Disquiet in the Ghats

Print edition : September 30, 2016

A patch of Shola forest in the Western Ghats at Nelliyampathi, in Kerala's Palakkad district. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Madhav Gadgil, chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Panel. Photo: K.K. NAJEEB

K. Kasturirangan, who headed the High Level Working Group on the Western Ghats. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Oommen V. Oommen, who headed the expert committee that studied how the Kasturirangan Committee’s recommendations could be implemented in Kerala. Photo: S.Mahinsha

With the time frame for stakeholders to submit complaints and suggestions over the declaration of ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats nearing its end, concerns are growing again in Kerala in anticipation of the final notification.

IT has become a mess, the process initiated by the Government of India in November 2013 for the demarcation of ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) in the Western Ghats region, a global biodiversity hotspot that is home to over 53 million people spread over six States and has been subjected to much overexploitation and degradation in recent decades.

Barely six months remain in the validity period of the second draft notification, issued by the Central government on September 4, 2015, for marking out a total area of 56,825 square kilometres identified by an expert committee and the six State governments as the “Western Ghats Ecologically Sensitive Area”. Yet, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) has announced it is going to launch another round of consultations with the State governments. The issue has been pending for over three years and has obviously become too hot for political parties to handle. The new Minister of State (independent charge) for MoEF & CC, Anil Madhav Dave, told Frontline (see interview) that the discussions would begin “after the rains, probably by the end of year”.

It is likely that an endless wait, with all its uncertainties and problems, is in store for people agitating against the move, other stakeholders, and environmentalists before the Central government takes a decision on the demarcation of ESAs and the introduction of restrictions to “conserve, protect and rejuvenate the ecology” in such areas.

Earlier, as the State governments went about marking the areas out in their own separate ways on the basis of the report of the High Level Working Group led by K. Kasturirangan (the second such body constituted within a year by the Central government to offer recommendations on the protection of the Western Ghats) vehement protests erupted in many places, especially in the highly populated hill districts of Kerala ( ‘Unsettling report’, Frontline, December 11, 2013).

In fact, in the period before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, pressure groups of settler-farmers in Kerala, led by the Catholic Church and lobbies with business and other vested interests in the Ghats region, went about trying to disrupt the introduction of development restrictions in the proposed ESAs and to subdue all those who were raising environmental concerns.

Earlier, the Western Ghats Ecology Panel led by Madhav Gadgil, appointed by the MoEF & CC, in its report (which the government published reluctantly following an RTI application and a subsequent court order) proposed that the entire Western Ghats should be considered an ecologically sensitive area. This created much alarm, and politically motivated rumours fed the fear that the proposed restrictions on development activities would affect the daily lives of ordinary people in the entire Western Ghats region, or, in other cases, the lucrative business interests of those engaged in the quarry, construction, tourism and timber industries.

But, by the time it became known that the soul of the Gadgil report was perhaps a benign one, that it would be the gram sabhas or the local people themselves who would take the final decision on the kind of development to be permitted in the three zones of different ecological sensitivity that the report envisaged, the issue had inflamed high passions in the region.

Moreover, the Central government had by then appointed the Kasturirangan Committee, with a conciliatory mandate to examine the Gadgil report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary fashion” and submit an action plan to implement it, with special attention to the “preservation of the precious biodiversity” as also “the rights, needs and development aspirations of the local and indigenous people”.

This committee relied on satellite-based land-use data to conclude that nearly 60 per cent of the Western Ghats region in six States were “cultural landscape”—or under “human dominated land use” and included “settlements, agriculture and plantations”. Therefore, it considered only the remaining about 41 per cent of the Western Ghats land area as “natural landscape” and only about 90 per cent of this as a really “biologically rich area, with some measure of contiguity”.

The ESAs identified by the Kasturirangan Committee thus covered only about 37 per cent of the Western Ghats, or about 60,000 sq km, which it said “represents a more or less continuous band of natural vegetation”, “with very high or high biological richness, low fragmentation and low population density”. It extends over a distance of 1,500 km, is spread over the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and includes Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites.

