The author is an Editor, Chithi Monthly magazine published in Malayalam since November, 2014. He is a senior journalist who was with The New Indian Express for more than 30 years and was Senior Editor, The Sunday Indian, published in 14 languages for six years. He had fought against the authoritarian regime of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.
If Kerala is God’s Own country, then Munnar is heaven! Holiday seekers, nature lovers and wildlife fans converge at this popular hill station of South India. Dense forests, sprawling tea and spice plantations spread across uncountable kilometers of the ups and downs of the hilly terrain with sparkling rivulets are a feast to the eyes and hearts!
But land mafia with the tacit connivance of bureaucracy and political backing is fast turning this heaven into a hell with multi-storied buildings; granite quarrying and unbridled encroachments eating into the vitals of the fragile ecosystem situated around 5,200 feet above the sea in the Western Ghats. Though a Supreme Court verdict clearly stipulates that forest land cannot be used for non-forest purposes without prior permission from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Munnar has so far no proper regulatory system to ward off encroachments.
Ecologists and environmentalists cry foul and demand shifting of priorities from economic governance to ecological governance.
Occasional man-animal conflicts do arise here as an aftermath of this unabashed construction spree that cut across traditional wildlife pathways.
In the great floods of 1924, large trees and rocks were uprooted, formed a bund in between two hills at Mattuppetty. With further downpour, the mudslide and flood waters and debris came down and devastated Munnar. The present Munnar was rebuilt on top of this debris. History is harsh towards people who ignore history. If at all history repeats itself, if the present scale of plundering of nature and rape of ecosystem continues, only God can save Munnar. Even a short burst of intense rain may lead to a catastrophe and affect not only Idukki, but all the four districts that lay downhill.
A series of official reports have damned the rapacious mafia. The Assembly Committee on Environment headed by Mullakkara Ratnakaran submitted a report calling for stringent action against encroachment and illegal buildings in the region. Another report by Land Revenue Commissioner AT James expressed alarm over wanton encroachment and has also highlighted the threat facing the region. These reports have been preceded by a report by the then Idukki district police chief AV George providing graphic details of the encroachment. The Devikulam sub-collector Sreeram Venkatraman has also submitted several reports highlighting the appropriation of government land by private individuals with the connivance of political leaders and officials in the region. James in his report has warned of the grave situation at the hill station and demanded urgent government intervention. George in his report has pointed out that since the regulatory system had totally collapsed, the government should intervene and initiate appropriate action. The Kerala High Court in its 2010 verdict was also a pointer.
Kerala’s Minister for Revenue & Housing, E Chandra shekharan, who belongs to the Communist Party of India (CPI) has taken a few steps on removing existing encroachments and preventing fresh encroachments in the district. The district authorities said that all commercial construction activities in Munnar had been stalled following court directives. This has virtually opened up a Pandora’s Box that caused fierce confrontation in the coalition ministry, led by CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan.
During the last Left Democratic Front (LDF) ministry led by CPM veteran VS Achuthanandan, the government had launched a massive `Munnar Operation’ to reclaim the usurped land, but that was ten years ago. The operation which started with much fanfare had to be abandon in between under heavy resistance from politicians belonging to Achuthanandan’s own party as well as those in the Opposition.
It was reported that the ‘VS Government’ had demolished 92 illegal constructions and reclaimed more than 1,000 acres of land from the land mafia. But once the special team tried to enter the buildings and land encroached by political parties and its leaders, there was stiff resistance. When it comes to the cause of encroachers, there is striking camaraderie among the ruling and opposition political parties. Most of the encroachments and construction activities are going on with the connivance of political parties and authorities. When the Congress-led United Democratic Government came to power later, the reclaimed land again slipped into the hands of encroachers.
Even a slightest move against the powerful land mafia triggers political tremors. The recent ‘Munnar Operation’ snowballed into a political row with two prominent allies of the government, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), locking horns with each other.
Red Vs Red
Latest row began when Assembly Committee on Environment headed by Mullakkara Ratnakaran, a CPI MLA, in his report tabled in the Assembly called for stringent action against the encroachment and illegal buildings in the region. The committee wants the creation of Munnar Development Authority to oversee the construction activity in the sensitive hill resort area and called for steps to check the ongoing illegal constructions.
Thirty-year-old Sub-Collector of Devikulam, Sriram Venkataraman lost no time and launched criminal proceedings against the illegal constructions of Munnar that is causing severe destruction to the environment. Venkataraman had submitted several reports highlighting the appropriation of government land by private individuals with the connivance of political leaders and officials. And hell broke out when authorities removed a big steel cross the land mafia had planted to avoid eviction. S Rajendran, CPI(M) MLA from Devikulam, raised a massive hue and cry against the move and the CPI and CP(M) leadership have locked horns over the eviction. The rift, however, between the CPI (M) and CPI had come out in the open and the Munnar issue added fuel to the fire. CPI Idukki district secretary KK Sivaraman lambasted Rajendran for illegal encroachment, and alleged that even his house is an illegal construction on government land.
