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Land in Kerala comes under conflicting demands.R. RAMABHADRAN PILLAI takes a look.

Food or industry? Kerala, where land comes at a premium, seems to be presented with a difficult choice.

Rewind to the controversy created by the statement of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, at the Emerging Kerala investment summit that the State should shift from traditional paddy cultivation. Cut to the present controversy over the draft Kerala Land Use Bill, which has led to fears that large tracts of agricultural land, even from what is left of the paddy fields, will be converted. The confusion brims over.

The low population growth in the State has not reduced the demand for land for building houses as the population density is as high as 859 a sq.km. Regularisation of the land-use pattern is hence important in the State, which has a green environment, a prized asset in today’s world.

Several development schemes often consume cultivable land, leaving planners and administrators with no answers. The draft Bill has to be seen in this context, as heated discussions dissect it threadbare.

Food scarcity

The Bill says a chronic scarcity of food has led to an extension of the area under cultivation, leading to denudation of forests, more irrigation facilities, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on a large scale and introduction of new crop varieties.

The Land Utilisation Order, promulgated in 1958 and amended with enlarged powers in 1967, under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, sought to protect areas under food crops, especially paddy, through stringent measures, permitting the government to take over land left fallow and launch cultivation.

But an analysis reveals that the Order has been observed more in the breach. Conversion of cultivable land is permitted without any established and transparent criteria of land use, government sources say.

The Union government felt the need to curb land degradation four decades ago. The States were advised to adopt a land-use policy and establish land-use Boards. In Kerala, the Land Use Board was formed in 1974 and reconstituted in 1984. The Board has been doing surveys and preparing plans with little or no influence on the actual land use in the State. Eventually, the local bodies were given powers to make decisions on land use, giving way to debates on the appropriate land-use pattern.

Commission

The draft Bill envisages constitution of the Kerala Land Use Commission with official and non-official members. Its critics say the move will facilitate conversion of fallow land. Land will be misused to help real estate groups and can spell disaster to the environment.

“The new initiative will destroy Kerala,” S. Sitaraman, environmental activist, says. “It will affect food security, create water scarcity and lead to climate change.”

“Open areas are required for air circulation. Raising concrete jungles in open areas will restrict movement of air. Evaporation from wetlands controls climate. The very presence of wetlands contributes to retention of the water table. In their absence, wells will go dry and acute water scarcity will be experienced in more areas.”

He says what Kerala should do is protect its heritage, climate and biodiversity. Conversion of paddy fields is not a solution to the problem of maintaining fallow land. Vegetables can be cultivated with proper incentives from government.

Services of Kudumbasree groups, students and other voluntary organisations can be utilised for such initiatives, he says.

A senior government official counters the argument, saying that many environmental activists are doing a disservice to the State. Keeping land fallow will not do any good.

Those who claim to care for the future generations by retaining such land are in a fool’s paradise, he says. How many among the new generation are interested in taking up agriculture as an occupation, he asks.

The debate remains inconclusive.

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