General Election: Kerala

Fronts in a bind

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy (third left), flanked by KPCC president V.M . Sudheeran and Finance Minister K.M. Mani, welcome leaders of the RSP at Indira Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram on March 11. Photo: C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The UDF in Kerala faces a severe challenge from its strongest traditional source of support, the Catholic Church and the powerful lobby of settler farmers, over the Kasturirangan Committee report. The LDF too is not trouble-free.

AN unlikely factor has come to dominate the election scene in Kerala this time—political play over the crucial environmental issue of protection of the Western Ghats—posing a severe challenge to the electoral prospects of the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).

Had it not been for the Election Commission’s decision on March 10 to allow the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to issue a “draft notification” to exempt more regions in the Western Ghats from the category of Ecologically Sensitive Areas, or ESAs (as demarcated by the K. Kasturirangan Committee), the UDF would have been in real trouble in at least five of its hill district strongholds in Kerala.

But the high-range districts, with a huge population of settler farmers led by powerful religious and political interests, continued to be on the boil, as the draft notification failed to “completely satisfy” the demands of agitated farmers and just-sprouted lobbies such as the High Range Protection Committee.

A notification issued by the MoEF on November 13 last year accepting “in principle” the report of the High Level Working Group (HLWG) led by Kasturirangan, appointed to suggest measures for the protection of the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats, had led to widespread protests in the State.

The protests were against the MoEF accepting the working group’s recommendations regarding the delineation of ESAs in order to ban ecologically destructive projects or activities within the Ghats region. The working group had relied on current land-use data obtained with remote-sensing technology to demarcate the ESAs, which, “for practical purposes”, were identified at the level of the smallest administrative units, the villages.

Thus, 4,156 villages across several States along the Western Ghats were marked as ESAs if they had 20 per cent or more of ecologically sensitive area within their boundary. In densely populated Kerala, where the boundaries between villages and towns often merge, the committee had identified 123 villages as ESAs ( Frontline, December 27, 2013).

Settler farmers in the region were angry that the report was prepared without consulting them or taking into account the ground realities. Their main concern was that the restrictions sought to be imposed would affect normal life and activities in the villages they had been living in for generations.

There were also vested interests at play in the quarry, construction, tourism or timber industries, who allegedly were stoking the fire, playing on the genuine concerns of the people, in order to prevent the ESA restrictions being imposed in areas where they had business interests.

The High Range Protection Committee led by some Church elders has warned that if the government fails to withdraw the notification fully, the vote will go against the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections, potentially placing at risk the fortunes of the UDF candidates in at least five (of the total 20) constituencies, including Idukki, Wayanad, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasargod.

Moreover, some leaders of the Kerala Congress (Mani), which represents the interests of the settler farmers and the Church, also warned that they would withdraw support to the UDF Ministry, which survived on a majority of just three seats in the 140-member Assembly.

In the 2011 Assembly elections, the KC (Mani), into which two former Left Democratic Front (LDF) constituents, the Kerala Congress (Secular) and the Kerala Congress (Joseph), had merged a year earlier, haggled hard for 15 Assembly seats. Eventually, it won nine of them, to become the third largest constituent of the UDF government after the Muslim League (with 20 seats).

In the Lok Sabha elections, the KC (Mani) had traditionally contested from the Kottayam seat for the UDF and had mostly emerged victorious. This time, too, it has decided to field its MP and K.M. Mani’s son, Jose K. Mani, in Kottayam.

The Kerala Congress (Joseph) group, on the other hand, was for long an LDF constituent and had contested from Idukki, another settler farmer stronghold. In 2009, in an election that took the UDF to power, the Congress’ P.T. Thomas won in Idukki, against the KC (Joseph)’s Francis George.

But compulsions within the “united Kerala Congress (Mani)” today are such that the party laid claim to both the Kottayam and Idukki seats in this election, a demand which the Congress would not accept. Therefore, for the KC (Mani), or rather, the Joseph group within it, the trouble in the settler farmer areas of Kerala over the Kasturirangan report became a handy tool to bargain for the Idukki seat, which it wanted for itself.

A lot of its bargaining power, however, was lost with the decision of the Election Commission that a draft notification issued by the MoEF taking into account the concerns of the settler farmers of Kerala and tentatively removing all “settlements, agriculture and plantations” from the category of ESAs would not amount to a violation of its code of conduct norms.

But doubts persisted whether the draft notification, which suggested exclusion of “settlements, agriculture and plantations” from the definition of ESAs, would actually be valid until the original notification of November 13 was nullified or a fresh one issued and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which was yet to consider it, had decided on its legitimacy.

Following the November 13 notification, the MoEF had sought the comments of the six States of the Western Ghats region on the report of the Kasturirangan committee. Given the fiery reactions the report generated in the hill districts, the State government promptly appointed a three-member committee of its own officials to study its impact. On the basis of this committee’s suggestion, the government constituted panchayat-level committees to assess the ground realities and hold discussions in all the 123 villages.

The government’s submission before the MoEF that agricultural land, plantations and habitations in an area of 3,114.3 square kilometres (out of the total 59,940 sq km proposed) may be kept out of the ESA, it said, was based on the on-the-spot verification of the 123 villages falling within the ESA, conducted by the panchayat committees. The State government announced that this was accepted by the MoEF and that the draft notification would recognise the State’s concerns and recommendation to exclude such areas from the ESAs.

