Settlers, Kerala Forest Department locked in a territorial battle in tusker Arikomban’s homeland

The Forest Department notified 364.89 hectares as reserve forest but it withheld the order succumbing to pressure from various quarters.

ByK A Shaji

Published Dec 09, 2023 | 12:00 PMUpdatedDec 09, 2023 | 12:00 PM

Arikomban Elephant Kerala

Remember Arikomban, the wild tusker that was translocated initially to the Periyar Tiger Reserve and then to Kodayar in Tamil Nadu from Idukki? Most of his foraging ground at Chinnakanal in Idukki is among 364.89 hectares of the reserve forest — albeit briefly.

Arikomban roamed Chinnakanal, spread across Pappathichola and Suryanelli villages in the Udumbanchola taluk, and was tranquilised and relocated due to his penchant for rice kept in ration shops and houses. Local settlers also made unsubstantiated claims that he posed a threat to their lives and property.

Although Arikomban has moved deep into Tamil Nadu’s forests of Kalakkad-Mudanthurai, several other elephants still visit Chinnakanal, primarily due to the large supply of drinking water in the nearby Anayirankal reservoir.

In September, the Forest Department issued a gazette notification on the area’s reserve forest status. The final order came on 2 December.

The identified land met all the criteria of being a reserve forest. The area belonged to the public sector enterprise, Hindustan Newsprint Limited, which cultivated eucalyptus grandis, the raw material for making paper. With the lease period expiring, the Forest Department has now reattached the property.

Settlers protest reserve forest designation

The attachment does not affect those living near the Chinnakanal forest area, but the local settlers and MLA MM Mani — a former minister with significant clout over the current LDF government — have reacted angrily to the decision.

According to Mani and others, the designated area would limit the local community’s mobility, besides the rigorous norms hindering their use of Anayirangal reservoir water for farming purposes.

Despite repeated clarifications by Forest Minister AK Saseendran that the reserve forest status would not affect the local community, Mani has been leading protests in the region.

The campaigns suggested that local settler communities would  be phased out and their landholdings would be attached to the reserve. However, the Forest Department clarified that it has no such plans.

Now, despite having completed all the formalities, the government has decided to put on hold the notification designating it as a forest reserve, apparently evading responsibility to protect the traditional elephant habitat.

The government did not clarify why the land cannot be reclaimed and incorporated into the forest after the expiry of the lease period.

Also read: Rice-loving tusker Arikomban captured after month-long drama

Violation of norms

Anayirankal Dam is rich in wildlife biodiversity as it has developed into an elephant habitat over the years. It is also the main source of water during the summer.

Saseendran cited strong pressure from a significant number of ruling front lawmakers and several lobbies supporting encroachers in the area as justification for putting on hold the decision.

However the withholding of the notification has led to a situation in which environmentalists would be taking the government to court.

Forest experts told South First that no state government could carry out a denotification on its own — only the Union government and the Supreme Court could do so.

Retired Indian Forest Service Officer Prakriti Srivastava told South First that no forest minister could use his authority to remove the notification issued under Section 4 of the Indian Forest Conservation Act.

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha on 15 December, 2015, the Union government clarified that state governments have the authority to designate any territory as forest land.

However, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 mandates the Union government’s consent before denotifying such lands. According to a 13 November, 2000, order, the Supreme Court should also approve the denotification.

However, Saseendran withheld the order without following any of these norms.

Saseendran said that only the forest land leased to Hindustan Newsprint Ltd for captive plantation would be converted into reserve forest. No human settlement would be affected.

A statement from Saseendran’s office stated that the chief secretary chaired a meeting where all matters about the reserve’s formation were discussed and a decision was made.

Also Read: How Kerala’s social media is rooting for Arikomban

CPI(M) protests reserve forest plan

“The Forest Department’s plan for the Chinnakanal Reserve would remain on paper and would not be accepted at any cost,” Mani said on Tuesday, 5 November, at a protest meeting organised by the Chinnakanal Bhoo Samrakshana Samithi.

“Forest officers will have difficulties if they visit Chinnakanal. What they (the difficulties) would be, cannot be revealed now,” Mani warned while addressing the protesters. “Those who live here will stay here, and any attempt to evict them would result in a law and order problem,” he added.

Devikulam MLA A Raja, MN Sreekumar, the former president of Chinnakanal Panchayat, Liju Varghese, a member of Santhanpara Panchayat, and several CPI(M) functionaries took part in the meeting.

According to forest officials, Hindustan News Print Limited took the land on lease for 20 years in 1990 so that eucalyptus trees could be planted there. When the lease expired, the Forest Department reclaimed it. Records indicated that the property was revenue land, although the Forest Department had protected it before the leasing.

Officials said that the Forest (Conservation) Act’s Sections 4 through 19 regulate the procedure of issuing a final declaration.

Saly Baby, the president of the Chinnakanal grama panchayat, said that the locals are worried about the declaration of the Chinnakanal reserve in the interim.

“The areas declared as the reserve forest border human habitations, and this may result in the eviction of people who have been living in the area for decades. Although the government has stated that no human habitation would be affected, areas such as Papathichola, Cement Palam, and Singukandam have been mentioned in the notification,” she stated.

It’s interesting to note that Arikomban freely roamed these places till 29 April, when he was captured.