Kerala Cabinet has deferred the notification of about 17,000 acres of forests near Munnar as reserve despite pressure from the Centre and strong recommendation by the high level committee set up by the State government.
The committee, consisting of Additional Chief Secretary Nivedita Haran, Principal Secretary (Local Self Government) S. M. Vijayanand and Secretary (Forest and Wildlife) W. R. Reddy had concluded that that the notification was essential to save forest cover, prevent encroachments and produce final geo-referenced re-survey maps.
The committee observed that delay in issue of notification was likely to encourage encroachment and defeat the very purpose of the whole exercise. It had been the stated policy of the government from 1974 to notify the area and any deviation or delay would violate commitments made before the Supreme Court.
Before the committee visited the KDH village and prepared the report, a Central team deputed by the Ministry of Environment and Forest had visited the area and recommended that the area should be notified. However, the majority in the Cabinet including Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan was against the notification, though the Forest Minister Benoy Viswam moved the proposal more than once before the Cabinet.
The Chief Minister proposed that the area should not be notified so that the land could be used for assignment to the poor and other public purposes. Reserve status for the forest would prevent that. It was also argued that the area in question had settlers though this later found to be untrue.
Another attempt by Mr. Viswam to get the proposal ratified by the Cabinet was thwarted by objections raised by the Collector over boundaries.
When the Forest Minister reintroduced the proposal following the recommendation of the Central team, the Cabinet deferred decision pending discussion in the State committee of the LDF. The LDF State committee and the district committee later cleared the proposal.
However, the notification again met with opposition in the Cabinet from the Chief Minister, Revenue Minister K. P. Rajendran and others. A decision was deferred following strong stand taken by Mr. Achuthanandan against notification, according to highly placed sources.
The Chief Minister suggested that if the Forest Minister wanted, a few thousand acres could be notified. Though there was suggestion that the Forest Minister should withdraw the proposal, Mr. Viswam declined to do so.
According to sources, the Chief Minister relented to some extent at the last meeting of the Cabinet. However, the Revenue Minister proposed that the area should be notified in lieu of forest clearance for issue of title deeds to settlers in Pathanamthitta and elsewhere.
Consideration of the matter, however, is likely after the elections to the local self governments. The Committee has observed that there was no legal hurdle in notifying the area. It observed that the boundaries of the area proposed to be notified (17349.90 acres) were clearly demarcated and no human habitations existed in the area. All blocks were shown to have forest cover and interspersed rocky areas. The 26th block in Kuttiyar Valley measuring 283.42 acres, which has already been assigned for house sites, might be excluded from the notification, it said.