Kochi: Kerala is working on a land use policy that will ration land for housing, agriculture and industry and include strict environmental caveats, attempting to boost food production and avert what the state government calls an “imminent eco catastrophe”.
The draft policy, which aims to put in place a 25-year master plan for land use, is expected to be presented to the state cabinet later this month.
The policy, “which we propose to legislate after cabinet clearance, is to ensure food, water, housing, livelihood security and basic living amenities to every citizen of the state and maintain sustainability of the ecosystem in harmony with the integrity of the landscape,” Kerala revenue minister K.P. Rajendran said.
While the Land Reforms Act of 1963, initiated by Kerala’s first Communist government in 1958, was effective in redistributing land, there has been no follow-up action, leading to fragmentation of farm land on which food crops are grown. In the meantime, commercial utilization of land for mining, large shopping complexes, special economic zones, tourism resorts, and golf courses have been chipping away at food production.
Of the 3.88 million ha that comprises the state, only 268,000ha (6.86%) is under food cultivation, of which paddy land accounts for 247,000ha, down from 763,000ha at the time of the state’s formation in 1957. Rubber, cardamom, coffee, tea, cashew and pepper plantations cover 650,000ha (16.5%).
The total built-up area is 154,000ha (3.96%), of which residential area is just 36,000ha.
“Kerala is under unmistakable threat from an imminent eco-catastrophe that will make life miserable for the people,” the draft policy warns.
At least 685,000 of the more than 3.18 million people in the state do not own a house and live in rented or makeshift houses. And the 372,000 that own land are unable to afford building a house.
Ironically, there are at least 730,000 unoccupied homes in the state since it is treated as “a commodity to make lucrative business and investment”, the draft notes. Many of these are built by non-resident Indians as an investment from their savings.
The draft policy also takes into account demands by environmental organizations. A. Latha, head of the Kerala-based non-governmental organization River Research Centre, or RRC, says green activists have for long demanded that the floor size of housing units, for instance, be based on the number of persons staying or expected to live there. This will help in controlling use of land, she says.
Unscientific land use, historical lack of societal control on land management and conversion of land into “the most sought-after commodity for amassing material wealth have led to the present scenario where the land is debilitated, production plummeted, water resources depleted and contaminated; landlessness continues to haunt when land mafia flourishes”, the draft policy notes.
While the land reform in Kerala was important for social change and reform, it failed to satisfy the basic needs of people at the lowest social and economic strata, said P.K. Michael Tharakan, vice-chancellor of Kannur University in northern Kerala, and an economist who has written several studies on land reforms in the state,
“The present proposal prioritizing housing for the poor and promoting only environment-friendly industries in the state is in the right direction,” he said, adding that a conservative approach will be needed to ensure that all people are provided with basic housing facilities.
“Besides, in its efforts towards industrialization, a lot of environmental issues were forgone earlier,” he said. “Though some of the blunders cannot be undone, henceforth the government will have to be much stricter in allotting land for industries, keeping in mind ecological concerns.”