Palaniappan, who belongs to a farming family, is a worried man today. He fears his means of livelihood will be threatened because his village, Vattavada, in high-range Idukki district, is within the ecologically fragile area identified by two expert committees on the Western Ghats.
Vattavada is known as the vegetable market of Kerala because it produces a variety of vegetables and fruit not seen in other parts of the state.
Naturally Palaniappan is in the forefront of the agitation against a panel’s report that has identified 37% of the Western Ghats, or 60,000 sq km of the green belt that runs across six states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu), as ecologically sensitive.
Though the policy advocates keeping mining, quarrying, thermal power plants or any polluting unit out of the area, farmers such as Palaniappan fear that anything based on this will usurp their land and habitat. “They have to shoot us before acquiring our land,” he says, in anger.
Two of most affected districts in the state — Idukki and Wayanad — observed a shutdown on Friday and a worried chief minister Oommen Chandy has called an all-party meet on Monday.
The hills are on fire since the Union environment ministry decided to accept the major recommendations of the two committees, one headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil and the other by K Kasturirangan, former chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). The decision, once notified, will make the identified region of the mountain ranges the largest protected forest in India, ranging from the Tapti river in west-central India to Kanyakumari in deep south. If implemented in letter and spirit, Kerala will be the most affected state. The means of livelihood of around one million people living on the periphery of the Ghat region will be threatened.
Following a widespread uproar that the environment and ecology of the Western Ghats, a world heritage site identified by Unesco, is under serious threat due to human interference, the government had set up an expert panel under Gadgil two years ago. When all six states coming under the shadow of the Ghats opposed the Gadgil panel recommendations tooth and nail, a working group was constituted under Kasturirangan. A mellowed one, the latter made some changes in the zonal classification and reduced the fragile area to 37% from the 63% recommended by Gadgil, who had opposed these changes, saying any dilution may harm the extremely fragile Ghats, which could ill afford even minor human interference.
“The Kasturirangan panel recommendation will affect at least 125 villages in the state. Though we fully support preservation it should be done with a humane touch,” said Chandy, adding that the state should be taken into confidence before implementing these recommendations.
Irrespective of colour or ideology almost all parties are up in arms against the panel’s recommendations. And the affected parties are planning to float an action council comprising people from six states.
The church is also upset. Most of the ecologically fragile areas come under the Christian belt. “Ecological emergency has to be met but with reasonable practicality. The church is committed to ecology, which is a moral problem threatening our future. But at the same time we have to consider the plight of poor farmers who are settled there for many years,” said Syro-Malabar church spokesman Father Paul Thelakat.
“We wanted the populated areas not to be declared Ecologically Sensitive Areas for reasons which the farmers as well the political parties in Idukki and Wayanad districts are speaking of.”