The movement the Kerala government started on 13 May 2007 against Tata’s violations of the law, as it had committed unauthorised seizure of land and kept its monopoly at Munnar, triggered off a huge enlightenment towards the land issues in the state. The task force set up by the government went ahead with its mission, ignoring stiff opposition and a swarm of false propaganda, did manage to destroy about a hundred illegal constructions and reclaim more than twelve thousand acre of encroached public land. It was an unparalleled advancement aimed to chain illegal landlords and conserve ecology while protecting the essence of the historical Land Reforms Act. Despite the fact that the movement did not gather the expected momentum, courtesy a slew of controversies, the process succeeded in creating a fresh awareness against destroying the nature, against faulty classification of public land to help some people and trusts amass it and the wayward ways of the realty mafia.
Acts of reclaiming encroached public land started enjoying huge public endorsement. And with the enactment of a law banning the land-filling of paddy fields and wetlands in (2007) and the execution of a programme to enhance agri-production, land utilisation began to witness a progressive shift in the state.
But the incumbent United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which follows the tradition of the 1959’s notorious farce called Liberation Struggle (vimochanasamaram), is now all set to undermine this progress. This government came to power on 18 May 2011. And its very first budget presented on July 8, 2011, by finance minister and the proponent of a certain ‘Labouring Class Theory’, KM Mani, contained two lethal suggestions. The first endorsed a view to allow 5 per cent of plantations for any needs including ‘tourism’ and to knock out cashew grown areas from the Land Ceiling Act. This suggestion is implemented now. Further, the government has issued orders to legalise land-filled paddy-fields and wetlands that are done so before 2005. It should be noted that the move to legalise land-filling of fields has ignored the data bank on such areas, which was in its last lap to completion. True, with such measures, the Oommen Chandy-headed UDF government has proved that it goes by its motto: “Faster and Farther”. Yes, in just 15 months since taking over, it managed to strangulate the Land Reforms Act.
Even as these ‘reforms’, which smell the rot of the ‘Liberation Struggle’ are being implemented under erstwhile Young Turk Chandy, Young Turks of the day such as VD Satheesan and TN Prathapan (Congress MLAs) have come out in protest, triggering another row. The attempts to belittle the issue to factionalism inside the Congress and the UDF and to a mere dispute over the ownership of an estate (the 279-acre Cherunelli Lower Estate in Palakkad district) are bizarre to say the least. It is a shameful fact that a ‘land mafia empire’ that violates all the laws of the land, exists in the state that houses more than 500,000 landless families. A majority of families, which hold two to 10 cents of land, are bound to pay taxes and follow rules, while the Tatas and Harisson Malayalam Plantation go ahead with their ‘land- empire’. In Munnar, the Tatas hold more than 60,000 acres, while Harisson Malayalam exploits about 79,000 acres spread across eight districts in the state. Again, in Nelliampathi (Palakkad), certain people have encroached thousands of acres spread across 52 estates without any valid legal document to prove their ownership and are running their own autocracy there.
Rules are violated
What is going on is violation of the law as Plantation giants breach all laws and challenge the people. They now enjoy the protection of the law to exploit 5 per cent of the plantation land for real estate requirements! A big chunk of the estate land under lease includes the land taken away from tribal communities. It would not take more than 25,000 acres to compensate these tribal families with 1 acre each. But the government feigns helplessness when it comes to providing tribal communities with the land they are legally entitled to, pushing the multitudes of land-lost tribals to people prisons while protesting against the government. And it is at this juncture that the government decides to legalise the exploitation of about 85,000 acres of the 1.7 million acres of estate land for, say, tourism. Even if one argues that small plantations that do not fall under the purview of the Land Ceiling Act form a major slice of the 1.7 million acre estate land, of the 300,000 acres of estate land held by big encroachers such as the Tatas, Harisson and the Believer’s Chruch (there are about 250 of them), about 15,000 acres will be set aside for real estate demands.
In fact, the move to exclude plantations from the Land Ceiling Act was positively aimed to promote cash crops, gain foreign exchange and ensure the welfare of plantation workers, and was taking into account the specificity of plantation crops. But as time went by, this exclusion has evolved to become Land Reforms’ very own Frankenstein. When plantations were re-classified, sliced up and sold in parts, and their timber stocks were looted away, those who had given away their spare-land along with the hundreds of thousands of landless people eligible for excess land became helpless spectators. The rule that a five-member family should not hold more than 15 acres was violated at will, thanks to the inertia or complicity of the revenue, registration departments as well as the carelessness of the governments and the indirect facilitation by courts.
