Indian Catholic Church officials joined farmers and other local residents in protesting against planned conservation efforts in Kerala’s foothills that opponents said would displace thousands of families who have resided in the region for generations.
Protesters kicked off the church-organized 48-hour protest in the region known as the Western Ghats at midnight on Sunday, occupying roads, shutting down businesses and schools, and picketing the district’s power plant.
Their anger has been sparked by the publication of the Kasturirangan Committee environmental report on the Western Ghats.
Its proponents say the report's recommendations will restrict mining and construction within forests and that no resident will be evicted.
But Father Sebastian Kochupurackel, director of social development of the Idukki Diocese said that if the report were implemented, it would allow the state to either seize residents’ land or shut down small farms, forcing families to relocate.
Opponents of the report say that the government has drafted provisions to prevent farmers from working their land in the name of environmental protection, thereby choking off their livelihoods and forcing them to abandon their land.
“We are not doing this for fun. Our people were forced to fight for our livelihood and the land where we were born. The government’s decision to implement [the report] to save nature would endanger our existence. We will continue to fight till we die,” he said.
The report affects 123 villages in Idukki district, covering more than 5,000 hectares. Most people in the area are Catholic who migrated to the area during the early 1960s. Church officials said about 800,000 people could be displaced if the report were to be carried out.
Madhu Anoop, a 19-year-old Hindu protester, told ucanews.com that he supported the Catholic Church call for civil disobedience.
“I’m here to protect the land where I was born. My family has been living here for the last 60 years. If we have to relocate where will I go?” Anoop asked.
“We are fighting for justice; religion is not matter of importance when it comes to peril,” he said.
Hundreds of Muslims and lower caste Dalits also joined the struggle.
A pastoral letter read in Idukki Diocese churches on November 10 warned elected officials that they would be “confronted in the streets” if they did not withdraw their support for the Kasturirangan report.
Later, Idukki Bishop Mathew Anikuzhikattil warned local Member of Parliament P.T. Thomas that he would lose support in 2014 elections over his support of the report.
But Thomas invited protesters to read the report, saying it was beneficial to farmers. He accused the Church of carrying a “hidden agenda” in its opposition.
“I feel that they are using political blackmail and manipulation tactics,” Thomas told ucanews.com.
Environmental activist and author C.R. Nelakantan said he supports the report’s recommendations because the overall goal was to protect the forest.
“In fact, the move is only to restrict quarrying, sand mining and unchecked construction inside the forest land,” Neelakantan said.