Did Catholic Church and Quarrying contribute to Kerala floods 2018 mayhem

  • By B S Harishankar
  • August 27 2018

 Torrential rains, overflowing rivers and a series of landslides have currently resulted in the deaths of over 360 people in Kerala. Rivers such as Bharathappuzha, Chalakkudi, Periyar, Pamba, Achankovil and Meenachil, rising from the Western Ghats, are flooding villages and townships. Roads and bridges have been devastated and washed away. Landslides and floods have submerged houses. Mobile phone networks are down and Kochi international airport has been closed. More than 150,000 people have been dislocated. Most regions impacted by this monsoon’s floods were classified as ecologically sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).

The 1600-km long Sahyadris or Western Ghats, spread over Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, represent geomorphic features of immense importance along with unique biophysical and ecological processes. There are many references to the Sahyadris in our epics and Puranas. The Valmiki Ramayana describes the Ghats as majestic mountains with brightly coloured peaks, rich in flora and extensive forest tracts. Valmiki describes Pampa as a tributary of Tungabhadra, arising in Rishyamukha mountains. Pampa Sarovar is also the site where Shabari, a disciple of Rishi Matanga, awaited the arrival of Sri Rama. It also has significance as the spot where Sri Rama met Hanuman and Sugriva, as narrated in Kishkinda kanda of the Ramayana.


Among important tirthas located in the Western Ghats is Triambakeswar near Nashik in Maharashtra, which accommodates 12 sacred Jyotirlingas. Sri Shankara established a monastery at Sringeri on the banks of river Tungabhadra in the Western Ghats. The Vidyashankara temple at the Sringeri Sharada Peetham has a number of sculptures from various traditions. Gomateshwara shrine at Shravanabelagola near Shimoga, Mookambika near Kollur, all in Karnataka, and Sabarimala in Kerala, are three major pilgrimage shrines in the southern extension of the Western Ghats for various lineages of the Hindu tradition.


Western Ghats is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Western Ghats mountain chain has an estimated 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 325 globally endangered species. It is currently estimated that only less than ten percent of the Ghats’ primary vegetation survives and that it has 51 critically endangered species. Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute at Thiruvananthapuram have published a comprehensive work which has marked 7402 species of flowering plants in the region, out of which 5,588 species are indigenous, 376 are exotics naturalized and 1438 species are cultivated or planted as ornamentals. The study shows that 2,253 out of the indigenous species are endemic to India, with 1,273 species exclusively confined to Western Ghats. 


These forested hills are also the source of numerous rivers, including Godavari, Krishna Tungabhadra, Periyar and Cauvery. Western Ghats is thus a huge water tank supplying water to six states. Further, Karwar and Ezhimala are two major Indian naval bases situated in Western Ghats region.


A report in 2012 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that encroachment and illegal mining are threatening the Western Ghats. According to the Worldwatch Institute, from 1980 to 2008, an average of 52 species per year moved one category closer to extinction in Western Ghats, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species.


Biodiversity in Western Ghats is facing a threat from forest loss, encroachment and conversion, said a global environment agency in its report. The new report, “IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2”, put the hills in the “significant concern” category. Another report released in 2017, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, says increasing pressure from human population in the Western Ghats region is greater than that faced by many protected areas around the world.


A CAG report released in 2017, titled ‘Administration of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka’ says more than 1.5 lakh acres of land in Western Ghats have been encroached during the last two decades.


Sacred groves, Kavu in Malayalam, are rich abodes of biodiversity and water resources. Kerala has witnessed a drastic reduction in the number of its sacred groves. While the state claimed more than 10,000 groves at the time of its formation in 1956, currently less than 1000 exist. Mangroves, the salt tolerant plant community which provides habitat for various migratory birds and breeding and feeding ground for many aquatic species, are systematically destroyed through mineral sand mining in Kerala. According to the Standing Committee on Water Resources 2016, submitted in Lok Sabha, encroachment on water bodies in Kerala is meant for constructing houses and other commercial establishments along the banks of water bodies. Apart from this, people have filled the water bodies for commercial activities.


The Western Ghats ecology expert panel set up by the Environment Ministry has recently designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Zone (henceforth ESZ) to ensure that the current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, polluting industries and power plants remains extended till completion of carrying capacity analysis.


A major part of the biodiversity of Ghats is under threat from human activities, which has adversely affected climate change and ecological process of the river systems. It was in this context that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (henceforth WGEEP) was constituted in March 2010 with clear terms of reference put forward by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.


The WGEEP was constituted after a meeting of the Save the Western Ghats Movement (henceforth SWGM) with representatives from more than 160 organisations and thousands of people. The SWGM was again revived in 2009, leading to a meeting at Kotagiri in the Nilgiris in February 2010. It set up the WGEEP to assess the current ecological status of the Western Ghats region, demarcate areas that need to be notified as ecologically sensitive, and recommend notifying such areas as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and make recommendations for the conservation, protection, and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats region following a comprehensive consultation process involving the people and governments of all the states concerned.


