Some years ago, Flevin Pannkal, then a 30-year-old, was waved down by the police on Container Terminal Road in Kochi city. A young man, who hitched a ride on Flevin’s bike, was not wearing a helmet and Flevin was slapped with a fine.
The incident triggered the deep-seated revulsion he had for the police force. It stemmed from the tragic memories of February 6, 2008. On that day, Flevin’s house, along with that of ten other families at Moolampilly, was demolished by the State with a posse of police standing guard. The families were being displaced for providing rail and road connectivity to the International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT), Vallarpadam.
Flevin was at his mother’s workplace at Irinjalakuda when he watched the live visuals of that forcible eviction and demolition of houses on news channels. “At that point, I was scared of the police. But over time, I have grown to severely dislike injustice. So, when I was fined for a petty traffic offence, I thought I would pay the fine but would never forget the February morning when we were rendered homeless,” he says.
That his grandfather Celestine Master, a social worker who tirelessly worked for the people of Moolampilly, died nursing the unhealed scars from that fateful day has only accentuated his sense of being wronged.
Fifteen years after 316 families lost their land and homes across seven villages and a rehabilitation package, known as the Moolampilly package, was notified, that sense of injustice has only grown.
The youths can hardly forget the event that changed their lives forever having seen how their parents and dear ones suffered, and continue to do so till date. That the government order assuring a job based on educational qualification to one member from each family in the ICTT project has remained unfulfilled indicates that they will not forget anything at all.
Sujamol, who lives along with her mother at a house at Cheranalloor that was left shapeless after the hall and portico were demolished as part of the acquisition, still cannot shake off how her father Sadasivan died an emotionally shattered man early this year.
“We had just built the new house when it was demarcated for partial acquisition. He never recovered from that shock and his remaining life was spent fighting a legal battle for justice,” she says.
In fact, 33 people have died ever since the eviction without getting proper rehabilitation. Several more became bedridden and emotionally traumatised fighting what probably appeared to be a losing cause against the State and an apathetic bureaucracy.
Anand S. Kumar, a 26-year-old technical education instructor, recollects how his grandmother Sreedevi, who was evicted from Eloor village, moved in with his family but was never able to come to terms with the loss of her home till her death.
“She was a determined and brave woman who was always at the forefront of the protest demanding justice for the evictees and never shied away from speaking truth to the authorities. She used to say that she had met every Ernakulam District Collector since the eviction as part of the efforts to get the rehabilitation package implemented,” he says.
The financial burden of rebuilding their lives from scratch also took a toll on their wards’ education.
Elma Rose Antony, whose family was displaced from Mulavukad, rues how she had to settle with B. Voc instead of hotel management, which was her passion all along, since she does not want to burden her parents with a higher course fee.
Muhammed Shahid, a third year B.Tech Civil Engineering student, says the cost of buying a plot and building a house on loan did impact the financing of his course to a certain point. “People did help but there is a limit to that too,” he says.
The State government initially said nothing other than a nominal compensation for land acquired under the Land Acquisition Act would be paid to the affected families. But it buckled in the face of stiff protests and notified the Moolampilly package 40 days after the eviction.
Subsequently, rehabilitation plots varying between four cents and six cents were offered to the evictees across seven sites at Mulavukad, Moolampilly, Kothad, Vaduthala, Cheranalloor, and Thuthiyoor. Besides, a rent of ₹5,000 was allowed, initially, for ten months but was extended till the land was turned into ‘A’-class plots complete with basic infrastructure fit for rehabilitation, at the intervention of the High Court. An assistance of ₹75,000 was allowed for house construction to those with building permit.
Until now, only 52 of the 316 affected families have moved into the rehabilitation plots. “Six of the seven sites earmarked for rehabilitation were reclaimed land. Besides, financial institutions were initially disinclined to give loans against the security of the title deeds of the rehabilitation plots, which were issued with the condition that they should not change hands in 25 years. Later, the High Court intervened but imposed the condition that it should not be used for any purpose other than rehabilitation. Meanwhile, construction costs went up and people got fed up fighting the odds to utilise the rehabilitation plots and instead, started looking for alternative arrangements on their own,” says Francis Kalathungal, general convener of the Moolampilly Coordination Committee (MCC), which has been spearheading the cause of the evictees.
Questions on the suitability of the plots for house construction came to the fore after seven houses in at least four rehabilitation sites either tilted or developed cracks largely due to the marshy character of the reclaimed land and faulty land filling. In a report in 2017, an Assistant Executive Engineer of the PWD Buildings Division had admitted as much. The PWD had since built a retaining wall and did further land filling at one of the sites.
“We can only submit a report or even an estimate of the required works. Actual work can only be carried out if the Revenue department deposits the fund and issues administrative sanction,” says a senior PWD official.
A monitoring committee chaired by the Ernakulam District Collector was set up to review the implementation of the rehabilitation package and resolve the bottlenecks. But the committee last met in January 2018 – five years ago!
A senior Revenue official says a monitoring committee is no longer needed as the State government has honoured all the commitments under the rehabilitation package. He faults the evictees for not utilising the land timely, which, he says, led to the abandoned state of the plots and escalated cost of construction.
Asked about the government not honouring its order assuring jobs to a member from each evicted family in the ICTT project, the official says that it could not be done since it was a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) project.
V.P. Wilson, an evictee and convener of the MCC, challenges this reasoning. “Were the government and its senior officials who drafted that order unaware of the fact that it was a BOT project? Also, the claim that the government has honoured all the commitments is a lie. For instance, I challenge them to point out the 100-odd demarcated plots in Thuthiyoor. The beneficiaries have the title deeds and have been paying the land tax despite not being able to locate their plots. Also, why is not there a senior official for rehabilitation while there was always an official for land acquisition?” he asks.
Revenue Minister K. Rajan says a review with regard to rehabilitation plots was conducted twice during the term of this government. “There had been talks of finding alternate sites but the finer details will have to be verified. The Revenue department has little say with regard to offering jobs to members of evicted families or appointing an official for supervising rehabilitation,” he says.
Senior Congress leader V.M. Sudheeran, who had voiced the concerns of the evictees from the very beginning, says the bureaucracy made grave mistakes in the implementation of the package and the successive governments failed to make timely interventions to correct the follies.
Those at the forefront of the Moolampilly movement admit that their struggle is getting less intense by the day, as the people directly affected by the eviction are growing old, indisposed or are dead. But their struggle has gained a lot of symbolic value for people facing the threat of displacement for development projects.
Says Salvin K.P, district joint secretary of the K-Rail Virudha Janakeeya Samiti, “Moolampilly did help us a great deal in mobilising people for our protest. It is a reminder of how the assurances and even orders issued by the government can mean nothing to the affected people,” he says.
The MCC’s struggle now hinges on the jobs promised for the youth from the displaced families. This found reflection in a programme it organised to mark the 15th anniversary of the Moolampilly day earlier this month.
During his academic days, Ronish Antony, a 32-year-old who works as a contract staff at FACT, had hoped that someday he would benefit from the job assured by the government. He thought it would be a small consolation for his father, who lost his livelihood as a mason following the eviction.
“I was hopeful of getting that job though I knew it would take time. But 15 years later, I have no such hope,” he says.