In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the hills in the Idukki district were on the boil. Farmers feared the district would be converted into a forest and the government would evict them from their homes, if the Central government implemented the K Kasturirangan panel report on the conservation of Western Ghat. While this became a poll issue in Idukki and became a decisive factor in the last Lok Sabha elections, it has almost become a non-issue in the upcoming elections.
Idukki was one of the worst affected districts during the Kerala floods and landslides in 2018. Houses, farmlands and public infrastructure have put Idukki in limbo. As a result, rebuilding the hill district and restoring the livelihood of its people have become the core sentiment of the voters. With the UDF and LDF set to hold seat discussions for the upcoming elections in New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram respectively on Sunday, people in Idukki are hoping to vote to power a leader who can save Idukki.
How Kasturirangan report faded into background
In 2014, the report by the Kasturirangan committee recommended 37% of Western Ghats in the country be declared eco-sensitive. And of the 123 villages it identified as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs), 48 were in Idukki. The residents in the region feared it would deprive them of their rights over their property and eventually be evicted.
The Idukki-based peopleâ€™s movement High Range Samrakshana Samithy (HRSS) organised street protests against the report. â€śHouses will be painted green if the government implements the Kasturirangan reportâ€ť and â€śLeopards will be released into human living areasâ€ť were some of the slogans raised during the agitation.
Former Idukki bishop Mar Mathew Anikuzhikattil of the Syro Malabar Church had openly criticised PT Thomas, then Congress MP for Idukki constituency, for supporting the Gadgil report and Kasturirangan report, committees that worked in the Western Ghats. Although Thomas said that the reports did not feature any anti-farmer content, the Congress, under pressure, denied him the ticket and gave it to Youth Congress state president Dean Kuriakose.
However, it was LDF-backed independent candidate, advocate Joice George, who won the election. The Catholic Church, which is one of the influential groups in the district, had openly voiced its support for Joice.
This time, though, the scenario is totally different in the district, and political analysts and locals believe that the Kasturirangan report is not a factor in the upcoming election.
It is learnt that the HRSS will be backing Joyce for his second innings. HRSS General Convenor Fr Sebastian Kochupurackal told TNM that HRSS was content with the work of Joice George as their MP. â€śAs a peopleâ€™s representative, Joice focused his attention on the Kasturirangan report, the high range mountain landscape project and the Sabari railway line issues. Joice also takes the effort to distribute title deeds in Idukki. In his term, he concentrated mainly on developmental activities in the district,â€ť Fr Kochupurackal said.
Biju Joseph, a voter in Cheruthoni, is confident that the Kasturirangan report will not affect the polls in Idukki, as there are other pressing issues the district is facing. â€śIn my opinion, increasing man-animal conflicts, the price fall of agricultural goods and floods are the main issues in the district. The August floods severely affected Cheruthoni and nearby villages. Proper compensation from the government has not yet reached the affected people,â€ť he points out.
Kumily native AA George said, â€śThough the Kasturirangan report was a burning issue in the last election, presently no one is bothered about it. I hope in this election more votes will go to the UDF candidate.â€ť
Joice George vs Oommen Chandy
Political observers have set their eyes on Idukki ever since the rumours of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy contesting from there. However, since former CMâ€™s name and Joice George, who is considered one of the best MPs in the country, entered the list, it has invited mixed reaction among some voters.
MJ Joseph Mattapparampil, another voter in Idukki, told TNM, â€śThrough the efforts of Joice George, the district received many roads and bridges and we have felt the presence of an MP. However, if former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy contests in Idukki, it will change the result of the election. People have a lot of trust and hope in Oommen Chandy and that will help him.â€ť
During his tenure as MP, Joice had 87% Parliament attendance while the national average stood at 80%. The MP participated in 283 debates, where the national average is 65.3. Joice asked 526 questions during his term while the national average is 285. The MP also presented nine private member bills in the Parliament whereas the national average is 2.2, reveals data by PRS Legislative Research.
Speaking to TNM, Joice said, â€śWhen I was elected as the MP, people feared they would be evicted from their land. But now, the situation is totally changed. The central government amended the 2013 draft notification of the Kasturirangan report in December 2018.â€ť
While concurring that the Kasturirangan report will not be the main poll issue in the next election, he lists out his work for the district. â€śThe title deed issues are also solved, the government has conducted three title deed fests within 2.5 years and distributed over 20,000 titles to farmers and the process continues. For the first time, the district received nine roads from the Central Road Fund (CRF). Construction works on the four national highways in the district continue,â€ť Joice says.
However, the UDF refuted the claims put forth by Joice George. District Congress Committee (DCC) President Ibrahimkutty Kallar says, â€śJoice George and the LDF misled the poor farmers in the district in the previous election. Now the locals have realised that Joice and the LDF cheated them. We are sure that the UDF candidate will win the next election in Idukki. The names of former CM Oommen Chandy, Youth Congress state president Dean Kuriakose, Mathew Kuzhalnadan and Roy K Paulose are under consideration for candidature.â€ť
Ibrahimkutty continued, â€śWe welcome the candidature of Oommen Chandy from Idukki constituency. We had conducted a Karshaka Raksha Yatra (farmersâ€™ protection march) last week from Kovilkadavu to Vannappuram in Idukki and it provides a new face to our party in the district.â€ť