Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the Kasturirangan panel report on the Western Ghats has emerged as a boiling issue, strong enough to tilt the fortunes of ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala. Stakes are high for Congress in the impending decision of the Union Environment and Forest Ministry, which has informed the state that its concerns would be looked into before the polling schedule is announced.
Kerala has been demanding that human settlements and agricultural land should be excluded from the purview of the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). As per the expert panel report, 123 villages in Kerala have been declared as ESA. The state wanted to withdraw an office memorandum issued by MoEF in last November, which slapped a slew of restrictions on activities in villages under ESA.
The Kerala leg of the Western Ghats is inhabited by farmers, particularity Christians, who are traditionally the vote bank of Congress and its ally Kerala Congress, a regional Christian party. Kerala Congress legislators have threatened to bring down the Congress government if the demands of the farmers are not met. A section of Kerala Congress (M) is mulling the option of quitting the UDF if the Congress fails to address their concerns.
Earlier this week, Kerala Catholic Bishops’s Council, in a pastoral letter to be read out in churches on March 9, urged the locals to vote for those parties which protect the interest of farmers at Western Ghats, among other things.
The unusual, early release of the pastoral letter is seen as a pressure tactic of the Church. Catholics’ outfit All Kerala Catholic Congress has threatened to field own candidates in selected constituencies if the villages were not lifted from the purview of ESA. In Kozhikode, Catholic diocese of Thamarassery has pressed in a priest to go on indefinite strike since Wednesday.
The LDF has stepped into exploit the situation. On Saturday, LDF has called for a dawn-to-dusk hartal in Idukki, Wayanad and certain parts of Kottayam district, demanding that the Union Government should correct its stand on the Kasturirangan report. “CPI (M) would stand for the people of the hilly regions,” said party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.
UD has proposed that original residents of 45 resettlement colonies be given ownership rights to their tenements.