After the Supreme Court's June 3 notification on the one-km ESZ (ecologically sensitive zones) around protected areas triggered public concerns, both the major political fronts in Kerala, the UDF and the LDF, have been vying with each other to demonstrate that they were the ones who had mounted the fiercest battle against the ESZ.
Opposition Leader V D Satheesan had the government in a tight spot when he said that it was the LDF's policy decision in 2019 to allow 0-1 km ESZ even in human habitations near the forest that had eventually led to the Supreme Court notification. He argued that the UDF government under Oommen Chandy had called for the exemption of all human habitations from the purview of the ESZ.
To poke holes in Satheesan's aggression, forest minister A K Saseendran wanted to remind the Opposition Leader of his past. The minister recalled that in 2013, when Satheesan was a backbencher and part of the Green Brigade MLAs, the Opposition Leader had expressed the fear that Kerala could go Ooty's way. The minister was hinting that Satheesan had then wanted the ESZ to be even 12 km, an argument that the LDF circles have been making recently.
During the last UDF tenure Satheesan had led a small team of young UDF MLAs who were ideologically opposed to the Oommen Chandy government's attempt to dilute both the Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports. The late Congress leader P T Thomas was their patron.
The minister said that he respected the spirit of Satheesan's previous comments. "But I would like to know whether he still stands by what he had said then," Saseendran said.
A bit of context is in order here. In 2013, the then forest minister K B Ganesh Kumar appointed three committees, chaired by ruling party MLAs T.N. Prathapan, V.D. Satheesan, and N Shamsudheen, to interact with people affected by the MoEF recommendation that protected areas should have a buffer zone of 10 km, and evolve a consensus. The three UDF MLAs were chosen because of their nearly militant pro-ecology stand.
The LDF insinuation is that Satheesan and gang wanted a 10-km buffer zone. Fact, however, is a bit more nuanced.
Even in 2013, the Green Brigade had said that the committees were guided by three principles: The ESZ should not affect normal life; agricultural activities should be left untouched; and there should be no controls on the legal livelihood activities.
Though activist-like in his approach to environment related issues, Satheesan had then itself conceded that the Gadgil report and the Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL) Act had struck fear in the minds of people. So instead of the stringent MoEF prescription, the recommendations of the 'green' committees were highly liberal.
While the MoEF recommended a 10-km buffer zone for all the 17 wildlife sanctuaries and five national parks, these committees wanted Wayanad and Idukki wildlife sanctuaries fully exempted from the ESZ norms. And the largest extent of ESZ that these committees had recommended was 2 kms, for Periyar Tiger Reserve.
Satheesan, who was then despatched to evolve a consensus in Idukki, told the Assembly on Thursday that his committe had then recommended the ban on limited activities like quarrying, red industries, units causing sound pollution and multi-storied buildings in the 10 kilometres around protected areas, and nothing else. "This was a consensus arrived at after discussing with all local stakeholders concerned, including the opposition," Satheesan said. "But irrespective of what we said, the then Chandy government recommended zero buffer zone for all protected areas in Kerala," the Opposition Leader said.
Further, he emphasised that he still was against the exploitation of forests for personal gains. "I still believe that it was the overexploitation of natural resources in Ooty that led to the flow of tourists to Munnar and Thekkady. I don't want these two destinations to suffer Ooty's fate," Satheesan said .
He told the minister that it was the LDF government that was plundering natural resources as exemplified by the looting of trees at Muttil in Wayanad.