As Kerala's Munnar mission becomes a damp squib, NGT steps in to take on the state government

Munnar, arguably the most important tourist destination in 'God’s own Country' could well be restored to its old days of pristine natural beauty as the National Green Tribunal (NGT) makes its foray into the hill station with renewed force. The NGT has registered a suo motu case against the state government for not taking enough action to evict illegal encroachments and constructions in the hill station.

From the chief secretary, the district revenue officials and the Electricity Department, to the Munnar Grama Panchayat, the National Highways, the Department of Mining and Geology to the Pollution Control Board, everyone has been put on notice. The move comes after the much-hyped Munnar Mission 2 launched by the Left government in Kerala a month ago became a damp squib with the ruling party bowing to political pressure from within.

Although the state’s revenue minister EM Chandrasekharan, a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) has openly said that evictions would go on despite opposition, the judiciary does not seem to believe the government and that too for obvious reasons.

At the centre of the controversy are the vested interests of CPI’s big brother in the coalition, the CPM — whose local leaders and the notoriously-loose tongued minister from Munnar’s own pastures MM Mani — that has been spending sleepless nights to overrun the mission of the government. Environmental activists are finally heaving a sign of relief as the NGT steps in and hope that the Munnar evictions might finally start in right earnest.

"This intervention of the NGT will help the officials in Munnar to get over the blockade and threat caused by the local politicians of the Left in the area led by the minister (Mani) himself. If there is more resistance, we will soon bring it to the notice of the judiciary and the government will then have to pay a very heavy price for its stand," Harish Vasudevan, top environmental activist and lawyer told Firstpost from Kochi.

File image of Munnar. Image credit: Kerala Tourism website

File image of Munnar. Image credit: Kerala Tourism website

It certainly had been a tough time for the district and revenue officials who had been heckled and harassed not only by the local leaders of the CPM, but also the chief minister who at one point of time questioned their actions. But it is now clear that it was the affidavit submitted by the state government before the NGT in October 2015 that clearly mentioned that the Devikulam sub-collector is the nodal officer for implementing the orders of the NGT in Munnar. This is why Sriram Venkitaraman, the present Devikulam sub-collector has been on a one-man mission to clear encroachments in Munnar despite stiff opposition.

The present suo motu case had been taken by the NGT in light of a news item that had appeared in a local daily, where the land revenue commissioner had openly admitted that the pressure created by Mani and his party cadres is what is preventing officials from doing their job. If sources are to be believed, Venkitaraman is most likely to approach the NGT in days to come if this resistance continues — this could bring the state government in direct conflict with the judiciary. For a chief minister who is yet to recover from the shock treatment given by the Supreme Court in reinstating his much-loathed director-general of police TP Senkumar, any more embarrassment would be too difficult to handle.

On 26 August, 2015, following the NGT’s intervention, the government had assured that a nodal officer had been appointed for the purpose of eviction and that the government would continue to protect the flora and fauna of Munnar. With this revelation, the arguments posed by Mani — that were then agreed upon and substantiated by the chief minister himself — come out of either sheer ignorance of the existing mandate given by the NGT or a deliberate repudiation of the issue.

Can NGT turn the tide?

The NGT might have pressed the red button. But not all those connected with Munnar are sure about things changing on the ground. K Suresh Kumar is a civil servant who had taken voluntary retirement, but more significantly he was among the 'top cats' that former Left chief minister VS Achuthanandan had sent to Munnar with a lot of pomp to evict encroachers in 2007. Kumar today takes every action at Munnar with a pinch of salt. Speaking to Firstpost from his Thiruvananthapuram residence, Kumar went to on to say how in spite of huge political will and even a cabinet decision in 2007, the first Munnar Mission was derailed by politicians from inside the government itself.

"This time not only there is no cabinet decision, there seems to be no consensus on the ground between the coalition partners. Even the chief minister is outright abusing the collector and sub-collector for doing their job. Every day, the CPM and CPI are at loggerheads on the issue in the public domain. Let me tell you these people will find a way to get around the NGT too," Kumar told Firstpost.

