Anti-encroachment campaign gains momentum in Munnar

Anti-encroachment campaign gains momentum in Munnar

Kochi: Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan restarted his campaign against land encroachment and illegal structures in Munnar in Idukki district, despite facing opposition from his own party for a similar effort last year.

Last week, following a visit to what the government designated as ‘disputed’ lands with cabinet colleagues Benoy Viswam and A.K. Balan, Achuthanandan said that 90 acres of land that were allegedly encroached on by Tata Tea Ltd. will be reclaimed. The cabinet committee on Munnar evictions will meet on Thursday to take a final decision.

However, Tata Tea exited the plantation in 2005 and now holds an 18% stake in the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Co, KDHP, owned and run by workers formerly employed with Tata Tea.

“The said 90 acres which the chief minister has identified as encroached land at our Chokkanad estate is not part of the company, which has just 127 acres there. This land is outside the estate extending to other estates," said T. Damu, director of KDHP. “It is for the government to undertake a survey and identify the surplus land."

Last year, his campaign had faced opposition from local Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, party workers as well as other allies in the ruling Left Democratic Front, or LDF, coalition government.

Already, M.M. Mani, the Idukki district unit secretary of the CPM has declared that any attempt to evict poor and marginal farmers and small businesses in the name of a Clean Munnar campaign will be opposed, never mind that it is a government proposal.

“It was over 130 years ago that workers came to these places to work in the tea and cardamom plantations. Several of them are on encroached lands and many continue to earn their livelihood from that. Let the government evict large land-grabbers and spare the marginal ones," he said.

C.A. Kurian, former deputy speaker in the Kerala Assembly and leader of the CPI, a constituent of the ruling LDF, has also said that any move to evict small and medium farmers and plantation workers will be opposed.

It remains to be seen how the chief minister will go ahead with this drive in Munnar, amidst stiff opposition from constituents in the LDF and his own party, which has framed a guideline for the functioning of the government. In August, the party had officially said that those demanding ‘second land reforms’ were extremists, to which Achuthanandan had responded saying “Opportunists and revisionists fear people with an extreme stand."

The chief minister, who had last year removed a KDHP estate signboard and replaced it with a government one, claims the anti-encroachment drive has so far reclaimed 12,000 acres which will be redistributed among marginal farmers, farm workers and landless adivasis and plantation workers.

Twenty eight ‘unauthorized’ resorts, on land meant solely for cardamom plantations under the Cardamom Hill Reserve rules, have been taken over by government and will be run by the tourist department, he added.

Achuthanandan also admitted that there had been a slowdown in the work of the anti-encroachment special task force formed last year, led by senior IAS officer Suresh Kumar and Inspector-General Rishi Raj Singh. But opposition from the party and the LDF constituents had seen the drive slacken, forcing Kumar and Raj to opt out. The chief minister said the unit will be strengthened with the induction of Vinson M. Paul, an inspector-general of police in the central zone and that the duties of the unit will be rearranged. The cabinet committee meeting on Thursday will take a final decision on the matter.

However, the chief minister has said that marginal farmers and colony-dwellers in the area will not be evicted. At Munnar, he said the drive was against the rich who had usurped government land that belongs to the landless.

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