The Kerala Assembly last week passed a bill to make it easier to reclaim paddy fields, wetlands and “unnotified land” for infrastructure development projects. The bill makes 12 amendments and adds two new provisions to the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, which was enacted in 2008 to conserve ecologically sensitive paddy fields and wetlands.

When the amendment bill moved by the Left Democratic Front regime was put to vote on June 25, it was criticised by opposition lawmakers. They said it will further shrink the state’s paddy fields and cause widespread environmental damage.

Many environmental scientists and activists noted that the bill waters down crucial provisions of the 2008 law, which will likely encourage large-scale land reclamation, causing environmental degradation and groundwater depletion.

Though the bill states that paddy fields and wetlands will be reclaimed only for “projects that benefit the public”, it does not provide a clear definition of such a project.

“What are the criteria for identifying projects that benefit the public?” asked Girigan, principal scientist at the Community Biodiversity Centre run by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Wayanad. “It is a problematic term. The government should allow land reclamation only for projects undertaken by it. In the present context, even real-estate developers can say their housing projects will benefit the public.”

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, participating in a discussion on the bill in the Assembly, said the changes “allow conversion of paddy and wetlands only for government-approved projects”. But his clarification failed to dispel the misgivings as Revenue Minister E Chandrashekharan said the bill will facilitate large infrastructure projects such as a pipeline to be laid by the Gas Authority of India Limited.

The state-run company’s Kochi-Mangaluru gas pipeline is one of several projects in Kerala that have run into public opposition in the past few years, mostly following disputes over land acquisition. Currently, villagers of Keezhattur in Kannur district are protesting against the government’s decision to take over more than 250 acres of paddy fields for laying a bypass road to a national highway.

Weakening oversight

The bill also limits the authority of the monitoring committee in a gram panchayat or a municipality to stop land reclamation for infrastructure projects. The committee is led by the head of the local elected body and has government officials and farmers’ representatives as members. Now, the committee can only report land conversion to district or state monitoring committees. “The amendment takes away the powers of the local monitoring committee and district committee,” Girijan said. “It will lead to rampant land conversion.”

Critics alleged the introduction of a new land category – “unnotifed land” – is another ploy to promote conversion of farmland and wetlands into industrial land. According to the bill, any piece of land listed under the categories of paddy fields or wetlands in the Basic Tax Register but not notified as farmland or wetland in the state’s data bank for paddy fields and wetlands will be classified as “unnotified land”. Owners of unnotified land can change its use as long as it does not disrupt “free of flow of water” to neighbouring paddy fields.

S Ushakumari said the “unnotified land” category was introduced to help real estate developers. “The state does not have a data bank of paddy fields and wetlands,” said the director of Thanal, a non-profit that works on environmental issues.

The leader of the opposition, Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress, alleged that real estate developers could reclaim large tracts of “unnotified land” in the absence of a data bank of wetlands and paddy fields.

In its manifesto for the 2016 Assembly election, the Left Democratic Front had promised to create the data bank within a year of coming to power. It is yet to materialise.

Falling production

Though rice is the Keralites’ staple food, the state produces only a fraction of the 40 lakh tonnes consumed annually, making it dependent on imports from other states. According to the State Economic Survey for 2016-’17, Kerala has 7.5% of its cropped area under rice cultivation, yielding 4.37 lakh tonnes.

The area under paddy cultivation decreased from 1.9 lakh hectares in 2015-’16 to 1.7 lakh hectares in 2016-’17. This area was 8.75 lakh hectares in 1970-’71, falling to 8 lakh hectares in 1980-’81, 5.6 lakh hectares in 1990-’91 and 3.47 lakh hectares in 2000-’01.

Girigan said the steep decline was due largely to paddy fields being turned over for realty development. The 2008 law has done little to arrest this trend. “The degree of conversion has in fact increased after the 2008 law came into being,” he added. “What will happen to paddy fields with these amendments? It’s anybody’s guess.”

Senior Congress leader Kodikunnil Suresh claimed the bill “sounds the death knell” for Kuttanad, known as Kerala’s rice bowl. “It will increase the reclamation of paddy land,” he said, adding, “As a member of Parliament representing Kuttanad region, I will challenge the amendments in the High Court.”

Ushakumari agreed. “The 2008 law helped us stop big projects like at Valanthakkad, on a mangrove-rich island in Kochi and Methran Kayal,” she said. “It won’t anymore.”

The bill makes it easier for real estate developers to tempt paddy field owners into parting with their land, she claimed. “With this bill, the government has also laid the ground for a huge environmental disaster,” she said.