Kerala sets the pace for other states in very many ways. What many may not recall is that it was the first state in the entire world to elect a communist government as far back as in 1957. In other words, it was ushered in by the ballot, rather than the bullet. It also scores high in human development, thanks to enlightened maharajas and missionaries in the past who emphasised education resulting in today’s robust literacy movement.

It is something of a paradox that despite a low rate of economic growth and slow-paced industrialisation (due in no small measure to a boisterous multiplicity of trade unions), it scores far better in development indices than states with higher per capita incomes like Punjab and Haryana. It can also be attributed to the matrilineal system practised by certain communities which ensures right to inherit property to women and consequently, a better sex ratio since they are not seen as a liability. Finally, huge remittances from the Gulf, now considerably reduced, have also helped bolster its economy to a large extent.

However, what may be less well understood is that Kerala is greener than most states with the exception of the “Seven Sisters” in the North-East. As much as 29 per cent of its land, or 2.8 million acres, is forested. In contrast, the country as a whole has 19.5 per cent of forest cover although the quality of the canopy leaves much to be desired. It’s a different matter altogether that most of the Kerala’s green cover consists of plantations robbing the state of its biodiversity to a considerable extent. Yet, tropical forests in its Western Ghats are seen globally as biodiversity “hot spots”, the only ones in the country apart from those in the North-East.

Green budget - yet another first

Kerala’s CPM-led Left Democratic Front is about to present a “green budget” this month, yet another national first for this tiny state. It is not as if “green” and “red” mix easily. In one of the most heated environmental controversies that garnered national attention over the proposed Silent Valley hydroelectric project in the ‘70s, academics and activists who opposed the dam had to scour the texts of Marx and Engels to provide an ideological justification for keeping a monsoon forest intact, instead of providing power by flooding the valley to create a reservoir there.

To compound the problem, the trade union of the Kerala State Electricity Board, which was to build the dam, consisted overwhelmingly of CPM cadres. These ideologues alleged that western environmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which petitioned Mrs India Gandhi to halt the project, were part of an imperialist plot to keep Kerala, which they imagined was at the forefront of world revolution, backward. Ultimately, it was due to pressure from international environmental organisations that the central government under Mrs Gandhi cancelled the project.

Sops for carbon reduction

“Incentives will be there for carbon emission reduction with tax benefits for those promoting green technology, improvement of forest cover, and use of alternative energy resources."
-- Finance Minister Thomas Isaac

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The CPM in Kerala has mellowed and matured since those heady, revolutionary days. In fact, the state government was anticipating proposals in the Union budget to reward states that favour afforestation to reduce carbon emissions. Recently, the Union budget has established a National Clean Fund to boost innovative alternative energy projects and dropped customs and excise duties on photovoltaic and solar thermal power units. The Centre’s Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, which receives funding from states where forest land has been diverted to non-forest uses, could also help in this context.

Prior to the Union budget, Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, an economist who has done a pioneering work in the state planning board and is presenting the state budget this month, told a newspaper: “Incentives will be there for carbon emission reduction with tax benefits for those promoting green technology, improvement of forest cover, and use of alternative energy resources.”

He has also offered incentives for other green initiatives like reduced power consumption and homestead cultivation.

Isaac also hopes to take advantage of the Union Environment Ministry’s offer to the world community to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by 20-25%. That apart, the Centre’s 13th Finance Commission, which was approved by the cabinet committee last week, is to set up a Rs 3,000-crore fund between 2010 and 2015 for states to promote afforestation. “We are looking into these provisions to be incorporated into the budget proposals so that the state can get green dividends,” he said.

Perhaps unknown to Isaac, there is another international mechanism which was firmed up at the abortive Copenhagen summit. This was an UN initiative known as REDDPLUS - Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, with the plus sign denoting the inclusion of conservation amongst such measures. It is conceivable that all measures to protect forests can obtain international funding to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Forests are an important ‘sink’ for such emissions.

Of the 2.8 million forest cover in Kerala, rubber plantations occupy 1.2 million acres. Studies show that over the 21-year life cycle of a rubber plantation, as much as 66 tonnes of carbon is sequestered. Kerala also has nearly 90,000 acres of tea and 209,000 acres of coffee plantations. Shady trees dotting these plantations to protect the crops from the fierce sun also absorb carbon dioxide. Together, these plantations are estimated to absorb a quarter of the emissions of rubber.

Desilting dams

The state is also going to support desilting of dams. Kerala, which has many rivers originating in the Western Ghats, has some 24 hydroelectric power stations generating around 1,800 MW. However, the installed capacity of these stations is 4,300 MW. Indeed, dams erected in heavily forested areas are often their own worst enemy because when a reservoir is created, trees are either extensively felled beforehand or they are submerged. Without such cover, there can be widespread erosion of the soil. In effect, the “life” of a dam is drastically reduced because the reservoir is silted up. This also plays havoc with the cost-benefit assessment of a dam which cites economic returns over a certain period to get the project sanctioned.

According to the Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies in Kochi, Kerala has been able to generate public concern regarding environment through anti-dam movements; of which, the Silent Valley controversy has been the most famous so far. Campaigns against encroachments in forests, and most recently against Bt brinjal, have also raised green consciousness in the state.

A ‘rurban’ society

High literacy rate coupled with richer natural resources is making Kerala a good model for a green economy. Unlike most other states, it doesn’t suffer from the same rural-urban divide since the line between town and countryside is thin – a so-called “rurban” society. While at the helm of the Planning Board, Isaac had initiated an important drive for each panchayat to draw up its own land use blueprints, which served as the base for all economic planning from the bottom-up.

Environmental movements - such as the one led by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which, as its name suggests, started off as a science-for-the-people organisation translating scientific books into Malayalam - have laid the ground for much higher popular consciousness about preserving the environment. The KSSP consisted of teachers who led popular rallies to promote books and a scientific temperament, and spearheaded the movement against the Silent Valley dam. These campaigns are now paying dividends in the southernmost state in the country.