The Revenue Department caused a flutter when the allegation was publicly aired in the Assembly. This is not the first time such allegations are raised against this long-time CPM MLA of hobnobbing with the land mafia in the district. CPI(M) district secretary KK Jayachandran termed the allegation baseless and wanted the Sub-Collector to be removed.
Assigning land ownership is very complex and intricate. A major portion of the land on which the migrant labour from Tamil Nadu reside is either owned by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) or the revenue and forest land resumed to the state government from the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) company.
Since the Kannan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act 1971 does not provide for issuing title deeds to the settlers, many settlers have fabricated title deeds. That is the case with the KSEB land. Truth is that the existing laws do not make the issuance of title-deeds possible. Most of the encroachers have only fake title deeds. And almost all encroachers claim to be settlers. Settlers, with the backing of powerful clergy and political clout are holy cows in the state. The Chief Minister recently held an all-party meeting to gather support for his move. He tried to convince media persons that there were no differences in the LDF over the eviction proceedings. Environmental activists voiced their concern about unbridled construction in Munnar and its nearby areas. They wanted the government to demolish all the structures that had a bearing on ecology and take over buildings constructed in violation of rules by political parties and religious organisations.
In the background of large-scale encroachments using religious symbols, especially crosses, heads of religious institutions sought title deeds for places of worship that do not have land records. UDF convenor PP Thankachan said that UDF supported evictions but the way in which the cross was removed had hurt the sentiments of Christians.
The Bharatiya Janata Party lost no time and alleged that both LDF and UDF are hobnobbing with the communal elements for political gains. The party pooh-poohed both fronts using religion a ruse for large-scale encroachments with their tacit support.
The Chief Minister had slammed the Idukki District administration for demolishing the cross in Munnar as part of an eviction drive. Vijayan condemned the same, saying that the “move had created a feeling that the LDF Government is waging a war against the cross”. He said the government had informed its “displeasure” to the Idukki district administration.
The Chief Minister was worried because someone compared the demolition of the cross with the demolition of the disputed structure in Ayodhya.
The CPI state executive meeting criticised Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for his attempt to sabotage the Revenue Department’s eviction drive in Munnar and alleged that the all-party meeting convened by the Chief Minister was to take credit for the Revenue Department’s massive drive to evict encroachments on government land.
The Revenue officers reported that commercial construction activities in Munnar area were at its peak, violating rules and High Court order. Three-hundred-thirty commercial buildings, including multi-storeyed resorts, home stays, were built without the consent of the Revenue Department.
According to a Kerala High Court order on January 21, 2010, no construction should be allowed in Munnar without obtaining a no-objection certificate (NoC) from the Revenue Department and without the permission of the panchayat concerned, except in cases governed by the court orders. Politicians of all hues play with the words like ‘settlers’ and ‘encroachers’.
Media reports say 126 commercial buildings were erected over seven years in Pallivasal village, followed by Chinnakkanal (77) and Bison Valley (57). The report says stop memo was issued to as many as 80 buildings and constructions were stopped. Revenue officers point fingers at gram panchayat authorities who issued construction permits for these buildings without having the NoC of the Revenue Department.
Meanwhile, Kummanam had sought a probe into crores of rupees sanctioned by various banks to resorts mushrooming in Munnar on fake documents flouting banking procedures and Reserve Bank directives. Reserve Bank should also recommend a CBI probe into the unholy nexus between the bank officials, resort mafia and political parties, he said.
In a petition submitted to the RBI Regional Director S.M.N.Swami, he said there are around 60 resorts with or without proper licenses from the concerned authorities. Besides land encroachment by building and land lobby, there is the perennial issue of abusing water bodies leading to severe drinking water shortages and health issues.Most of these resorts functioning illegally in spite of stop memo issued against construction or further functioning by the concerned panchayat continue to do so with the active connivance of local political leaders and a passive bureaucracy, he alleged.
The resorts have obtained loans from public sector banks though not eligible due to the stop memos and litigations pending due to the land encroachments. Many banks for want of repayment by the loanees subsequently declare their loans as non-performing assets. In some cases the mortgaged land and property does not belong to the loanee at all, triggering the banks to initiate other legal proceedings. Crores of rupees are thus lost to the banks, he said.
Kummanam requested the Reserve Bank officials to initiate an enquiry into the loans given by the banks to these resorts flouting all banking norms, and take stringent action against those involved in deploying public money to finance nonviable and highly risky and litigation prone projects .
Further information can be obtained by calling for the details on the loan portfolios of the bank branches in Munnar and adjoining places. A comprehensive enquiry by the CBI may also be initiated to bring the nexus between the building lobby and the negligent bank authorities and prevent erosion of public money, he demanded.
Apart from court order violations, the investors also violated various rules, including the Kerala Land Assignment Rules, 1964, Land Assignment Special Rules 1993, and Cardamom Rules 1961, which warrants strict action from the authorities, including demolition of the buildings. The parliamentary committee on Environment headed by Renuka Choudhari will visit Munnar in the wake of reports of large scale encroachments in the ecologically fragile land under alleged political patronage. Despite tall claims of stringent action by the UDF and LDF governments, large-scale encroachments are rampant.
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