- Attappady, a plateau sandwiched between the Nilgiri Hills and Palghat Hills in the Western Ghats, has most of its lands demarcated as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs).
- The farmers are not fully aware of the ESA rules, which has led to confrontation between them and the forest department.
- Farmers of Attappady have been protesting since they feel constricted for their living needs.
With a school bag on her shoulder and a big shopping bag in her hand, 17-year-old Alby stares at the backbreaking path ahead. The two-kilometre untarred road from the bus stop to her home is steep, broken. “It has become a habit,” she says, smiling.
Kurukkankund, where Alby lives, is in Kallamala village in Kerala’s Attappady block in Palakkad district. Here, road and electricity are still a distant dream. The population in this area has dwindled from 80 to 15 families due to the lack of basic facilities. The bus to the nearest town, Goolikadavu, now runs a single trip each day.
Earlier, the children walked around 90 minutes one way to their school in Jellipara, with the looming threat of wild animals in the area.
Now, with online schooling due to the pandemic, their fathers download and bring their school notes home when they go to town.
Kallamala is one of the 123 villages in Kerala proposed as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) vide its draft notification issued on March 10, 2014. The classification of the ESA is according to the Kasturirangan Report of 2013. The National Green Tribunal had declared December 31, 2020 as the deadline to finalise the implementation of ESA.
In Kallamala, there is fear and speculation around how the ESA will impact the people’s lives. Many residents ask how the government plans to ensure basic amenities. People’s fears also stem from having experienced widespread violations of laws like the Forest Rights Act of 2006 and the Kerala Tribal Act of 1975. The ESA rules, however, do not restrict village infrastructure, farming and house repairs.
The Kerala government, which had objected to the ESA from the beginning, is now offering an alternative. “If the people are willing, they can be shifted to other places,” K. Raju, the state’s Minister for Forests, told Mongabay-India.
Conflict with the forest department
People’s conflicts with the forest department in Attapady dates back at least five decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, Attappady witnessed an influx of people from other parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kurukkankund is one of their earliest settlements. Most families here possess title deeds. The forest department, however, claims that these deeds are fake. “These are forests and the people have encroached upon these areas,” says K.T. Udayan, former forest range officer, Agali. Due to this dispute over the land, people living there do not have essential services.
In 2017, a farmer in Kurukkankund had his entire 25 acres of 12,000 banana plants destroyed by forest officers and he received no compensation for it. The forest officials say he is not eligible for compensation because he had encroached forest land.
During the state-wide floods in 2018, 37 electric posts fell in Attappady and Chindakki in Mukkali village of the block drowned in darkness for over a month. Chindakki falls in the buffer zone of the Silent Valley National Park. Digging a well for irrigation or adding a new room or cutting a tree from one’s own yard requires permission from the forest department. Besides, visitors have to prove the purpose of their visit at the forest check post at the entrance of Chindakki.
The Indian Forests Act of 1927 restricts some of these activities like felling or lopping trees, hunting animals, pasturing cattle, etc. in reserve forests. But the Forest Rights Act, 2006 empowers the people, who have been living in the forests for generations, to continue wth their lives and livelihoods there. It also permits diverting forest lands for building civic amenities.
Despite the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the Kerala Tribal Act, the tribal people continue to fight for their land rights here. Recently, Balan, an Adivasi in Bodichala Ooru (a place where tribal people live as a community) near Agali, lost four acres of his farm to the forest department, despite possessing the title deed. Like Balan, around 25 people also lost their lands.
Most of the resentment against the ESA notification stems from this conflict between the forest department and the people. “Chindakki is the future of Attappady if the Kasturirangan report is implemented,” comments P.P. Mohammed.
The debates around the Kasturirangan Report
On December 13 last year, around 60,000 farmers from Agali, Sholayur, and Pudur panchayats of Attappady, under the Attappady Zone Farmer Protection Council (AZFPC) stood together as a 37 km human wall from Mukkali to Anaikatty protesting against the proposed ESA and ESZ restrictions.
The Kasturirangan Committee (known formally as the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats) proposed 37% of the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs). The report identifies the village as a unit of ESA. Villages that had more than 20% ESAs were marked ESAs.
Accordingly, all the six villages of Attappady — Agali, Pudur, Padavayal, Kottathara, Kallamala, and Sholayur — are ESAs. It includes many human settlements. C.R. Babu, a noted environmentalist and a member of the Kasturirangan Committee points out, “The report prescribes several alternative livelihood options.”
The report doesn’t explicitly restrict farming. However, the farmers fear the worst. Udayan T.D., a farmer living in Chittoor strongly supports stringent laws to preserve the environment but feels that it shouldn’t be by harming common people. “I had to seek permission from the forest department for repairing my bathroom,” says Udayan.
Tedy, a vocal representative of the settler farmers, explains how a complete ban on mining as suggested in the draft ESA could pose practical difficulties. “For laying the foundation of homes, one has to bring stone from Dhoni (over 50 km away) which is expensive,” says Tedy.
On the other hand, many environmentalists in the region feel that the report is harmless to the people. Mani Parampet, an environmentalist and an organic farmer, says that people have encroached upon forests. He says, “There is a lot of evil propaganda and misinformation in the air. Farmers are unaware; political parties and other interest groups are frightening them.”
Sukumaran Attappady, a vocal farmers’ rights activist also supports stringent rules but makes a significant point, “Laws should apply equally to everyone.” Quite interestingly, one finds a lot of windmills and resorts on the hilltops of Attappady.
Recently, the MoEFCC declared 148 square km area around the Silent Valley National Park as Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ). Construction of new houses, felling of trees, and infrastructure including civic amenities, ongoing agriculture practices, etc. are regulated activities in ESZ notification. A part of Kallamala and Padavayal villages in Attappady are ESZs.
P.N. Mathew, a farmer, says he believes, “The forest department will become the ultimate authority.”
“Let forests be forests. But human settlements should be excluded,” says Johnson Joseph, secretary of AZFPC.
This story was reported under the NFI Fellowships for Independent Journalists
Banner image: From coffee to pepper to rambutan, one can find them in Mathew’s farm in Agali, Attappady, his home since the 1960s. Photo by Nimisha S. Pradeep.