Kerala's planned greenfield airport may run into legal trouble over dubious land deals
The government release announcing the project has not made any clarification on the status of the land.
Thiruvananthapuram: The Kerala government’s decision to build the state’s fifth international airport in a land embroiled in legal disputes has raised eyebrows in the state.
The land (2,263 acres) held by Gospel for Asia, the social service wing of Believers Church, is now under the scrutiny of the state high court. The land called Cheruvally Estate was purchased by the church from Harrison Malayalam Plantations, the farm business arm of the industrial conglomerate, RPG Group, in 2005.
However, MG Rajamanickam, a special officer appointed by the state government to review the plantations on long-term leasehold, had found the sale illegal and ordered the resumption of the land along with another about 4,750 acres of land similarly sold by the plantation firm in 2015. The high court stayed the proceedings against the church on an appeal filed by it.
A committee headed by Additional Chief Secretary PH Kurien identified the estate containing rubber plantations for the proposed airport to cater to the millions of pilgrims visiting the Sabarimala hill shrine in Pathanamthitta district throughout the year and migrants hailing from Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and parts of Thrissur districts. The state cabinet that met on 19 July approved the proposal.
The government release announcing the project has not made any clarification on the status of the land. Social activists and a section of opposition parties allege behind the silence a conspiracy to legitimise the illegal land deal. Earlier there were reports that the government had planned to give 25 percent stake in the project to the Believers Church.
CR Neelakandan, state convenor of Aam Aadmi Party, believes that the government had paved the way for a backdoor deal in the case by removing Susheela Bhatt, who had effectively argued this and other cases involving Harrisons Malayalam Ltd as government pleader, and also getting a new report favouring the company from Legislature Secretary, HA Hareendranath.
The government has filed an affidavit in the court based on Hareendranath’s report which states that the government cannot take over the land under the present laws.
Neelakandan told Firstpost that this was contrary to Rajamanickam’s report that stated that all land possessed by foreigners prior to Independence must have gone to the government automatically following the enactment of Independence Act 1947.
Rajamanickam had identified five lakh such land owned by foreign citizens and companies in different parts of the state. Harrisons Malayalam Ltd had 65,000 acres of land owned either by British citizens or firms in the state. Cheruvally estate was part of this.
A Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) investigation into the Harrison Malayalam land deals had revealed that the company had sold the land by forging documents. The sale deeds were not supported by previous documents, which dated back to the colonial era.
The VACB had booked four Harrisons Malayalam Ltd executives in connection with 7,000 acre of land it thus sold to four private persons on a recommendation made by Bhatt. The cases are now pending in a vigilance court.
Neelakandan told Firstpost that if the state government goes for any out of court settlement with the Believers Church it will not only legitimise the deal but also have a bearing on other land identified by various panels for resumption.
"We are not against an airport for the Sabarimala pilgrims, but it should not be at the cost of the government land. Kerala is a land scarce state, where thousands of people remain without land to build a shelter. We will not allow the government to go ahead with the airport project if it goes for any compromise with the Believers Church," he said.
The state unit of the BJP has also taken a similar stand. Party president Kummanam Rajashekharan said the land proposed for the airport was part of 26,000 acre of land declared as revenue land by various agencies.
"We will not allow the government to go ahead with the project if it tries to acquire the land for money or other considerations. This would mean allowing rights to the rest of the land sold by Harrisons Malayalam," he said.
Believers Church official spokesman Father Sijo Panthapallil denied any illegality in their deal with Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. He said that the church had bought the land after satisfying itself that the land was supported by all requisite documents.
He claimed that the high court had upheld their rights over the land in three cases since 2005. He said that court had granted stay against the move to resume the land after examining all aspects.
"We are confident that the high court would settle the case in our favour. If it goes against us we will move the Supreme Court," he said.
However, the priest said that the church would cooperate with the government if it was ready for an amicable settlement. He said that no official had approached them for any discussion on the issue so far. The church will reveal its stand when the government approaches them, Father Panthapallil said.
The estate is part of the religious empire being built by Gospel for Asia, which is one of the largest and richest evangelical groups in the world, by funneling money from all over the world. The institutions it has established in Kerala include over a dozen schools, a medical college, an engineering college, a finance company, a soccer team, three hospitals, and a broadcasting company.
The group head KP Yohannan, Metropolitan Bishop, is facing a case in the US for diverting funds collected from its citizens. According to a report in Christian Post, Yohannan has been named along with several of his family members in a class action lawsuit there.
The law suit initiated in the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas by the Dallas-based Stanley Law Group alleges that Gospel for Asia and its several affiliates fraudulently solicited hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations, and misdirected them into the founder’s kitty for-profit businesses.
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