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a team comprising secretaries of the forest and revenue departments has been set up to file a detailed report on the rampant land-grabbing in the forests of the Mathikettan region in Kerala. The Union ministry of environment and forests has also taken stock of the situation. Earlier, the state government had shifted more than 100 revenue department officials, including district collector K J Mathew, out of Idukki district.
The anti-corruption bureau is already investigating the role of the district collector and the Munnar district forest officer (dfo) in the controversy. Tribal leader C K Janu is, meanwhile, demanding action against ministers and top forest officials alleged to have abetted the grabbing of over 1,250 hectares of these virgin forests.
This fragile green belt is the abode of over 36 species of endangered flora listed by the World Conservation Union (iucn), says Jomy Augustine, professor, St Thomas College, Pala. "These forests with their relict flora and fauna are like oceanic islands warranting close study and protection," points out Satis Chandran Nair, regional director, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (intach).
Interestingly, forest encroachments have been going on unabated in Idukki for five years. In 1995, efforts by the forest department (fd) to evict encroachers had to be shelved. Apart from the nebulous legal status, the "dual control" system led to encroachments in various forests in Idukki. Large tracts of wet evergreen forests in the Udumbanchola taluk remain under the cardamom hill reserve (chr). Though notified as a 'deemed reserve forest' as early as 1897, rules for managing the chr were changed and control over it shuffled periodically between revenue and forest departments to enable cardamom cultivation. "Such a system continuously abetted encroachment and resulted in total annihilation of 870 square kilometres of forests in less than four decades," says Chandran. The Mathikettan forests are on the north-eastern corner of the chr.
Though initially Kerala revenue minister K M Mani wanted to retain "dual control" over the Mathikettan forests, he recently changed his stance saying that his department would give up claim over the land and would wait for Kerala chief minister A K Antony to take a final decision. However, there are apprehensions that even if the fd took total control of the area, further encroachments would not be prevented completely. "The encroachers cannot be evicted immediately as many of them possess ownership documents that need to be verified by the two departments," says K Sudhakaran, the state forest minister.
"Mani's close relatives and members of his Kerala Congress led the land-grab operation from behind," alleges Janu. The minister, however, could not be reached for his comments on the row. Names of a forest ranger and other fd officials also figure in the various lists of culprits now on display. The veracity of these claims is being looked into.