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One Woman's Fight To Protect A River

By Anitha.S

12 August, 2013

Darley with a knife to protect her

Darley sits alone in the small room of her Short Stay Home in Thiruvananthapuram, away from her own home by the side of the Neyyar river. Neyyar originating from the Agastyakoodam mountain in Southern Western Ghats has been desecrated by deforestation in the hills, dams and of late indiscriminate sand mining. Darley’s small home in Olathanni, 3 kms from the Neyyatinkara Municipality sits on a pinnacle as the river which changed course with sand mining has sunk 15- 20 feet below the land. Olathanni now has an added qualification as a village with the maximum number of points along the shore from which sand mining boats enter the dying river.

Darley grew up on the banks of the Neyyar when it had all the glory of a live flowing river.With bamboo and many native trees bordering its banks, the villagers depended on the pure water for irrigation, drinking and other needs. The wells were perennially full of water.Not so anymore. The wells in most areas have either dried up or water level has sunk along with capsizing of the well itself. The well with “purest and sweetest water” ( Darley’s own words) disappeared and she had to dig another one which is so deep that drawing water is a difficult task. Darley gives an account of the biodiversity in the sand bars that formed in the river- the trees and fresh water prawns and fish that she and her friends caught with their towels. The soft tapioca that grew in the low lying areas with rich alluvium brought down by the river waters as it flooded the banks every monsoon.

The boats taking sand and clay

The sand mining started two decades back, initially as individual attempts for self use.Later on it became a concerted activity which soon became a law and order situation. There are now many laws and regulations as sand has become a main revenue for local bodies. According to Darley, new avenues for corruption and crime has sprung up with this. She narrates how sand mining, illicit brewing and abuse of women go hand in hand in the area with support from the Police and Revenue authorities.

Darley started noticing that the flow, depth and other characteristics of the river was changing rapidly. She started protesting slowly and then her voice gained momentum and volume. The authorities were amazed at the steadfastness and commitment with which Darley walked the offices with her innumerable complaints, submissions and reports. The sand mining mafia were irritated and intimidated by her presemce in their vicinity as a watch dog.They tried all the age old tricks to get her out of the way- stone pelting, verbal abuse, character assassinations, isolation and direct attack.Her house was looted, her dear pet dogs killed one by one, her cats kidnapped (!).But they did not dare touch her.When media with support of certain environmentalists and social workers in Neyyatinkara started coming in, there was momentary withdrawal but the mining did not stop.

An year back, Darley was incapacitated by an accident and was in the hospital for many months.She has been put under extreme pressure by her family, the sand miners and authorities to sell off the land and move away. Darley wants to live and die here as she is protected by the soul of her parents and the river. Her one woman fight to protect the land where she has her roots and the river has been in news for a long time. Though there are many cases for her and against her, there has been no concrete move to protect and regulate the sand mining.One wonders why when facts point out that mining cannot continue anymore. A scientific study done more than a decade ago recommended that the indiscriminate mining in Neyyar river for sand has to be legally controlled and banned. The combination of extractive activities going on here which include sand mining from the river bad along with rock, clay and red sand is spelling the death knell for the area. The sinking of the river bed along with erosion of the banks has taken away precious land all along the banks.

The eroded banks of the river

This year, the rains which lashed mercilessly eroded the narrow path leading to the Surrealist setting to Darley’s home. The walls of her home and the toilet was already on the verge of collapse. The slope of the land almost 20 feet higher than the river behind her home, which has been held by a bamboo clump and some trees gave way in the rains. This was the situation in which the Police has got Darley here to the city of Thiruvananthapuram to stay “ safe”. Away from the familiar home, the insecure state of which Darley has been seeking solution to all those in power for many years, Darley is lost. Years of verbal and physical abuse, days and months of isolation, negligence from relatives and friends, Darley has created a make- believe world of her own where negative forces and occult means is being used to annihilate her. But somewhere along the ramblings and hidden among the disconnected words and sentences, one could sense this bold lady’s ardent wish to see her Neyyar flow unfettered, liberated from the sand miners and greedy hands, spreading real prosperity and wealth to all. Darley says she will keep asking the questions about development and mining, about injustice and corruption till her last breath. That alone will take her close to the protection from her parents and the river.

Anitha.S in conversation with Darley in her Short Stay Home in Thiruvananthapuram along with Sonia George and Parvathy Binoy on 9.8.2013






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