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Above: Unchecked construction activities in the hilly areas triggered the floods/Photo: twitter

The National Green Tribunal bans reduction of the ecologically sensitive areas of the Ghats, putting the state government in a fix

~By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The National Green Tribunal’s recent order to bar any further reduction in the eco-sensitive area (ESA) of the Western Ghats has left the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in a tight spot. The green court’s order came in view of the devastating floods in Kerala and the experts blaming the ecological damage done to the Ghats for the catastrophe.

The state government has no alternative but to wait for the central government to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court. But the well-entrenched nexus between land sharks and rulers makes it all the more difficult to maintain a balance between political interests and the state’s long-term interests.

While addressing the special session of the Kerala assembly, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan hinted that any construction in the flood-hit regions of Idukki and other high ranges of the Western Ghats could be approved only after taking the ecological fragility into consideration. But the chief minister’s effort to instill confidence in the “green MLAs” was short-lived as three of the LDF’s MLAs strongly justified the construction and other activities in the Western Ghats. This has bared the lack of commitment on the part of the government for the cause of saving the state’s soil, water, greenery and natural resources.

The fact that Idukki district faced the brunt of the natural calamity—having faced nearly 350 landslides this mon­soon alone—points to the dangers involved. The preliminary estimates alone projected the state’s loss at a whopping Rs 30,000 crore due to the floods. Nearly 500 people lost their lives, and more are living in near-death condition after the spread of leptospirosis and dengue fever in the post-deluge days.

The NGT asked the environment ministry not to reduce the ESA of the Western Ghats further from the proposed 56,825 sq km and to notify the same within six months. The Tribunal said that there should not be any further reduction as demarcated in a draft notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in February. The bench, headed by chairperson AK Goel, said any reduction needs to be vetted by the Tribunal.

However, green activists in Kerala like Hareesh Vasudev have accused the NGT of watering down the provisions of even the Kasturirangan Committee. They point out that while the Madhav Gadgil Committee in 2010 had recommended that 75 percent area of the Western Ghats be declared ecologically fragile, the Kasturirangan Committee had further reduced it to 37 percent.

The draft notification had identified an area of 56,825 sq km spread across six states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—as the ESA of the Western Ghats. This is less than the 59,940 sq km recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee in 2013. The centre made this reduction based on the state government’s proposal put forth by the Oommen V. Oommen Committee constituted under the Kasturirangan Committee in 2014.

It may be noted that the Oommen V. Oommen Committee, without making any serious effort to identify the ESA, purportedly took suggestions from local politicians, the organised Church and the quarry mafia to reduce the state’s share of ESA in the Ghats further to 9,993 sq km, from 13,108 sq km.

In 2014, PT Thomas, MP, representing the Idukki Lok Sabha constituency, was the only Congress leader to demand the implementation of the Gadgil Committee report. But he paid a heavy price. Fearing the wrath of the Church, the Congress denied him a ticket to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The LDF then supported a Church-sponsored candidate, Joyce George, to wrest the seat from the UDF. Simultaneously, with an eye on the vote bank of the settlers and to appease the Church, the LDF stepped forward with tacit support from these sections to reject even the watered down Kasturirangan report.

The BJP, which has very little presence in the high ranges of the Ghats, was the only party that backed the Gadgil report. The BJP leader, V Muraleedharan, MP, told India Legal that the state government should review its stand and work towards evolving political consensus on accepting at least the Kasturirangan recommendations in their original form. “The state government and the Opposition are demanding that the land earmarked as ESA should be reduced below 10,000 sq km. Instead of siding with the interest groups, efforts should be made to establish a consensus for a revisit of the state’s stand on the Kasturirangan Committee recommendations,” he said. It may be noted that, following the state government’s pressure, 3,115 sq km were reduced from the original proposal in 2014. As a result, the ESA on the Western Ghats in Kerala was reduced from 13,108 to 9,993 sq km.

The LDF, apparently to appease the vote bank, is claiming that it will put pressure on the centre to further bring down the ESA to 9,107 sq km.

Riots were unleashed in 2014 to pro­test against the Kasturirangan report under the patronage of the Church and the quarry mafia. Thousands of acres of reserve forests were set ablaze in Wayanad. Congress MP MI Shanavas took a shameful stand, protecting the miscreants responsible for the blaze. The UDF government too did nothing.

Across the aisle, in the CPI(M), matters are no different. Devikulam MLA S Rajendran strongly opposed the Kasturirangan report in the assembly. Another LDF MLA, PV Anwar, constructed a water theme park on a mountain top and is adamant on retaining it despite several landslides occurring in the area in recent times. Thomas  Chandy, a former minister in the Vijayan government, who had to quit office a few months ago on charges of encroachment of government land, was also seen defending these mindless acts. Kerala Congress (M) Leader KM Mani, who is part of the opposition UDF, had no qualms in depicting the proposed curb on constructions in the ESA as an attempt to ban construction in Idukki.

The Marxist-led LDF, which swears by the poor but steadfastly stood by the land sharks in the 2014 polls, will now have to take a call—take a convincing stand to show real concern for the environment or play to the vote bank.

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