Stay granted on petitions filed by ISRO, estate owner

New writ petitions seek CBI probe into land deal

KOCHI: A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court on Thursday stayed the orders of the Divisional Forest Officer, Thiruvananthapuram, directing the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) and the owner of Merchiston Estate to vacate the estate in Ponmudi within 30 days.

The Bench of Chief Justice H.L. Dattu and Justice K.T. Sankaran also stayed the order of the Custodian of Ecologically Fragile Land and Chief Conservator of Forest that 24.409 hectares in the estate was ecologically fragile. The court said the stay orders would remain in force for three weeks. The court directed the Additional Advocate-General to file counter-affidavits within two weeks.

In a petition, IIST director B.N. Suresh said the institute had purchased 81.5 acres from the estate owner after verification of all relevant documents in the Revenue and Registration departments. He contended that the tea estate was excluded from the definition of forest under Section 2(c) of the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act, 2003. Therefore, the estate was outside the gamut of ecologically fragile land as defined under the Act.

A petition filed by Southern Field Ventures Private Limited managing director Xavy Mano Mathew said that as per the provisions of the Act, the tea estate could not be deemed to have been vested in the government. The company purchased the 707.23-acre tea estate, known as Merchiston Estate, from Jayasree Tea and Industries Limited on March 30, 2005.

The IIST Director said in his petition that Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan had offered 200 acres for the institute in and around the area. Of this, 74 acres were already with the government and this land could be taken over immediately if the Indian Space Research Organisation so desired.