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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Why is Kerala’s Communist-NCP govt. transferring forest land to MNC Shell?

The CPM-led Left Front government in Kerala is allegedly trying to transfer the ownership of 800 hectares of forest land in Gavi to the British-Dutch oil and gas multinational company Shell. The proposal is to transfer control of the forest land under the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC) under the guise of a “Carbon Neutral Project.” Vested interests are allegedly trying hard to pressure the government to move forward. 

A US-based organization manages Shell’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) fund. According to the agreement, KFDC will receive 2.5 crore rupees annually. KFDC will end all farming, and Shell will open an office in Gavi. KFDC has 841 hectares of cardamom alone in Gavi.

Why do we need foreign funding when Kerala has not used the central funds for environmental projects? Kerala has used only 22.34% of central Environment funds and 42.34% of funds allocated for the IT department. CM Pinarayi Vijayan handles both these departments, and many funds have reportedly lapsed over the years.  

The initial suggestion was to give a foreign business 50 years of forest management. Later, authorities shortened it to 15. KFDC also reduced the amount Shell will have to pay annually. As this news leaked, KFDC removed the photos of Shell visitors from their website. Everything about this project is shrouded in mystery. 

Earlier, the Popular Front of India (PFI) conducted a terrorist camp at Padam in the same Periyar Tiger sanctuary area. Gelatin sticks, wires, 4000 wooden sticks used for martial practice by PFI cadres, dismantled vehicles, and sambar deer carcasses were discovered last year. Police also found traces of blood allegedly belonging to Rahul, a BJP worker that PFI was suspected to have disappeared. National Investigative Agency (NIA) team members looking into the Rs 3,000 crore worth of drugs found aboard a Sri Lankan fishing boat off the coast of Kerala stumbled upon the Padam terrorist camp as part of their investigation. 

PFI cadre constantly threatens and keeps tabs on the whereabouts of honest forest officers. PFI carefully relocated families of their cadre near forests with the promise of title deeds to encroached property in exchange for loyalty. Allegedly, serious lapses by Kerala forest officers delayed the deployment of forest fire watchers in this area until February 15 despite being distributed to other forest areas in early January, last year.

The corrupt forest officers who conspired with PFI are allegedly behind the Shell move.

Meanwhile, the central Ministry of Forests and Environment is actively trying to convert the areas under KFDC Gavi Division into tiger-protected areas. This central government move has not gone well with the Chief Minister’s office or forest minister AK Saseendran, an NCP MLA. 

By accepting Shell funds, the transfer of land in Gavi, a biodiversity hotspot, will have far-reaching consequences. If a foreign company is brought into the Western Ghats region in the name of environmental management, there will be a possibility of researching and exploiting our biodiversity. Only vanvasis and a well-managed visitor program should ideally have access to Gavi, to protect this natural paradise.

According to the signed agreement, Shell clarified that any related legal case proceedings must be conducted abroad. Such moves are again against the interest of Kerala. The CPM government was forced to intervene after the controversy gained adverse reactions from society.

According to reports, the delegation of Shell representatives visited Gavi without informing the government. The Periyar Tiger Sanctuary’s field office was not alerted about the arrival of representatives from international companies in the forest area of Gavi, the sanctuary’s hub.  

The forest minister said that a foreign corporation presented a proposal to his department for a forest management project. Saseendran said he declined to approve it because it needed expert review. He added that a decision could not be taken in haste. Shouldn’t this have been done before these foreign agents touched our soil?

Authorities shortened the contract term to 15 years. They removed the office facility condition from the new project proposal. Six bureaucrats (most of whom are not in Kerala) are on the KFDC board. Four left-leaning non–official representatives make up the rest of the board. The appointed Chairman is a non-official member. Chairperson Latika Subhash allegedly signed the Shell project proposal and gave the rest of the board a copy.

Saseendran, the Kerala forest department minister, is one among just two MLAs that the Sharad Pawar-run NCP has in Kerala. A party with just two MLAs running a ministry is suspicious, and Saseendran’s history is of corruption and sleaze.

KFDC chairperson Lathika is a former Mahila Congress Kerala chief. In her mid-50s, she had tonsured her head in protest and quit Congress after being denied a ticket to contest the recent Assembly polls in 2021. Lathika joined the NCP and was rewarded

KFDC officials issued a letter asking the Sri Lankan Tamil workers working in the Gavi division if they were ready to leave if they were given adequate compensation. The 160 workers in Gavi Division are descendants of Tamils ​​who came as refugees from Sri Lanka between 1971-78. More than 500 people, including their dependents, live in Gavi.

Gavi’s division office issued a 2-page form asking these Sri Lankan Tamil workers to leave Gavi and offered Rs 10 lakh each. Most employees were not interested in leaving Gavi, despite some favoring the offer.

All this raises doubts. Why did the communists and their NCP ally try to lease out forest land after knowing it was about to be converted into a tiger reserve? Why is Shell so keen to acquire this forest land in such a sensitive zone, both ecologically and geographically?

It is also worth noting that Padam, Gavi, and Sabarimala temple lie within a few hours’ walk through the Western Ghat jungle.

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  1. Such a land transfer to a foreign MNC casts doubt and calls for detail investigation by a panel of independent experts.


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