WGEEP is also known as Gadgil Commission, after its chairman, Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The commission submitted the report to the Government of India on Aug. 31, 2011. It aimed to evaluate the current state of the Ghats and recommend strategies for “conservation, protection and rejuvenation” through a process of consultations with people, state governments as well as commerce and industry.


The Gadgil Committee Report drew strong protests from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church which even suggested an international conspiracy behind it. Dr. V.S. Vijayan, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Member, said the remarks of the Catholic Church, that commission members received cash from foreign sources was unfortunate. He pointed out that it was not a right move on part of the Church to issue a pastoral letter against the report accusing foreign conspiracy when a majority of churches seek financial support from foreign agencies.


Although submitted in 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests under the UPA government kept the Gadgil report in safe custody for eight months. The matter was taken to the Delhi High Court and following a court order, the ministry released the 522 page report.


Gadgil provides testimony that the traditional eco-friendly heritage of Western Ghats has been virtually destroyed by the introduction of vulnerable scientific management initiated under colonial rule. The pace of destruction has only accelerated with independence, through liquidation of private forests, large scale felling as roads connected hitherto inaccessible regions on account of development projects, decimation of the resource base of forest based industries that have been practicing excessive, undisciplined harvests. All this served the interests of economic and communal lobbies and pressure groups and the deprived were the marginalized rural and vanvasi (forest) communities.


The church and mining lobbies propagated that the Gadgil report was against farmers and that they would be evacuated if it was implemented. The propaganda was aimed at communal inflammation since the farmers who encroached the Ghats belonged to the Catholic Church.  The Gadgil report does not recommend any exodus of farmers or deprivation of their agricultural land. On the other hand, it prohibits further encroachment of forest land by economic interest groups and lobbies who have been exploiting small scale farmers.


The Scheduled Castes and Vanvasis supported the Gadgil report. In October 2013, organisations under Kerala Dalit Maha Sabha (KDMS) supported implementation of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report prepared by Madhav Gadgil. At a meeting in Thodupuzha in Idukki, they demanded immediate implementation of the Gadgil report as ‘it was farmer-friendly’ and ‘contains many good suggestions for a long term plan’ to help the people at the grassroots. The Maha Sabha said the implementation of the Gadgil report will hamper the agenda of forces that work to evict vanvasis and dalits from their lands and this was why its implementation was opposed by lobbies. 


Even Frontline (Volume 18, Issue 21, Oct. 13 - 26, 2001) reported that the tribal people were once in possession of large tracts of forests in Kerala, especially in areas that are now in Palakkad, Wyanad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. Frontline admitted that to a large extent, post-Independence governments were responsible for the Adivasis losing their lands to encroachment by non-tribal settlers. But Frontline did not dare reveal the open role of the Syro-Malabar Catholic church which sponsors major encroachment of the Western Ghats.


There were strong agitations in Kerala against the Gadgil report by the Syro-Malabar Catholic church, supported by the Congress and Left parties. India Today published a story (October 2013) titled, ‘Kerala priests and politicians unite to oppose Gadgil report on Western Ghats.’


As witnessed in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, there are hardly any ‘Long March’ agitations by the Left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) against the huge land encroachments by the Catholic church. The Kisan Sabha has not dared to raise a single allegation against the Catholic church regarding land encroachment. There are no agitations by Kisan Sabha for thousands of vanvasi families who remain landless in Western Ghats region of Kerala.


Part two of article


Following protests and pressure from Catholic church and mining/quarrying lobbies, another 10-member high-level working group (HLWG), headed by Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan was appointed to study the Gadgil report, review and suggest measures for implementation. The Kasturirangan Committee submitted its report to the Ministry on April 15, 2013. It made several pro-farmer recommendations but demanded a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in Ecologically Sensitive Areas (henceforth ESA) of the Ghats. The key findings of the Indian Network of Climate Change Assessment (INCCA 2012) were incorporated in the report. The Catholic church again made huge protests against the Kasturirangan Committee report.


A pastoral letter issued in November 2013, by Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil, Bishop of the Idukki Diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, asked farmers and people of the high ranges to deal with political parties and leaders supporting the panel reports in an organised manner. The violent agitations against the demarcation of ESA in Kerala were backed by the Catholic Church-led High Range Protection Committee. “Kerala will be another Kashmir,” thundered the Bishop of Idukki Diocese who admitted that the majority of the ESAs are inhabited by Christians.


Thamarasserry Bishop Mar Inchananayil went a step further. “Jallianwala Bagh will be repeated here” (Hindustan Times, November 27, 2013). The hartal and subsequent agitations were sponsored by newly formed organisations: The High Range Protection Committee, Western Ghats People’s Protection Committee and Western Ghats Protection Committee. They were all led by priests belonging to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.


