Not 'two leaves', but trees: Can anti-quarry crusader Maju win in Pala bypoll?

Can Maju succeed in Mani land where Gadgil was once a cuss word
Maju Puthenkandam (Left), Maju during electioneering in Pala (Right)

It is tempting to satirise the byelection scene in Pala using the leaf imagery.

We have the two Kerala Congress (Mani) factions engaged in a bitter fight to own K M Mani's 'two leaves' election symbol. Amid this pre-election melodrama, an anti-quarry crusader named Maju Puthenkandam has been put up as an independent by a collective of environmental groups.

In gaudy satire terms the first can be seen as a petty street brawl to get hold of a painting of 'two leaves' and the other as representing a heroic struggle to save trillions and trillions of real carbon-guzzling foliage on the lakhs of lush green trees arranged on the rolling hills that form the eastern fringe of Pala.

Maju does not see the bypolls in such a wild showy contrast. Of course, he definitely wants the Pala voters to realise that the mainstream political parties don't give two hoots about the environment, that they might crave for two leaves on an election poster but not on a tree.

But as for the anti-quarry fight, he sees it more as an act of desperation than heroism. “We who live along the Meenachil have no choice but to fight. Ours is a struggle for survival. We don't even have a designated leader. Many of us have been jailed but the struggle had still gone on with increased vigour,” he said. Along with fighting the quarry mafia, Maju and his band of crusaders want a new kind of politics to evolve.

Maju during electioneering in Pala
Maju during electioneering in Pala

Both the LDF and UDF, according to Maju, have given up on environmental issues. “The LDF manifesto had promised that quarrying would be brought under the public sector. But right after they came to power they diluted Kerala Minor Mineral Concession rules to allow quarries to open dangerously close to human habitations,” he said.

What's more, Maju said that the LDF government had stripped panchayats of their right to deny a quarry licence. “Panchayats have been reduced to mere signing authorities,” he said. As for the UDF, Maju alleged that it did not even so much as raise a pinkie when the Pinarayi Vijayan government ran roughshod over the ecological sanctity of the land. Maju wants the return of Gandhian politics in which the local body is the supreme authority.

Unrelenting disasters seem to have made a pitch for a candidate like Maju. Even five years ago, a time when the anti-Gadgil rhetoric was at its peak, Maju's presence would have been mocked at, and even spurned. But after what happened in Wayanad and Nilambur this year and the whole of the state last year, Maju feels that Pala voters would want to hear his side of the argument.

Maju is at the forefront of a fight to close down the proliferating illegal quarries on the hills that flank the Meenachil river. Maju and his friends had begun their struggle way back in 2008. Then, it was against a single quarry. That very year itself, the fight widened to take on three more quarries, considerably bigger ones. But his clearly has been an unequal fight. Now, nearly 100 legal and illegal quarries function in Meenachil taluk alone.

Nonetheless, the crusaders had had their occasional consolation wins. “We had managed to close down a quarry that had secured a favourable verdict from even the Supreme Court,” Maju said.

Maju and friends were about to begin an agitation against the start of quarry operations in Kadanad, Ramapuram, Bharananganam and Melukavu villages when the byelection was declared. “Four massive quarries are coming up at the Nadukani area in Bharananganam alone and one had already secured clearance,” Maju said.

Can Maju succeed in Mani land where Gadgil was once a cuss word
Maju at an awareness programme

Green activists in the area, too, found Maju to be an ideal choice. “He is one person we can trust, who is genuinely concerned about what is happening to the hills. We know he will stretch himself to the farthest limits for what he stands,” said Aby Immanuel of Meenachil River Protection Forum. It was the Forum that gave Maju the money to file his nomination. Kottamala Protection Forum will take care of his campaign needs in the Bharananganam area.

“We also felt it was time we too had someone in Thiruvananthapuram where officials and politicians are busy finding loopholes in environment laws,” Aby said.

Nonetheless, Maju can also arouse a bit of suspicion. He was the former panchayat president of Kadanad panchayat. It is not this that automatically sets off the danger beep. He belong to Kerala Congress (Secular), headed by P C George. “I was with P C George when he was with the Left. But I left him when his politics changed,” Maju said.

Greens seem to have long forgiven his past. “That was a mistake. Maju is a kind of person who should not have been in P C George's party. I am sure he might have been persuaded by some seemingly pro-environment stance that George had taken in the past,” Aby said.

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