Western Ghats conservation now a poll issue in Kerala’s Idukki

Congress denies ticket to sitting MP P T Thomas, fields debutant

By M Suchitra
Published: Wednesday 19 March 2014

western ghats

The Kasturirangan Committee report on the conservation of Western Ghats has become the issue in Idukki Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala. While the Kasturirangan Committee identified 13,108 sq km in Kerala as ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ), Kerala government argued that only 9,993.7 sq km area should be kept under ESZ. The state government’s recommendation for reducing the sensitive area was accepted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) earlier this month.

The Indian National Congress has now denied it’s sitting MP P T Thomas a ticket to contest the upcoming 2014 elections, slated to begin from April 10.  He was the only political leader in Idukki who took a clear and bold stand regarding the conservation of the Western Ghats (Read the interview). Instead of Thomas, the party has fielded debutant Dean Kuriakose, the state Youth Congress president, from Idukki.

Related Interview
P T Thomas
I was dropped because I stood for Western Ghats conservation: P T Thomas
P T Thomas, senior Indian National Congress leader and sitting Member of Parliament from Idukki Lok Sabha constituency
Interestingly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which has been campaigning strongly against the recommendations of both the Madhav Gadgil and the Kasturirangan committees’ recommendations for the conservation of the Western Ghats, has fielded an independent candidate with the support of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church (SMC). The LDF’s candidate Joyce George is the lawyer of the Highrange Protection Council, an activists’ body leading the agitations against the Western Ghats report. The council is headed by Sebasian Kochupurackal, a priest belonging to the SMC’s Idukki dioceses.

While Congress- led United Democratic Front (UDF) has been reiterating its “commitment” towards people by highlighting the efforts taken by the Oommen Chandy government in making the Centre exclude more areas from the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA),  the LDF is seeking votes condemning the Congress government at the Centre for accepting the recommendations of the “anti-people” and “anti-farmer” Kasturirangan report. Both the fronts are competing with each other in convincing the voters about their commitment in protecting the interests of the people.

Tale of two reports

Idukki has been witnessing strong agitations ever since the MoEF accepted the recommendations of the high-level working group, headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan, on the conservation of the Western Ghats in October last year.  The panel was constituted August 2012 by the MoEF to look into the recommendations of an earlier report submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

The Gadgil panel was formed by MoEF in 2010 to study the impact of population pressure, climate change and development activities on the Western Ghats and to suggest measures to protect the Western Ghats. It had recommended that almost the entire Western Ghats should be declared ecologically sensitive area (ESA). It proposed that the GhatsÔÇêbe categorised in three zones with different degrees of protection.

The Kasturirangan committee has also recommended that 37 per cent area of the Western Ghats, which is extremely rich in biodiversity, should be declared as eco-sensitive. It has also recommended banning mining, quarrying, construction of thermal power plants and highly polluting industries and construction of buildings spread over more than 2,000 square metre and townships spanning more than 50 hectares (ha) inside areas identified as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs).

Agitated Kerala

In Kerala, the committee had identified 123 villages across 12 of the 14 districts as eco-sensitive areas. Out of this, 48 villages fall in Idukki district. “People in these villages are highly misled by the LDF and the church, says P T Thomas.  They fear that the ESA notification would affect their daily lives, livelihood, ownership rights on their property and finally they would be evicted from the region. In the past few months, there have been many shut-downs and hartals in the district called for by the LDF. 

The agitations have continued even after MoEF’s clarification issued on 20 December last year that the ESA notification would not in any way affect the land ownership rights of the people, agriculture, horticulture and plantation. It had also made it clear that the banning was imposed only on the new industrial and mining projects and on the expansion of projects, and the existing projects would not be affected. The MoEF reiterated that the boundaries of the ESA will be finalised only after taking into account the suggestions and objections on the draft ESA notification made by all the stakeholders, including the states.

In October last year, in the wake of continuous agitations and under pressure from the church, the UDF government in Kerala had appointed a three-member expert panel led by the State Biodiversity Board chairperson Oommen V Oommen to assess the impact of the Kasturirangan report on people and their livelihood. While the Kasturirangan Committee identified 13,108 sq km in Kerala as ESZ, the state panel argued that only 9,993.7 sq km area should be kept under ESZ.

The Kerala government kept on lobbying with MoEF and Veerappa Moily, the Petroleum and Natural Gas minister who took additional charge of MoEF after Jayanti Natarajan’s resignation in December last year, to reduce the area falling under ESZ in the state. On March 4, just before the election was declared, the ministry accepted the recommendation of the Kerala panel. It also took a stand that the boundaries of the proposed ESZ in other Western Ghats state too could be modified if the states make suggestions and objections based on the field verifications as done by Kerala.

Now the Church and the LDF are not ready to accept the fact that the MoEF has excluded more than 3,000 sq km area from the ESA in Kerala. They are demanding the order issued by the ministry in last November directing all the Western Ghats states to ban destructive activities including mining and quarrying in the ESA should be withdrawn. On the other hand, the UDF tries to convince people how much the Congress-led government in the state and the Centre are committed in protecting the interests of the people.


Report of the high level working group on Western Ghats (Kasturirangan Western Ghats Report)

Report of the Western Ghats ecology expert panel 2011 (Madhav Gadgil Western Ghats Report)

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