However, for practical purposes, the committee identified ESAs at the smallest administrative unit, the village. Thus, 4,156 villages along the Western Ghats were identified as ESAs on the basis of the criterion that “they had 20 per cent or more of ecologically sensitive area within their boundary”. Within Kerala, there were 123 such villages. However, given the population density in any village in Kerala, ordinary farmers were agitated at the inclusion of entire villages in the ESA category, and the restrictions that would be imposed on them, despite the fact that the majority of them had grown crops and lived there as settler-farmers for generations.

The then Congress-led government in Kerala appointed another expert committee led by the Biodiversity Board chairman, Oommen V. Oommen, to study how the Kasturirangan Committee’s recommendations could be implemented in the State. It suggested the exclusion of “human settlements, agricultural land and plantations” from the purview of ESA within these 123 villages, the appointment of panchayat-level committees to physically verify such areas in the 123 villages, and the preparation of cadastral maps marking the boundaries of the ESAs after leaving out the excluded areas in the 123 villages.

But that exercise, too, turned out to be a minefield because the panchayat committees “could only go by the available land survey numbers” to mark out the cultural and natural landscapes within the 123 villages. “But survey records in Kerala were too old and the resurvey process was only just beginning in the State, and was mired in controversies and complaints. There were areas which did not have survey numbers, or land that had years ago been part of forests and still had only forest survey numbers. So the survey officials could only demarcate such areas as being ‘a part of another survey number’ till the whole area was resurveyed. We have no other mechanism and the resurvey would take years to complete. So we decided to use cadastral maps with existing survey numbers made by local committees and send such maps to the Government of India,” said a member of the committee.

Thus, eventually the Oommen Chandy government recommended an area of 9,993.7 sq km (including 9,107 sq km of forest area and 886.7 sq km of non-forest area) to be considered ESA in Kerala—3,114.3 sq km less than the 13,108 sq km area that was originally recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee. This was accepted, and the MoEF & CC’s draft notifications of March 10, 2014, and September 4, 2015 (when it was reissued because the final notification could not be issued within 545 days of the draft notification as mandated in the Environmental Protection Rules, 1986) reflect the Oommen V. Oommen Committee’s recommendations.

However, Kerala alone among the six Western Ghats States had initially undertaken its own physical verification exercise. Subsequently, the other States too reportedly asked for an opportunity to do such an exercise, which, as the MoEF reported in the September 4, 2015, draft notification, were “in an advanced stage of completion”.

But a letter sent by the MoEF & CC to MPs of the Western Ghats States on August 29, 2016, noted that most of the States had “deviated considerably” from the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee “by reducing and fragmenting the contiguity of the ecosystem areas and also recommending ESA at the sub-village level, making it difficult to implement their revised reports”. It also said that at a high-level meeting held in New Delhi in February 2016 by the Ministry “with senior level representatives from each State”, all six States were “requested to maintain the integrity of the extent of the ESAs” and the “landscape approach” espoused by the Kasturirangan report while preparing their revised reports. It pointed out that “these revised reports are still awaited from all States”.

With the time frame for stakeholders to submit their complaints and suggestions nearing its end, and the final notification expected to be issued, concerns are rising again in Kerala.

According to Joyce George, Member of Parliament from Idukki district (where 48 out of the 123 ESA villages are located), the boundary descriptions of non-forest and forest ESAs provided by the State government are not clear or specific and cannot be identified properly. “Private lands, plantations, agricultural lands, all seem to have been included as forest land. The whole attempt is to provide an inflated figure of the area under forests in the State. The actual forest area in Kerala is much less than the quoted figure of 9,107 sq km. The stakeholders are unable to identify the forest ESAs correctly and are not in a position to file their objections to the draft as contemplated under Rule 5 of the Environment Protection Rules, 1986,” he said.

