In the sweltering sun a group a school children are sitting on dharna in the heart of Idukki town, 300 km from Thiruvananthapuram, raising slogans. A few metres away farmers are on a 48-hour fast. The Kerala hills are on the boil because people fear they will be thrown out of their land once the state government implements the Kasturirangan panel report on measures to protect the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats.
Political parties and the Catholic church are in a race to whip up passions. “Kerala will be another Kashmir,” thundered Idukki archbishop Mar Mathew Anikuzhikattil. And Thamarasserry bishop Mar Inchananayil went a step further. “Jallianwalla Bagh will be repeated here.” Kannur MP K Sudhakaran of the Congress has threatened to resign if the farmers are displaced. And ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) chief whip PC George wants to behead officials who dislocate farmers.
Last year, the Union environment ministry had set up an expert panel under Madhav Gadgil, following an uproar that the Western Ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site, is shrinking alarmingly due to human interference. When all six states opposed the Gadgil panel recommendations vehemently, another committee was constituted under former ISRO chief K Kasturirangan. The Kasturirangan panel had made some changes in the zonal classification and reduced the ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) to 37% from the 64% estimated by Gadgil.
The majority of the ESAs are inhabited by Christians. “No serious effort has been made to dispel our fears. We are not against protecting the environment but it should not be at the expense of poor people who settled there long ago,” said the Idukki bishop.
The state had witnessed a complete shutdown last Monday and violent clashes are now a matter of routine in the hills. The worried UDF government is in a hurry to distribute a Malayalam translation of the report to dispel their fears. But it hasn’t achieved the desired results. Though chief minister Ooomen Chandy has reiterated that his government would not evict a single person, his pleas fell on deaf ears. The Kerala high court, hearing a PIL recently, also wanted to know whether those on strike had read the report and what they achieved by calling frequent shutdowns.
Though the Kasturirangan report is a toned-down version of the Madhav Gadgil committee report, it does not mention anywhere that farmers and other settlers would be evicted from the fringe areas of the forests. Rather, it recommends severe restrictions on mindless quarrying, deforestation and mining to save the ecologically sensitive biodiversity hotspots. And these areas cannot have buildings and constructions exceeding 20,000 square feet in area or industries and big townships. But all of this has failed to convince agitating residents, who see it as a ploy to evict them. Political parties and church outfits have fuelled the fire.
“What the state is witnessing is organised muscle-flexing to loot natural resources. It is sad that responsible political parties and religious outfits are playing into the hands of the quarry and real estate mafias,” said green activist John Peruvananthanam.
For the CPI(M), which wants to curry favour with the church, which always supported the Congress-led dispensation, it turned out to be a golden opportunity. With the general elections round the corner, it wants to exploit it. And the Congress has advised its leaders not to lock horns with religious leaders over the issue.