mediapersons. Jazeera V, a 31-year-old activist from Kerala, has been protesting in the capital since October 6, 2013, against illegal sand mining on the coastline in Kerala.

“Natural resources are not only for us, but also for our future generations,” she explains, breastfeeding her son. “The beach which used to be the size of a football field has been reduced to a footpath. New buildings have proliferated along the coastline. All kinds of constructions are coming up.” she said. Jazeera’s campaign against the sand mafia in Kerala is as old as her little son — 18 months.

Born in a conservative Muslim family in Kannur district of Kerala, Jazeera is the daughter of a merchant father and a housewife mother. After her father’s death, Jazeera was allowed to study till Class X; her elder brothers arranged her marriage against her wishes. Jazeera, then 16, was married off.

Like any other young girl, she too had dreams. She was a topper in her class and was a favourite among her schoolteachers. Marrying so early was not a happy experience. Soon she realized her husband was a drunkard and a womanizer. The marriage broke up. By that time Jazeera had given birth to two girls, Rizwana, 12, and Shifana, 10, who sat on the new plywood board fixed on the bright blue tarpaulin at Jantar Mantar, busy sorting the newspaper clippings featuring their mother. She came back to her mother’s house where her brothers made her life hell. “They used to beat me up. They would say it was not good for a girl to stay at her parents’ house after marriage,” she said. Jazeera said her brothers even tried to kill her with a rope.

After six years of daily suffering, Jazeera decided to leave Kannur for Ernakulam. She worked there as a maid for two years before moving to Kottayam where she became a bookseller. She later returned to her hometown in Kannur, and learnt driving, getting inspired by another woman driver. Securing a driving licence, she bought an auto rickshaw in 2006 with a loan under the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana project.

Things were still hard. Seeing a woman in a hijab, driving an auto was unacceptable for the conservative men around. The male auto drivers conspired against her. With the help of the local police, they tried their best to stop her. This enraged Jazeera; she fought back and continued to drive.

Later, she went back to Kottayam and started driving an autorickshaw there. She met Abdul Salam, a local madrassa teacher, who proposed marriage. They got married in 2011. “He was impressed by my individuality and freedom and asked me to continue with my work,” said Jazeera. She became pregnant and moved back to Kannur. It was here that her fight against the sand mining mafia began.

 There was a nexus between the police and builders. They used to ask me the vehicle number, and then they used to tell that particular vehicle to leave before arriving on the scene,” she says

Since sand from the rivers was not enough, the builders had started using sand from the coastline. “They employed local people, also migrants from Odisha, Bihar and Tamil Nadu,” she said. The authorities, Jazeera said, knew about the mining but did not stop it. Sand, used for making art objects during weddings, was slowly disappearing, and so was the distance between her house and the sea. And this was not confined to her area but was rampant in other parts of Kerala too; she pledged to fight against it.

“My battle is not confined to saving the strip of land outside my home, but to preserve the fragile coastline which is under threat,” she said. But the struggle had to start from her home — her two elder brothers were engaged in sand mining work, like many locals. They did not stop until Jazeera took to the streets to protest. She kept going to the shore, taking pictures of the vehicles ferrying sand and handing them to the police.

“There was a nexus between the police and builders. They used to ask me the vehicle number, and then they used to tell that particular vehicle to leave before arriving on the scene,” she says. Almost always alone, she refused to give up. She tried to block the trucks loaded with sand by sitting in front of them in protest, forcing them to stop or go back. She was threatened and assaulted; they once pushed her head in a heap of sand. Her house was damaged and her mobile snatched away.

She began a sit-in agitation in front of the police station at Puthiyangadi, demanding action against her assaulters, instead of going to the hospital. With an injured woman protesting, the police was forced to take action.

This gave her an impetus; she felt her voice could be heard. Demanding stern action against the sand mafia, she launched a sit-in protest outside the police station for a week. Several environmentalists and human rights activists joined in solidarity. The district collector assured her of “stern” action.

She went back home, but nothing changed. To remind him of his promise, Jazeera went to the district collector’s office. The officials abused her. Jazeera had no choice but to protest outside the collector’s office. After nine days of protest, the district authorities agreed to set up a police post in the area. “The policemen deployed were openly supporting the sand mafia,” said Jazeera. Feeling cheated, she, along with her three kids, boarded a train to Thiruvananthapuram to protest in front of the secretariat. Three days later, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy called her for talks and promised to look into the matter. When she asked for a written promise, the chief minister refused. She continued with her protracted protest for an epic 64 days.

“I got support from everyone here. I am sure my voice will not go unheard,” she said. She objected to the 9-5 pm restrictions at Jantar Mantar — “my struggle is beyond that”. Jazeera slept with her three kids on the pavement, under the peepal tree, braving mosquitoes, ants and the relentless traffic. Some supporters sent her blankets and food; others helped her in solidarity in this “unsafe city” and joined her protest.

She has been branded by her opponents as a bad mother for carrying her three children with her to her protests; she has been accused of working against the interests of the labourers employed by mining contractors. To  these accusations Jazeera replies that she is working to ensure that her children and the coming generations do not suffer the damages of excessive quarrying. “I am worried about my children, but this fight is more important. Mining serves only the interests of the rich mining contractors and not poor people like us.”

Taking cognizance of illegal sand mining in coastal Kerala, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on October 9 asked the state government to file a report. A day later, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote a “personal letter” to the chief minister of Kerala, seeking “specific attention to the plight” of Jazeera. Ramesh urged Chandy to order a “fair inquiry by an independent and credible authority” and  appropriate action to redress her grievances.

 “Since my childhood, I faced multiple restrictions,” said Jazeera. But, in the night, I used to go to the shore, dance with the waves, and celebrate the feeling of freedom. When I saw the shore shrinking, it was as if I was losing my freedom once again. I decided to fight.”

A dogged, solitary woman takes on the powerful sand mafia in Kerala
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews