The Kerala Government misses the woods for the exigencies of finding a site for the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) at Ponmudi. The State Cabinet has decided to hand over 100 acres of wooded forests on the Ponmudi hills, adjoining the Merchiston and Ponmudi estates, to the Indian Space Research Organisation.
This should be seen as a set back to environmental activists who wanted ecology of the hills to be protected. Moreover, the decision would play into the hands of those who seek development of real estate in the area. Questions would arise why construction works could not be taken up in the nearby estates.
The Revenue Department actually conducted a study and more than 40 officials examined the documents, according to the Revenue Minister K.P. Rajendran. However, it did not occur to them that any woodland that comes within the dictionary definition of forest would come under the purview of the Forest (Conversation) Act. Alienation of such land for non-forestry would require forest clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Why did the Revenue officials turn a Nelson’s eye to the status of the vegetation when they conducted their study? Was it because of keenness that the State should not lose the Institute?
An allegation has already appeared in the Press that the Forest Department had claimed the area as forests because they wanted to help the Merchiston estate in their sale of land to Indian Space Research Organisation for the Institute. The Government, it was argued, will be forced to allow the use of the estate area for the Institute if an alternate site is not available.
However, it is notable that allotment of a wooded area for development of a residential campus close to the Merchiston estate would take the bottom out of the government’s own stand before the courts that the estate is a notified environmentally fragile area. If a forested area is not fragile, how can a tea estate near it fall in a fragile area? So, the estate can easily win its case against the Government.
There are five estates in the area. As per a decision of the previous government, they are allowed to develop tourist facilities in a limited manner. Now, the Industries Department has mooted a proposal that the Land Reforms Act should be repealed. This would lead to conversion and fragmentation of estates throughout the State. (Plantations enjoyed exemption from land ceilings under the Act. So, their status could not be altered.)
The situation would have been different if the Government asked some logical questions.
Isn’t the whole of Ponmudi hills environmentally fragile?
How can the Institute be located anywhere on the Ponmudi hills since building activities on the hills will need environmental clearance?
Can’t the Institute have its main campus in the plains?
Won’t it suffice if the Institute has a small facility at Ponmudi Hill Resort or on another hill for astronomical observations, without harming the environment?