Two years ago, if it was the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam that the CPM, the Catholic Church and some politicians used to scare and incite people in Kerala, today they have a new bogey - a report of the high-level panel on Western Ghats headed by Planning Commission member Kasturi Rangan.
In 2011, people in the state were driven to hysteric fear by the same trio who told them that the 116-year old dam was about to burst and it would be nothing but an apocalypse in five districts. Everything - lives and properties - would be washed away.
Two years since then, nothing happened to the dam, people have recovered from their irrational fear, and the dam-related agitation has more or less fizzled out.
Today, the CPM, the Church and politicians are once again whipping up hysteria among the people who live in the hilly terrains of districts such as Idukki, Kozhikkode and Kannur misquoting the “Kasturi Rangan report”. While the report is a tremendous attempt to protect the western ghats, one of the “hottest hotspots of biodiversity” in the world, people in the Western Ghat districts have been told that it would ruin their lives.
What they seemingly don’t know is that the Western Ghats are spread across six states and the recommendations of the panel are only to protect and rejuvenate the ecologically sensitive areas for sustainable development. The report has almost nothing against the common people who live in these areas.
As the panel notes, about 60 per cent of the Ghats are already occupied by people (cultural landscape - human settlements, agriculture and plantations). Of the remaining 40 per cent, the panel has identified about 90 per cent as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) which have to be seriously protected. Obviously, no mining, sand mining and quarrying can be allowed in these belts and whatever is happening now needs to be phased out in the next five years.
It’s also not too drastic to suggest that no thermal or hydro power projects (without conditions) can be allowed in the ESAs. They also cannot have buildings or construction projects that exceed 20,000 square metres, “red” industries and townships. The people of the villages in the ESAs have to be consulted in all development work.
Are these anti-people or anti-cartels?
These are the critical details that the CPM, the Church and the others hid from the people. They also didn’t tell them how these will affect their lives. Rather, they misled them by telling them lies.
The truth is that none of the recommendations will affect most of the people living in the Western Ghats in Kerala. However, it will indeed affect cartels engaged in sand mining and quarries; and those engaged in encroachment of forest land, construction of resorts and development of townships in ecologically sensitive areas.
Environment activists and villagers in the districts on the Western Ghats have long been fighting a losing battle against these cartels. Media reports show that the extent of ecological destruction - particularly quarrying and indiscriminate construction - has reached truly dangerous levels. In fact, local movements of people have hailed the Kasturi Rangan report as their saviour.
Therefore, the truth is that the only people affected by the recommendations are the big guns and the cartels. And the CPM’s hartal being observed in the state today (Monday) is essentially for them.
The Catholic Church, although not participating in the hartal, has used very strong language against the report and said it only cared for the forest and animals, but not for people. Leaders and ministers of the Syrian Christian dominated Kerala Congress, a constituent of the ruling UDF, are also on a warpath.
For the CPM, the report appears to be a stone that can kill two birds: it wants to bring down the UDF government through public unrest, and also get closer to the Catholic Church. For years, the party has been trying to be friends with the Church and make inroads into the Christian belts, particularly in the hilly areas. It’s also actively encouraging Kerala Congress to break out of the UDF and join their camp.
Ever since CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was exonerated by a CBI court in the SNC Lavalin case, party leaders have been predicting the death of the UDF government in a few months. Former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has said that the government wouldn't last beyond the Parliament elections. An unrest and a split in the UDF are the way to go.
In the last two years, the desperate agitations by the CPM against the UDF government have rarely succeeded. And most of them ended up in terrible violence as happened in the march against the chief minister Oomen Chandy in Kannur a few weeks ago, and the anti Kasturi Rangan report agitation in Kozhikkode last week. Both the agitations had notable criminal characteristics.
It’s high time that people told the CPM that speculative investment in real estate and environmental destruction are no development and agitating over bogus causes is anti-people. But then, when was the last time the party led a real agitation on a real issue?