Eco-sensitive question

Print edition : August 21, 2015

A view of the Western Ghats at Vellayani in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: S. Gopakumar

There has been no end to the controversies dogging the identification of ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) in the hill districts of Kerala on the basis of the suggestions made by the Kasturirangan Committee for protecting the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats region in six southern States.

Kerala is the most densely populated among the six States and any measure to ban or regulate environmentally harmful activities there is often viewed with concern by settler-farmers and vested interests involved in activities like mining, and with suspicion by environmental groups.

The latest storm is over the Kerala government conducting yet another quick-fix field exercise by village-level committees of elected representatives and government officials, before submitting to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on July 30 its final report identifying more accurately, with survey numbers, on the boundaries of the ESAs that are to be notified.

In effect, the exercise has revised further the stretches classified as ESA by earlier local verification committees and marked as such on cadastral maps submitted to the MoEFCC last year. But foolproof cadastral maps are not yet available for all the 119 proposed ESA villages in Kerala. Moreover, the maps prepared last year do not differentiate accurately the ESA land from non-ESA regions. A State-wide resurvey launched a few years ago has also not yet covered all the proposed ESA villages.

The two-day field exercise undertaken from July 23 was, therefore, meant to meet the MoEFCC deadline for the six States to submit their “final” responses to the Kasturirangan Committee report and provide survey numbers of the ESAs proposed in each State.

It was also meant to allay the concerns of the population in the affected districts that large tracts of residential areas, farmland and plantations were still in the ESAs demarcated in the cadastral maps provided to the MoEFCC last year.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said land records of many villages continue to show farmland, plantations and residential areas as forest. “The government stand is clear: only protected forests now under the care of the Forest Department will be proposed as ESA. Farmland will not be considered as ESA,” he said.

The Kasturirangan Committee had excluded substantial parts of the eco-sensitive areas of the Western Ghats originally identified by the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) led by the eminent ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil. Since then, environmental groups have pleaded for the implementation of the Gadgil panel recommendations instead of those of the Kasturirangan panel.

Be that as it may, the MoEFCC’s draft notification accepting the report of the Kasturirangan Committee failed to satisfy the agitating settler-farmers too. Genuine concerns and vicious propaganda by vested interests created the impression that once a village or a part of it is notified as ESA, a series of restrictions would apply, for example, in land transactions, in entitlement to title deeds of land, in undertaking development activities, or even in cutting a tree (Frontline, “Unsettling report”, December 27, 2013).

But environmental groups argue that instead of reassuring people that the ESA is a measure to ensure sustainable living in the ecologically fragile hill tracts, the government is trying to help vested interests through a “dangerous consensus” that allows only protected forests to be listed in the category of ESA.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a popular non-governmental organisation (NGO), has pointed out that only 37 per cent of the total forest area in Kerala is now marked as protected forest. The government’s stand that only such areas would be included as ESA would lead to a situation where the remaining forest area (a lot of which have been encroached upon) would soon be considered as revenue land, especially after the latest exercise marking them out as ESA.

Even ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) politicians have raised concerns over the government’s position. Pradesh Congress Committee vice-president and MLA V.D. Satheesan is in the eye of a storm for his Facebook post that said the government stand would create several legal problems for it, especially in the thousands of cases where it is fighting encroachers by arguing that they are occupying forest land.

The coming days are likely to see a lot of legal challenges being raised against the “final” demarcation of ESAs in Kerala.

R. Krishnakumar

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