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Bridling conversion of paddy fields and wetlands

A new law to regulate the conversion of paddy fields is expected to be notified soon. K.A. MARTIN outlines the background to this enactment and analyses the present scene as far as paddy land conversion is concerned.

Protective move: The new law aims to preserve paddy fields like this one.

The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, seeking to regulate conversion and development of paddy fields and protect wetland areas, is expected to be notified within a short time. The Bill received the Governor’s assent early in August and is now being printed for notification.

The new law will bring in the much-needed clarity on regulation of human interventions that have led to the depletion of paddy fields and shrinking of wetland areas in the State at a rapid pace over the past two decades.

The real estate sector and people, especially those who have sought permission in the past to reclaim small plots to build houses, are among those eagerly awaiting the law.

Revenue Minister K.P. Rajendran, who presented the Bill in the Assembly in September 2007, said land under paddy cultivation in the State was estimated at 2.76 lakh hectares, down from around 8 lakh hectares in the 1970s.

The Bill was immediately referred to the select committee, while the government directed Revenue officials to put on hold all applications for permission to reclaim or develop paddy land or wetland areas.

The seriousness with which the government viewed the situation was obvious from the fact that at one time, the authority to decide on applications for permission to convert and develop paddy fields was transferred to the District Collectors from the Revenue Divisional Officers.

This decision was taken in view of the new Bill that environmental groups viewed as a strong step, though much delayed. During the period the Bill was processed, Revenue officials have kept applications pending. The better option for the department is still to wait until the publication of the Act, when its provisions will be clear.

For nearly a year now, no decisions have been taken on a large number of applications received by various offices from builders or even individual house builders.

Revenue officials are convinced that the new Act is clear in its goals. In view of this, it has been difficult to take decisions on any application, especially for reclamation of large tracts.

The Agriculture Department, which ascertains the suitability of a piece of land for cultivation, was asked not to issue any certificates in view of the pending legislation. At the same time, the Revenue Department had considered some applications on the basis of court directives. But these were just a few and had not set a trend.

Question of viability

The builders have realised the importance of conservation of ecologically sensitive areas, but believe that a single rule might not be applicable to the whole of Kerala. Will it be viable is the question being raised by the building industry.

George E. George, chairman, Kerala Builders’ Forum, says the building fraternity expected some developments in the structural plan being prepared for Kochi. It is still possible to ensure that environmental concerns are addressed in a planned manner.

Making an overreaching piece of legislation might not be viable. While there are areas that cannot be touched, it should be possible to make some exceptions for the purpose of a more planned development. The building industry has appealed to the government to speed up the process of finalising the rules on wetland and paddy field conversion so that a definite direction is given to future developments.

The period running up to the formulation of the Act typified a dilemma faced by the State. The irreversible damage to environment through reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands, indiscriminate mining operations and exploitation of natural resources such as water have long-term consequences, say environmental groups.

The plunging water table, pollution of drinking water and dwindling paddy production making the State depend on neighbouring States for rice are just a few of the problems. Studies show that wetland and paddy-cultivated acreage in the State fell by 65 per cent in 30 years. If more than 30 per cent of the cultivated area in the State was under paddy in the middle of 1970s, it shrank to 12 per cent by 2000.

Shifting from paddy to cash crops, the onus of which has been on individual landowners, has been one of the reasons for the large-scale conversion of paddy fields. And the enormous cost of production and a lack of availability of workers are two factors that forced former paddy farmers to shift to other crops, including cash crops such as rubber in suitable areas.

The urgency and intensity with which the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act wants to tackle the problem is better understood in this context.

The original provisions of the Bill is learnt to have undergone some changes as it became an Act. One of the more significant of these changes is learnt to be the removal of the retrospective-effect clause in the new Act.

The Act is learnt to have provided for the government to allow exceptions in keeping with the requirements of public good.

A senior official of the Revenue Department here said that during the processing of the new Act, due consideration was being given to the really needy among those applying for conversion of paddy fields. For example, he said, applications seeking to reclaim up to three cents of paddy land for building a residential unit are being considered. However, the permission is preceded by a thorough enquiry and is mostly given to the beneficiaries of housing schemes introduced by local bodies such as the panchayats.

Despite these stringent measures, conversion of paddy and wetlands have continued in several areas with buyers of paddy fields asking the original owners, some of whom poor, to make applications to the officers concerned in the Revenue Department for conversion of small plots to build dwelling units.

It is likely that applications for conversion of small plots are considered by the department. But the reality may be often more complicated. Say, if a buyer acquires about an acre of land from several owners, he or she could get a big chunk of it reclaimed with applications from these original owners being considered favourably. The sale agreement between the parties often incorporates the clause on reclamation.

The unprecedented rise in the price of land is the most important reason why people are tempted to reclaim paddy fields or wetlands. The price of land in any part of Ernakulam is at least one lakh a cent. And it is no wonder that owners of paddy fields or wetlands will find escape routes to covert these lands.

Reports early this year indicated that large tracts of paddy fields are being converted in several locations in Ernakulam district in view of the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Bill 2007. The rush is on to make the best of the remaining time, it appears.

The effectiveness of the new piece of legislation will depend on imbibing the spirit sought to be inculcated by the new law and incorporating it with the development requirements of the future.

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