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Encroachers deeply entrenched

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Stirring the peace: Resorts and roads developed in wooded areas near Munnar in Idukki district.
Stirring the peace: Resorts and roads developed in wooded areas near Munnar in Idukki district.

Roy Mathew

Earlier mission has helped them identify government land for encroachment

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Encroachers are now deeply entrenched in and around Munnar in Idukki district, a tour of Munnar and its surrounding areas and statements of officials during a Cabinet subcommittee’s recent visit to the hill resort show.

Encroachers have taken possession of land vested in the government under the Kannan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act and cardamom hill reserves leased by the government, besides land owned by the Kerala State Electricity Board and public sector undertakings.

The failure of the State government’s Munnar Mission two years ago has had multiple effects. At least 600 acres of government land has been encroached upon after the first task force withdrew from Munnar. New roads are being laid through cardamom estates and wooded government lands with immunity. Old ones are being improved upon. Existing encroachments are being enlarged upon by annexing nearby government land. Encroachments are also taking place at Wagamon in the district.

In Devikulam taluk, in which Munnar falls, even village boundaries are being redrawn to help the encroachers. Most of them seem to have fabricated documents. Falsification of documents, forgery, alteration of government records and maps and false statements and applications to obtain titles are quite common. In places near Lakshmi Estate, there exist large wooded areas with resorts, which are claimed to be neither cardamom estates nor forests. Several holdings extend beyond the limits prescribed under the Land Reforms Act. Some of these areas need to be notified as forests.

Rules being violated

Rules applicable to cardamom reserves are being violated when it comes to conversion of cardamom lands and construction of buildings. And the government seems to have turned a Nelson’s eye to these developments. Recently, the Central Narcotics Enforcement Squad detected ganja cultivation on government land leased for cardamom cultivation at Aluvinthan and Njandarmedu on the periphery of the Mathikettan National Park. The government action has been confined to suspension of some forest officials.

Following the depletion of water sources, many cardamom estates have constructed check-dams in the estates in recent years. The pros and cons of these works are debatable and no regulation is being applied to these constructions. The latest trend is to build check-dams for tourism purposes, and at least a few of these check-dams can be termed as small dams. The check-dams of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company, which the government proposes to demolish, are only the latest of such constructions in the district. An increase in the number of dams in the district can become a safety issue in near future.

If the main encroachers till recently were estate and resort owners, the poor too have stepped in now with political backing. They are also being used as a cover for encroachments by bigwigs. Some are being used for grabbing land systematically. The land finally ends up in the hands of influential people and resorts.

After the initial enthusiasm to evict the encroachers, mainly resort owners, the Munnar Mission has metamorphosed to fit the political rhetoric for assignment of land to the poor. Consequently, the move by Forest Minister Benoy Viswom for notification of more than 17,000 acres of forest land in the possession of the Forest Department in the KDH village as reserve forest got stalled twice at the Cabinet level. A notification could have meant that the land would no more be assigned either to the encroachers or to poor eligible families. The Collector’s report citing difficulties in demarcating the land seems to serve as a cover for a political decision.

In fact, the earlier mission helped the encroachers to identify suitable government land for encroachment. Surveys demarcated government lands which were thought to be part of estates. During the mission, boards had been put up identifying government land. These have been removed now and encroachers have grabbed the land. The same thing has happened in much of the land proposed to be handed over to the Forest Department including those allocated for eucalyptus cultivation by Hindustan Newsprint Limited at Chinnakanal. Large areas of forest and revenue land in the catchment areas of the Anayirankal dam are in the hands of encroachers now.

Subservient

With the failure of the Munnar Mission, government’s writ no more runs in Munnar and surrounding areas in respect of constructions, land transactions, building of roads, power and water supply and even law and order. Traditionally, government officers posted to Munnar are subservient to estate owners for a variety of reasons. (They are often dependent on estate owners even for their accommodation.) Now, even a semblance of government power is not visible when it comes to encroachments. The only solace is that criminal gangs have not yet started operating in Munnar and its surroundings.

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