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Kerala lake at centre of land use row ready for harvest

Kerala government plans more initiatives allowing farming on land taken over by developers


A file photo of paddy fields in Kerala. The LDF government had said the land in Metran Kayal will only be used for paddy farming, preventing Rakindo Developers from turning it into a resort.
A file photo of paddy fields in Kerala. The LDF government had said the land in Metran Kayal will only be used for paddy farming, preventing Rakindo Developers from turning it into a resort.

Bengaluru: Green paddy fields stretching across 400 acres of lakeside land in Kerala’s Kottayam district are ready for harvest—after an eight-year fight by locals to prevent private developers from turning it into a tourism project.

Metran Kayal is one of many cases in Kerala’s long-running battle between those supporting environmental protection and developers.

Located in Kumarakom panchayat and overlooking its picturesque backwaters, Metran Kayal—which means Bishop’s Lake—has been a sea of paddy for over a century.

But farming ended around a decade ago, when farmers sold land to a clutch of agents representing UAE-based Rakindo Developers Pvt. Ltd who wanted to build a resort here. Since then, Metran Kayal has been lying fallow.

In March 2016, the state government, then led by the United Democratic Front (UDF), allowed the land to be reclaimed for the project.

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Environmental activists opposed it for alleged violation of the Wetland Protection Act and land rules, and the order was stayed by the Kerala high court.

After it came to power, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government initiated an enquiry against the previous cabinet members for sanctionisng the project.

Declaring that he will not allow the land to be used for anything other than paddy farming, agriculture minister V.S. Sunil Kumar, on 10 November, led a sowing campaign in 10 acres held by Metran Kayal’s holdout farmers.

Kumar also announced financial support for those who wanted to cultivate paddy in Metran Kayal. Soon, local parties and farmers’ collectives jumped in and sowed in the rest of the land owned by Rakindo.

However, on 13 February, when waters from the Vembanadu lake gushed into the fields after a bund broke in one place, local farmers suspected a bid to foil the farming.

The breach was quickly fixed and the government, which has supported farming here, installed surveillance cameras and deployed speed boats and police guards.

The paddy fields are green again, but it will be a controversial harvest.

“It’s a curious battle to protect an eco-sensitive land, a first of its kind in the state. There is the government and the public on one side, versus private interests on the other side,” says Harish Vasudevan, an environmental activist from Kerala, over phone.

Jeevan Nair, head of operations of Rakindo Developers in Kerala, said the company deems the entire farm initiative as totally illegal. When asked why then it did not try to stop it physically, he said the company was worried such an action would negatively affect the chances of eco-tourism project ever coming to life. He further denied allegations regarding the company trying to sabotage the crop and said it will fight it all in the courts.

Minister Kumar said, “Many people tried to stop us, in many ways. First, Rakindo’s representatives approached me to say they are willing to do farming in 50% of the land. I said no. Then, they went to court claiming the government cannot allocate funds for this initiative; the court ruled in our favour. Then, some people disguised as environmental activists claimed a unique fish variety will be extinct if we resume farming. The fisheries department did a study and found there is no such fish there.”

According to Kumar, the government has spent Rs1.56 crore on the initiative, and is planning a similar move in another 340 acres at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district.

Like the tourism project in Metran Kayal, an airport project was stuck over allegations that it would breach environmental laws.

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