Oommen Chandy’s fight against drought

A cardamom estate in Idukki district

A cardamom estate in Idukki district

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been touring the districts during the last fortnight to chart our measures to fight drought. At the same time, he ignored large scale felling of trees in Idukki district and the precarious condition of forests in Wayanad. (Mr. Chandy is now holding the Forest portfolio, following the resignation of K. B. Ganesh Kumar). This shows the dichotomy between the government’s campaigns and ground-level enforcement of stated policies.

The felling of trees in Idukki is significant in more ways than one. Forests in Idukki are crucial for availability of water both for Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The longest river of the State Periyar has much of its catchment in Idukki district. Many important power projects including Idukki is located here. Still, Mr. Chandy did virtually nothing to stem the felling of trees in the district while announcing so many other measures to check drought.  He is finding solutions without addressing at least one of the known the causes– deforestation.

It is also significant that the felling of trees had taken place against the background of Gadgil committee report. The trees felled were of two types. Forest species in cardamom estates and eucalyptus on encroached forest land. It was feared that if the Centre implements Gadgil recommendations, it might become impossible to cut and remove these trees because of restrictions. Hence, the hurry in cutting and transporting hundreds of lorry-loads of trees from the district.

The biggest protests against the Gadgil panel had originated from Idukki district. Now, it should be clear who were behind these protests. They brought time through the protests and appointment of K. Kasturirangan panel to scrutinise the Gadgil report. Now that the astrophysicist-led panel has given its verdict on Gadgil report, it is high time that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests stepped in to implement the recommendations.

Forest Minister’s prescription for tiger menace

Kerala Forest Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar has directed forest officials that tigers straying into populated areas should be trapped and kept in the zoo. This goes against the spirit of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

Tiger in zooThe Forest Minister should be probing the real reasons for tigers straying out of the wild instead of suggesting quick fix solutions. Some people have suggested that there is an “over-abundance” of tigers in Wayanad now. This needs a closer look.

In last few years, tigers have moved into areas they were not seen at least for the last few decades. There is indication that the tiger population in the State has gone up and tigers have moved into adjoining areas. In places like Kottoor, no conflicts between the newly arrived tigers and tribals living in the area have been reported.  This may be because the forests are healthy and with adequate availability of prey.  The status of forests around Agastyarkoodam had improved in recent years but the same cannot be said for Wayanad.

That a tiger need a territory for itself is well known. So, it only natural that tigers move out as their numbers grows.  With camera trappings and other technologies available now, the number tigers and the area available for them can easily be determined. If there are too many tigers as claimed, measures to shift some of the tigers to other suitable areas should be worked out. If it is not a problem of territory, steps should immediately be taken to improve status of forests as in Wayanad.  Studies in this respect should cover the neighbouring States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is possible that some problem in those States such as shortage of water could have forced the tigers to flee.

Till the studies are over, the Forest Department can tackle the lifting of domestic animals by tigers by providing adequate compensation. If compensation is good enough, agitated people could be pacified as long as there are no attacks on humans.  So, the Minister’s quick fix solution can perhaps wait.

Meanwhile, the Department should speed up its programme to shift people living within the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary to other areas. This is a voluntary programme and people living in pockets inside the forests are willing to relocate. (This may not apply to people living on the periphery who are also threatened by tiger kills.)

It has turned out that the tiger that caused all the trouble was an unhealthy one. In such isolated cases, the Forest Minister’s prescription is correct. However, it should not be applied in all cases of tigers staying into populated areas. Much of the public protests,  which forced the Minister to make his statement, was the result of deliberate campaign and rumour mongering by vested interests.

Related: Media frenzy over tiger kills


India’s biodiversity & Convention on Biodiversity– Part II

The 11th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity, to be held in Hyderabad from October 8 to 19, will take stock of the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing.  It will also review the progress of targets set to check biodiversity loss.

The Nagoya Protocol is about access to genetic resources and benefit sharing in a fair and equitable manner. Even as private parties and companies are allowed access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge held by communities, it envisages strong regulatory frame works and capacity building by nations ratifying the protocol.  So far only six countries have ratified the Protocol, and it would come into force only after at least 50 countries ratified the Protocol.

