Two months after the Kerala high court ordered steps to remove all encroachments at Munnar in Idukki district the state government has taken no meaningful action in pursuance of the court order.
Munnar used to be a quiet place until three decades ago when real estate interests invaded the area, grabbed land with the help of politicians and started building holiday resorts. Apparently corrupt officials helped them to create titles for the property.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the ruling Left Democratic Front, and the CPI, the second largest constituent of the alliance, are also said to have interest in resorts.
Eviction of encroachers was one of the first steps initiated by VS Achuthanandan, who had become the Chief Minister outmanoeuvring CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan in 2006. He sent a team of three officials who enjoyed his confidence to perform the task.
The team, which started demolishing unauthorised structures with bulldozers under the eyes of television cameras, encountered opposition from two sides. Some affected resort owners rushed to the court and obtained stay orders. The CPI-M's Idukki unit, led by a follower of Achuthanandan, switched its loyalty to Pinarayi Vijayan, and raised stiff opposition to the move locally. The CPI unit also joined the campaign.
The chief minister, who was isolated in the party and the Cabinet, had to pull out his men from Munnar. The government formally reiterated its commitment to oust the encroachers and deputed another team to continue the mission. But, for all practical purposes, the mission was dead.
Munnar came to the fore again as One Earth One Life, a non-government organisation, sought the high court's intervention, stating encroachments and land transactions were continuing there unabated.
It pointed out that Nivedita P Haran, Principal Secretary, Revenue department, had proposed a moratorium on land transactions and constructions in the Pallivasal, Devikulam and Udumbanchola taluks until all doubts about bogus titles were cleared. The government had not acted on her recommendation.
At the hearing stage itself, Chief Justice SR Bannurmath and Justice Thottathil B Radhakrishnan made it clear that they believed stern action was needed to remove the encroachments. They said they would look into the steps taken by the government since 2007.
Justice Bannurmath, who has since retired, stated later that during a visit to Munnar to attend a seminar he had the opportunity to acquaint himself personally with the situation there.
In a 470-page action taken report, filed in response to the court's directive, District Collector Ashok Kumar Singh said the Kannan Devan company belonging to the Tata group was the biggest encraoacher and it held thousands of acres of government land. Action initiated to repossess the land had been halted by stay orders issued by the courts.
He claimed action had been taken against 119 resorts and 14,000 acres recovered from encroachers between 2007 and 2010. The nature of the action taken against illegally constructed resorts was not clear.
The Collector's report mentioned encroachments made by some politicians or their relatives too. His attempt to project the Tatas as the biggest villain is in tune with the tactical line adopted by the ruling parties.
The court's response to the Collector's action taken report will be known when it takes up the case again in the next few days.
When Forest Minister Binoy Viswam announced the government's decision to declare 17,000 acres of land taken back from the Tata firm under a law enacted in the 1970s, the Collector had shot off a letter raising doubts about the status of the land.
In reply, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests TM Manoharan wrote to him saying his letter was based on lack of appreciation of the history of the Kannan Devan hills. He devoted much of his letter to narrate how the land had changed hands since the 19th century.
Meanwhile T Damu, director of a Tata firm, has come out with a book titled Munnar Rekhakal, which essentially presents the company's side of the story.
While the absurd drama involving the government departments and the ruling parties goes on with no end in sight, there are indications that other actors will soon enter the picture.
A technical committee deputed by Union Forest and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is due to visit Munnar shortly. The empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court to look into environmental issues is also expected to take up the case of Munnar soon.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 22, 2010.