But the opposition LDF, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as the settler farmer pressure groups could still gain a lot of mileage out of the issue. This was because the Centre had earlier informed the NGT that 123 villages would be demarcated as ESAs, as per the original notification.

Explaining his party’s stand on the issue, CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said: “The Election Commission’s order (also) says that the final notification can be issued only after the election process is over. It means that the decision has been left to the new government which comes to power after the elections. The November 13 order by the Central government will seriously affect more than 25 lakh people in the high ranges and the economy of Kerala. The hearing on the case regarding the strict implementation of this order is set to take place at the Green Tribunal on March 24. The Congress-led UPA is set to go out of power after jeopardising the livelihoods and habitats of a big section of people.”

Rift in the LDF

Meanwhile, a surprising development within the LDF came as further relief on the issue for the Congress. The Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a prominent partner in the LDF for over 34 years, quit the Front on being denied the Kollam seat in south Kerala, from where the party had contested until 1999.

Soon after announcing the decision, RSP State secretary A.A. Azeez described Kollam as “the RSP’s heart” from where party veterans had successfully contested several times. “In 1999, when the CPI(M) took over the Kollam seat from the RSP, it deeply wounded the feelings of party cadres. Yet, they sincerely worked for the success of the CPI(M) candidate. Though we got a Rajya Sabha seat as compensation then, thereafter we were ignored. There was neither a Lok Sabha seat or a Rajya Sabha seat or the Kollam Assembly seat for us. The State leadership of the CPI(M) adopted an insulting approach towards the RSP, which the party tolerated till now in the larger interests of left unity. But tolerating it any longer would be suicidal for the party,” Azeez said.

Events moved very fast from then on, and no sooner had the party announced that it would field former Minister N.K. Premachandran—until the other day one of the most visible spokespersons of the Left Front—at Kollam, against the CPI(M) candidate (Polit Bureau member M.A. Baby, according to the CPI(M)’s preliminary list), than the Congress sent an open invitation to the RSP to join the UDF.

The RSP was all set to merge with another RSP faction led by Labour Minister Shibu Baby John in the UDF and be part of the ruling coalition and contest from Kollam as the UDF candidate.

For the Oommen Chandy government, the RSP’s entry into the UDF, with its two MLAs, could not have come at a more opportune moment because the KC (Mani), especially the Joseph group within it, quite aware that the government survived on a thin majority, was demanding the Idukki seat, using the Kasturirangan report as a ploy, and holding out the threat of fielding its own candidate there, or even leaving the UDF fold.

At the time of writing this report, the major political parties and pressure groups were thus caught in a bind over the Kasturirangan report, an issue that held sway over the candidate selection process that remained inconclusive in both the Fronts.

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections will thus be marked by the parties in Kerala vying with one another to please the politically and communally powerful settler farmer lobbies and drown the saner voices of environmental groups. Together, and along with the Central and State governments, they have acted effectively to submerge the Gadgil Committee recommendations (which, mainly, considered the entire Western Ghats as an ESA and sought to entrust the gram sabhas or the local people themselves with the power to take the final decision on the kind of development that should be permitted in their villages); dilute the Gadgil group’s environmentally benign provisions by replacing them with the Kasturirangan report; and engineer the exclusion of more areas through the appointment of a State government experts panel.

The question is whether such measures will pass the scrutiny of the NGT, which is scheduled to review them on March 24, in a case filed before it by a few environmental groups.

Meanwhile, a day before the election notification was issued, in a move to please the farmers’ lobby, the State government hurriedly announced its decision to amend the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act, to exclude up to two hectares from its purview.

This was a long-standing demand of settler farmers in about 11 districts, which, forest officials and environmentalists say could lead to large stretches of ecologically fragile lands within or near forest areas going back to the exclusive control of individuals.

Desperate fight

Surely, given their national priorities, it is a desperate fight this time between the Congress and the CPI(M) to win the maximum number of seats in Kerala, a State that has so far not elected a third force, not even the Bharatiya Janata Paty (BJP).

In 2009, the UDF, then in the opposition, won comfortably 16 of the 20 seats, which included a swathe of 10 constituencies from Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Thrissur in central Kerala. The CPI(M)’s presence was confined to Attingal in the south and Palakkad, Alathur and Kasargod in the north.

In this election, the Congress and its coalition faces the most severe challenge from its strongest traditional source of support—the Catholic Church and the powerful lobby of settler farmers.

The LDF is haunted by issues such as the court verdict in the T.P. Chandrasekharan murder case, the CPI(M)’s public perception about the party’s role in it, and the factionalism within the CPI(M). It is also being criticised for its election-eve friendships with even communal groups and estrangement with coalition partners.

For the BJP, which is pitted against the combined forces of the coalition partners, it is once again a test of whether its divisive ideology can ever break through and convert its vote share into at least a seat or two. In Thiruvananthapuram, its most hopeful candidate, former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, is fighting against a weaker Sashi Tharoor of the Congress and a comparatively unknown CPI candidate. (Rajagopal once came a close second in this constituency.)

Competing aspirations of religion, caste, class, and region in such a small geographical area has meant that neither the Congress nor the CPI(M) can hope to win on its own in Kerala. In most elections, over 40 to 45 per cent of the votes are cast for the many other parties in the fray, including those in the two Fronts, representing a variety of minor political, religious, economic or caste interests and vote banks. Of late, the number of such parties, too, has been rising and now includes the likes of the Aam Aadmi Party, which is yet to demonstrate its popularity in the State.

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