Through pastoral letters and public speeches by its priests, the Catholic Church fanned agitations against the Kasturirangan report. Widespread violence erupted across Kannur, Kozhikode and Wayanad districts of north Kerala following a hartal declared on November 15, 2013. The Forest Range Office at Kottiyur in Kannur district was set on fire. Police say more than a hundred case files of forest-related offences were burnt. A violent mob of around 500 men attacked the forest range office at Thamarasserry in Kozhikode. Seven vehicles were set ablaze, including one state transport bus.


A brief historical outline of encroachment of Western Ghats by farmers led by the Catholic church is necessary to understand the crux of the current problem. By the late 1930s, the forests of Malabar became the destination of a large-scale migration of farmers belonging to the Catholic church, looking for land to cultivate cash crops. Between the 1930s and 1970s, thousands of settlers entered Wayanad district in Malabar in search of land. Some settlers bought or leased forest land but the majority encroached forest land. With the formation of Kerala State in 1956, the immigration intensified with more steady and aggressive encroachments upon forest and vanvasi/tribal land.


The British in 1810 made the then ruler of Travancore, Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bai, appoint the British Resident, Col. Munro, as Dewan of the state. Colonel John Munro, who was also a committed missionary, seized huge landed properties of temples without compensation and liberally provided land to Churches.


A recent study by the Malabar Devaswom Department in Kerala has revealed that the largest encroachment of Devaswom land took place in Malabar region (The Hindu, September 24, 2008). According to official figures, more than 24,900 acres of land belonging to 353 temples under the Malabar Devaswom Board has been encroached upon (The Hindu, April 5, 2010).


Official records show that 245 temples under the Kochi Devaswom Board have also lost land to encroachment, but the extent of land lost has not yet been fully calculated. Around 3,000 acres owned by the Travancore Devaswom Board has been encroached, as admitted by the president of Travancore Devaswom (Times of India, January 5, 2016).


As an instance, in the remote areas of Pulpally in Wayanad, the Devaswom lost thousands of acres of forest land to encroachers. The Devaswom filed cases against the illegal occupants. What followed was a protracted struggle against eviction. As the settlers were well organized, backed by the church, they managed by and large to prevent any effective eviction. Father Joseph Vadakkan, a Catholic priest, started cooperating with the Communists, which led to the formation of Malanad Karshaka Sanghom which associated itself with the Communist-led Kerala Karshaka Sanghom in many agitations. 


Later, the Karshaka Thozhilali Party or KTP was formed by Joseph Vadakkan and B. Wellington. It was a coalition partner in the Communist government in Kerala led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad from 1967 to 1969. The AICC secretary, Tom Vadakkan, is a close relative of Father Joseph Vadakkan. Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, condoled the death of Father Joseph Vadakkan, saying that in his death Kerala has lost a tall religious leader (The Hindu, December 30, 2002).


The Communist Party of India, which formed the first government of Kerala State, was supportive of encroachers under the Catholic church, whom they saw as rich vote banks of their constituencies. The land reforms of the 1960s greatly benefited the settlers at the forest frontier in Wayanad. During the land tribunals in the 1970s, most settlers received ownership titles for the land they encroached. The 1980s and 1990s accelerated cash crops and trade in Wayanad. Pepper growers in the ‘Pepper Panchayats’ of Pulpally, Mullankolli and Poothadi became extravagantly rich. Wayanad transformed as an important earner of foreign currency in Kerala.


The Naxalite movement in Kerala emerged in Western Ghats region. It began at Pulpally in Wayanad and Thalasseri in Kannur districts, and was followed by insurgencies in Kuttiyadi and later in Thirunelli in Wayanad, when correspondingly large scale migrations under Catholic church took place. Usually, settlers avoid or are hesitant to come and settle in regions vulnerable to armed attacks and insurgencies. But settlers encroached the Wayanad region and after the occupation of extensive land by Catholic church settlers, Naxal insurgency ceased to exist in Kerala.


This phenomenon of the disappearance of Naxal insurgency after Catholic church became land owners has strong religio-political undercurrents. Did a planned Naxal insurgency take place for the convenience of certain religious and economic lobbies associated with migrant settlers in Wayanad region? The Naxal movement hardly cared to fight for displaced Vanvasi /tribal communities in Western Ghats. Venu Menon’s story in Outlook weekly (November 23, 1998) titled, Confessions of a Cop, observed, “the legacy of the Naxalite movement in Kerala is a dubious one”.


