The Congress faces a crisis of faith in the Western Ghats

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On the road People living and farming in 123 villages fear that they will be displaced
On the road People living and farming in 123 villages fear that they will be displaced

In Kerala, the Catholic Church has always been a staunch ally of the Congress- led United Democratic Front. But the unfolding battle over preserving the Western Ghats has put the church and the party on a collision course.

It all started in October, when the Centre decided to implement key suggestions of the Kasturirangan panel on Western Ghats conservation. The report had identified 123 villages in Kerala, comprising 33.72 percent of the state’s geographical area, as ecologically sensitive. Thousands of farmers cultivate spices and rubber in the Ghats and they are afraid that if the panel’s suggestions are implemented, they will be left without a livelihood.

As a majority of the farmers belong to the Catholic faith, church leaders issued a war cry through pastoral letters and organised violent protests in the high ranges. The statewide protests have gathered momentum and church leaders have openly stated that they would defeat sitting Congress MP PT Thomas in the next election if he contests again from his home constituency of Idukki.

Thomas, a church faithful, was not ready to kneel before the church leaders and termed the move as anti-Christian. The 50-year-old announced that he was ready to play the role of a sacrificial goat for saving the Western Ghats.

The Centre’s decision sparked widespread protests across the state. In the violence, two Forest Department buildings were burnt and files were gutted. Three jeeps and some other vehicles were also set afire. Later, the Forest Department named Father Saji Mangarayil of the Chembukavu parish as one of the accused who incited violence against the forest office.

Union Defence Minister AK Antony and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy are trying their best to avoid a showdown with the church and save the party’s traditional vote bank. “I have raised strong reservations against the Kasturirangan report,” says Chandy. “Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has assured that Kerala will get a chance to present its views before notifying the panel report. We will find a solution soon.”

The chief minister visited New Delhi along with state Congress unit chief Ramesh Chennithala, but could not meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and brief him about the political fallout of the Western Ghats issue.

At least three Lok Sabha constituencies, Pathanamthitta, Idukki and Wayanad — all represented by the Congress — are going to be affected if the panel’s recommendations are implemented. All these constituencies have the maximum number of Catholic settlers who migrated to the high ranges of the Western Ghats in the early 1960s.

“It’s a do-or-die situation,” says Bishop Mathew Arackel of the Kanjirapally Syro-Malabar diocese. “We are protesting as our lives would be affected if the Kastrurirangan panel report is implemented. Hundreds of families living in the high ranges would be forced to abandon their farms. When our people are in distress, how can we sit idle?” The 69-year-old bishop fears that around 3 lakh people are going to be affected in Idukki district, and a majority of them are marginal farmers.

According to Bishop Arackel, the farmers of Idukki are not against protecting the Western Ghats. “We are the most eco-sensitive people as our daily lives are linked to nature. Without protecting the ecology, we cannot survive in our land. But there is an attempt to paint us as looters of the environment,” says the bishop, who was a former adviser to the state Planning Commission. He blames insensitive politicians for creating confusion among the people over the Kasturirangan panel report.

“How can you label farmers as anti-green? In fact, they care for nature more than the so-called green NGOs. This is a conspiracy to displace the farmers from their land.”

The bishop claims that supporters of the Save the Western Ghats campaign are recipients of foreign funds. “They are hiring the best legal brains in the country to get a favourable judgment from the Supreme Court, whereas we are finding it difficult to hire a lawyer to defend our cause,” says the bishop. “Critics allege that our struggle is funded by the land mafia, quarry miners and the holiday resort lobby. If we had such support, we could have manipulated the whole issue. Our strength is our people. A majority of them are marginal farmers.”

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