Munnar's glory fades: CPM bigwigs, priests and businessmen on list of Kerala encroachers

The recent political storm that is rocking Kerala, Munnar has put the ruling CPM in the dock with the latest list of encroachers released by the District Collector featuring some of the ruling party’s prominent leaders.

File image of Munnar. Image credit: Kerala Tourism website

File image of Munnar. Image credit: Kerala Tourism website

From minister MM Mani’s nephew Lijesh Lamboodaran, to two district committee members of the party, their families and a host of other local leaders and party cadre are now the faces taking down one of Kerala’s most prestigious tourist spots.

With the revenue minister, while answering a query raised in the state Assembly last week, clarifying that the land patta held by CPM’s Devikulam MLA S Rajendran had been bogus, the cat has certainly been set amidst the pigeons. The CPM is also getting a very unlikely partner in this crime.

A section of The Church in God’s Own Country has also been an active partner in the encroachments as per the list submitted. Even vicars and fathers have been directly implicated for illegal occupation of government land.

A day after the list was out, the chief minister called an all party meeting at the government guest house in Thiruvananthapuram to discuss the issue. Here, separate meetings were conducted with environmentalists, media persons and members representing various religious communities.

But prominent environmentalists and activists say that the government had come unprepared, failing to show any road map on how to tackle the issue other than the usual tall talk.

Harish Vasuden, one of the most respected faces among the environment activists in the state, said the meeting was a one-sided affair. “The meeting was a complete eye wash. It was done just to send out a message that the government is trying to do something. On the ground, the state seems to have no idea how to deal with this problem. The government had literally nothing to tell us and no discussion took place on the list of evictors prepared,’’ Vasudevan told Firstpost.

The government on Sunday also reiterated that the focus will be to evict the big fish. “Those holding 10 cents of land and below for residential purposes will not be affected at the moment,’’ Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told mediapersons.

It is here that the activists point out that there is a lack of clarification. The list prepared by the revenue department has a number of persons who hold land below 10 cents, a lot of whom are members of the CPM. If all those small tracts of land are added up it would run into acres.

“There is a list of 157 persons prepared by the revenue department which the CM had in his hand when he met us yesterday. Why did he not say anything about evicting them? It is here that we need to suspect that the government is taking us for a ride and nothing is going to change,’’ CR Neelakandan, another civil rights activist who was present at the meeting and who had been protesting in Munnar against encroachments for quite some time, told Firstpost.

Politicians, priests and businessmen find common ground

It was the timely intervention of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that got the district and revenue officials working overtime to prepare a list of offenders that now makes an engaging read.

Firstly, it should be said without doubt that the encroachment in Munnar is not restricted to any one area but is widespread. The beautiful Kannan Devan Hills (KDH), Chinnakanal, Pallivasal, Anaviratty, Kunchithanny, Byson Village, Santhanpara and Mannamkandam have all had their lands usurped in the name of business, religion and livelihood.

Firstpost analysed a few prominent names on the list, although it could not verify the antecedents of all the encroachers, which means what we might be seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.

The classic case is the Kannan Devan Hills, where there are a number of violators from the CPM. MV Sasikumar is a member of the CPM’s Idukki district committee and a prominent leader of its trade union the CITU. He has illegally constructed a building for commercial purpose over 10 cents of land.

Not far away is Chacko again in same village and survey number KDH 20/1. Here too, the construction is over 10 cents by a man who was a former secretary of the NGO Union, the CPM’s trade union body of the state government staff.

Shereena, a former CPM woman ward member, has 10 cents of land. Many more feature at the KDH who owe their allegiance to the party.

Manjo Nair, a local activist, says that KDH had been a CPM stronghold and it is only natural for the party’s best to have illegal occupation there. “There is no one to question the CPM. They will just usurp land as per their wishes and build homes, start construction and do whatever they want. Such families have the blessings of the people in power for sure. So who is going to evict them?’’ asks Nair.

Move to Chinnakanal and it’s a different story altogether. Here acres of both the revenue land as well as the Shola forest have been encroached. It is here the dubious sect ‘Spirit in Jesus’ and the notorious Scaria family come into the picture.

The father, sons and almost everyone in the family has a piece of illegal land here. Most have criminal cases pending against them. Shunned by the mainstream church in Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan baffled one and all when he spoke against removing the sect’s infamous cross last month.

The government perhaps forgot that the cross in Munnnar had been a tool to grab land in the name of religion for years. Hundreds of acres have been grabbed in such a manner. But the mainstream church too has much to answer for. Two vicars and two priests find their names on the list. From the Jacobite Suriyani Church to the Catholic denominations, everyone at Munnar seems to have sinned.

The Jacobite Suriyani Church and St Sebastien Church at Thokkupara, the St George Catholic Church at Kunchinthanny and the St Joseph’s Church at Suryanelli are under a cloud. Perhaps their presence also forced the chief minister to convene a separate meeting with the religious heads to discuss the issue on Sunday.

“An elected government meeting religious heads before kicking off an eviction drive is not the best option. If you are serious about eviction, you should act rather than such mollification attempts,’’ added Neelakandan.

Even at Chinnakannal,  the CPM’s presence is evident. VS Albin is Shanthapara area committee secretary of the party. He too has 10 cents of land.

But the icing on the cake for the party is  Lijesh Lambodaran, son of controversial minister MM Mani’s brother MM Lambodaran, who holds a sizeable 7.1 acres of land at Chinnakannal. Both CPM offices in Munnar town are also on the eviction list.

Will the government act?

While the list is ready and the government says it will act, others with bitter experiences feel otherwise. Suresh Kumar, a former civil servant who led the Munnar Mission 1 in 2007, says the idea of a list of encroachers in itself is self-defeating.

“Why do you need to make a list when each Tehsildar has the papers with him? It’s up to him to decide if an encroachment in his jurisdiction is illegal or not. Making a list is a way of adding some names and omitting those you want to save. It's just a farce,’’ Kumar told Firstpost.

Kumar, questioning the government’s political will to act in Munnar in the absence of a Cabinet consensus unlike in 2007, says that there is a fundamental mistake with which the government is approaching the issue. Firstly, two separate lists of big time and small-time encroachers is  not the way to go about it. Second, you commit that small-time encroachers won’t be evicted, at least initially.

“In Munnar alone you have more than 500 illegal buildings which are less than 10 cents, including the CPM office, whose patta is the name of MM Mani. Will all these continue because they are small-time encroachers and because they are inside the town? Why do you have to take such a self-defeating stand which brings such confusion and spoil the drive?’’ asks Kumar.

The BJP is also  echoing the same sentiment and is labeling the CPM's tactics as trying to save those in the party who are encroachers. “What sort of logic differentiates between big and small-time encroachers? Encroachment is an illegal act, be it an inch or an acre. All this drama about going after big encroachers is the government’s way of saving their own people. We doubt if this list work,’’ BJP state spokesperson MS Kumar told Firstpost.

Meanwhile, the activists who attended the meeting on Sunday have asked the government to hand over all ecologically fragile zones in Munnar and the Idukki district to the forest department.

Currently, the revenue department handles the majority of the land at Munnar, which activists say over the years helped corrupt officials who are hand-in-glove with politicians and resort mafia to make bogus land deeds and help encroachers.

If in the long run, the government listens to these activists, perhaps Munnar will slowly get back to its past glory.

Updated Date: May 09, 2017 14:18 PM

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