Bark and bite

A whopping 25,000 people formed a human chain in Kerala's Jeerakappara forest to rally against the wanton destruction wrought by encroachers

By K Sreedharan
Published: Tuesday 31 May 1994

Bark and bite

Body barrier: linking hands to ABOUT 25,000 people formed a 10 km hand-linked human chain in the Jeerakappara forest in Kerala recently and vowed to save trees. The human barricade, called the Manushya Prathirodha Nira, was a part of an ongoing struggle to protect resources that are integral to their lives.

It was organised by the District Forest Protection Coordination Committee (DFPCC), comprising the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat, the Society for the Protection of the Environment in Kerala, the Democratic Youth Federation of India and several environmental protection groups.

Two barricades were formed. One stretched from Chembukadavu to Kodnachery and the other from Nellipoil to Meenmuttikkaval, where they joined to form a Y. Crackers were burst all along the chain when the pledge was taken at 4.45 pm. Leaders of the community, priests, poets and scientists from different regions of the state joined in the protest.

The protest was sparked by the havoc wrought by encroachers, who have been allowed to run riot. The forest cover in the area has shrunk from 40 per cent in 1947 to just 8 per cent at present. In 1992, trees were plundered on a large scale in the Kakkayam forest; and in Jeerakappara in 1993. All this was done with the clear connivance of forest department officials.

The Kakkayam forest forms part of the catchment area of the Kuttiyadi power house -- the region's only hydroelectric power station. Approximately 24.3 ha of this area was given by the forest department to M N Shankaranarayanan, the father-in-law of the local Member of Parliament, K Muralidharan, who had claimed ownership of about 1,215 ha. In brazen violation of the Kerala Tree Protection Act, Shankaranarayanan started felling trees in this forest.

Water supply jeopardised
When the people of the region realised that this felling would ruin the hydroelectric station and affect the water supply to the region, they protested immediately. Demonstrations were held on December 13, 1992. This was followed by street corner meetings on May 7, 1993, and a march to Kakkayam the next day.

The agitation forced Shankaranarayanan to stop butchering the trees. But armed with a court order and with the help of the police, he managed to remove some of the timber from the forest.

The scenario in Jeerakappara is no different. What is at stake are these forests, which form the catchment area of the Chalipuzha river, a tributary of the Chaliyar, where a mini-hydroelectric station is under construction. The agrarian economy of Kodnachery and its suburbs is dependent on these forests, and the Thusharagiri waterfalls originate here.

Exterded protest
DFPCC has been protesting against the rampant deforestation for quite some time. On May 2, 1993, DFPCC organised a convention that was attended by leaders of all the political parties in the state. To curb the alarming loss of forest cover, they proposed that legal loopholes be plugged; and until this is done, a special ordinance prohibit tree-felling and forest area transactions of any kind. They said that those who violated these laws should be dealt with severely and also suggested that the Jeerakappara forest, parts of which the High Court had vested with private individuals, be declared a government forest.

The government's apathetic attitude towards these demands prompted DFPCC to step up its agitation. On June 10, 1993, 26 panchayats in the region observed a total bandh,/I> -- the first protest of its kind in the state against deforestation.

Not that this had any effect on the government, which assigned 109.35 ha of prime forest land to contractors soon after on July 8 -- in violation of the Central Forestry Policy, which states that forest resources should not be used for non-forestry purposes.

Apart from moving the Kerala High Court and obtaining a stay on the felling of the trees, about 400 people from Kodnachery staged a demonstration at the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. They presented a memorandum to the state forest minister, who assured the legislative assembly that the contractors would not be permitted to cut trees.

The protest has evoked much interest among environmentalists in neighbouring areas such as Kavilumpara, Kaniyad and Muthappanphuza, which are also threatened by deforestation. If the government's response is similar to that in Kakkayam and Jeerakappara, the entire forest cover of the region is in danger of being mowed down.

Airtight legislations are needed to protect the forests. And voluntary organisations and environmentalists have to pitch in passionately for the cause.

K Sreedharan is the chairperson, Forest Protection Coordination Committee, KSSP, Kozhikode

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