GOING by estimates provided by Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence) Jacob Punnoose in a press interview some time ago, mafia operations worth several hundred billion rupees are taking place in Kerala every year. Some dubious land deals that came to light recently indicate that mafia operations in real estate business are on the rise.
Public Works Minister TU Kuruvila had to quit as the government decided to order a judicial inquiry into a land deal between his son Eldo and a Kuwait-based businessman. Now the government is embroiled in a fresh controversy following reports of a suspicious transaction between a local businessman and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
ISRO had written to the State Revenue Minister seeking 100 acres of land in Thiruvananthapuram district to set up a Space Institute. A Deputy Collector informed it that no suitable land was available. However, in response to a newspaper advertisement, ISRO received 17 offers of land from different individuals. From these, it accepted the offer of Xavi Mano Mathew, who expressed readiness to sell his Merchiston estate, near the Ponmudi hill resort.
This tea estate was part of a tract of 280 hectares, which the government had notified as an ecologically fragile land in 2001. Following the notification, the land vested in the State. However, the government failed to take follow-up measures.
At the time of the notification, the Birlas were running the estate. In 2005 they sold it to Mathew. After striking the deal with ISRO, he filed an application with the government for cancellation of the notification.
In the next few weeks, Mathew was able to cut through red tape and obtain all documents needed to establish his title to the land, which was already government property when he acquired it. At one stage, on Mathew's request, Labour Minister PK Gurudasan called a meeting, which was attended also by Forest Minister and senior officials of his department, ostensibly to settle a labour dispute in the estate. However, official minutes show that a decision was taken at this meeting to regularise Mathew's ownership of the notified land.
Pharis Abubaker, who was in the news recently as the man who made the biggest donation to the EK Nayanar memorial football committee, headed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, is also said to be engaged in real estate business.
On a superficial view, Eldo Kuruvila, Xavi Mano Mathew and Pharis Abubaker are smart businessmen making tidy profits by buying land cheap and selling it at a higher price. However, the secret of their success appears to lie not in their business acumen but in their political and official contacts. The ease with which real estate operators are able to secure titles in their names for government lands, including forests, is indicative of the level of corruption in the government departments concerned.
Encouraged by the success of the campaign against Kuruvila, the opposition has called for Benoy Viswom's resignation, pending an inquiry into the Merchiston land scandal. The ruling Left Democratic Front counters the demand with the claim that it was the former United Democratic Front government that enacted legislation to permit transfer of forest land to individuals.
The fact is that those engaged in nefarious deals have friends in both the UDF and the LDF. They are able to have their way, whichever Front is in power. The CPI (Marxist) State Committee's directive to the government to inquire into the role of officials in the deal suggests that it does not want the ministers' conduct to be scrutinised.
The State government has now initiated action for takeover of the Merchiston estate. It has assured workers that their jobs will be protected. It has also offered ISRO alternative land free of cost to ensure that the State does not lose the Space Institute.
On Independence Day, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had asked the people to unite against the land mafia. Three months earlier Congress leader VM Sudheeran had called for a joint movement by all those who are opposed to the land mafia. However, a combined assault on the mafia is not likely as both the LDF and the UDF are guided by political considerations rather than popular interests.
Since February a Kerala-specific website (www.keralatips.org) has been dispensing advice to non-residents on how to protect their property from the land mafia. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 10, 2007.