Western Ghats Issue: AIKS Holds Dharna in New Delhi
HUNDREDS of peasants from Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu and Karnataka took out a march and staged a militant dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on January 31, 2014, against the implementation of the Kasturirangan committee recommendations on Western Ghats. The dharna was inaugurated by Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). Amra Ram, president of the AIKS, presided over the meeting. The protestors also submitted to the environment ministry a memorandum demanding that implementation of the high level working group’s (HLWG) recommendations must be stopped and an experts panel must be formed, including people’s representatives, to prepare a comprehensive plan for protection of fragile ecosystems and livelihoods in Western Ghats. Over 2.5 lakh signatures were collected from Kerala against the working group’s recommendations, and these were also handed over to the ministry. Delegates from Tamilnadu also came with resolutions passed by Gram Sabhas in the state against the recommendations; these too were handed over to the government. This was a unique feature of the protest and was a reflection of the mass resentment against the government’s move to impose anti-peasant recommendations of the high level working group. The meeting was addressed by former AIKS president S Ramachandran Pillai, former AIKS general secretary K Varadha Rajan, AIKS joint secretary N K Shukla, Kerala Karshaka Sangham president E P Jayarajan, Tamilnadu Vivasayigal Sangham general secretary P Shanmugham, Maharashtra Kisan Sabha general secretary Kishan Gujjar, Yamuna Gaonkar (CITU, Karnataka), Suneet Chopra (joint secretary, All India Agricultural Workers’ Union) and Sivadasan (president, Students Federation of India), among others. Rajya Sabha member K N Balagopal and Lok Sabha member P K Biju also addressed the gathering and assured that they would take up the matter of the HLWG recommendations as well as the problems of the rubber farmers in parliament. AIKS finance secretary P Krishnaprasad welcomed the gathering and AIKS joint secretary Vijoo Krishnan delivered the vote of thanks. The meeting resolved to take forward the fight with greater intensity until the demands are met. Earlier, on January 30, AIKS general secretary Hannan Mollah demanded that the prime minister must constitute an experts panel to examine the WGEEP-HLWG reports. He raised the demand while addressing a media conference at the AIKS office at 4, Ashoka Road, New Delhi. Mollah pointed out that the peasants and the people in general in the Western Ghats region are anxious over the decision of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to accept in principle and operationalise the recommendations in the report of the high level working group while these recommendations are anti-farmer. The steps taken to notify 4,156 villages in six states from Gujarat to Tamilnadu as an ecologically sensitive area, without addressing the concern of the peasantry and the public, have generated widespread protest. Thousands of people are participating in the continuing struggles and protest actions. The AIKS leader said there is a ban on land use in the declared eco-sensitive areas except when an extension of existing village settlement areas is needed to accommodate the increase in the population of local residents. This prohibits forever any construction and development activities including the construction of hospitals, libraries, schools or even cattlesheds. The complete ban on chemical fertilisers without any viable alternatives will negatively affect agricultural production and the income of peasant families. The ban on conversion of government land into private land prohibits forever the allocation of pattas to thousands of genuine land possessing peasants and tribes. Not allowing non-forest activities in forestland will contravene the rights provided by the Forest Rights Act to tribes and traditional forest dwellers living in the forestlands.The prohibition on inter-basin diversion of rivers in Western Ghats will also adversely affect the people. The AIKS leader also pointed out that the MoEF is unwilling to exclude even milk processing, meat processing, extraction of vegetable and hospitals from the list of red category industries. The action plan submitted by the HLWG has no specific recommendation to allocate any special fund for promoting organic cultivation or to extend subsidy to agriculture, except the fund for forest and environment conservation. The AIKS has described the delineation and demarcation of eco-sensitive areas as unscientific, which has excluded vast fragile areas while confiscating numerous largely populated habitats. Instead of giving clarifications on these crucial issues, the MOEF memorandum dated December 20 clearly said the ministry had accepted the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) approximately 37 percent of the Western Ghats --- as identified and delineated by the HLWG. The memorandum only allowed that after the notification of ESA by the MoEF, the state governments “may suggest modifications based up on physical verifications” and then the MoEF may “fine tune” the boundary of the ESA. It is very clear that there will not be any substantial change in the notified areas as recommended by the HLWG; the effort here is only to mute the protests of the state governments and the people and pacify them with an eye on the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Giving several more details of the MoEF moves, the AIKS has reached the conclusion that both the reports, by the WGEEP and HLWG, nothing but bureaucratic exercises without any democratic approach and are not based on any scientific assessment of the human-environment relationship in the region. The AIKS said the public consciousness about the essentiality of preservation of nature and environment for the existence of human life is getting strengthened the world over day by day. The recommendations like ban on mining, hazardous red industries and unbridled construction on ecologically sensitive and fragile lands are positive steps that require the support of all progressive sections including the working class and the peasantry. But a balanced approach about protection of the people’s livelihood while conserving the environment was missing in both the reports, and that is why it can be said that they have failed to identify and delineate the eco-sensitive areas in a scientific and democratic manner. The reports ignore the fact that the people in these regions have been the most effective conservators and have coexisted with as well as actively protected the wildlife and biodiversity of the region. In view of these realities, the AIKS leader presented at the media conference the demands raised by his organisation. These were as below: 1) Stop implementation of the recommendations of the HLWG report. 2) Set up an experts panel to look into the WGEEP and HLWG reports; these must include social scientists, environment experts, people’s representatives and leaders of peasant organisations. Adequate representation must be given to the varied political opinions from the affected states. 3) Drop all anti-peasant, anti-people recommendations from the two reports. Take a holistic approach and make a balanced plan of action to protect both fragile ecosystems and people’s livelihoods in the Western Ghats. 4) Take effective steps to reassure the millions of people in the Western Ghats region that the security of their livelihood will be ensured and genuine developmental activities in the areas of their habitats will be promoted while protecting their environment.