Political will: the need of the hour
The main issue at present is that of the ‘bonus’, that, 5 percent of the plantation land could be maladjusted for real-estate ends, given by Chandi and Mani in favor of the plantation giants, who have already siphoned huge profits utilizing the land reforms act itself. Some have a design to avoid the original issue and prune the whole discussion down to the limits of 280 acres of the Cherunelli Estates. Along with the issue of the ‘bonus’ of 5 percent given to the plantation mafia, we have other issues to be considered as the most serious ones of the kind: the government should take over the Harrisson Malayalam Plantation estates, the estates in Nelliyampathi and all the estates that have outlived their lease period; should scrap its decision to divide and sell out the Kinaloor Estate; should evict the new encroachments at Munnar and retrieve the government land; should safeguard the essence of the Land Reforms Act and take over and run the estates that have exhausted their lease period; and it should distribute the excess land to tribal and the other landless people with a view to ensure that every family gets land. The discussions should develop in such a way. This is not just a legal issue as Satheesan and co. portrays it to be. It is a political issue, too. It is not going to solve the whole issue if it is viewed solely to be a single case of legal violations. Didn’t we see that it had been stayed by the court when steps were initiated to reclaim the plantation, that had outlived the lease period, from the illegal custody of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd? Such legal proceedings won’t end even by centuries. And, as its result, Tatas, Harrissons and co. will go on ‘legally’ plundering the property of the state, fooling the people. So, political will is very important.
Everybody knows that the Harrisons Malayalam is the biggest monopoly and they mock the people the most. They filed an affidavit at the high court recently that, they are ready to release 834.53 acre excess land that they had been holding for the past. In 1982 the land Board at Sulthan Bathery (Wayanad district) had given its verdict that Harrisons Malayalam should release 1,834 acres of excess land. Now, this grand overlords of land who enjoyed the custody and profits of those 1,834 acres for the last 30 years, are becoming generous that they shall release 834.53-acre excess land that the government may take custody. The high court promptly agrees to it and orders to take its custody. It may further take decades to decide the dispute over the whereabouts of these 834.53 acres, that where this land exactly is, and for its actual taking over to take place. Court stays shall rain in.
The revenue minister has already declared that Harrisons’ plantations that spread across eight districts would be wholly taken over. From this what could be naturally assumed is that it will be the old sequence again of the government ordering the takeover, the Harrisons approaching the court, again the government advocate playing out to lose the cases, then the court providing a stay in favor of the encroacher and so on. Two days ago the district collector of Paththanamthitta had ordered to confiscate the 831 acres of Harrisons’ plantation in Konni, of which the lease period has exhausted on 8 April 2010. The next day itself the High Court stayed it. In Konni itself, 1,789 acres of Harrisons Malayalam had run out of its lease period on 13 March 2012. Same is the status of the Harrisons plantations in Chengara and Laaha (both in Pathanamthitta district).
It had been clearly in light that the very existence of Harrisons Malayalam plantation itself had been illegal and deceitful. The Rubber Producing Company of a European named John Mackey had already gone extinct due to the Land reforms act and the FERA act in 1964 and the land of the said company had to come under government custody. But, some Indian executives of the company formed a new company and grabbed the lease rights and thus Malayalam Plantation company came to existence. This Malayalam Plantation bought the shares of Harrisons company that had been making regular purchases of products from it and then became Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. It went to the hands of the Goenka group (RPG), which is in the row of monopolies such as Tata and Birla. This company had in total 76,769.8 acres of lease-land with them. In 1982, the company had submitted before the Sulthan Bathery Land Tribunal that they have 65,767.75 acres in their hand. This means that they illegally sold more than 11,000 acres beforehand. Now as the company’s submission at the Kerala High Court shows, it has around 59,000 acres with it. This again indicates that the process of illegal sell-out and unauthorised sub-leasing was on for long. They have already sold more than 20,000 acres. The government must take over and confiscate all the estates of Harrisons Malayalam and the land that were sold by them for, the lease period of such land had exhausted. It should begin criminal proceedings against the company as the company had committed clear violations of law; and, should also take all the necessary actions against the company that may reimburse the government losses due to the said violations. Even though the last Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had started action on the report given by the then revenue principal secretary Niveditha P Haran, as the company approached Kerala High court, it was hindered by court intervention. Four benches of Kerala High Court retracted from hearing the case of Harrisons Malayalam and, it is the fifth bench that considers hearing the case now.
