Guest Post by Dr. Latha Anantha, River Research Centre, Kerala
Possibly for the first time in the history of Kerala, a hartal led by the unlikely combination of a powerful section of the Church and the Left Democratic Front has rejected both the Western Ghats Panel Report (WGEEP) and the High Level Working Group Report (HLWG) claiming it as anti farmer. On November 18, 2013, the LDF and its supporters called for a state wide bandh which brought normal life to a standstill. Thousands of protestors took to streets, mainly from Idukki and Wayanad Districts. Events that are unfolding in Kerala hold significance for the entire country. Firstly it reveals the extent to which forces are trying to decide the fate of a common natural heritage like the Western Ghats through short sighted political means. Secondly it reveals the lack of democratic process by which the people of a region as diverse and ecologically significant as the Western Ghats are not taken into confidence by the Governments while introducing a new governance process. Thirdly the Western Ghats and the two reports on it has become the oven hot political weapon in an election year for Kerala.
The incidents of violence and destruction of public property started off with the issuance of directions by the MoEF on the 13th November 2013 under Section 5 of the Environmental Protection Act 1986. Kannur and Kozhikode districts witnessed widespread violence on the 15th November. Forest offices, government vehicles and public transport buses were set fire by the angry mob in several places in North Kerala. The High Range Protection Council led by the Roman Catholic Church organised a 48-hour road blockade under the banner ‘occupy the streets’ at Kattapana the district headquarters in Idukki district on the 18th ad 19th of November. In fact the Wayanad MP Sri M. I Shanawas called on Mrs Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi along with Bishop Remigius Inchananiyel of Tharamassary Diocese, patron of the resistance group spearheading the campaign in north Kerala, to convey the anxieties of the people. Not a day has passed since 14th November, 2013 when the discussions over the two reports have not taken over the prime time news hour in the television channels of Kerala. The debate continues.
Why the hue and cry?
The MoEF directions and the subsequent Office Memorandum (OM) dated 16th November both reiterate that the MoEF has accepted the High Level Working Group report on Western Ghats, headed by Dr. Kasturirangan ‘in principle’. It also explicitly means that the MoEF has rejected the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel Report under the chairpersonship of Prof. Madhav Gadgil, though the OM makes absolutely no mention of the WGEEP Report!
Atleast 123 villages in Kerala will fall within the ESA (natural landscape). The category of development activities banned in the ESAs are restricted to mining, quarrying and sand mining, thermal power plants, red category industries, building and construction projects of 20,000 sq.m and above.
The watered down HLWG report and the OM does not contain any clause which would force the farmers of Idukki and Wayanad districts out of their land as alleged by the agitators. Clearly farmers would not resort to hooliganism of the kind which was perpetuated in Kozhikode and Kannur. Presently, the sand mining and quarrying lobby hold the largest political clout in Kerala with many political leaders and legislators alleged to be having direct share and ownership over the large granite quarries operating in the heart of the Western Ghats districts. More and more farmers in the mountains are selling their land to quarry contractors. Now this is something which can become difficult if the restrictions are imposed. As somebody was remarking in a bus my friend was traveling in, ‘if mining stops, the JCBs will have to be sold at the price of scrap metal, that is the issue”!
By this time a large section of population including the ruling party legislators in Kerala openly admit that the Kasturirangan panel report is a watered down version of the Gadgil panel report and is not going to bring in much changes in status quo conservation. Meanwhile, the clause (viii – d) on banning township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and / or with a built up area of 1, 50 000 sq.m. shockingly reveals further dilution. The MoEF has gone against the ‘in principle’ acceptance by inserting this recommendation which was not included in both the reports! HLWG report has categorically stated that no more new townships and settlement areas will be allowed in the Western Ghats. This new insertion by the MoEF opens up the space for mining and quarrying in the name of township development within ESA areas diluting the concept and spirit of ESA. Meanwhile many ecologically sensitive areas have been left out of the HLWG report which will be opened up for mining and other development.
Baseless rumours are being spread over how the report will affect the high range population! Allegations are now reaching ridiculous levels include, ‘The hidden agenda is to convert all the ESAs into forest area in a stage by stage manner; tiger cubs are being introduced into the forest to evict the people; no more new houses will be allowed once the ESAs are declared; no more monoculture plantations in the Western Ghats; all houses in ESAs have to be painted green and lights have to be switched off by 8 pm; so on and so forth are the interpretations led by the church and the political fronts. The people living in the plains are being warned that they will have to bear the onslaught when lakhs of evicted farmers from the high ranges will settle in the plains! To top it all, the revenue department officials are warning people against land registration or land transfer citing that until further directions are given, no land transaction can be carried out in ESA villages!
