Kochi: The Kerala government has refused to extend the lease period of a 351.36-acre coffee estate run by Kerala-based Poabs Group in the Nelliampathy hills in Palakkad district, which the forest department took over last month.
In a letter to Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan on Monday, Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for commerce, had sought an extension of the 99-year lease, which ended on 30 June.
Reacting to the development, the chief minister’s office said the takeover of the Thuthampara Estate by the forest department was a cabinet decision. The government had no intention of going back on the issue, Achuthanandan’s office clarified.
Kerala forest minister Benoy Viswam justified the move and said the government was firm about the decision it had taken on the lease expiration. The lease deed was signed on 30 June 1908, following which, the forest land was leased for coffee cultivation.
Ramesh had in his letter said, “I write this on behalf of Thuthampara Estate, which is a division of the Poabs organic/biodynamic estate, Seethargundu in Nelliampathy. I am given to understand that the decision of lease to the estate beyond 1 July 2007 is being withheld by the government of Kerala in spite of the recommendation from the forest department for extension of lease”.
Viswam said Ramesh’s argument was against facts, and partisan. He added the forest department had made no such recommendation, though there was one such instance earlier, during the tenure of the former Congress-led government in the state.
He said before writing a letter to Achuthanandan, Ramesh should first have either consulted with the state government or its forest department to get familiar with the facts. Instead, he said, he chose to take a political stand. Ramesh had also said in his letter that the Thutumpara Estate had received many awards, the most recent one being one for the best organic robusta coffee variety produced.
“I am also given to understand that the biodynamically-grown coffee, distinct from the general organic coffee, is particularly rare and is termed ‘exotic’,” he wrote. “This kind of biodynamic coffee is available from only two plantations in the entire world. Poabs and from another in Mexico.”
Ramesh also has expressed concern over the plight of the coffee estate workers and their families. “I find it quite illogical at a time when we are making all out efforts to reopen closed tea gardens with a view to protecting the livelihoods of poor workers.... Please give it a fair trial,” his letter said.
The coffee estate has faced stiff opposition to its construction activities. It has also been charged with cutting down a large number of trees earlier, and Achuthanandan, as opposition leader, had strongly opposed this.
The estate was taken over by a team of forest officials on 15 July. The officials also have disbanded the board of the Poabs Group. The takeover was in compliance with the Central Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which clearly prohibits the state government from renewing any forest lease without the prior permission of the Union government. Lease renewal is considered a fresh lease under the law.
During the earlier Congress government, two other estates had been taken over once their 40-year lease ended between 1995 and 2000—but the government then extended the lease periods by 20 years. However, after several court cases, these estates, too, came under government control.
The Achuthanandan government has been on a drive to take over forest and revenue land. The measure was first initiated in Munnar more than three months ago. Differences within the ruling front has put the brakes on the drive, and it remains to be seen how the current government can implement its goal.