It is estimated that there are about 4 lakh vanvasi people living in Kerala and about half of this population resides in Wayanad region of Western Ghats. The British opened roads and the spread of commercial plantations accelerated migration of settlers to this region. During the 1940s, this migration massively displaced the vanvasis of the area. The vanvasis lost their land, declined demographically and currently live in a pathetic situation. The tragic events at Muthanga and Arippa in Kerala show the failure of successive governments to restore vanavasi land despite court directives. The Kerala government in February 2010 informed a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court that 14, 200 tribal families still remained landless in the State. Simultaneously, the Catholic church with money and vote power encroaches ecologically sensitive zones and prevents vital reports from being implemented.


Recently, there are several instances of encroachment by Catholic church in Western Ghats region. The Little Flower Church, Pushpagiri in Koodaranji village, and St George Church, Chundathumpoyil in Kumaranalloor village in Kozhikode district, both under the Thamarasserry diocese, operated quarries in 1.75 acres and two acres of land respectively.


According to Kerala’s former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, currently CPI-M state secretary, the Believer’s Church, formed under a trust called Gospel for Asia, has received Rs 1,044 crore in foreign donations in the last 15 years. Using that money, Balakrishnan said, the church has purchased nearly 2,800 acres of land, including a 2,200-acre rubber estate (The Telegraph July 13, 2008).


As part of an official anti-encroachment drive, a 30-feet tall metal cross was pulled down in April 2017 in the hill station of Munnar, Idukki district, since it was erected on encroached land, nearly 30 acres, held by a Christian sect, Spirit in Jesus, in Pappathishola hills near Suryanelli in Chinnakanal village, around 25 km from Munnar town.


Bonacaud Reserve forest in Thiruvananthapuram district remains the target of the Catholic church. Bonacaud is located in Agastyar Biosphere Reserve, one among 20 World Biosphere Reserves added by UNESCO to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in March 2016. Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), the youth wing of CBCI chapter in Kerala, orchestrated a huge protest in August 2017 against removal of the cross. They claimed the cross was more than sixty years old and was demolished by forest officials and demanded the site be opened for pilgrimage and handed over to the church.


A probe is currently going on against a multi-crore land scam involving the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church which named Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, Major Archbishop, as one of the prime accused.


Madhav Gadgil, who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, says that irresponsible environmental policy is to blame for the current floods and landslides in Kerala. He called it a “manmade calamity” (The Economic Times, August 17, 2018). The south west monsoon floods which have currently devastated Kerala are an outcome of the land encroachment of Ecologically Sensitive Zones in Western Ghats by Syro-Malabar Catholic Church intimidating and unleashing armed violence against environmental committees and reports, using vote bank and money power.


Article was first published here as Part One and Part Two.


NOTE  that NGO’s in Kerala received foreign funding to the extent of Rs 1,029 crs, Rs 873 crs, Rs 656 crs and Rs 409 crs in the years 2011-12, 2010-11, 2005-06 and 2002-03 respectively. The corresponding figures for Tamil Nadu were Rs 1,704 crs, Rs 1,557 crs, Rs 1,609 crs and Rs 775 crs. For a small state like Kerala these are significant numbers. If one were look at districts Quilon received Rs 369 crs, Rs 324 crs and Rs 250 crs for the years 2010-11, 2009-10, 2007-8. Corresponding numbers for Ernakulam were R 205 crs, Rs 226 crs and Rs 227 crs. GOSPEL for Asia Inc USA was the largest donor in 2009-10 at R 233 crs. Source Foreign Funding of Indian NGOs


Also read

1 Kerala priests and politicians unite to oppose Gadgil report on Western Ghats, M.G. Radhakrishnan, October 2013

2 Illegal forest land acquisition behind Kerala floods, says ecologist Madhav Gadgil, Aug 2018

3 To read the Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan Panel Reports

4 Killing of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati in Kandhamal Odisha by Naxals – all Christians

5  To read full Indian Express report Madhav Gadgil said, "Kerala tragedy partly man-made. There has been a proliferation of illegal stone quarrying all over the state."

6 Pictures of Sringeri Mutt

7 Pictures of Mookambika Temple

8 Pictures of Bahubali Gomateshwara

9 Uttarakhand Flood 2013 – Rudra Tandava of Ardhnarishwar

10 Former Environment Minister Smt Jayanti Natarajan resignation letter published in India Today on January 30 2015. Excerpts – After my removal as Minister, there was widespread news coverage in the Kerala media that my removal was because I had notified the order on protection of the Western Ghats, the Kasturirangan Committee report, on December 19, 2013, (just one day before my removal) which had been bitterly opposed some sections of society in Kerala, who felt that this order would adversely affect their economic interests, and had expressed their opposition to the Prime Minister and to you.” To read full letter

11 I was dropped because I stood for Western Ghats conservation: P T Thomas 

12 Kerala floods: Sound and fury recollected in tranquility

13 Disaster Mafia - Rajiv Malhotra in conversation with Vivek Agnihotri 

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