Nearly two years after the 'Pombilai Orumai' agitation taken out by the deprived women tea leaf pickers of Munnar on a one fine morning, the most sought after hill town in the country has yet again come to the attention of public conscience for its rampant encroachments and illegal constructions that too with the aid of politicians.
This has befallen almost exactly at a time that the famed 'Munnar Operation' initiated by V S Achuthanandan, the then Chief Minister of Kerala, in the motive of reclaiming the usurped lands and illegal constructions, enters its 10th year.
Munnar sits atop a hill that has been faced with violent urbanisation. The roiling, mist-laden hills of Munnar are razed, centuries-old trees that have stood giving green to its environs are felled one by one, dynamites blown to dismantle rocky hillocks, natural flow of the rivers are stopped every possible point with dams of all sizes. Munnar is moving so fast to a climatic trepidation.
A cloudburst is enough to totally dismantle the place. Munnar had even seen a flood that changed its landscape forever. What we see of the current Munnar is a rebuilt after the great floods of 1924. If such a disaster happens for another time, it is not only the people of Idukki but to the four districts that lay underneath to it face the nature’s fury.
Munnar had enough development, all these years.
The recent uproar over the issue atop the hills reminds of the political upheaval and polarising divide the first 'Munnar Operation' had brought to the district a decade ago. It hailed then as a significant decision however it soon petered out with too much of opposition claiming those stood for it.
The recent issue has on the same lines of ‘Munnar Operation’ snowballed into a political controversy with the prominent allies of the left government - Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India (CPI)- locking horns each other.
The 'Munnar Operation' in the 2006-2011 made many efforts to stop illegal constructions and encroachments but that wasn't enough to put a complete stop to it. The reasons that led to such failure were beyond politics. Stiff opposition from the political parties, especially from dominant section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India (CPI), an ally of the Left government, then saw the operation far from being a success. VS Achuthanandan government demolished 92 illegal constructions and reclaimed more than 1000 acres of land from the land mafia. But when the special team tried to enter the buildings and lands encroached by political parties and leaders, they revolted. The leadership of CPI (M) and CPI made it sure that the operation did not last long.
After the Congress led UDF came to power, the reclaimed land again fell into the hands of land mafia. The illegal occupation go unabated.
If it was the nonagenarian VS who made the Munnar issue far more heard beyond the hills in 2002 as opposition leader, now the aggrieved reality of the Munnar is yet again brought to the fore is by a 30-year-old Sub-Collector of Devikulam. Sriram Venkataraman, a lanky, fair youngster who is spotted always with a characteristic beard, seemed unfazed in issuing criminal proceedings against the offenders. This has stirred the hornet’s nest.
Even before Sriram initiated action and the local politicians calling him a 'feudal landlord', the rampant illegal constructions of Munnar that is causing severe destruction to the environment has come after the Assembly Committee on Environment headed by Mullakkara Ratnakaran, a CPI MLA. The report tabled in the Assembly called for stringent action against the encroachment and illegal buildings in the region. The Committee wants the creation of Munnar Development Authority to oversee the construction activity in the sensitive hill resort area and called for steps to check the ongoing illegal constructions.
Following this, AT James, Land Revenue Commissioner, in his report has warned of the grave situation at the hill station. He demanded of an urgent intervention by the state government, something that the Kerala High Court had stressed upon in a verdict in 2010. The then Idukki district police chief AV George had given a detailed report of encroachment to the government before the Mullakkara and James reports. Sriram has also submitted several reports highlighting the appropriation of government land by private individuals with the connivance of political leaders and officials in the region.
With things have come out in the open that would lead to a possible legal trial of them, the land mafias in the district have come up in arms against these reports. Local politicians too have come raising their 'concern' that the reports will do only harm to the development of Munnar. S Rajendran, CPI(M) MLA from Devikulam, was the first among the fold to come out alleging the Sub Collector for making the life of the people of Munnar hell-like.
Meanwhile, the situation in Munnar has turned more volatile with CPI and CP(M) leadership have come locking horns over the eviction of encroachments. Discontent between the two had out in the open when the CPI district secretary KK Sivaraman alleged S Rajendran for illegal encroachment and even constructing a house in a government's property.
VS Achuthanandan on Tuesday made a statement that particularly differed with CPI(M)'s in the issue. He accused S Rajendran for helping the encroachers and being a part of it. He even called him a henchman of the encroachers. The statement had come from VS a day after chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan rubbished the allegation against S Rajendran. This is not the first time that the long-time MLA of Devikulam is accused of his alleged involvement with the land mafia of the district. VS Achuthanandan also not spared the UDF government in letting the encroachers roam free during their rule.
Meanwhile, the CPI(M) district secretary KK Jayachandran termed the allegation against the MLA as baseless and the government should first define what is encroachment. He said that it is an unfair practice to cancel the title-deed issued by a previous government. They want the Sub-Collector to be removed.
E. Chandrasekharan, CPI leader and Revenue Minister, had told reporters in Munnar, when during the visit a week ago, that the sub-collector would not be removed from the post and clarified that officers are duty bound to implement the government policies.
The CPI district leadership is not ready to yield to any pressure from CPM since the first Munnar Operation is warm in their memories. They do not want the removal of Sriram but in turn to focus on the real problems of the people of Munnar. However, the issue of Munnar is regarding the assigning land ownership is a more complex and intricate thing. A major portion of the land on which the migrant labour from Tamil Nadu reside in Munnar falls under two categories: those owned by the Kerala state Electricity Board (KSEB), and the revenue and forest land which was resumed to the state government from the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP)company. The Kannan devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act 1971 does not provide issuing title deeds to the settlers. This has led to many settlers fabricate title deeds and this has been the continuing practice there. The land acquired by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) for the Pallivasal project also cannot be assigned to the settlers even though they have resided at the place for many years. The existing laws in the place to make the issuance of title-deeds not possible. As per the law, revenue land can only be assigned to the people and that too with the consent of the government. Since with meeting with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday by MLAs of the district proved to be a failure. Their demands for the removal of the Sub-Collector had faced stiff opposition from the Revenue Minister. Minister E Chandrasekharan tried to convince the MLAs that the officer has only done the duty and even invoked the reports of the Assembly Environment Committee and Land Revenue Commissioner. They weren't ready to take that version to consideration and even blamed the report is being made for environmentalists.
The rift, however, between the CPI (M) and CPI had come in the open and the Munnar issue getting flared up. More political missionary to be followed in the coming days to Munnar and that too comes at the cost of its fragile Eco-system.
The political slug fest involving two main communist parties in the state speaks about the new low that the left politics has stooped. Even senior members in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet is openly defending the land grabbers and the ambivalent approach of the Chief Minister also speaks about the political influence the law breakers yield in the state.