Kochi: The Kerala government’s push for an ordinance to bring plantations under the purview of the Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL) Act has rattled the plantation sector in the state.
Estate owners and labour unions are planning to come together to oppose it.
The planters’ body, Association of Planters of Kerala (APK), has decided to take up the matter with the government since the proposal would also affect nearly one million workers employed in more than 640,000ha in the state.
Since around 40,000-50,000 people depend on income from the plantations, proposals such as enforcing the EFL Act would spell disaster for a large section of people and that is the reason why the support of plantation labour unions is being sought to oppose the move, according to David King, APK chairman.
Last week, the Kerala government held discussions with legal experts to look at amending the Kerala Forests (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act to retain even plantations as ecologically fragile. This would require the state government to pass an ordinance.
A top government official, who asked not to be named, said a final decision is yet to be taken regarding the type of amendment that would be required and whether it would have retrospective effect.
The Act had been framed on the basis of an ordinance issued in 2000 by the the Left Democratic Front government. The Act required all estates, except coffee and cardamom, to fall under the purview of the EFL Act. Non-compliance could make the government take over the plantation without paying compensation. However, no land was taken over by the government for non-compliance after the Congress party-led United Front government came to power in 2002. The relevant Bill was passed by the Kerala Assembly in 2003, keeping rubber, tea, pepper, cashew and coconut plantations out of the purview of the EFL Act.
The government’s latest move is in the backdrop of the controversy over the purchase of a part of a tea estate by the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) at Ponmudi, near state capital Thiruvananthapuram, to set up the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology.
Isro came into an agreement with Xavi Mano Mathew, a businessman and film producer, to buy 219 acres from his 707-acre Merchiston Estate at Ponmudi for Rs8 crore, and had bought an 81.5 acre plot initially. The space agency decided to purchase the land after the government informed it in 2006 that it did not have sufficient land to give for the proposed educational institute.
Mathew in turn had bought the estate in March 2005 from Jayashree Tea Co. for Rs3.26 crore and had got the land transferred under the name of his company, Southern Field Ventures. He had claimed that there is nothing illegal in the deal and the government had not taken possession of the land declared ecologically fragile under the 2000 ordinance. Moreover, he had bought the land only in 2005, after the 2003 amendment, according to which tea plantations were kept out of the EFL ambit.
However, Benoy Viswam, Kerala forest minister, maintained that the estate came under EFL and that the state government was the custodian of the land. The state forest department issued orders to evict the current owners from the estate within 30 days, triggering a political controversy.
The Opposition has been demanding the resignation of Viswam—claiming that the deal could not have happened in the first place without his go-ahead—and a probe into the matter by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The government, which initially succeeded in wriggling out of the issue by promising 200 acres of land to Isro free of cost, now finds itself mired in controversy. Late last week, the Kerala high court, acting on a petition by Isro’s proposed institute and Mathew, stayed the eviction orders. The court also did not agree with the department’s intent to stall construction activity, which was being undertaken for the proposed institute on the land.
Pushed into a corner, the government is planning to bring amendments to the Act to bring in plantations under it. APK’s King said that although there is no clarity on the proposed ordinance, the association had met over the last two days and would take up the matter with the government early this week. In addition, APK would involve the plantation labour unions in the struggle because their livelihood most likely would also be affected by the measure.
King said it is important that the government did not go forward with the proposal because already the plantation sector was passing through tough times owing to low price realization and mounting production costs.
Moreover, such a move will send wrong signals to interested investors in the plantation sector. Also, there are legal provisions that allow the government to take over EFL land after paying compensation, he added.