Kerala State Cabinet decided to amend the Kerala Forest Act to exclude up to two hectares from its purview
Large tracts of verdant forest would go back to the hands of individuals if the Kerala government has its way on Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL), fear ecologists.
The State Cabinet on Wednesday decided to amend the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act to exclude up to two hectares from its purview. It proposes to pay compensation in cases where releasing of the land is not possible. Kerala has notified 14,071 hectares as EFL. Nearly 200 cases were also pending in various courts and tribunals challenging the EFL notification and even the legal validity of the Act.526 plots
Going by the data of the Kerala Forest Department, there are 526 plots of extent below 2 hectares in the State. These plots, spread across 11 districts of the State, including Idukki, Wayanad, Malappuram and Kollam districts, together account for 486 hectares of EFL, says an official of the department.
No information on the number of individual beneficiaries is available with the Forest Department. It would be an uphill task to get the number of owners of the large tracts of EFL as it is the contiguity of the land to forests and not the individual ownership that is considered while notifying it, he says.
However, large tracts of EFL may go back to individuals considering the fact that big and contiguous extent of land owned by companies, estates, devaswoms and families with multiple stakeholders is notified earlier.
The State may eventually end up losing at least half of the EFL in its possession if individual shareholders of companies, estates and families prefer claims for these holdings, points out another official of the department.
The department has been highlighting the contiguity and other ecological features of land while defending the notification in courts and tribunals. The release of land to individuals may also weaken the legal position of the government, says the official.
The Forest Department is also in the dark regarding the compensation mooted for the owners of the holdings, which could not be returned. At present, no formula for assessing the compensation component is available with the department, the official says.
An ecologist points out that the State has obtained exemptions and relaxations of various forest laws for providing land for tribes, stating that it has notified large tracts of land as EFL. The present move amounts to relinquishing the land which it claims to have protected in lieu of the alienated land, he says.
If the government wants to return the notified small holdings to genuine farmers, the custodian of EFL can very well do it by invoking Section 19 of the Act than going for the proposed amendment, he says.