The ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) appears to be headed for a stalemate over the Nelliampathy land issue which is being looked into by a coalition subcommittee.

The subcommittee has been appointed to find a political solution to the controversy over the status of a few estates at Nelliampathy, including the Cherunelli estate, after Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar initiated measures to take over the estate land for violation of lease terms and on grounds that it is forestland.

However, the tone and tenor of the subcommittee’s discussion, spread over three meetings during the last couple of months, and the operative part of the draft recommendations it has prepared clearly frame the Nelliampathy row as a legal issue to be settled in court.

Objections

The subcommittee, with M.M. Hassan as convener, was appointed after Government Chief Whip P.C. George raised strong objections to the takeover in the UDF.

At one point of time, the Nelliampathy issue resulted in an open clash between Mr. George and Mr. Ganesh Kumar, that too in the presence of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.

The problem became more complicated when green politics made its entry, with a section of the UDF MLAs making a visit to the area on the environment platform.

Mr. Hassan resigned in a huff as convener in protest against the action of the green politicians, who campaigned for a legal solution to the issue.

Later, Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithy leader A.N. Rajan Babu was appointed as convener, facilitating the resumption of the committee’s work.

The rejuvenated committee held a series of sittings, visited the area once, and met a large number of people, including farmers and other aggrieved parties.

When the Nelliampathy row gained velocity, Kerala Congress(M) leader K.M. Mani even distanced himself from Mr. George’s stand, partially conceding that Nelliampathy had more of legal than political content.

Issues before panel

The issues that came up before the subcommittee included whether the Nelliampathy estates came under the classification of forests, whether there have been violations of lease agreement, and if small farmers in the area are being harassed by forest officials on grounds of EFL (ecologically fragile land) regulations, making it difficult for them to continue cultivation.

The issue whether the Nelliampathy estates are forests or not is now before court for adjudication, something which goes beyond the realm of political resolution that the UDF wants.

There have been reports of violation of the terms of the lease agreement, which again has to go through the legal course.

On these two issues, the subcommittee has veered around to the view that the matter should run its legal course, a stand which is closer to that of the Forest Minister.

The subcommittee reportedly has taken a sympathetic view of the problems faced by the farmers in the area, recommending an end to the harassment by forest officials, even while examining whether agriculture land has been included as ecologically fragile.

The panel’s stand is unlikely to help the UDF arrive at a political solution. Even though the epicentre of the row is at Nelliampathy, it has a direct bearing on Central Travancore politics as some of the estate owners have powerful connections there.

The legalistic view of the subcommittee would not be helpful for both the Kerala Congress(M) and the Congress as Central Travancore happens to be the core constituency for both the parties.

The UDF leadership will have to take a call once the final report is submitted by the panel chairman, but it appears that it would be a difficult one.

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