Put the plantations under Forest department supervision
The present dispute is about the forest land at Nelliampathy. The LDF government had taken over around 4,000 acres of plantation there. Now about 6,000 acres are to be taken over immediately. It has become clear that the ‘owners’ who are in possession of these plantations have no rights to it. No title deeds, tax receipts and no idea about the measure of the land. Many had not even paid the rent. Many had sub-leased the land; had divided and sold out the land part by part. Many had swindled crores from banks with fabricated documents. Banks have put up boards on such site as loans were never repaid. These plantations should be confiscated by the government and the Forest Department should run the estates under its supervision. Judicial probe or an inquiry by a committee of legislative assembly must be conducted to find the truth about what all happened to the land till date. Instead, the present government is trying to exonerate the illegal encroachers naming them as farmers and to further leave the government land free for them to plunder again. It is as part of this tact that the government has facilitated the background for the court stay that hindered the process to take over the Cherunelli Estate. The Forest Department’s plea that the service of eminent lawyers of the Supreme Court should be availed for this case had been discarded and the case was given to the government pleaders. One can see that the argument that the government pleaders are repeatedly scoring own goal by yielding to easy defeat is not all that baseless. It is widely known that the present officials who man the Law Department and the AG’s (Advocate General) office are standing for the plantation mafia. The mastery in getting defeated in court cases was well demonstrated in the Mullapperiyar case. A rare miracle on that shows AG on government side and his family’s office on the opposite. It is not that difficult to foresee the result of this show.
PC George, the chief whip, categorically says that even God himself will fail if He appears for the Kerala government in the Nelliyampathi cases. The Law Minister, Maney, and the kerala congress groups of various shades swear that the encroachers of Nelliyampathi are really farmers who enjoy perpetual lease rights. The chief whip might be basing on the knowledge that the ‘God’ who comes to argue the case is the AG and behind him is the Law Minister Maney to prophesy the defeat. Nelliyampathi estates were declared to be forest in 1909 itself. The High Court of Kerala had given its verdict in 2000 that even if there were estates in Nelliyampathy, those estates’ status would be of forest land and would be subject to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Supreme Court also had given its verdict so. It was clear from the report submitted by the high power committee appointed by the Supreme Court that, all land transactions in Nelliyampathy were invalid. If somebody comes up with an argument that some people who have no connection with Nelliyampathy area are really farmers of that land, is it not their responsibility to prove how those people got the land there? How can these people be migrant farmers whereas they have acres of land and other properties in other places? The people living near Nelliyampathy do not have an inch of land in Nelliyampathy. Is it not proper to assume that these should have been the possible section to migrate to Nelliyampathy for farming?
The land in Nelliyampathy should have automatically come to government hand for, the exhaustion of lease period, breach of lease agreement provisions, possessing of land without any authentic document; and besides, solely for it being the forest land. The only thing to be considered while doing so is to safeguard the interests of the permanent workers employed there. It is not legal to protect the estate-runners (it is incorrect to call them ‘estate owners’) of Nelliyampathy in the name of farming or migration. It is also notable that no legal obstructions hindered when 4,000 acres (out of the total 10,000 acres) of land including the Thooththanpara Estate had been taken over by the last LDF government.
Now, let us see what happens to the Kinaloor Estate. Kinaloor Estate has 2,400-acres in Kozhikode district. The last LDF government took over the estate as efforts to sell it out violating Land Reform laws came to its attention. On the one side, the government was under pressure from those who had been deceived and had paid, though illegally, to buy parts of the estate and some encroachers, and on the other, it had to consider the problems of the plantation workers’ sustenance of living. The LDF government decided to study all aspects of the issue and take a legal decision. And now, the UDF government has decided to sell off that land at throwaway price to encroachers. The decision was taken in a meeting presided over by the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, himself. And the estate, which is worth around Rs 700 crore according to market prices and Rs 195 crore according to the fare value fixed by the government, is decided to be sold for a mere Rs 40 crore. This is nothing but blatant violation of Land Reforms and looting in daylight. And such an illegal deal is happening in a state where lakhs of landless families who long to build houses if they get at least five cents each.
The need of the hour is a non-partisan and secular effort to protect the Land Reforms Act. Congress MLAs Satheesan, Prathapan and co, who express different opinions in the Nelliyampathi estate issue, are supporting the UDF government in all other issues related to land. Isn’t it self-deception? The issue is whether they are ready for a joint struggle towards a few basic demands, such as ‘strike down the decision to allow 5% of each plantation for real-estate use; reclaim plantations reclassified by violating the Land Ceiling Act; take over plantations whose lease has expired; reclaim plantations that breached lease conditions as excess land and legally redistribute them to the landless, and so on.
–The writer is the Opposition Leader in the Kerala Legislative Assembly and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
–The article first appeared on Mathrubhumi daily on August 13 in Malayalam.