Kerala’s most famous tourist destination, Munnar in Idukki district, is an ecologically-sensitive area. The colonial hill station located 1,800 metres above sea level, is home to unique flora and fauna in the biodiversity hotspot Western Ghats, a matter which was not factored in when the local administration allowed commercial establishments to thrive in the region.
Thirty-year-old V. Sreeram, a sub-collector who arrived in the region last year, is on an anti-encroachment drive to undo some of the policy bunglings.
Since last July, the officer has sent closure notices to 108 multi-storeyed buildings in the region for violation of law, including realtors and quarry operators.
Coinciding with his drive, two reports from separate government panels on rampant encroachments in Munnar also came out this month, triggering widespread protests among the locals in the area.
The protests, most of them supported by the rank and file of Vijayan’s own Communist Party of India (Marxist), are based on the argument that the operation undertaken by the sub-collector could affect the working class who got hold of small plots of land without patta (land deed) to build houses in Munnar.
Karshaka Sangham, CPM’s farmers’ outfit, backed by two strong men of the party in the Idduki district—MLA S. Rajendran and electricity minister M. M. Mani—staged an agitation in front of the sub-collector’s office since 7 March, until the CM intervened and asked them to withdraw on Monday. They have said the agitations will continue in other forms until the officer is shunted out.
In a telephone interview with Mint, Sreeram said he hasn’t sent closure notices to any of the houses of blue collar workers. He has only implemented a 2010 Kerala high court order, which, incidentally, had called encroachments in the name of commercial exploitation in Munnar as a “rape of mother nature", which banned certain big constructions in Munnar unless it is approved by the revenue department, he said.
“All these people we have booked so far are private people who have own land in Munnar, they have patta (title deed). The government has given patta land in Munnar only for two specific purposes, agriculture and residential uses. But these guys are running huge commercial establishments, it violates the purpose of the patta land. By cancellation of patta, we are trying to at least acknowledge the violation of purpose for which patta was given for the existing lands. It’s also a curious scenario because all these people were running with permits from panchayat, pollution board, fire and safety board and so on. How can someone not know about the law in all these agencies? Even if they were all ignorant, you know ignorance of law is not a licence to violate it," said Sreeram.
The series of incidents in Munnar has become an image crisis for the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, as insiders, allies and dissidents are asking if they support the ‘resort mafia’ or the green brigade. Rajendran, the face of the protests, is in the line of fire as well.
Opposition leader from the Congress Ramesh Chennithala has alleged that Rajendran is acting like a front for the land mafia and usurping government land in Munnar. The ruling party’s ally in power, the Communist Party of India (CPI), has also come out against Rajendran and the CPM protests. While CPI leader and revenue minister E. Chandrasekharan ruled out Rajendran’s demand to transfer the sub-collector, who is working under the minister, Janayugam, the mouthpiece of CPI, said in an article on Monday that Rajendran is speaking in the language of the resort mafia. CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was quick to correct Chandrasekharan saying it is up to the CM to decide where to post bureaucrats.
On Tuesday, veteran CPM leader V. S. Achuthanandan also made a sharp comment against Rajendran, saying there is no doubt the legislator is a henchman of land mafia in Munnar.
When contacted, the legislator refuted all allegations and said he will reply to the debates within the party fold. CPI leader and former editor-in-chief of Janayugom, Binoy Viswam, said he did not want to portray this issue as a split between the two parties. “But some people," he added, “are playing a game in the name of the poor."
“They want Munnar to remain a no-man’s land because they want encroachments to continue."
Pinarayi Vijayan was unavailable for an immediate comment, but he had refuted allegations against Rajendran while at the same time calling for tough actions against encroachments in Munnar in a press meet on Monday.
On Tuesday, Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi refuted Vijayan’s claims to support Rajendran in a report, quoting documents accessed through Right to Information.
“It is a challenge," a CPM leader said requesting not to be named. “The CM wants to keep up the green credentials of the government but at the same time do not want to risk getting trapped in a political crisis by going after encroachments in Munnar, like his predecessor communist chief minister," he said.
It refers to the Achuthanandan government’s tenure of 2006-2011, which had launched a massive eviction drive to clear illegal land grabs in Munnar in 2007. To its embarrassment, the government had to abandon the drive mid-way once the bulldozers started touching the party offices in Munnar, leading to stiff opposition from inside the front.