By Catholic News Service
COCHIN, India (CNS) -- The head of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church has expressed concern over the likely eviction of some 150,000 families from wildlife sanctuaries and parks in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
India's Supreme Court June 3 declared all places within a kilometer (0.62 mile) around protected forest areas as eco-sensitive zones, or ESZ. "No new permanent structure shall be permitted to come up for whatsoever purpose within the ESZ," the court ruled.
The order triggered panic among people living around the 24 declared sanctuaries and parks in Kerala, compelling Cardinal George Alencherry, who is based in the state, to describe it as "a really worrisome" development, ucanews.com reported.
In a June 9 statement, Cardinal Alencherry said the order, if implemented in its current form, will dislocate nearly 1 million people in Kerala, a tiny state in southern India, alone.
"Environment protection has always been the policy of the church. But imposing the entire burden of environmental protection on those living in regions bordering the forest is unfair," the statement said.
Cardinal Alencherry, who also is president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, said it had appealed to the communist-led provincial government to apprise the top court about the difficulties and repercussions of implementing its order.
Meanwhile, more than 1 million people living in the forested hills of Idukki district in Kerala called a dawn-to-dusk shutdown for July 10 to protest the order. The district has eight wildlife sanctuaries and the order will likely displace tens of thousands of families.
Father Sebastian Kochupurackal, general convener of the Idukki-based High Range Samrakshana Samithi, an organization formed to protect the rights of farmers, told ucanews.com June 9 that the political leadership in both the federal and provincial governments had failed to present people's concerns to the top court.
"The court cannot be blamed because it passed the order based on the facts and figures presented to it by the governments. Our people have been living around these protected forests for ages. Where will they go now?" the priest said.
Kerala Independent Farmers Association chairman Alex Ozhukayil also opposed the court's order and said it should not be implemented in its current form. He appealed to the state government to either get the order reviewed or to have the sanctuaries and parks work to avoid family displacement.
Kerala's population density is about 360 people per square kilometer, three times higher than the national average. Observers expect that the state will be among the worst hit if the order is implemented and would affect about 250,000 acres under human habitation.
The Kerala government had decided to file a review petition in the top court because of mounting public pressure.
However, wildlife conservation activists lauded the top court order, saying that eco-sensitive areas must protected because they are vulnerable to disturbances caused by increasing human activities around them.