Fighting over the Western Ghats

Having completed the demarcation of Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) for the conservation of the Western Ghats, Kerala is in the spotlight for its efforts to balance environmental conservation with the development needs and livelihood aspirations of the people.

But the thorny exercise that was riddled with hurdles all along has raised questions about the compromises adopted to keep a tight rein on an increasingly restive population in the high ranges while tackling the threats to the fragile ecosystem. It has also exposed the growing disconnect of the political class with environmental issues.

On November 13, 2013, at a meeting organised by the expert panel that coordinated the redefinition of ESAs proposed by the Kasturirangan committee, MLAs across the political spectrum vehemently opposed the zonation of the Western Ghats regions. The legislators feared the imposition of development curbs in the ESAs would cry halt to the development of the entire region, affect construction activities, agriculture and tourism and scupper the development of the famed Sabarimala hill shrine. Residents, they said, were living in fear of being evicted from their land. The lone legislator from Wayanad who argued for restrictions on development to protect forests and maintain biodiversity was heckled into silence.

On January 29, 2014, the Kerala Assembly witnessed noisy scenes after the Opposition demanded discussion on a motion alleging that farmers in 123 villages in the Western Ghats were facing the threat of an undeclared eviction by the government to prepare the ground for the recommendations of the Kasturirangan committee to be implemented in the State.

Two days later, the House unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Union government to exclude human settlements and agricultural land from the 123 villages identified as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) by the Kasturirangan committee. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told the House that Kerala’s stand on the issue was dictated by the larger interests of the farmers in the high ranges.

The government later adopted the stand that only protected forests would be demarcated as ESA, inviting strident criticism from environmentalists.

In a State where the compulsions of coalition politics and the growing clout of religious denominations and other pressure groups often force political parties to compromise on their stated commitment to the environment, the resistance to the recommendations for conservation of the Western Ghats has assumed ominous overtones. The waning influence of the Green lobby and the dwindling space for environmental issues in the political agenda are a cause for concern.

The High Level Working Group headed by K.Kasturirangan had earmarked 13,108 sq km in 123 villages as ESA in Kerala. Following widespread protests in the high-range districts, the State government on the basis of field verification had convinced the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to exclude 3,117 sq km of settlements and agricultural land from the ESA.

Following directions from the Ministry to fine tune the ESA maps prepared by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB), the government ordered another round of field verification. Four villages in Kottayam district were taken off the ESA list.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, the people’s science movement in Kerala, feels that the decision to earmark only protected forests as ESA would be disastrous for the Western Ghats. “It signals the beginning of the end for this fragile ecosystem threatened by encroachments, illegal quarrying and unauthorised constructions”, says P.Murali, general secretary, KSSP.

“Sadly, environment issues have fallen off the political agenda. The stiff resistance to the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil committee and the Kasturirangan committee show that both the ruling and Opposition parties have capitulated to vested interests for short term gains”. According to Oommen V.Oommen, chairman, Kerala State Biodiversity Board, the government stand on zonation was dictated by the need to ensure the support of the people in the high ranges for the conservation of the Western Ghats.

Prof.Oommen says the decision to exclude settlements and agricultural land from ESA was taken to assuage the feelings of the farmers who perceived a threat to their land and livelihood, probably because of a misinformation campaign by vested interests. “We realised that it would require some compromise to bring the people on board because only a participatory approach would work here”.

He admitted that things had taken a turn for the worse after some political parties started exploiting the volatile situation to their benefit. Prof.Oommen is optimistic that the Western Ghats would continue in its present state if proper mechanisms are in place to regulate development in the ESAs.

V.S.Vijayan, who was a member of the Madhav Gadgil committee, disagrees. “The government decision to earmark only protected forests as ESA is short-sighted and will prove to be costly for the State”. He said vested interests had used farmers as a cover to whip up feelings against the recommendations of the committee and create a fear psychosis in the high ranges.

“The protests were organised and political parties including the Congress and the CPI (M) used the vitiated atmosphere to enhance their appeal and create vote banks, while the BJP government at the Centre merely paid lip service to conservation of the Western Ghats.” He feels that the situation could still be retrieved by mobilising public opinion for conservation, though he admits it is an uphill task.

Environmental activist and lawyer Harish Vasudevan points out that the ESA notification was issued under the Environment Protection Act to protect the interests of farmers by regulating or restricting industrial activity in agricultural land. “Unfortunately, that message was lost on the farmers in the high ranges. By exempting non-forest areas from the ESA list, the government has defeated the very purpose of the notification.”

Mr.Vasudevan feels that the criteria adopted for demarcation of ESAs was unfair, unsustainable and went against the principles of conservation. It would only give a fillip to the destruction of the Western Ghats.

Ruling front MLA V.D.Satheesan has been one of the sharpest critics of the decision to restrict the ESA to protected forests. In a Facebook post, Mr.Satheesan, who is a member of the Green brigade of the Congress, said that this would pose a severe setback to the Government’s efforts to recover tens of thousands of acres of encroached forest land through legal means. The Government, he notes, would lose its claim, once these areas were removed from the ESA list.

With Kerala emerging as a test case for conservation of the Western Ghats, observers are keeping a close watch on how the unprecedented operation will impact on the social and political spheres in the State.

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 9:23:24 PM |

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