He said that several conservation programmes in the Western Ghats region by NGOs, foreign funding agencies, and officials of the MoEF & CC and State forest departments had been initiated with total disregard for the livelihoods of the farming community and indigenous people. He said: “They act like a mafia, and the attempt is to impose a sort of environmental colonialism as part of an international agenda. Recently, 39 sites in the Western Ghats were included in the list of World Natural Heritage Sites by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee with the condition that the MoEF & CC should fulfil several commitments made before the World Heritage Committee to ratify the shortcomings that had been pointed out by it. The appointment of the Gadgil Committee with the mandate to identify the ESAs and propose a regulatory framework for the Western Ghats through a comprehensive consultation process, I believe, was itself a measure to cover up the lapses made during the presentation of the heritage status nomination dossier before the UNESCO committee. The Gadgil Committee made its recommendations in tune with the requirements highlighted by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] and submitted its report without ever consulting the farming community, the indigenous people or other stakeholders, except some NGOs.”

Johnson Mathew, chairman of the Kerala Reforms Mission, a Kozhikode-based organisation, points out that though there are altogether 356 villages in Kerala that have Western Ghats forests in them, only 123 villages have been included in the category of ESAs (by the Kasturirangan Committee). But even forest areas in the 233 other Western Ghats villages have been excluded completely from the ESA category. “What is the logic behind it? It creates two classes of citizens. Moreover, why should the MoEF insist that some villages in their entirety, including areas within them that have no ESA characteristic at all, be categorised as ESAs? The motive behind such a categorisation is only administrative convenience. Can ease of governance alone be the criterion in matters that affect the livelihoods of millions of people?” he asked.

One of the key organisations spearheading the agitation against the demarcation of ESAs in Kerala is the powerful Catholic Church-led High Range Protection Committee. Fr Sebastian Kochupurakkal, general convener of the committee, told Frontline that farmers were happy that the Union Minister was planning to hold discussions with stakeholders in all States and their hope was that it would lead to the “preparation of an entirely different report”.

“The MoEF wants continuity in the ESA areas and, unlike what has been suggested by the Oommen Committee, wants to take the village as the unit of the ESA. Let them then take the existing forests alone as separate villages. We do not differentiate between the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports. Our demands are clear: residential areas, farmlands and plantations should be excluded from the list of ESAs. Imposing restrictions on one group of people alone is a violation of their human rights. There should be an inclusive approach for environmental protection. The government must allay the concerns of farmers,” he said.

Case in high court

The entire work done so far to mark out the ESAs in Kerala will be in jeopardy if the verdict in the writ petition filed by an individual before the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court goes against the government. The court had recently directed the Central government to file an affidavit explaining whether encroached forest land had indeed been excluded from ecologically sensitive areas marked out in the modified proposal of the State government.

The petition filed by Lal Kurian of Muvattupuzha claimed, among other things, that the State Biodiversity Board, in order to circumvent the Kasturirangan Committee’s recommendations, gave a modified proposal to the Centre in which only forest land already under the protection of the Forest Department was categorised as ESAs. It claimed that the State government had removed around 3,200 sq km of forest land occupied by planters on lease and encroached from the ESA category with the mala fide intention of diverting the forest land to private individuals for mining and construction of resorts. The petitioner also alleged that the survey conducted for preparing the modified report was illegal as the sketches used for it were forged.

John Peruvanthanam, a well-known environmental activist based in Idukki district, believes that Kerala’s politicians and settler-farmer lobbies have made environmental protection an impractical task and identification of ESAs impossible. The attempt seems to be to destroy all environmental laws to remove all environmental hurdles in the way of developmental activities.

In the last election, the Church and the Left parties joined hands to ensure that the recommendations of both the Gadgil and Kasturirangan Committees were scuttled. In Idukki, land encroachments are routinely regularised. Settler-farmers are a strong vote bank. They are not farmers in the strict sense of the term; basically they are encroachers who are mostly oriented towards promoting tourism in the region. “One cannot think of a more democratic process for deciding ESAs than what the Gadgil report has suggested. But they have taken such a negative stand against it,” said John Peruvanthanam.