Kurinji flowers (Strobilanthes kunthiana)In this UN decade of Biodiversity, the Convention has set forth to at least halve the loss of natural habitats including forests, and where feasible, bring the rate of loss to zero.  It wants to establish a conservation target of 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of marine and coastal areas by 2020 and restore at least 15% of degraded areas through conservation and restoration activities and make special efforts to reduce the pressures faced by coral reefs. There are also other targets.

India had proposed to increase the forest and tree cover to 33 per cent by 2012. However, the forest survey in 2011 showed that the forest and tree cover was only 23.81 per cent.  (India had, however, added three million hectares of forests and tree cover over the last three decades when most developing countries lost forests).

At Hyderabad, the delegates are to review the work on island biodiversity and address ecosystem restoration, traditional knowledge systems, marine and coastal biodiversity, biodiversity and climate change, biodiversity and development, and several other ecosystem-related and cross-cutting issues. These are subjects of immense import to India which harbours seven to eight per cent of the World’s biodiversity. (Of the 34 globally identified biodiversity hot spots, three are in our region—the Himalayas, Indo-Burma, and Western Ghats and Sri Lanka).  In terms of plant biodiversity, India ranks tenth in the World.

In the high level segment of the Conference from October 16 to 19, Heads of States and Ministers will be taking decisions on strategic plan for checking biodiversity loss, protection of livelihoods and reduction of poverty by conserving biodiversity, marine and coastal biodiversity and implementation of the Nagoya protocol. If the right decisions are taken, it would immensely benefit the poor and keep the world away from disaster that the loss of biodiversity could bring upon the globe. However, in the Conferences like this with their protracted negotiations, this is easier said than done.

The politics of green politicians in Kerala

The green brigade in the UDF in Kerala is striking a distinct position compared to rest of the members of the Assembly in the Front. They have also started using the new media for their campaign.  (T. N. Pratapan, V. D. Satheesan, V. T. Balram and Hibi Eden (Congress) K. M. Shaji  (Muslim League )and  M. V. Sreeyams Kumar (SJD) are blogging at GreenThoughtsKerala)

Title image of blog of the MLAs

Title image of blog by V. D. Satheesan, T. N. Pratapan, M. V. Sreeyams Kumar, V. T. Balram, K. M. Shaji and Hibi Eden

The scenario in the Assembly has been changing over the past decade with more members coming forward to propound the cause of environment. The Legislative Committee on Environment has over the years produced well-studied reports. Two decades ago, K. V. Surendranath of CPI was the only member campaigning for environmental causes. On the other side people like Seethi Haji (IUML) asked how it rained at sea if forests were required for precipitation.  Now, there are several members both in the ruling and Opposition fronts wanting to protect the environment. They include Opposition Leader V. S. Achuthanandan who once spoke against environmentalists.

However, a question would arise as to how deep their commitments are.  Are they simply moving with the tide or playing politics? It is notable that almost all members of the green brigade are people who had missed out on ministerial positions. They have an axe to grind against Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and other UDF leaders.  And they know that fighting corruption from within a la Achuthanandan has a market. Yet, that does not make the causes they are expounding less important.

Yes, they are indeed playing politics and it is notable that Mr. Chandy and industries Minister P. K. Kunhalikutty are in the defensive.  Mr. Chandy even said that they are doing the campaign because they are sincere.  May be, people can trust them more than Mr. Achuthanandan who is also expounding the same causes.

If they are sincere, they will persist. Mr. Achuthanandan forgot many of the causes he expounded when he came to power. The litmus test for green politicians of UDF too would be what they do when they come to power.

Update: Well, we did not have to wait until they come to power to know how steadfast they would be on their views. The green politicians are now supporting tourism projects such as that proposed in Nelliyampathy disregarding questions whether the land proposed to be used for such projects are forests or environmentally fragile areas. They do say that they changed their stand because Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has conceded their demands including environmental impact assessment of all projects under Emerging Kerala initiative.

