Rajakumari: The Kerala Forest Department has sent an official communication to the Idukki District Collector mentioning its move to declare Engineermettu at Kallippara, where the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kuthiana) bloomed recently, as a reserve forest.
According to the Forest Department, the purpose behind the move is to protect the ecologically important Kallippara hills in the Western Ghats. An area under the Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR), the land here is unsuitable for agriculture, say Forest officials. Moreover, all shola forests and grasslands which had not been handed over to settlers for farming under the Travancore Forest Regulation Act of 1897 are protected forests, says the letter to the Collector. Six varieties of Neelakurinji and some rare species of plants also grow in the area, it adds.
However, local people point out that the state government had filed an affidavit before the High Court which said that the area was not covered under CHR.
Concerns of local people
On June 14 this year, 87 acres of government land at Chengulam in Kunjithanni village of Devikulam taluk was notified as reserve forest. Incidentally, even senior people’s representatives of Kunjithanni heard about the decision only after the notification was published. In fact, several disputes exist between the Forest and Revenue Departments over the Chengulam reserve. As a result, anxiety prevails among the local residents over the status of the land owned by them.
Similar disputes also prevail at Block 58 in Kottakkambur village and the inhabited area adjacent to 3,200 hectares at Block 62 in Vattavada village which were declared as Neelakurinji forest by the LDF government in 2006.
In this backdrop, the new move to declare Engineermettu as reserve forest has deepened the anxieties of local people, particularly farmers, who are yet to overcome the shock of the notification of December 2021 declaring a one-km buffer zone around the Mathikettan Shola National Park.
Dispute over sharing income
The Santhanpara panchayat authorities had collected Rs 20 per person as entry fee from visitors when Neelakurinnji flowers bloomed this year. By the end of the season, the panchayat earned an amount of Rs 15 lakh as entry fees.
During the weeks when the flowers were present on the hills, the Forest Department had deployed its employees in the area to provide security. Subsequently, the Forest authorities demanded a share of the entry fees from the panchayat. However, the panchayat rejected this demand. Local residents believe that the latest move of the Forest Department to declare the area as reserve forest was to get back at the panchayat.