17-year-old’s viral video puts anti mining campaign at heart of Kerala’s public discourse

Vishnu Varma
In her video, Kavya relays a village's strong fears about falling off the map due to dredging and excavation works. (Express Photo)

Kavya S does what most other 17-year-olds do on their phone - experiment with videos on the popular mobile app TikTok. Around three weeks ago, the Class 12 student, who lives in the coastal village of Alappad in Kerala’s Kollam district, took a video speaking about the environmental impact about the decades-long black sand mining activity in her village. After sending it to her sister’s friend on WhatsApp, she forgot about it.

Today, the same video by Kavya is widely seen as being responsible for placing an important anti-mining campaign at the heart of Kerala’s public discourse. The video, in which she relays a village’s strong fears about falling off the map due to extensive dredging and excavation works by two public-sector firms, has become a huge talking point on television news channels, radio stations, and social media networks. Her video and word of the campaign have been amplified by Malayalam cinema’s young actors like Prithviraj Sukumaran and Tovino Thomas.

Alappad and several villages on the coasts of Kollam and Alappuzha in southern Kerala are rich repositories of black sand that contains important minerals like monazite, ilmenite, rutile and zircon. Sand mining activities began in Alappad in the mid-60s, mainly under the auspices of the Centre’s Indian Rare Earths Limited and the state-owned Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited. Though there have been protests by locals over the years citing the environmental fragility of the area, the mining companies remained undisturbed. Until now.

Sitting in front of a thatched hut that serves as the anti-mining protest venue in Alappad, Kavya is nothing but modest about what she has managed to do.

"In the video, all I have done is express the pain of the people in my village. It’s not a political speech. In my own little way, I’m happy I could contribute to the cause and I’m glad that the public of Kerala are supporting us," she says.

Alappad and several villages on the coasts of Kollam and Alappuzha in southern Kerala are rich repositories of black sand

"To see the land beneath our feet sink away is an extremely sad sight. Today, the mining works are at the northern end of Alappad, but there’s a fear in people’s minds that very soon the JCB will land at our doorstep," she said, referring to the earth moving equipment.

An indefinite hunger strike by the locals, demanding an immediate stop to all mining activities in Alappad, has now completed 70 days, with widespread momentum on social media. On the ground, hundreds of agitators - mostly youth - are traveling from as far as Kozhikode in northern Kerala to convey their solidarity.

Alappad, home to fisherfolk, is sandwiched between the sea and the national waterway, making it extremely fragile for coastal erosion, say people behind the protests. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami had claimed the lives of 143 people in Alappad alone.

"During the floods in August 2018, when people were stuck in their houses in areas like Chengannur and Pandanad, 465 fishermen from Alappad alone took their boats and rescued thousands. Before anybody asked us, we did our duty. We showed Kerala and the world the meaning of humanity. Today, we are asking Kerala to save our land," says K Chandradas, a former fisherman and the chairman of the protest body. "Ithu oru janathayude prashnam aanu (This is a problem that concerns the public)."

Chandradas claims that a lithograph map of the Alappad gram panchayat from the 1960s shows the area as large as 89.5 sq km. Today, he says, it has shrunk to just 7.6 sq km due to extensive mining works.

"During protests in earlier years, the mining companies were able to coerce our leaders to end the fight by offering them plum posts. But the youth of today cannot be bought. We have worked very hard," the 72-year-old said.

Kavya, on her part, is only too happy to help. After school these days, she lands at the protest venue and fields questions from reporters like any mature activist. She knows her facts and is careful not to speak with political undertones. Plastered on television channels as the virtual face of the campaign, Kavya has become a household name by now. Just as she finishes this interview, a young man approaches her with a request to say something about the campaign on video. "Of course," she says with a smile.