There are at least 10 lakh unoccupied houses and flats in Kerala, indicating that land and real estate have become mere commodities for speculative investment in the State, social scientist R.V.G. Menon has said.

He was speaking at a Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP)-sponsored seminar on ‘Land use in Kerala: problems and possibilities' here on Tuesday.

He said a network of middlemen controlled the price of land in the State. The so-called land mafia ensured that there was little or no interaction between genuine buyers and sellers of land.

They dominated land transactions and the common man was often forced to buy plots, which had informally changed hands several times, at exaggerated prices.

The working class, at current rates, could not afford to buy a plot of land or build a house even if they invested their entire life savings.

Land cost in villages had escalated so much that investing in real estate for agriculture or industry was no more profitable. Even for the IT industry, the State had to provide land. The land mafia also used strong-arm tactics to acquire valuable real estate.

The boom in construction accounted for a major share of the State gross domestic product. The converse side of the boom was the wanton and profit driven overexploitation of scarce natural resources such as river sand, clay, and granite and violation of coastal regulation zone norms and forest rules at the cost of the environment.

The area under paddy cultivation had come down from 9 lakh hectares to 2 lakh hectares. Paddy fields and wetlands played a major environmental role in replenishing ground water and keeping flooding at bay during the rainy season. They supported aquatic and avian life.

Farm land

Landless labourers and self-help groups, such as Kudumbasree, found it difficult to find land for cultivation because of the high rent charged by landowners.

The lack of zoning allowed unchecked alteration of land-use patterns. Shopping malls came up in quiet residential areas, prompting people to sell their homes and shift to other localities.

There should be sound laws to regulate the use of land. Land owners should be deprived of the right to take up environmentally adverse activities, in their properties.

Former Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac said more than 85 per cent of the State's population owned land, in varying extents, and it would be impractical to declare all land as State-governed property.