P.T. Thomas, former Congress MP from Idukki district who failed to get the party ticket in the last election because of his support for the implementation of the Gadgil Committee report, also believes that many recent decisions of the Central government seem to be part of a tactic to delay the notification of ESAs. “The State unit of the BJP was in the forefront of raising environmental concerns in the wake of the Kasturirangan Committee report before the elections. But once their party came to power at the Centre, they withdrew from the scene. The recent moves appear to be nothing but a ploy to delay a decision on the issue,” he said.

No change in policy

The new Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is yet to reveal its thinking on the issue. The State’s Additional Chief Secretary, Environment and Forests, told Frontline that as of now there was no change in the government’s stand. “We have submitted our case for the draft notification. The Union Minister is reported to have announced that he will be visiting all the Western Ghats States. But we have no information on any further development. There is also a case coming up before the Kerala High Court. We also have to see what the verdict will be.”

Organisations have sprouted all over the Western Ghats region in the past few years representing farmers and other stakeholders. The president of one such organisation, the Palakkad-based Karshaka Raksha Vedi, P.T. Jacob, said the lack of clarity and the inconsistency in government policies had led to so much uncertainty in the lives of farmers in the Western Ghats villages. “They lose confidence. Agro forestry, for instance, is not like growing short-term crops. It requires a long-term perspective. In Wayanad and Idukki districts farmers who had planted trees in their land as long-term investment cut them down in large numbers before the trees reached their prime because of the uncertainty over the nature of restrictions and the areas that would be declared ESAs. What is the point in nurturing them while waiting for the government to eventually ban tree felling in ESAs?” said Jacob.

Fr Kochupurakkal also said that land prices had plummeted in all the proposed ESA villages. “The social disturbance such a situation creates is tremendous, though people outside may be unaware of it. Because the Western Ghats have been declared a World Heritage Site, the Central government is under pressure to declare some areas as ESAs. It is also an issue of obtaining a lot of international funds. But Western Ghats protection requires a positive outlook. You cannot protect the environment by suffocating people. People elsewhere have to understand our concerns. People living everywhere have a duty to protect the environment; it should not become the burden of merely a section of the people alone.”

V.S. Vijayan, former State Biodiversity Board chairman and a member of the Gadgil Committee, said he welcomed the Union Minister’s reported statement that the best suggestions from both the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports would be taken into account. “The basic idea is ecological protection and to identify ESAs in such a way that local communities, tribal people and farmers would stand to gain from it. But the church has demanded that human habitations and plantations should be excluded. What is the point in merely declaring the protected forests alone as ESAs? They are already well protected.”

‘People have been misled’

He said that many of the ideas being floated in the Western Ghats region against the Gadgil recommendations were “absolutely false”. “People have been misled a lot; we understand that parish letters have been circulated by the Church. The Kasturirangan recommendations will benefit only the mafia at the expense of the ordinary people. That is why there is a suggestion in the Gadgil report for the constitution of a separate body for management of the ESAs, instead of a bureaucratic set-up as in the EFL [Ecologically Fragile Lands] Act. Our idea was for the establishment of democratic decision-making bodies at the local level to identify the ESAs. The majority of people have not understood the proposal,” said Vijayan.

The well-known activist and researcher Latha Anantha of the River Research Centre, Thrissur, said the issue had been extremely politicised. There was a lot of opposition from the Western Ghats States because of the fear that had been injected that ESA areas would have to face a lot of restrictions.

She said: “The best way now is to rework the Gadgil/Kasturirangan reports, bring them under the purview of the decentralised panchayat system in Kerala, and entrust the local bodies to implement the best suggestions from both reports through local discussion with the farmers. But political parties are not going to allow it to happen because farmers are a strong vote bank and the real estate and mining mafias are very strong.”

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