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Farmers in The Nilgiris have been agitating against the proposed buffer zone around the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, fearing that it would prevent them from cultivating crops of their choice, constructing or renovating buildings and selling land.

The Nilgiri Biosphere is spread over a vast area covering the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border region.

On June 3, 2022, the Supreme Court recommended that a buffer zone of 1 km radius be created around all protected forest zones including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves across the nation.

The apex court made the recommendation while disposing of a batch of Public Interest Litigations (PILs), including one seeking protection of forest land in The Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. It also banned activities including mining and setting up of any industries in the buffer zone. However, the SC instead of giving an order to states, directed that opinions over the issue be submitted to it before January 3.

Lakhs of farmers live close to the forest zones of the country, including in The Nilgiris district, adjacent Wayanad District of Kerala and most of the districts of Kerala nestled on the slopes of the Western Ghats. The SC recommendation comes as a blow to the farmers who are struggling, as hostile climatic conditions, the crash in prices of crops and the high cost of agrarian inputs, including manures, pesticides and herbicides have struck down their income.

On June 3, 2022, the Supreme Court recommended that a buffer zone of 1 km radius be created around all protected forest zones including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves across the nation

As the deadline to submit grievances to the SC is nearing, pressure is mounting on state governments from farmers and farm activists seeking dilution of the order, as the sale of such lands have come to a sudden halt, and even banks have stopped disbursing loans on pledging these lands.

The Supreme Court order came at a time the Tamil Nadu government has been attempting to dilute the restrictions to support industrial activities in the buffer zones of reserve forests. By an order dated December 14, 2022, it allowed mining and quarrying in the buffer zones by amending the Tamil Nadu Minor and Mineral Concession Rules, 1959. Just two years ago, the state government had announced buffer zones of 1 km radius around reserve forests.

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In neighbouring Kerala, the proposed buffer zone would impact agriculture and mining in Wayanad and Idukki districts the most. The two districts already face an array of regulations with regard to construction of houses and commercial establishments.

Sulthan Bathery municipality in Wayanad, which being the main city of the district is heavily populated, has become the focal point of protests. With forests in the neighbourhood, the heart of the city has faced elephant incursions for almost two decades now. In Chakkittapara panchayat of Kozhikode district, a human wall was formed in protest against the attempts of the forest department to further chase away farmers residing in farm lands adjacent to the forests. As many as 2 lakh families are estimated to be affected by the buffer zone restrictions.

Kerala released a map of the 1 km buffer zone in 2021 based on a satellite survey. The map has not taken into consideration many major structures such as schools, churches and business establishments in the area. The satellite report identified only 14,619 structures but activists pointed out that the real number would be many fold higher. In Sulthan Bathery municipality, many thickly populated zones have been included on the buffer zone map. Plus, a large part of panchayats such as Noolppuzha, Thirunelli, Pulpally and Poothadi fall within the buffer zone as well.

As per the survey report of the Kerala government, as much as 3.8 lakh acres of land would fall in the buffer zone. The public has a chance to submit their grievances before January 7. Meanwhile the expert committee constituted by the state government to prepare a report on the buffer zone issue is flooded with complaints over irregularities in the satellite survey report. They have received 20,000 complaints — 17,000 by e-mail and 3000 by post.

The Supreme Court order came at a time the Tamil Nadu government has been attempting to dilute the restrictions to support industrial activities in the buffer zones of reserve forests. By an order dated December 14, 2022, it allowed mining and quarrying in the buffer zones by amending the Tamil Nadu Minor and Mineral Concession Rules, 1959

The Supreme Court is expected to consider a review petition on January 11. Meanwhile, the Kerala government is all set to publish a third map of the buffer zone areas, as the first two only sowed fear and confusion among the public. The third map would include the survey numbers of the land that falls in the buffer zone, to help the public to identify whether their land is part of it or not.

The state government has assured the public that it would support the idea of populated areas being considered as ‘zero buffer zone’ areas. According to the state government’s verification report, among the 89 panchayats affected by the proposed buffer zone, 39 are the worst hit.

Thousands of farmers are out in the streets protesting against the move in Sulthan Bathery and Noolppuzha (both in Wayanad), Santhanpara and Mariyapuram (both in Idukky) and Chakkittappara panchayat (Kozhikode).

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Meanwhile, the state government has also extended the tenure of the expert committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice Thottatthil Radhakrishnan for another two months ending February 28, 2023. Earlier, the panel was expected to submit its report by December 30, 2022.

Going by the data of India State of Forest Report-2021, Kerala’s forest area covers 9,679 square km, or 24.91 per cent of its geographical area. The tree cover of the state is 21,253 sq km, or 54.7% of its total geographical area. By comparison, the total tree cover of India is just 24.62 per cent, and its total forest cover is just 21.71 per cent.

The forest policy of the union government aims to bring 33 per cent of the country’s geographical area under forest and tree cover. And yet, the union environment ministry recently granted in principle permission for the conversion of nearly 130.75 sq km of virgin forest area in the Great Nicobar island of the Andaman and Nicobar union territory for a massive developmental project, including the building of a greenfield township, a power plant, an airport and a transshipment port. The colossal project will cost the environment dearly, with 8.5 lakh trees having to be cut down and it likely leading to changes in the micro-climate of the area, and setting off a devastating butterfly effect.


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