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Kerala - Thiruvananthapuram Printer Friendly Page   Send this Article to a Friend

Row among departments highlights damage to Cardamom Hill Reserve

M. Harish Govind

Flash-floods in Idukki district, siltation problems in dam

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The standoff between the Forest and Revenue departments over the control of the Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) in Idukki district has drawn attention to the damage caused over the years to this huge swathe of evergreen forest lying in the catchment of the Periyar river and the environmental costs involved.

The CHR, comprising 870 sq km (87,000 ha), lies at an elevation between 2,500 feet and 3,500 feet on the western slopes of the Western Ghats. Largescale destruction of trees, miscellaneous cultivation and land conversion in the CHR are being blamed for the flash-floods and landslips in Idukki as well as the siltation problems in the Idukki dam.

Though notified as a reserve forest by the erstwhile Travancore Government in 1897, large areas of the CHR were leased out for cardamom cultivation from the start. This was because of its suitability for the cash crop, evidenced by the presence of natural cardamom there. The Cardamom Rules lay down that nothing except cardamom should be grown on the leased land and that the tree canopy should be maintained, failing which, the land would revert to the Government.

Out of the 87,000 ha, about 10,000 ha are on lease to plantation owners; 8,000 ha are under old Cardamom pattayams and Land Assignment (LA) pattayams; about 1,300 hectares fall in the Mathikettan National Park and the remaining area is under encroachment. Encroachments on 20,000 ha were regularised in the wake of the A. K. Antony Government's decision to condone pre-1977 encroachments.

The leases held by planters on 10,000 ha were granted under the Cardamom Lease Rules framed under Section 7 of the kerala Land Assignment Act, 1960, but were rendered illegal by the Kerala Forest Act, 1961, and the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The Cardamom Pattayams and LA Pattayams have absolute right for growing cardamom over the areas in their possession.

As far back as in 1951, the Committee on Disforestation and Environment in Travancore-Cochin noted in its report that allowing permanent cultivation in the CHR would not only result in the destruction of forest growth, but also entail severe soil erosion directly into the Periyar and its catchment areas.

It further noted that such erosion would have very serious consequences on the various hydel and irrigation schemes possible on this important river. "The committee is firmly of the opinion that no permanent cultivation should be permitted on either side of the Periyar in the CHR," the report said.

In 1962, the Kerala State Forest Preservation Committee headed by K. P. Radhakrishna Menon, laid stress on safeguarding the CHR to ensure the proper flow of water in the Periyar and its tributaries. In 1996, a committee headed by V. Gopinathan, then Conservator of Forests, apprised the Supreme Court that the areas leased out for cardamom cultivation, though not completely cleared, had lost the original characteristics of natural forests owing to the clearing of undergrowth and shade regulation. The approximate extent of such areas was put at 250 sq km. Then Revenue Additional Secretary V. S. Senthil was also on the five-member committee.

The N. Chandrasekharan Nair Committee, set up in the wake of the Mathikettan encroachment scandal in 2002, noted that the old `pattas' for cardamom cultivation could be cancelled immediately and the land resumed since these had led to the destruction of tree growth. "The issue of `kuthaka pattom' and L.A.`pattom' after 1961 are ipso facto invalid and therefore could be revoked," it said.

The committee report, which was tabled in the Assembly, said the `kuthaka pattom' premium paid by the plantation owners, now fixed at Rs.5,000 per hectare for 20 years, was too low compared to the average income from a hectare. At 2002 prices, on the average, there was an income of Rs.2.5 lakhs per hectare of cardamom land.

A field visit to the CHR last year by the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, headed by P. V. Jayakrishnan, revealed a large number of cases of tree-felling, illegal sale of land, largescale encroachments, transfer and sale of land and consequent deforestation.

As per the National Forest Policy, 1988, mountainous regions need at least 66 per cent forest cover and the plains, 20 per cent. The environmental cost of one hectare of forest land is estimated to be a whopping Rs.1.3 crores. A top official in charge of forest protection told The Hindu on condition of anonymity that only old-aged trees are found in the CHR now and regeneration of trees is not being allowed.

At present, out of the 87,000 ha in the CHR, about 1,300 ha in the Mathikettan shola and a few small stretches elsewhere are controlled by the Forest Department, while the rest is under Revenue. The Revenue Department withdrew its claim over Mathikettan in 2002 and the shola was declared a National Park the next year.

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