The High Range of Kerala is becoming restive once again over the classification of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive area. Kerala has written to the Central Government urging it to exclude 886.7 sq km "non-forest land" from the area demarcated as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) for preservation of the Western Ghats, one of the eight biodiversity hot-spots in the world.
The area had witnessed high voltage agitations in 2014 over the move to declare over 80 per cent of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive areas. With its deadly mix, it became an electoral issue leading to a major set back to the Congress party, which had strong roots in the contentious areas.
The former United Progressive Government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had appointed an expert committee under noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil to study the preservation of the Western Ghats. Dr. Gadgil had submitted a report recommending the declaration of the almost 89 per cent of the Western Ghats as ecologically fragile area. The Gadgil committee suggested demarcation of the Ghats into three sensitive zones.
However, States like Kerala strongly objected to the recommendations as it would have classified densely populated towns such as Kattappana in Idukki district as ecologically sensitive areas. Subsequently, the UPA government appointed former Indian Space Research Organization Chief Kasturirangan to examine the issues in the background of the protests by states in the Western Ghats, with Kerala being most vocal.
The Kasturirangan committee recommended adopted the consensus path to prepare its report. The 10-member committee suggested the demarcation of 40 per cent of Western Ghats area as ESA (Ecologically Sensitive Area) and conserve it. The Committee found 123 villages in Kerala as ESA. Kasturirangan Committee also pointed out certain defects in demarcation of ESA put forward by Gadgil Committee Report including its failure for not taking into account the human cultural component which is part of diversity, livelihood and development needs of human population.
Kerala found even the Kasturirangan report hard to digest. This is because the Kasturirangan Committee identified whole village as ecologically sensitive, if at least 20% of ESA is contained in that village. Even if 80% of the remaining area is urbanized, the committee considered that the whole village is Ecologically Sensitive.
As far as Kerala is concerned, villages are demarcations for better governance only, but in most other states villages are separate cultural and social entities. Kerala is a rural urban continuum, which occur intermittently. In many of the villages in Kerala identified by KR committee as ESA, there are many large educational institutions including Engineering Colleges and many hospitals also. Many villages are partially urbanized. Towns like Munnar, Kumili, Kattappana and Nedumkandam are examples for this. Many banks, hotels, bus stands, religious institutions, etc. are there in these busy towns.
Living in this area according to the conditions and restrictions put forward by forest and environment Acts and Rules is impracticable and unjustifiable. It will be natural only that the inhabitants of this area wish to retain the material gains and standards that they have acquired. Plantations of Cardamom, Black Pepper, Rubber, Coffee and Garcinia (Malabar Tamarind) are often mistaken as forests and wrongly marked in satellite maps as ESA in Kasturirangan Report. The three-member Kerala committee recommended physical verification of the 123 villages identified by KR report as ecologically sensitive. The State submitted the list of these villages to the Central Government to be denotified as ESA.
Kerala vary of new problems
The controversy has now gained fresh ground as a result of the delay in denotifying these areas. The time frame for announcing a draft notification for the implementation of the KR report is expected to end on March 4. It is in this context that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the State would have to put pressure on the Centre to exclude populated areas, agriculture land and plantation regions from the final notification of the EFL areas based on Kasturirangan report.
He said the state would take necessary steps to preserve and protect the 886.7 sq km area for preservation and protection and wanted to maintain the forest area of 9107 sq km as EFL. "As per the Center's February 2014 draft notification, 9993.7 sq km area in 123 villages was declared EFL, of which 9,107 sq km was complete forest and the rest “non-forest land," the Chief Minister said in the Assembly. The Chief Minister said the final notification was getting delayed as Tamil Nadu has not yet submitted its recommendation on the subject.