In November, the Centre notified the 60,000 sq km of Western Ghats as ESA, making it a no-go-zone for mining, quarrying, setting up of thermal power plants and other polluting industries.
Finally, scam made inroads into Kerala’s green concerns.
2013 witnessed the emergence of the Western Ghats as one of the most debated socio-political issues in Kerala. The year began with a controversy over the state government and the major political parties outrightly rejecting the proposals by Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Panel. While the political parties were eager to cash in on the pro-farmer image, the Church too joined the choral protest demanding withdrawal of the recommendations, even going to the extent of issuing pastoral letters.
The greens - backed by the MLA Green Brigade - demanded the implementation of the recommendations, only to be ignored by a ‘more professional, so-called scientific’ panel led by Kasturirangan. An all-party meet in January made a unanimous decision calling for withdrawal of the Gadgil-panel recommendations as the same - they felt - could be detrimental to the state’s interests.
The High Level Working Group (HLWG), led by Kasturirangan, which as per a self-proclaimed mandate, took into consideration more socio-economic factors while assessing the situation. In April, the Kastutirangan Panel submitted its recommendations before the Union Environment Ministry. Unlike the Gadgil Panel which suggested setting up of three categories of Ecological Sensitive Zones with different rules for each, the Kasturi Panel recommended more pro-development measures with 37 per cent of Western Ghats termed as Ecologically Sensitive. Cashing in on vote-bank politics, political parties - particularly the Kerala Congress - took up the issue of farmers, reiterating that neither of the reports took into consideration the impact on farmers’ livelihood. The Karshaka Sangham and the Church continued with their opposition towards both the Western Ghats reports and their implementation. Meanwhile, an SC observation that the Gadgil report would be valid till any other report is approved by the Ministry, came as a setback to the state government.
By the end of October, Kerala witnessed a slew of protests across the state against the Western Ghats reports. The two districts - Idukki and Wayanad - where the panel recommendations, if implemented, would have the most adverse effects - witnessed the maximum number of protests with both the LDF and the UDF calling for dawn-to-dusk hartals on a regular basis. By this time, there were clear signals of the Centre getting ready to implement the Kasturirangan Panel recommendations. What followed was sheer clamour among the political parties, Church heads, environmentalists, farmers’ bodies and the state government. The LDF kept on blaming the state government, all-party meets became a regular affair, a war of words between the Church and certain political leaders followed. And in between, the state government constituted a new panel to study the Kasturirangan panel report.
In November, the Centre notified the 60,000 sq km of Western Ghats as ESA, making it a no-go-zone for mining, quarrying, setting up of thermal power plants and other polluting industries, thereby approving the Kasturi Panel report. This caused widespread protests across the state, with the LDF calling for a state-wide hartal. The hartal in the hilly regions of Kozhikode was marred by incidents of violence and police-firing.
The issue assumed political significance with certain minor partners in the UDF like the Kerala Congress(J) threatening to leave the front over the issue. The Kerala Congress (M) too. With the Catholic Church spearheading the intense opposition of the people towards the panel report, the implications were costly for the UDF Government.
While BJP demanded that the Gadgil-panel report be implemented, P C George alleged a conspiracy behind the entire episode. Idukki MP P T Thomas questioned the Idukki Bishop’s stand on the Kasturirangan panel, kicking up yet another controversy. Meantime, another pastoral letter from the Thamarassery diocese called for more protests against implementation of the Kasturi report. While CPM secretary Pinarayi Vijayan said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was trying to mislead the people, the state government was virtually caught between the Ghats and the votes. Congress tried to pacify the situation with Ramesh Chennithala repeating that the party would not allow the farmers to be victimised.
The Thamarassery Bishop warned that there would be bloodshed if the government decided to go ahead with its decision to implement the report. Curiously, while Kerala witnessed many protests, the remaining five Western Ghat states remained passive. Continuing with its protest, the Church heads marched to Delhi to meet the UPA leadership against implementation of the Kasturi report.