A recent order issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) removing the restrictions on mining and quarrying in a 3,115 sq km area spread over 123 villages in the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) along the Western Ghats has been welcomed by all major political parties in Kerala, which only four months ago experienced the century’s worst floods following heavy monsoon rain.
The havoc caused by wayward rivers and the unending series of landslides in August is fresh in public memory. Villages on the foothills of the Western Ghats, a number of them located near granite quarries, had borne the brunt of the rain. All over Kerala, rivers broke free and tore down hillsides, leaving thousands of people marooned. The floods devastated 774 of the 1,564 villages in the State, directly affecting 54 lakh people in the total estimated population of 3.5 crore.
The State has been struggling since then to find the huge amount of resources required for the rebuilding effort. According to the final Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared by a United Nations experts’ team, Rs.31,000 crore would be needed for the rebuilding. All scientific assessments have concluded that the impact of the floods was so severe because of reckless human intervention on the hills and in the plains in the past decades. The State government has, therefore, committed itself to rebuilding Kerala in an eco-friendly manner.
Political games over the issue of protection of the Western Ghats has kept the high-range districts, with their huge population of settler farmers led by powerful religious, economic and political interests, on the boil for over five years now. It has also proved to be a fortune-marring election issue, as demonstrated especially in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Now, as another Lok Sabha election approaches, the Environment Ministry’s order of December 3, issued apparently on the repeated requests of the State government (in the background also of a case filed by some quarry owners in the State), throws the door open for unhindered quarrying and for the resumption of construction activities on private land in all the 123 villages.
The MoEF, which had invited public comments or complaints about the State’s request, took all those who wrote against the move by surprise when it issued the order hurriedly, immediately after the deadline for comments ended and without considering their objections, Dr V.S. Vijayan, former chairman of the State Biodiversity Board and a member of the Gadgil Committee, told Frontline .
Terming the order as “most unfortunate”, he said areas where landslides happened during the recent floods were in Zone One and Zone Two, identified in the Gadgil Committee report as most prone to such calamities. “These were the areas where the environmental impact was very severe. But nobody listened to us. Floods will happen again, we cannot prevent it. But what we need to do is to ensure that the impact of such natural calamities is reduced. At least now we must take measures for it. The State government must ask the MoEF to withdraw the order. The entire issue needs to be revisited,” said V.S. Vijayan.
“There was no demand from ordinary people of Kerala for the withdrawal of restrictions applicable to the ESA. At best people were demanding that entire villages should not be categorised as ESA, or that their homes and lands should be excluded. Nobody wanted restrictions in quarrying or mining, for instance, to be lifted,” said Harish Vasudevan, environmental activist-lawyer and UNDP Environment Consultant. “But now on the pretext of helping the cause of building a medical college hospital in Idukki district, the mining lobby and some politicians have succeeded in ensuring that the protection that was in place for the last five years is nullified. From now on, mining will take place in all 123 villages without hindrance,” he added.
The recent order of the MoEF is a culmination of concerted moves by all major political parties in Kerala and successive State governments to eventually try and confine the proposed restrictions to the forest areas of the State.
The MP from Idukki, Joyce George, told a press conference as much, soon after the order was issued. He also said: “The people of Idukki can now proudly say that entire credit for providing consolation to the unfortunate people in the six States who were trapped in the areas declared as ESA goes to them. They were the first to bring the plight of such people to public attention, they were the first to campaign against it and ensure that only the forest areas were included in the ESA. What remains to be done is to see this process through until a final notification (restricting the ESA to forest areas alone) is issued; and for that we all have to stand together, ensure that cases are not filed against our cause and Gadgil is not brought here and seminars conducted to claim that it will lead to problems in the hill areas.”
The area now considered as ESA in Kerala as per the MoEF&CC renotifications is 9,993.7 sq km, which, according to the State government’s field verification report, includes 9,107 sq km of forest area and 886.7 sq km of non-forest area. This non-forest area includes private land and areas under plantations where a large number of big and small quarries used to function before the ban came into force as per a November 2013 order of the MoEF.
The December 3 order amending the direction issued under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act allows all those quarries to start functioning again and for “more plunder of the public resources for private gains as in the past”, as Dr Vijayan described it.
“Whatever little protection Kerala had during the last five years when this ban was in place now stands reversed,” Harish Vasudevan said. “The purpose of demarcating the ESA is to protect the non-forest areas. But once this order is implemented, there will be nothing more to protect in Kerala, except the forest areas.”
(A more detailed report will appear in the Frontline print edition dated January 4, 2018)