Kumar does have a point in what he says. While the revenue minister might have at least shown the will to go all the way by asking officers to be stringent with encroachers, the picture on the ground is different. In Munnar, the CPM and its commander-in-chief Mani rule the roost. His latest attempts to stay in the limelight by first calling the Devikulam sub-collector "a mad man who needs to be send to the asylum" for acting strongly against encroachers and his verbal abuse against women of the organisation Penpilai Urumayi is seen by many here as an attempt to divert attention from the real issue at hand in Munnar.

High stakes for CPM in Munnar

In a recently-concluded meeting on Munnar, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is said to have been fuming at how the district revenue officials have handled the eviction. Many believe that in an attempt to bell the cat and ensure that the party’s interest in the land mafia in Munnar is protected, Vijayan had given directions to the revenue officials to act only in consultation with Mani. "How can revenue officials listen to Mani and do their job? What role does Mani, who is the power minister, have here? So it just shows that the political will is only to protect Mani and his interests because only that will hold the party together in that place," added Kumar.

Saramma is an Adivasi leader who has been on a hunger strike for the past seven days in front of the Devikulam RDO’s office in Munnar. Her demand is a long-pending one that the 'land patta' which was promised to the Adivasis for almost two decades now be given to them at the earliest. Saramma says that all the political parties especially the CPM had been taking the Adivasis for a ride. Although in 2002, the Congress-led UDF government had allotted 1,490 acres of government land for the Adivasis, only 668 acres were distributed among the 560-odd families. The rest of the 822 acres were never even claimed by the government.

File image of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. PTI

File image of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. PTI

From then on, both the LDF governments that came to power had turned a blind eye; so much so that in time, even the remaining pieces of land were taken away by the land mafia in connivance with the local CPM leaders. "We were left without even a place to sleep. I was allotted a piece of land for a house. The tribal mission gave me Rs 50,000 as a grant for building my home. But they then told me the condition is 'You can take the money and vacate the land; otherwise you won’t get the money'. Here, the officers, comrades and land mafia are all hand-in-hand," Saramma told Firstpost.

Saramma adds that many of the Adivasis who held the patta to their lands might have been coerced or allured with small amounts of money to give up their land. “Some 390 of them fled from the area fearing the land mafia and the party goons,” she added.

Pinarayi suddenly turns pious

Activists say that another subplot in the attempted derailment of the mission in Munnar is when the chief minister suddenly turned upset on seeing the cross planted by a dubious organisation called ‘Spirit in Jesus’ uprooted by revenue officials. While no mainstream Christian organisation including the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) the body with the largest denomination of the community in the state even lifted a finger, Vijayan was seen hurrying to a conclusion that it should not have happened.

Local environmentalists in Munnar say that the Vellomkkunel family based out of Kottayam that had started the ‘Spirit in Jesus’ are among the the worst encroachers in the state. A crime branch investigation against them is also pending. In fact, the planting of the cross was an attempt to legitimise an illegal occupation of around 300 acres of government land in the name of religion. That the chief minister could not see through it is viewed by many as another attempt to divert attention in Munnar and derail the present mission.

"It baffles us when you see a Left government’s chief minister going overboard with his emotions because an illegitimate act in the garb of a religious symbol is opposed by officials. So the issue is not that. Here, the chief minister is playing into the hands of the local CPM leadership in Idukki as its only representative Mani has so much at stake here if eviction happens in the right earnest," said Manoj V Nair, an environmental activist based in Munnar.

It should be kept in mind that the second Munnar mission was never an agenda set by the Left government. It is a continuation of the process set in motion by the NGT in 2015. It was an NGO (Munnar Restoration Society Mankulam) and a few other activists that had gone to the NGT with a petition to bring Munnar back to its pristine glory. The big question now is whether the NGT will bare its teeth and restore order in beautiful Munnar.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2017 11:31:17 IST

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