Anti-encroachment drive in Kerala fizzles, as IAS officer in charge of Munnar's hills is shunted out
Environmentalists consider the premature transfer of Sriram Venkitaraman from the post of Devikulam sub-collector as an end to the eviction drive. Though the Kerala government has asserted the operation would continue, activists feel it won't be easy
The much-trumpeted anti-encroachment drive launched by Kerala's Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by VS Achuthanandan in May 2007 in the tourist hotspot of Munnar fizzled out after getting enmeshed in a political controversy.
And the current LDF government's move to save the state's most ecologically fragile regions from destruction may be derailed by a near repeat of the 2007 political drama. The head of the 2007 task force was forced to retreat by a section of the ruling party, while the present head was shunted out.
Environmentalists consider the premature transfer of Sriram Venkitaraman from the post of Devikulam sub-collector as an end to the eviction drive. Though Revenue Minister E Chandrashekharan has asserted that the operation would continue, environmental activist CR Neelakandan feels it won't be easy.
"Encroachments in Munnar involve complex issues. Studies were conducted on these issues and court verdicts run into thousands of pages. An officer needs at least six months to study them. Sriram had launched the eviction drive after studying them carefully and fortifying himself against potential legal challenges," Neelakandan said.
He told Firstpost that the 2013 batch IAS officer had an uncanny knack of dealing with legal issues. "No court could turn away his arguments easily. Politicians who opposed the eviction realised this and pulled strings to remove him," he added.
While local members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the ruling coalition, tried to physically prevent the officer and his team from razing down illegal structures, Power Minister MM Mani and legislator R Rajendran made concerted attempt to demoralise him by dubbing him "mad" and "anti-poor".
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reprimanded him after he pulled down a cross erected in encroached land by an obscure evangelist group and put the operation on hold. However, he found the going tough after he served notice on a powerful resort owner to vacate 22 cents of revenue land he allegedly encroached when eviction resumed following an all-party meeting.
Vijayan lost no time in convening another all-party meeting to discuss the future course of eviction when political parties and other stakeholders in the famed hill station submitted a joint memorandum against evictions. Curiously, however, the Communist Party of India (CPI), which supported the eviction drive, was not invited to the meeting.
Revenue Minister Chandrashekharan, who belonged to the party, stayed away from the meeting. CPI leaders termed the meeting as a brazen attempt to protect the encroacher, who belonged to the Kerala Congress, a regional party cozying up to the LDF. The meeting was called after the resort owner secured a stay from the high court against the eviction proceeding.
"There was no need for a meeting to discuss an issue pending in the court. It's as good as supporting encroachers. The government is calling an official meeting to legitimise an illegal action," said Kanam Rajendran, CPI state secretary.
The government resorted to the last option when the sub-collector revived the eviction process following vacation of the stay by the high court. The court gave the go-ahead on the basis of the sub-collector's counter-affidavit, which established that the disputed 22 cents of land belonged to the government.
The move for transferring Sriram came as an out-of agenda item in the Cabinet meeting held on 5 July. According to media reports, Chandrashekharan opposed the proposal but gave in when he failed to get support from other members of the Cabinet. He wanted the young officer to continue in the post till completion of the eviction of about 100 encroachers identified at the first all-party meeting but the Cabinet justified the action saying he had completed three years as sub-collector.
Environmentalists have viewed the transfer of Sriram before completing a two-year tenure as a violation of the Supreme Court verdict in the recent Senkumar case. However, Sriram, who has not even completed 10 months as sub-collector at Devikulam, said that he had no intention to challenge the order.
"It is the prerogative of the government to deploy the officers. I fully respect this right of the government and will abide by the government order," the IAS officer, who has been posted as director of employment and training, told Firstpost.
He refused to comment on the future of evictions. However, environmentalists like Neelakandan have viewed the removal of Sriram as a clear message to revenue officials not to go against the government brief.
"The government does not want the resort of George to be pulled down, as there are many like it thriving on encroached land in Munnar. If this encroachment is cleared others will also have to be cleared. Sriram had selected the resort of George for eviction fist knowing this fully well," says Neelankandan.
Leaders of opposition parties also agree. Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, former Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president VM Sudheeran, and BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan all said that Sriram was shifted to suit the interests of the resort mafia.
Sudheeran said the Cabinet decision proved that the state government was with the land mafia. "Regardless of anybody's attempt to describe it as a normal administrative measure, anyone with some common sense will know the truth," he said.
The BJP leader saw the action as a warning for the CPI which had lent unstinted support to its minister and his officers in evicting the encroachments, which assumed alarming proportion after Munnar emerged as a top tourist hotspot.
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