It is a well known fact that the landslide tragedy at Karinjola is nature’s big warning against the double standards practiced in protecting the environment.
In Kerala which is blessed with geographical uniqueness, laws and regulations bound to be strictly followed should not be violated for any reason by succumbing to temporary demands and instant pressures. Unfortunately, the decisions taken during the cabinet meeting the other day for safeguarding the plantation sector breaches this principle.
Certain suggestions in the statements made by the Chief Minister in the assembly as per Rule 300, tantamount to the government itself sabotaging the provisions made for environmental protection. A Commission headed by Justice (retd) Krishnan Nair appointed by the erstwhile government in November 2015 for resolving the issues in the plantation sector, had submitted its report in August 2016 itself. The Chief Minister has announced that nine measures have been adopted after taking into account the recommendations by the committee formed for submitting suggestions for implementing the recommendations in the Commission report, and led by the Chief Secretary and with the Secretaries for the departments of tax, finance, forest, revenue, agriculture, employment and law as members. . The major decisions include exemption for the plantations from plantation tax, agricultural income tax, seigniorage of Rs 2, 500 due to be given on a rubber tree and building tax for outhouses. The remaining part of the statement comprises promises such as inclusion of those residing in outhouses in the LIFE scheme, income reforms and timely reform in the state plantation policy. Scrapping of taxes brings relief to the plantation owners. Cash crops such as cashew, coffee and cardamom in the name of farmers are already outside the scope of Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL) Act. The Chief Minister’s statement reminds that the plantations had already been exempted from the ambit of the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Land) Act in 2003 itself.
This concession is against the existing forest laws and one that favours rampant smuggling of trees. It is needless to mention that this will destroy the bio wealth and ecosystem of the Western Ghats as well. This would be more beneficial for those who encroach upon rich lands in the Western Ghats using forged documents. This will also lead to setbacks in cases such as illegal encroachment and misuse of plantation lands. The concessions, however old they are, usually do not benefit the environment. The remark of advocate Susheela Bhat who is a former government pleader and an expert in handling forest land encroachment cases in Kerala, that these concessions lack legal basis and will only help in the smuggling of trees, is noteworthy.
The plantation sector of the state is going through a severe crisis. The solution to the problems of the sector is sensitive and complex due to the organic richness and economic significance of the land. The government has to tread that territory with extreme care and caution, for the plantation sector in the high range is fraught with conflicts of so diverse interests. 40 per cent of the plantation farming of the country is in Kerala. And that in turn constitutes 30 per cent of Kerala's agricultural land too. It forms the livelihood of lacs of people, and is the source of income running to crores of rupees. However, over the last five years the income has shrunk to half that, causing loss of jobs for 40% of the labour force. The agricultural issue of the plantations, which is influenced by reasons from international agreements to climate change, cannot be resolved by simplifying the rules regarding land transactions and upsetting the Ecologically Fragile Lands Act. On the contrary, it will only make matters more complicated and will benefit only the plantation owners. This will be evident in everything from the renovation of outhouses to the decision regarding takeover of the burden of medical treatment of the plantation labourers. As per law, all these are the responsibility of the plantation owner, and by the government assuming that burden, the decision will indirectly benefit only the planters.
That said, the plight of labourers leading a life of slavery in outhouses cannot be lost sight of. Their wage reforms and ensuring adequate living amenities should not be confined to declaration, but should be implemented in a time-bound manner. But going by past experience, the labourers have received only promises whereas all the benefits have gone to plantation owners. The protection of plantation area should not get reduced to protection of plantation owners. And no one should be allowed to disturb the natural structure of the land for non-agricultural purposes. The core of the law should be protection of agriculture and care of the labourers. The government is duty bound to come forward to withdraw and correct such proposals as may give room for resale of land and may upset the ecology of the area.