K A Shaji/ Idukki and Munnar
``Revenue Minister KM Mani is trying to assign nearly two lakh acres of reserve forests to his relatives and encroachers with the connivance of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Mani is taking the initiative by highlighting a numerical mistake in the documents issued in 1897, declaring the Cardamom Hill Reserve in Idukki district a reserve forest, though the same order and the Travancore Forest manuals in 1917 and 1947 had vividly described the boundaries of the cardamom hill — that it had an area of 334 sq km.”
— VS Achuthanandan, then Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, on December 12, 2005
Ten months have passed since Achuthanandan came to power. However, the evergreen forests of highly sensitive Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) in Kerala’s Idukki district are under the threat of total wipeout. In an unexpected turn of events, Achuthanandan’s coalition partner — the CPI — has told its nominee and state Forest Minister Binoy Viswam to support the claims of the powerful CHR encroachers’ lobby, represented by KM Mani of the Kerala Congress (M), for getting them legal protection. To make matters worst for the cm, the revenue minister is also a senior member of the CPI.
The CHR, near Munnar, comprises 334 sq km (2,15,721 acres) reserve forest according to a royal proclamation of the Kingdom of Travancore on August 24,1897. The proclamation was the first major initiative to protect the sanctity of the ecologically fragile area but a numerical mistake in it has now become handy for both the encroachers and their political patrons to permanently settle in the region.
According to conservationists, the rain forests of CHR are a natural corridor of wildlife from Palani hills of Tamil Nadu to Periyar Tiger Reserve of Kerala. The forest belt is also the catchment area of half-a-dozen major hydro-electric projects in the Idukki region. Paradoxically, the CHR is India’s hill of spices as it accounts for about 70 percent cardamom production in the country. Efforts are also on to axe big trees in the forestland leased out for cardamom cultivation. All these are now happening with the support of a few powerful CPI leaders.
It was in 1935 the Travancore government had framed special rules for leasing out the hill for cardamom cultivation. The rules specifically say that nothing except cardamom should be grown on the leased land, failing which, the land would revert to the government. However, in the 60’s, regional farmers’ parties like Kerala Congress (M) started encouraging people from other parts of the state to encroach into the CHR forests under the guise of cardamom cultivation. The forest and revenue officials had colluded with them in forging fake lease documents.
As per the latest government records, the forest area in the CHR has reduced to 25 percent of what existed 50 years ago. The actual level of encroachment may be more bizarre.
Though Mani’s Kerala Congress is the most powerful outfit among the CHR encroachers, the CPI bags the second position. At least three state CPI leaders are in the list of large-scale encroachers. The party has already told the forest minister not to stand in the way of regularising the forest encroachments or extending the duration of the land leases. It also directed Revenue Minister KP Rajendran to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming that the CHR has never been a reserve forest but revenue land.
Under Mani’s pressure, AK Antony, during his stint as Kerala chief minister, had regularised over 20,000 hectares of land saying the government was committed to condone all the pre-1977 encroachments. Now, both CPI and Kerala Congress (M) are hell bent on regularising the post-1977 encroachments also.
“It would not be easy for both the CPI and Mani to convince the Supreme Court that the area in question is revenue land,” says Tony Thomas of One Earth One Life, an ngo. “The empowered committee of the court has already visited the CHR to take stock of the situation. All documents including fair copies of the Royal Proclamation of 1897 are under the perusal of Supreme Court,” he said.
But Mani counters this argument. “Any attempt to declare the cardamom hill reserve as forest would render at least four lakh people of Udumbanchola taluk, in Idukki district, homeless,” he said. “Before and after the Independence, successive state governments abetted migration to the hill reserve for promoting cardamom cultivation. No government can ignore the farmers now,” he said.
Sources in the forest department say that the state government is waging a losing battle. “There are clear evidences before the apex court and even an empowered committee had recommended strong action against the encroachers. The government and the land mafia have nothing to support their claim,” said a forest conservator on condition of anonymity.
In addition to the CPI, there is a ‘Left fellow-traveller’ legislator who was instrumental in preparing an official note stating that the area notified under the CHR in 1897 is only 15,720 acres. KJ Alphonse Kannanthanam, now a Left-supported MLA from the Kanjirapally constituency, in the capacity of State Land Revenue Commissioner, had understandably hobnobbed with the then Revenue Minister Mani to prepare the note in the 2001-2006 period. During the Assembly poll in 2006, VS Achuthanandan refused to campaign for Kannanthanam since he was under the shadow of the allegation.
In other words, Kannanthanam’s act excluded nearly 93 percent of the forest area under the CHR from the purview of the Forest Conservation Act so that it would be easier for the state government to regularise the encroachments even without getting the Centre’s clearance.
When contacted for his reaction on the allegations against him, Kannanthanam said: “According to the Proclamation of 1897, the CHR consists of 15,720 acres. However, forest department claims the area was 2,15,720 acres and the figure shown in the proclamation was a numerical error. How could it happen? Those who prepared it were experts. Moreover, people had started settling there about 187 years ago. They migrated to the hills as part of the ‘grow more food’ scheme of the government after World War-II. How can we tell them to leave the area?”
Eminent Malayalam poet and environmentalist Sugathakumari is puzzled by the CPI’s stance. “We can understand the motives of people like KM Mani. But how can we explain the attitude of the CPI on this issue? After all, it was the first party that took up environmental issues.”