Indian Bishops reiterate concern over environmentally sensitive areas

Court order to remove humans from buffer zones around protected areas could displace a million people in southern Kerala state

A houseboat navigates the backwaters near the town of Alappuzha in the Indian state of Kerala in this photograph taken January 9, 2018. India’s Supreme Court has ordered a ban on human activities in the buffer zones around protected forests, parks and sanctuaries, which could displace a million people in the southern state. (Photo: AFP)

Posted: Aug 15, 2022 10:49 GMT

Updated: August 16, 2022 04:10 GMT

The Catholic Bishops have reminded the provincial government of the southern Indian state of Kerala to present the concerns of the people before the highest court in the country over the proposed buffer zones around protected forests, parks and wildlife reserves.

On June 3, India’s Supreme Court mandated the establishment of Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) of a minimum of one kilometer along the demarcated boundaries of every protected forest, national park and wildlife sanctuary across the country. country.

The court had given federal and state governments three months to file their objections to the directive that required the elimination of all human activity in ESZs.

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“Now we have barely three weeks left to put in place the buffer zones that could cause large-scale displacement of farmers and their families,” said Bishop Jose Pulickal of Kanjrapally Diocese.

It is estimated that one million people in Kerala live in areas that could be acquired to create ESZs and that the Communist-led provincial government was to collect statistical data about them to present in court with the aim of seeking a probable deportation exemption, the bishop said.

Thousands of people threatened with expulsion are Catholics in several dioceses, especially in the hilly districts of Kerala.

The government has directed the forest department to look into the concerns of forest-dwelling communities, but has done little on the ground to address the real problem of large-scale displacements, Bishop Pulickal said.

“No new permanent structures shall be permitted to appear for any purpose in the ESZ,” the court ordered after prolonged inaction by the federal and state governments to present the factual position on the destruction of forests and environment due to increased development and human activity. Activities.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) along with some 61 large and small farmers’ organizations in the state have opposed any move to implement the supreme court’s order as it would result in the displacement of people. humans.

“Our bishops had repeatedly appealed to the communist state government to assess the highest court and seek exemption from the application of the ordinance, but nothing has been done yet,” says Fr. Jacob G Palakkappilly, KCBC spokesperson.

He said the KCBC has now suggested that the state government should include representatives from farmers’ bodies, revenue, agriculture and village administrations, in addition to the people’s elected representatives, as well as the forest department. to speed up the collection of statistical data to be presented to the highest court.

“These data must be submitted to the authorized Federal Committee which will present them to the High Court. If this is not done within the specified time, the state government will have to implement the supreme court order and the people of the state will suffer the consequences,” Fr. Palakkappilly added.

The priest said the million people were mostly marginal farmers who will have nowhere to go if their ancestral homes and farmlands are taken away from them.

The KCBC also handed a memorandum of its concerns to Bhupender Yadav, the Federal Minister for Forestry and Environment, who said it was the responsibility of the Kerala state government to collect the required data.

The state government has yet to notify the boundaries of 23 of the state’s 24 protected forests.

The KCBC has demanded that mandatory ESZs or buffer zones be set inside rather than outside the current boundaries of protected forests, parks and wildlife sanctuaries to prevent human movement.

It indicates that the Church and forest communities will not accept any measure to extend the boundaries of protected areas from the existing position.

The state government said it was also concerned about the people and would seek a waiver from the enforcement of the higher court order.

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