A protest movement is gathering momentum in the farmlands bordering Vellayani Lake near here over a government move to acquire 40 acres for the construction of a new campus for the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB).

Farmers and local people allege that the Cabinet decision to acquire the fertile agricultural farmland falling within the Kalliyoor village will defeat the very purpose of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008. They fear that the project will block the natural drainage channels in the area and destroy the wetlands that are being used for paddy farming and horticulture.

Waterlogged area

The Pandarakari Padasekhara Samrakshana Samithi, which is spearheading the protest, points out that the waterlogged area identified for the project is unfit for any sort of construction, given the fact that it is eight ft below the water level of Vellayani Lake.

Besides, the samithi observes, the ecologically fragile area is home to 340 rare species, including migratory birds.

Interestingly, the proposal by the RGCB was not referred to the State-level committee constituted under the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008. According to the Act, proposals for reclamation of paddy fields for public purpose have to be cleared by the committee.

Chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board V.S.Vijayan, who is a member of the committee, said no such proposal had been submitted for approval.

A note put up by the Revenue Department before the Cabinet meeting on November 6, 2009, said there were no resettlement issues because the land identified by the RGCB for the project had no residential units or any other objectionable element. It was, however, silent on the nature of the land. The RGCB had agreed to bear the compensation for the landowners.

According to S.Sajith, president of the samithi, the Pandarakari farmlands form a part of Vellayani Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the district. Because of its low lying nature, the land is inundated due to rainwater and flood from June to August, forcing the government to issue compensation to the landowners.

The farmland is used to cultivate a variety of vegetables like long pea, bitter gourd, snake gourd, spinach and different varieties of banana. A major share of the harvest is exported. A good amount of paddy is also produced here.

The Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Kerala (VFPCK) has a procurement centre in the area.

Conspiracy alleged

Kovalam MLA George Mercier alleged that the proposal was the result of a conspiracy hatched by real estate agents and officials who had bought large chunks of land at throw away prices and were now eyeing a handsome profit from the compensation to be fixed by the government.

He said the Central government had cleared a Rs.95-lakh scheme to improve agricultural facilities in the area identified by the RGCB.

District panchayat president Anavoor Nagappan said the reclamation of 40 acres of prime wetland would spell doom for Vellayani Lake. Mr.Nagappan, who had led several agitations launched by the Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union against past attempts to reclaim the farmland, said most of the land identified by the RGCB was under cultivation.

“The project will deprive the farmers and hundreds of vegetable vendors of their livelihood.”

He has submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister seeking a review of the Cabinet decision. “It is unfortunate that the RGCB has chosen this fertile farmland to set up their facility when a large chunk of dry wasteland is available hardly 300 metres away.”

R.Sridhar, coordinator of the city-based environmental group Thanal, said the Cabinet decision to acquire farmland for the RGCB violated the blanket ban on reclamation of wetlands. He said Thanal would join hands with other like- minded organisations to oppose the government move.

C.Sushanth, coordinator of Warblers and Waders, a nature lovers' forum in the city, said the reclamation of farmland would lead to the loss of natural habitat for hundreds of birds and other species. “It is a precious biodiversity-rich wetland that has to be conserved at any cost,” he says.