Of land scams, political posturing and antediluvian rules

Kerala claims to be the most advanced state in the country, riding as much on a clutch of human development indices as on its super buying power of expensive jewellery, white goods and fancy automobil

Published: 09th April 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th April 2018 01:57 AM   |  A+A-

Kerala claims to be the most advanced state in the country, riding as much on a clutch of human development indices as on its super buying power of expensive jewellery, white goods and fancy automobiles. At the same time, if there is one area the state can ill-afford to preen, it is low-level industrialisation. Among the main reasons cited for this no-show in the industry sector are a shortage of available land and the requisite labour to make the ‘wheels of machinery’ turn – both skilled and unskilled. While the proclivity of the average Malayali to the blue collar is well documented, the paucity of adequate land at the state’s disposal is an equally critical reason.

Let’s consider two associated aspects: With only 38,863 square kilometres of land that Kerala can call its own, the state accounts for only 1.18 per cent of the country’s total land mass of 3,287,263 square kilometres. Add to that its high population density, in which matrix it ranks third in the country, the recipe is ready for the squabbles over land use in the state. No surprise that one gets to see land scams at alarmingly frequent intervals these days.

If land is a precious commodity, its usage and consequentially transactions have also been made complex by a slew of rules and regulations in Kerala. On the one hand, you have a state whose main industry is tourism and on the other a set of rules regarding land use that was relevant in the pre-Independent era. The land rules governing the dying tea estates situated mostly in the districts of Idukki and Wayanad make a good case for argument.

With encroachments, evictions too became the order of the day, some of them bigger in scope and impact than the others. Political intervention became the natural corollary. Soon, the scams followed, haunting one government after the next. Some proved adept at handling the land scams by brazening it out while others collapsed under the sheer weight of the charges of corruption and nepotism that ensued.

Right from the historic Munnar demolition drive by the then chief minister V S Achuthanandan in 2007, a bulk of the issues raised then still remains unresolved, while land encroachments and evictions continue to be a vexed issue.

The last in the long list of seamy land scams is a fraud allegedly perpetrated by CPI leaders in Wayanad, the details of which came out following a sting operation by a popular TV channel. What is emerging loud and clear is the abject failure of political parties to deal with the land mafia. In other words, while the leaders of various political parties rant and rave against the land mafia and encroachments, they fail to weed out some of their grassroots functionaries who are emerging vital cogs in the nexus involving politicians, bureaucrats in the revenue department and wily players in the realty sector. For CPI, the Wayanad incident has come as a slap on its face as the party has been vociferous against land encroachments.

It has even strained its relationship with CPM, the main constituent in the LDF ministry over the Munnar eviction drive which the revenue department under the CPI initiated.
It is not as if everything was hunky dory during the UDF rule. On the contrary, the track record of the Oommen Chandy government on this front was far from perfect. Both the Pattoor case and the land deal involving the UB group in Palakkad dragged the names of some of its leaders into the quagmire. The UDF government also came under the lens for the ungainly haste with which it tried to clear the papers on the reclamation of 387 acres of backwater paddy fields (Metran Kaayal) and 47 acres of paddy fields at Kadamakkudy for commercial use.

If both CPM and CPI vowed to roll back these land deals once they came into power, no such thing happened. Instead, they began getting mired in scams of their own making, The second edition of the Munnar eviction drive in 2017 was steered by the CPI, whose strongman E Chandrasekharan holds the Revenue portfolio. And it was left to CPM’s homegrown leader from Idukki and Power Minister M M Mani to spew venom at Devikulam Sub Collector Sriram Venkitaraman who led the eviction drive. The stand-off on Munnar was so politically charged it resulted in Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself coming out in the open against the eviction drive. Result: differences of opinion within the LDF ranks came out in the open, despite the damage control measures that followed.

Therefore, when the Wayanad land issue surfaced, the CPM leaders were the first to come out, voicing moral outrage.
The government did not lose any time proclaiming it would not tolerate any violation of the law. It was tit-for-tat time, as the CPM gave it back to the CPI for its aggressive stand over Munnar encroachments. There was a palpable sense of déjà vu in the air as the 2007 anti-encroachment drive in Munnar by Achuthanandan had hurt the CPI most.

Though it has presently dropped off the news radar, no one could possibly have forgotten the single-mindedness with which the CPI leadership went for the jugular of NCP leader and then minister Thomas Chandy over charges of encroachment by his lake Palace Resort in Kuttanad. It may have been an NCP minister who was forced to resign but it was the CPI that acted more like the opposition than the Congress, which merely went through the motions. Sure, it was proxy war then, but now the gloves have now come off and slugfest is really on between the two major allies in the LDF government.

The script was quite similar in the case of CPM-backed Member of Parliament Joyce George too. The CPM had no qualms in supporting farmers and traders to go on protest mode after the title deeds of 25 acres of land held by Joyce George and his family at Kottakmabur in Munnar was cancelled by the revenue department. Though the chief minister gave a clean chit to George by asserting his ownership of the disputed land, the revenue officials found that documents furnished by Joyce George to be fake and cancelled the title deed.

Now, coming to the latest episode in this long drawn out saga to corner the precious commodity called land at a throwaway price, the Wayanad land fraud involving CPI leaders and revenue officers is proving to be a reprieve for the CPM, which has mostly been at the receiving end. With the UDF, along with the estranged Kerala Congress (M) and even the BJP demanding a judicial probe, the CPI is desperately trying to find some face-saver.

Sure, most of the land scams these days are turning out to be platforms for the CPM and CPI to settle political scores. They alternatively don the roles of predator and prey, apparently with no visible discomfort while one mask is replaced by another. Still reeling from the onslaught it faced while in government, the UDF is tentatively slipping on the shoes of the aggressor. The BJP, having had no big opportunity to make a mark in this area so far, sticks to its role as the perennial accuser.

Meanwhile, the land scams keep tumbling out, like the proverbial skeletons from the cupboard. And land keeps getting cornered by those who already have large tracts of land, as they keep bending rules that are from another era. On the flip side, this precious commodity remains elusive for those who keep scrimping from their meagre income.

Vinod Mathew

Resident Editor, Kerala

Email: vinodmathew@newindianexpress.com


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