Proposed land may need to be cleared by Union Ministry

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The hundred acres of land on the Ponmudi hills that is proposed to be handed over to the Indian Space Research Organisation to set up the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) campus, qualifies as a forest. Hence, it requires the Central government’s clearance for diversion for non-forestry purposes, an analysis of the relevant facts show.

Moreover, it comes within the definition of ecologically fragile land though the government has not notified it as such. On account of its status as forest, the government decision to earmark the land for the campus may run foul of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Viswom denies it

However, Forest Minister Benoy Viswom denies this argument. He maintains it is indeed revenue land and hence would not attract the provisions of the Act. The decision has been taken in the best interests of the State, he told The Hindu here on Thursday in answer to a query.

The Minister has taken action against the Divisional Forest Officer N. Balakrishna Pillai who had reported that the area is a forest and might fall within existing forest boundaries. (Mr. Pillai was transferred and the Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance) had been asked to hold an enquiry).

The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Thiruvananthapuram, has reported that the area harbours medium to large trees of evergreen forests such as venkota, nangu, njaval, poothamkolli and chenkurinji (Gluta travancorica). Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan confirmed during his Cabinet briefing on Wednesday that species such as Gluta travancorica and jamun stand there. This indicates that the trees are part of an evergreen forest canopy, it is pointed out.

According to an order of the Supreme Court, a wooded area meeting the dictionary definition of forest comes under the Forest (Conservation) Act irrespective of ownership. Whether the area is under the Revenue Department or the Forest Department is immaterial. Such a stretch can be diverted for non-forestry purposes only with the clearance of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, it is pointed out.

In Red Data List

Gluta travancorica is a tree recommended for protection. It is classified as ‘Near Threatened’ (taxa which do not qualify for Conservation Dependent, but which are close to qualifying for vulnerable) in the Red Data List of IUCN, the World Conservation Union (2007).

The Forest Minister has said the government expected ISRO to protect the chenkurnji trees by using the minimum space for its buildings and other facilities.

Archival records show that the area had forests at the beginning of last century then classified as wasteland. The Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company had not developed a plantation there before returning it to the government in 1917. The area remained forested thereafter. (The Revenue Department had land, often classified as revenue forests, under it.)

According to the definition of ecologically fragile lands (EFL) in the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act, any forest land or any portion thereof held by any person and lying contiguous to or encircled by a reserved forest or a vested forest or any other forest land owned by the government and predominantly supporting natural vegetation is to be considered ecologically fragile.

The DFO has noted that the altitude of the area is about 1,000 metres. Even smaller construction activities at this altitude require environmental clearance, as per Rules published by the Central Government last year.

ISRO had not asked for a high-altitude location in its initial request for land to the government. Nor had it stated the purpose for which it needed land. It wanted a site near to its research and development facilities in Thiruvananthapuram district. (None of its research facilities is located at high altitudes.) The proposed institute is fundamentally an engineering college and not an advanced research facility in astronomy or other subjects.

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