Ten months have
passed since Achuthanandan came to power. However, the evergreen forests
of highly sensitive Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) in Kerala’s Idukki
district are under the threat of total wipeout. In an unexpected turn
of events, Achuthanandan’s coalition partner — the CPI —
has told its nominee and state Forest Minister Binoy Viswam to support
the claims of the powerful CHR encroachers’ lobby, represented
by KM Mani of the Kerala Congress (M), for getting them legal protection.
To make matters worst for the cm, the revenue minister is also a senior
member of the CPI.
imperfect: Human intrusion in the reserve forest
AK Antony, during his
stint as CM, regularised 20,000 hectares of
pre-1977 encroachment under political pressure
The CHR, near Munnar,
comprises 334 sq km (2,15,721 acres) reserve forest according to a royal
proclamation of the Kingdom of Travancore on August 24,1897. The proclamation
was the first major initiative to protect the sanctity of the ecologically
fragile area but a numerical mistake in it has now become handy for
both the encroachers and their political patrons to permanently settle
in the region.
According to conservationists,
the rain forests of CHR are a natural corridor of wildlife from Palani
hills of Tamil Nadu to Periyar Tiger Reserve of Kerala. The forest belt
is also the catchment area of half-a-dozen major hydro-electric projects
in the Idukki region. Paradoxically, the CHR is India’s hill of
spices as it accounts for about 70 percent cardamom production in the
country. Efforts are also on to axe big trees in the forestland leased
out for cardamom cultivation. All these are now happening with the support
of a few powerful CPI leaders.
It was in 1935 the
Travancore government had framed special rules for leasing out the hill
for cardamom cultivation. The rules specifically say that nothing except
cardamom should be grown on the leased land, failing which, the land
would revert to the government. However, in the 60’s, regional
farmers’ parties like Kerala Congress (M) started encouraging
people from other parts of the state to encroach into the CHR forests
under the guise of cardamom cultivation. The forest and revenue officials
had colluded with them in forging fake lease documents.
The CPI asked the
revenue minister to
inform the Supreme Court that the hill
reserve is revenue land
As per the latest
government records, the forest area in the CHR has reduced to 25 percent
of what existed 50 years ago. The actual level of encroachment may be
Kerala Congress is the most powerful outfit among the CHR encroachers,
the CPI bags the second position. At least three state CPI leaders are
in the list of large-scale encroachers. The party has already told the
forest minister not to stand in the way of regularising the forest encroachments
or extending the duration of the land leases. It also directed Revenue
Minister KP Rajendran to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming
that the CHR has never been a reserve forest but revenue land.
pressure, AK Antony, during his stint as Kerala chief minister, had
regularised over 20,000 hectares of land saying the government was committed
to condone all the pre-1977 encroachments. Now, both CPI and Kerala
Congress (M) are hell bent on regularising the post-1977 encroachments
not be easy for both the CPI and Mani to convince the Supreme Court
that the area in question is revenue land,” says Tony Thomas of
One Earth One Life, an ngo. “The empowered committee of the court
has already visited the CHR to take stock of the situation. All documents
including fair copies of the Royal Proclamation of 1897 are under the
perusal of Supreme Court,” he said.
But Mani counters
this argument. “Any attempt to declare the cardamom hill
reserve as forest would render at least four lakh people of Udumbanchola
taluk, in Idukki district, homeless,” he said. “Before and
after the Independence, successive state governments abetted migration
to the hill reserve for promoting cardamom cultivation. No government
can ignore the farmers now,” he said.
Sources in the
forest department say that the state government is waging a losing battle.
“There are clear evidences before the apex court and even an empowered
committee had recommended strong action against the encroachers. The
government and the land mafia have nothing to support their claim,”
said a forest conservator on condition of anonymity.
In addition to the
CPI, there is a ‘Left fellow-traveller’ legislator who was
instrumental in preparing an official note stating that the area notified
under the CHR in 1897 is only 15,720 acres. KJ Alphonse Kannanthanam,
now a Left-supported MLA from the Kanjirapally constituency, in the
capacity of State Land Revenue Commissioner, had understandably hobnobbed
with the then Revenue Minister Mani to prepare the note in the 2001-2006
period. During the Assembly poll in 2006, VS Achuthanandan refused to
campaign for Kannanthanam since he was under the shadow of the allegation.
In other words,
Kannanthanam’s act excluded nearly 93 percent of the forest area
under the CHR from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act so that
it would be easier for the state government to regularise the encroachments
even without getting the Centre’s clearance.
When contacted for
his reaction on the allegations against him, Kannanthanam said: “According
to the Proclamation of 1897, the CHR consists of 15,720 acres. However,
forest department claims the area was 2,15,720 acres and the figure
shown in the proclamation was a numerical error. How could it happen?
Those who prepared it were experts. Moreover, people had started settling
there about 187 years ago. They migrated to the hills as part of the
‘grow more food’ scheme of the government after World War-II.
How can we tell them to leave the area?”
poet and environmentalist Sugathakumari is puzzled by the CPI’s
stance. “We can understand the motives of people like KM Mani.
But how can we explain the attitude of the CPI on this issue? After
all, it was the first party that took up environmental issues.”