Munnar, the picturesque hill station located 1,800 metres above sea level in Kerala’s Idukki district has become a demolition town over the past week in the latest battle between the administration and developers over land use.
The state government is demolishing encroachments and illegal constructions, and the Kerala high court has rejected the plea of one of the developers, Kochi-based Abad Builders for a stay on the demolitions. The company owns a holiday resort in Munnar, Copper Castle. The court will now hear the case on 23 May.
Munnar is a popular tourist destination and, therefore, popular with builders and resort developers for constructing and selling holiday homes to India’s growing number of affluent individuals, or developing resorts.
Like other hill stations, however, there is little land for development and developers, the government alleges, have built properties by violating existing laws governing land use.
Early on Tuesday morning, a task force overseeing the demolitions razed the resort of the Kochi-based BCG Group. The developer had built 22 villas and mined granite from four quarries it had dug, felled trees, and violated the Cardamom Hill Reserve rules, said members of the task force. According to the rules, the land was meant exclusively for the cultivation of cardamom. The government has taken over the land, added Suresh Kumar, an Indian Administrative Service officer who heads the task force.
There are 3,000 illegal structures in Munnar, said Kumar and the priority of the task force would be to “demolish the bigger structures first and then go for the smaller ones.”
According to him, the entire operation would take three months. And, as if to send out a message that no one would be spared, the task force’s bulldozers took apart one portion of the office of the Communist Party of India (CPI), an ally of the state’s ruling Left Democratic Front.
The task force’s early targets include seven of the larger resorts at Munnar, Winter Castle, Las Palmas, Autumn Trees, Misty Buds, Westwoods, Cloud Nine and Nagarjuna Ayur County. The companies and the individuals running the resorts did not respond to Mint’s queries.
The Kerala Restaurant and the Hoteliers Association said the demolition would affect the tourism industry.
The task force, whose members include, apart from Kumar, inspector general of police Rishi Raj Singh and the district’s new collector Raju Narayanaswami, said its objective was to restore Munnar to its former glory.
Some local politicians are against the demolition drive and some constituents of the LDF have already expressed their concern at it.
In 2006, the government had issued three orders asking developers to stop illegal construction. In 2003, a committee appointed by the government to look at land use in the Munnar district found in its report that there were 897 cases, involving 381.22 hectares of land, where people did not have proper documents in the Kannan Devan Hills.
Tea is the major crop in the hills and the total area under tea cultivation now is 23,239.06 acres. There are about 30 tea plantations in and around Munnar, most of them owned by Tata Group’s Kannan Devan Tea Estate.
According to the expert committee, it was from 1996 that bogus titles were issued and “a land mafia came into existence”. “Illegal constructions came up on these lands without valid title deeds” the report adds.
Kerala’s revenue minister and CPI leader K.P. Rajendran said the government would ensure all encroachments are cleared. “We will not succumb to any pressure,” he added.
Meanwhile, in Munnar, CPI leader and former Kerala deputy secretary of the party C.A. Kurian said the party office, part of which was demolished, actually stood on land that had been given to the CPI in 1959. Its title deed was proper, he added.
The LDF is now considering appointing a senior officer to oversee the task force itself. People who did not wish to be identified said that this could just be a way to slow down the process.