Kochi: The 16-month-old Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala, reeling under the impact of the resignation of public works minister T.U. Kuruvilla last week, is now under fire over a land deal involving the Indian
Space Research Organization’s (Isro) proposed Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology near state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
Crisis management: Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan.
Kuruvilla resigned following the government’s decision to investigate a Rs6.75 crore deal between his sons and Kuwait-based businessman K.G. Abraham for land in Munnar which included government property.
Isro asked for land to set up the institute in 2006. It wanted the land in Ponmudi, near Thiruvananthapuram, since this was close to two of its existing centres, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, located in the same district.
With no word from the government on its ability or inability to give it land, Isro advertised to buy land in the area in December 2006 and received 15 responses. After examining these responses, Isro decided to buy land from film-producer Xavi Mathew’s 707-acre Merchiston Estate and struck a deal to acquire more than 81.5 acres for Rs3.26 crore. It planned to buy a total of 219 acres for Rs8 crore.
The state government then stepped in and said that this deal could not go through because the land that Isro bought from Mathew was classified ecologically fragile. Such land is supposed to be vested with the government, and its ownership by a private firm created a stir. The forest department has issued a notice to Isro, cancelling the deal with Xavi Mathew. M. Vijaykumar, the state’s law minister, has said that his department was not consulted before the deal.
Isro has clarified that the deal was made only after a committee of law experts went into the records and found nothing wrong in it.
The LDF government has succeeded in temporarily wriggling out of the situation by promising 200 acres of land free of cost to the Isro for setting up its institute and announcing that it will take possession of the estate. Opposition parties have been demanding the resignation of Benoy Viswam, the forest minister, and have asked for a probe into the matter.
In January 2001, the government had, by way of an ordinance, declared the forest area in Ponmudi, including the estate, as ecological fragile land (EFL). That meant that it had to be vested with the government for protection, though the then government did nothing to this effect—it did not take possession of the land.
Coffee and cardamom plantations were exempt from the EFL classification. However, during the rule of the erstwhile Congress government in Kerala, certain modifications were made to the ordinance, following which plantations of tea, pepper, cashew and coconut were also exempted from the EFL classification.
Xavi Mathew had bought the 707 acre estate in March 2005 from Jayashree Tea Company for Rs3.26 crore and transferred the land in the name of his company, Southern Field Ventures, from the local village office and had also paid land tax for three years from 2005.
Mathew claimed that there was nothing illegal in the deal. His contention is that had the land been declared ecologically fragile, it should have been in the government’s possession since 2001. He added that he purchased an estate that was functioning and the 2003 modification to the ordinance allowed tea plantations to be out of EFL purview.
In March this year, Mathew requested the custodian, the forest department, to denotify the land. The department intimated him that a committee had been appointed to inspect his land. In June, the chief conservator for forests brought out an order stating that the land could be denotified.
Meanwhile, the state forest minister said he initiated steps to take over the estate the minute he became aware of the Isro-Mathew deal. “The ownership of the land is vested with the government. The purchase deal has been made possible through manipulations during the time of the erstwhile Congress regime and needs to be probed,” he added.