UDF subcommittee on status of estates plays it safe

The United Democratic Front’s subcommittee on Nelliampathy appears to be dragging its feet on its final report on the status of the estates in the high reaches of Palakkad district because of its inability to arrive at a conclusion that would untie the political knot for the ruling coalition.

The subcommittee, which met here again on Tuesday, could not come up with a political solution and preferred to play it safe by deciding to recommend a legal route to decide the status of the estates. Instead of untying the knot, the subcommittee’s report may end up tightening the knot for the UDF, it seems.

The subcommittee was appointed sometime back against the backdrop of Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar’s direction to Forest Department officials to take over some of the controversial estates, including the Cherunelli estate, since they are ecologically fragile forestland and on the charge of lease deed violations. The Minister’s action had exposed the differences in the UDF, with Kerala Congress(M) leader and Government Chief Whip P.C. George openly questioning the Minister’s intention.

Subcommittee

As a way out, the UDF decided to set up the subcommittee, with M.M. Hassan as its convener. The main agenda for the panel was to check the veracity of the conflicting claims and recommend a political way out of what was arguably a legal tangle of sorts. The Hassan panel did not meet for one reason or other for months. Mr. Ganesh Kumar and Mr. George openly clashed at an official meeting in the presence of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, making it imperative for the UDF panel to expedite its report. However, Mr. Hassan resigned in haste with the emergence of the movement of green politics. A group of ‘green MLAs,’ led by V.D. Satheesan and T.N. Pratapan, went their separate way on a fact-finding mission. The UDF had to find another convener in Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithy leader A.N. Rajan Babu, who has been finding it quite a task to carry the subcommittee members who held diametrically opposite views on the issue.

Those involved in cases

According to sources, the subcommittee, when it met on Tuesday, decided not to touch those estates which are involved in cases before the Supreme Court. The draft report, which has been prepared, refers to a Supreme Court verdict that demarcated the Nelliampathy estates as forestland. But it reportedly gives an account of the farming activity taking place there on the basis of subcommittee’s fact-finding visit to the area.

At the end of the day, the subcommittee appeared to be closer to the position taken by the Forest Minister, who has been raring for action on the basis of court verdicts, even at the cost of bypassing the UDF’s political policy. It is clear that the subcommittee’s approach, as has been reported, would not be helpful to the Congress and the Kerala Congress(M) since the Nelliampathy land holdings have a direct bearing on Central Travancore politics as most of the estate owners are settlers from this thrifty Christian belt. It is also possible that the UDF might witness its own subcommittee members disowning the report, complicating issues further for the ruling coalition.

The report incidentally refers to the plight of 111 small-scale farmers in Nelliampathy who have been facing harassment from Forest Department officials and has suggested firm steps to protect these people since they have not violated lease agreements. It also wants firm steps to protect the employment opportunities of labourers in the estates. The government should also conduct a verification of the land which had been taken over earlier by the Forest Department.

More In: Kerala | National