UDF government courts controversies

The open sparring in the UDF over the lease of estates in Nelliampathy and the controversy over regularisation of conversion paddy fields have dented the image of ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala.

The Government Chief Whip P. C. George took cudgels against Forest Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar for initiating steps for takeover of estates over expiry of lease or violation of lease conditions including sale or conversion of the estates. Mr. George’s contention is that the Forest Department is acting against farmers, meaning the estate owners.

Nelliampathy Estates

Nelliampathy Estates

Estate owners have been trying every trick in the book to prevent reversion of their estates. They have also gained support of a section of the UDF in favour of their efforts to retain the leases.  However, a section within the UDF is opposed to it. In fact, there was a section favouring the estate owners in the previous LDF government also. However, the CPI which was in charge of the Forest portfolio had favoured take over.  After the UDF government came to power, interested groups were working for change of policy and that yielded some results.

The fight in the UDF over the issue would not die down easily as much is at stake.

Similar is the situation on the question of reclamation and conversion of wet lands and paddy fields. Those attempting large scale conversions had received the support of a section of the previous government. Now, they were getting almost full support from the Cabinet with it approving a proposal to regularize pre-2005 conversions. This would have helped realtors and investors in resorts and other projects. However, opposition is growing in the UDF with V. M. Sudheeran and others openly speaking against the decision. What they are pointing at is obvious.

These controversies are accentuating dormant internal schisms in the front and could even threaten the cohesion of the government.


Regenerated Attappady: boon to Tamil Nadu

After initial hiccups and extension of project implementation periods, the Attapady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project has achieved many of its objectives. Trees are now growing on the hills, rendered barren in the past, and rivers are flowing even in summer.

Much of the Attappady hills, once covered with evergreen forests, had become wastelands owing to encroachments, unwise agricultural practices and consequent soil erosion, cattle grazing and felling of trees. The project was started in 1995 with funding from the Japan Bank for International Corporation (now JICA) received in 1996, but field work took off only in 2000. The project was targeted to be completed in 2005. However, the situation was not rosy as an extension of project was considered. There has been misuse of funds and corruption and targets were far from achieved.

However, project implementation improved from 2005 and a peak performance in expenditure was achieved by 2010. Then continuation of the project became an issue and further extensions were granted. Another extension with new projects under the implementing agency Attappady Hill Area Development Society is under consideration.  It is pointed out that about 5000 hectares more remained to be developed and the trees planted need to be protected from fire and plunder.Attapady hill planted with trees

Attapady hill planted with trees. The area was barren before planting

A decade is hardly the time for forests to grow back. Patches of barren fields could still be seen amidst the planted trees. (Planting was done in government owned forest land as well as in private lands as conservation measure). Resumption of grazing and felling of trees for fire wood can reverse the trend. However, protection will ensure further regeneration without fresh planting and other project operations.

The fact that restoration is far from complete can be gauged by looking at both banks of Bhavani River. The River, which originates in Silent Valley National Park of Kerala, flows through Attapady for about 25 km and then through the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border for about seven km. If you look across the River into Tamil Nadu side (see photo below), you can see the riparian forest trees growing there whereas the bank on the Kerala side is almost barren. Compare this with the restored hill on the Kerala side close to the River in the photo above.Kerala TN border marked by Bhavani River

Bhavani River Seperating Kerala and Tamil Nadu territory

The re-forestation of Attapady hills would reduce threat of degradation to the buffer areas of the Silent Valley National Park. It would also benefit Tamil Nadu as it increases the flow through the Bhavani River which courses through Coimbatore and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu after leaving Kerala. It is a boon to Tamil Nadu as was the declaration of the Kurinjimala Wildlife Sanctuary in Idukki district. (Covering about the same area of Periyar lease (for Mullaperiyar dam), the shola grasslands of the Sanctuary is capable of retaining about the same quantity of water as could be stored in the Mullaperiyar reservoir and release them gradually throughout the year. Thus Kerala gifted a second Mullaperiyar to TN by conserving water.)