Protest is mounting in the hilly regions of Kerala against the Supreme Court direction last week that every protected forest tract and wildlife sanctuary must have an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of one kilometre from its boundaries.
Idukki district is observing a dawn-to-dusk hartal on Friday, called by the ruling CPI(M), seeking the Union government’s intervention on the Supreme Court directive. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has also called for a hartal on June 16 in the district, which had witnessed a series of protests in 2013-14 against the recommendations of the Kasturirangan committee report on the Western Ghats.
Indistrict, various political parties, farmers’ outfits and trade bodies have charted out protests in the coming weeks. The CPI(M) and Congress are conducting separate protest marches in Wayanad on Friday.
Political parties and farmers’ outfits in Kerala have been demanding that all human settlements be exempted from the ESZ. The new directive has come at a time when hilly regions in the state have been witnessing an unprecedented spurt in wildlife attacks.
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Last Friday, a three-judge bench of the apex court directed all states to leave a mandatory eco-sensitive zone of one kilometre from the boundaries of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected forest land. The court was considering a public interest litigation for the protection of forest lands in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. Later, the scope of the petition was enlarged to protect such natural resources throughout the country.
The order came at a time when Kerala has completed the ESZ draft notification of 20 out of its 24 wildlife sanctuaries and the proposals have been placed before the Union government.
Kerala forest minister A K Saseendran said the state wanted all human settlements to be excluded from the purview of the ESZ. “In Kerala, there are 24 wildlife sanctuaries. The Supreme Court order came at a time when we have already submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change our proposals on the ESZ of 20 sanctuaries, completely excluding the human habitats from the buffer zone. If the court directive is implemented, it would impact farmers in the state’s hilly regions. Besides, we have to start the process of demarcating the ESZ once again,” he said.
After a high-level meeting, Saseendran said the state government would move a review petition in the Supreme Court. The state would explore a suggestion in the apex court order, which said “the minimum width of the ESZ may be diluted in overwhelming public interest but for that purpose the State or Union Territory concerned shall approach the Central Empowered Committee and Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change”.
Kerala Independent Farmers’ Association (KIFA) chairman Alex Ozhukayil said the court verdict would have far-reaching consequences. “The total extent of the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala is eight lakh acres. If one km of ESZs is demarcated from their boundaries, around 4 lakh acres of human settlements, including farmlands, would come within that purview. This would be a matter of sheer survival of lakhs of people,” he said.
The KIFA chairman said that as per the new directive, farmers can undertake only farming activities and they cannot build commercial buildings. There are restrictions on infrastructure development. “Farmers have already protested against the anti-farmer conditions in the draft proposals of buffer zones. The state should step in to protect the interest of farmers as the order does not reflect the ground reality,” he added.