There are misleading attempts to show that Ecologically Fragile Lands Act EFL Act (2005) and ESA are the same. The EFL Act is a state Act to provide for the vesting in the Government of ecologically fragile lands in the State of Kerala and for the management of such lands with a view to maintain ecological balance and conserving the bio-diversity. Ecologically fragile land denotes any forest land or any portion thereof held by any person and lying contiguous to or encircled by a reserved forest or a forest or any other forest land owned by the government and predominantly supporting natural vegetation. This Act allows the Government to vest such a land from the owner and make it part of the Reserve Forest. It also gives power to the government to evict any person occupying the notified land. The ESA meanwhile comes under the purview of the central Environment Protection Act 1986. It does not entail any eviction or vesting of land by the government or the Forest Department. There is no eviction of farmers entailed in either the WGEEP or the HLWG report. Any news about evictions is politically motivated and baseless.
The concerns and anxieties of the local communities who have made the mountains their home since three generations when a new regulation is being ushered in cannot be ruled out. The distressing state of the Western Ghats calls for stringent protection measures as well. ESA under the EPA (1986) is the best option available wherein conservation can be ensured without displacing people. Meanwhile the other states seem not too perturbed by the decision of the MoEF to accept the Kasturirangan Report. The high population density in Kerala Western Ghats plus the vested interests of the quarrying lobby and the church (which holds large tracts of land in the mountains) could be attributed as the reason for this uproar.
The Government of Kerala has meanwhile taken a guarded stance with respect to the Kasturirangan report instead of totally rejecting it. They have assured the people no decisions will be taken in haste. However, the GoK reacted late by stating that they will translate the notification when it is out and hold discussions in each of the ESA panchayaths. In response to the first OM issued on 19th October, 2013 (which was surprisingly cancelled by the MoEF and replaced by the OM on 16thNovember, 2013), the Kerala Government constituted a three member expert committee headed by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) Chairman to seek opinions from farmers’ organisations, environmentalists and people’s representatives from the regions that will be affected once the Kasturirangan report is implemented. The state also plans to circulate the HLWG report’s Malayalam version to all the 123 villages. Round the clock help lines have been opened by the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) and KSBB to clarify the doubts of the public. Chief Minister Ommen Chandy has decided to convene an all party meeting to seek opinion from the various political units of the state. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) has also constituted a five member committee to seek opinions through district level hearings.
Lapses in democratic processes come with a cost. If the Government had taken the pains to interpret the WGEEP report way back in 2011 when it was published and undergo the above processes, so much politically created antagonism towards the WGEEP report, the destruction of public property and loss of 900 crores to the public exchequer by an uncalled for bandh could have been avoided. The LDF too could have organized discussions and debates on the two reports instead of rejecting both the reports.
Consciousness for the Western Ghats is growing
What was the need to constitute the HLWG by the MoEF? New ideas and governance mechanism takes time to sink in the public mind and the development sectors that are used to work in silos. The MoEF bowed to the pressure from different lobbies and went ahead with the new panel without giving time to the state governments or the people to understand the WGEEP report. And not surprisingly the HLWG panel digressed from its ToR and came out with a status quo report. Hence the pro Athirappilly project lobby is happy with the HLWG report. While the WGEEP report had totally rejected the Athirappilly project, the HLWG has given space to the Government to revaluate the project and take it up with the MoEF if needed.
Is the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Report (WGEEP) sent for a burial? The MoEF seems to have done so. But many in Kerala where the maximum opposition to both the reports came in, think otherwise. The dots are growing into a network of like-minded groups and individuals who believe the Gadgil report should be accepted and not the HLWG. There is increasing realization that the WGEEP report has mooted a completely new system of governance based on ecological limits and carrying capacity of a region, democratic decentralization and a futuristic perspective of inter-generational equity. While recommending sanctions and regulations, the process is intrinsically democratic where discussions and decisions about the wise use of natural resources have to be made by the local communities. Not surprisingly even the media discussions start with the HLWG report and end up supporting the WGEEP report! There is still scope for the public to demand with the MoEF that the WGEEP report be implemented after correcting the grey areas. The rest of the Western Ghats states need to take cue from the happenings in Kerala and start a process of democratic discussion with the ESA village communities and different development sectors to avoid future problems that may crop up. The conflicts and riots have reinforced the conviction that it is time to start a peoples’ movement once again to save the Western Ghats!
Dr. Latha Anantha (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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