It is seldom that major political parties in Kerala have had to confront fundamental ecological questions when venturing out to face the electorate. The State, which was the site of historic battles for protecting the Silent Valley and shutting down the Coca-Cola unit at Plachimada, is now discussing electoral prospects and ecology in the same breath as it goes to polls on April 10.
At the heart of the debate is the Kasturirangan Committee report on the protection of the Western Ghats, which is itself a watered-down version of the more rigorously prepared Madhav Gadgil Committee report. The whole debate has thrown up what can only be described as situation extraordinaire: strange logic, stranger friends and, possibly, weird outcomes.
The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala, which had won plaudits for pushing a law seeking to protect ecologically fragile stretches of the State’s verdant landscape, is today in the company of the High Range Protection Council, an activist body led by Catholic priests and settler farmers, who are more eager to protect their lucrative farmsteads than the Western Ghats. On the opposite side, the incumbent Congress MP P.T. Thomas (Idukki), who has been sharply critical of the stand taken by the Church, his party’s traditional backers, is out in the cold because he is persona non grata for the local top brass of the Church and the farmers’ lobby.
In the neighbouring district of Pathanamthitta, Peelipose Thomas, former AICC member, had no other option but to bolt from his party’s confines and the ruling alliance before the UDF could commence its candidate selection because neither the Congress nor the alliance, of which he was a candidate in previous elections, could stomach his stand on the controversial Aranmula international airport project, which had found a place in the President’s address to Parliament before it got the necessary clearances from the State or the Central government agencies.
If the question of protecting the Western Ghats finally boiled down to a slugfest within the ruling alliance and between the settler farmers and those whom they have traditionally backed, at Aranmula it has assumed even more ominous dimensions with issues of religious beliefs of the Hindu community becoming the touchstone on whether or not the project was to be given the nod.
The debate over the Kasturirangan Commitee recommendations saw the government giving in to Christian priests, the most vociferous of them all, and, in the process, the 327-page report submitted by the 15-member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) chaired by Madhav Gadgil got restricted in size and scope to a 175-page report by the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats headed by K. Kasturirangan, which again got vetted by a three-member panel chaired by Oommen V. Oommen, chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, ultimately ending as a terse two-page office memorandum issued by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
There is no such clarity on the fate of the Aranmula airport where a popular agitation led by both the Left and Sangh Parivar organisations is still very much on.
The outcome of the Lok Sabha elections would reflect, in at least a few constituencies in the high ranges, on the relative positions of the mainstream players on ecological questions, but the real issues would remain as the voices from the margins seek to articulate.