On January 9, just around a month before World Wetlands Day is observed, the Kerala government issued a notification regarding an ordinance for amending the Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Conservation Act, 2008. Paddy fields and wetlands constitute a tiny part of total land in the state, but the kinds of ecosystems they preserve and the agriculture purpose they serve cannot be ignored.
The Act aims to ensure that paddy fields and wetlands are not used for any other purpose apart from agriculture. If one wanted to convert the wetlands or paddy fields for non-agricultural purposes, a state-level and panchayat-level monitoring team would have to be approached.
Most importantly, the Act promised to create a database of all the paddy fields and wetland in the state to ensure shrinkage doesn’t occur.
The proposed ordinance has not been widely discussed, despite the fact the provisions in it are regarded as harmful and will have an adverse impact in the long run.
Primarily, it aims to nullify the protection paddy fields and wetlands receive under the Act currently. Environmentalists say that this amendment harks back to before 2008, when the Act was passed, and the blind filling of paddy fields and wetlands would take place.
Till the beginning of the ’80s, Kerala had over 8 lakh hectares of paddy fields, which subsequently shrunk due to indifferent administration – the wetlands and paddy fields were filled with earth and houses were built on them.
When the Act was introduced in 2008, the states only had 2 lakh hectares of paddy fields.
Concerns raised by environmentalists
The biggest problem felt even after the 2008 Act – which was applauded a big move by the then Left Democratic Front government — was that no data bank was formed on the total hectares of paddy fields and wetland.
This data bank would have allowed environmentalists and the government to know how many hectares of paddy fields exist in the state. It would have also ensured the necessary checks and balances, making the government accountable.
But, a decade after the Act was passed, the data bank has still not come into existence.
Environmentalists say that without this data bank, no matter what the government has done to protect the paddy fields and wetlands, nothing is of any use.
The 2008 Act had a clause that 5 cents of unused paddy fields could be filled up for building houses in cities, while 10 cents of land could be filled for the same purpose in panchayats.
“What needs to be done is effective implementation of the Act which is quite comprehensive. The stipulated preparing of data bank has not been recorded even in a single panchayat. With the ordinance, the government is paving way for uncontrolled filling of paddy fields. The sheer absence of a data bank has made the amendment possible,” said T Gangadharan, president, Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad. The Parishad and the People’s Science Movement in the state have strongly opposed the ordinance.
The Act also laid down panchayat- and state-level committees to decide on matters relating to filling up the wetlands and paddy fields.
“The firm stand adopted by the state-level committees ensured that big projects planned at Valanthakad, a mangrove-rich island in Kochi, and Methran Lake were cancelled, citing the environmental hazards caused by the project,” said Usha S, an environmentalist part of the Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO, Thanal.
With the amendment, the government has removed the state-level committee altogether, while the panchayat-level committee exists.
Misuse of land
“The amendment states a clause that paddy fields can be filled up for public works projects, such as roads, hospitals or even an airport. This will have a long-term impact for it can be misused. The 2008 Act ensured the government is accountable, whereas the amended version ensures it isn’t. Now the government can call any project a public works project and can demand it be built on paddy fields,”Usha lamented.
She added that even the provision allowing the government could fill up 5 cents of land in an urban area impacted the environment tremendously.
“The Act should have ideally ensured that no paddy field, big or small, be filled up. The irony here is that politicians who stood with us and protested with us against projects like the Aranmula airport are now the ones introducing this amendment.”
“The provision to fill up 5 cents of land to build houses was widely misused by real estate men. There are plenty of examples of this misuse. With the ordinance and the amendments, the government is paving way for the uncontrolled filling of paddy fields,” Gangadharan added.
Advocate Harish Vasudeven Sreedevi, who is known for being vocal on environmental issues, says, “With the introduction of the words ‘other schemes and projects’ in the amendment, there is a possibility that this land could also be used for private villas. If the amendment is allowed to pass, then the government can classify anything as a public project.”
According to Harish, all lands mentioned as paddy fields or wetlands in the Basic Tax Register, but aren’t notified as paddy fields or wetlands under Section 5(4) of the Paddy Act are considered unnotified land. Section 5(4) provided for the creation of the data bank and getting the land notified by the panchayat, municipality or Corporation.
Now, going by the present definition of unnotified land, paddy land, which is in existence, but hasn’t been notified in the gazette after its inclusion in the data bank, can be converted under Section 27A by paying the amount mentioned.
The ordinance will be introduced in the State Assembly on April 4. The Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad has given Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Minister for Agriculture VS Sunil Kumar and legislators a memorandum elaborating the harm the ordinance can cause.
It is also planning to organise a protest in all districts if the government chooses to go ahead with the ordinance.
“Paddy fields and wetlands are not solely serving agricultural purposes, but ecological ones too. Paddy fields are just 5% of the total land area of the state, and they need to be conserved at all costs,” said Gangadharan.