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‘Jallianwala’ warning in green debate

Thiruvananthapuram, Nov. 21: A north Kerala bishop has warned of “bloodshed” and “another Jallianwala Bagh” if the Centre implements the Kasturirangan Commission report on the conservation of the Western Ghats, considered one of the world’s 10 hottest biodiversity spots.

Violent street protests have rocked Kerala since the Centre notified the report on Wednesday, with the Catholic Church claiming the proposed measures would hit the livelihoods of farmers living on the forests’ borders and force them to relocate.

Green activists say the measures will only restrict quarrying, sand-mining and construction inside the ecologically sensitive forests without affecting the farmers, mostly Catholic migrants from the rest of the state, if they don’t plan to encroach on the forests.

“If anyone is dreaming of conserving nature at the cost of the poor farmer who lives in the Western Ghats, I wish to tell them that it is not going to happen. Another Jallianwala Bagh will be repeated,” Mar Remegiose Inchananiyil, the bishop of Thamarassery diocese in Kozhikode, said today.

“I’m sure there will be bloodshed here if any effort is made to implement the report. This should be taken as a warning…. Another Naxalite movement would arise in the Western Ghats if the report is implemented.”

The bishop was addressing a daylong fast by some people’s representatives against the panel recommendations.

Flanked by Congress and Left leaders, he gave a clean chit to these parties’ activists in the arson and vandalism during last week’s protests in Thamarassery and adjoining areas. Government offices and vehicles were torched and the police stoned.

News reports from Delhi had said last week that Inchananiyil, after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi, had urged withdrawal of the agitation saying he had been assured the farmers’ interests would be protected. Today, the priest said these reports were misleading.

Congress parliamentarian M.I. Shanavas, who represents nearby Wayanad district which sits on the Ghats, told today’s meeting that Inchananiyil was the leader of the agitation and promised to abide by his instructions.

Pastoral letters have been read in churches in Thamarassery and Idukki districts urging the protesters to continue and warning lawmakers they would be “confronted on the streets” if they ignored popular sentiments.

A few days ago, a Congress MP from Idukki told a TV channel that the Catholic bishop of the diocese, Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil, had said Idukki would turn into “another Kashmir” if the conservation measures were forced on the people.

P.T. Thomas’s claim could not be verified independently but the MP has said he would complain to the cardinal. After the Kasturirangan report was notified, Anikkuzhikkattil had warned Thomas, the Church’s favourite during the last elections, that he would be defeated if he stood for re-election.

The ruling Congress has been trying to placate the Church while the Left, eyeing its chance, has joined the protests. The BJP and RSS have expressed support for the conservation efforts.

Green activists have accused “vested interests” of spreading the “canard” that the proposed measures would displace farmers. They, however, prefer an earlier report by Ghats expert Madhav Gadgil, which had suggested giving gram sabhas a key role in conservation decisions.

The activists say Kasturirangan’s report is a “watered down” version of Gadgil’s and looks to protect less than half the area Gadgil had identified for conservation.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, the 1,600km Ghats pass through Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are home to dozens of national parks, and feed major rivers such as the Krishna, the Godavari and the Cauvery.

The mountains host tourism spots such as Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar and Ponmudi. The ecologically sensitive Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve boasts hundreds of rare plant and animal species, including endangered ones like the Nilgiri tahr and lion-tailed macaque.