Special task force in Kerala’s Idukki moves with caution as CPI(M) and CPI spar over evicting encroachers

Sixteen years after demolition effort against illegal structures in Munnar, the task force's formation puts the CPI(M) and CPI on a collision course.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 21, 2023 | 1:00 PMUpdatedOct 21, 2023 | 1:00 PM

The task force put up boards on reclaimed land saying trespassers would be punished. (Supplied)

Revenue officials and the task force constituted to evict encroachers from illegally occupied government land at Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district are moving cautiously even as the relationship between the CPI(M) and CPI, the two largest constituents of the ruling LDF, remained strained.

In a predawn move on Thursday, 19 October, the special task force, formed by the government based on a Kerala High Court order, evicted encroachers from 229.74 acres in Devikulam and Udumbanchola taluks in three hours.

The encroachers were caught unawares when the officials swooped down on the illegally occupied land around 4 am in the morning.

The task force completed the eviction by 7 am, before the encroachers could organise. Udumbanchola Land Records Tahsildar Seema Joseph led the official team.

The officials said they had taken over 224.21 acres and buildings in Devikulam’s Anaviratty village and erected boards that said the property belonged to the government.

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Protests over evictions

Indiscriminate encroachments and illegal constructions are threatening to destroy Munnar. (South First)

Indiscriminate encroachments and illegal constructions are threatening to destroy Munnar. (South First)

The eviction drive also sparked protests, with the local farmers hitting the streets against the drive at Singukandam in Chinnakanal, where the officials reclaimed 5.55 acres of encroached land. The farmers said they had been using the land for agricultural purposes for the past 24 years.

Protesting before the Chinnakanal Village Office, they said while the authorities targeted them, big resorts in the area were being spared. The farmers — most of them growing cardamom — said they do not have title deeds for the land.

A 5.2-acre cardamom plantation of an Adimali resident at Anayirankal in Chinnakanal was also taken over after the district collector rejected his appeal against the move. Reports said the property has lodgings for workers.

The officials left the crops and buildings untouched, deviating from an earlier drive by a previous task force that demolished illegal constructions 16 years ago.

The collector had earlier reported to the high court that there were 330 cases of encroachment in the high-range district.

Indiscriminate encroachment and illegal construction of buildings have caused an ecological imbalance in Idukki. The district revenue authorities will continue the drive — albeit cautiously — in the coming days. The high court has asked the District Collector to appear before it online on Tuesday, 24 October.

The order was issued based on a petition against encroachment and illegal construction in Idukki by an environment-focused non-profit, One Earth One Life.

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Utter nonsense, says CPI(M) MLA

CPI(M) MLA MM Mani termed the eviction “utter nonsense” even as state Revenue Minister K Rajan, from the CPI, said the government would do what it has to remove encroachers.

Officials evicted encroachers from 229.74 acres in Devikulam and Udumbanchola taluks in three hours on Thursday. (Supplied)

Officials evicted encroachers from 229.74 acres in Devikulam and Udumbanchola taluks in three hours on Thursday. (Supplied)

Rajan said the action being taken was in accordance with the law and as per the high court’s directive.

At the same time, he said the government action was not aimed at affecting or disrupting the lives of the common man.

However, some local residents told media that the action was being taken only against small landowners and farmers, while sparing big landowners and businesses.

Mani, who has opposed the eviction action from the start, pointed out that most of the land in the area was given away by the royal families during British rule.

The people now being evicted were migrants who were given land in the high range district and they have valid “pattas” (title deeds), he said.

“Calling them encroachers now and evicting them is utter nonsense,” Mani added.

The high court ordered the eviction of unlawful encroachers on a petition filed in 2010 seeking a moratorium on all land deals in Devikulam, Udumbanchola and Peerumedu taluks in Idukki district.

The petition also sought halting all constructions sanctioned at Chinnakkanal, Pallivasal, Devikulam, Udumbanchola and Peerumedu taluks in the district until an inquiry was held into the genuineness of the title deeds.

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The ‘Black Cats’

In 2007, the then chief minister VS Achuthanandan — who turned 100 on Friday, 20 October — handpicked three officers to clear Munnar, a popular tourist destination in Kerala, of encroachments.

His initiative generated much heat in the ruling LDF, since some of the constituents, especially the CPI(M) and CPI, found themselves at the receiving end.

Achuthanandan did not succeed as opposition mounted against the demolition drive within and outside the LDF. The so-called resort lobby, too, was up in arms against the move.

The previous action resulted in the large-scale demolition of illegal structures, ranging from illegal tourism resorts to offices of political parties.

Achuthanandan had then formed a task force, comprising IAS officers K Suresh Kumar, Raju Narayana Swami, and Inspector General of Police Rishi Raj Singh to demolish the constructions. The team, then known as the “Black Cats”, took up the task with all earnestness before they ran into a political roadblock.

They got the nickname “black cats” after Achuthanandan defended their actions even as criticism mounted against them. He went on to quote Chinese revolutionary Deng Xiaoping’s saying: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

The task force team was then also often seen in black jackets.

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Land-grabbing issues

Munnar Nilgiri Tahr

A Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species and icon of Munnar. (South First/ KA Shaji)

According to the latest court order, the task force would be led by Idukki Collector Sheeba George, assisted by a sub-collector, a revenue divisional officer, and an assistant commissioner.

The task force will have the authority to take action against illegal encroachments that do not have proper title documents.

According to a detailed list that George provided to the high court, Munnar currently has 330 significant land-grabbing issues.

In response to a continuing lawsuit procedure begun by a green collective, ‘One Earth One Life’, the district administration presented the list, and the court ordered the formation of the task force.

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Illegal buildings, encroachments

Encroachments and illegal buildings could be found in places like Kannan Devan Hills, Pallivasal, Chinnakkanal, Keezhanthoor, Kanjikkuzhi, Marayur, Bison Valley, Chathurangappara, Anaviratty, Santhanpara, Mannamkandam, Mankulam, Kanjikkuzhi, and Poopara.

Illegal land occupation, illegal cultivation, illegal water theme parks, constructions without no-objection certificates (NOC), illegal mining, illegal buildings and compound walls, illegal commercial buildings, illegal construction of homestays in non-title deed lands, riverside encroachment, and illegal construction of resorts were among the encroachments listed.

Revenue land, the Kerala State Electricity Board’s (KSEB) dam catchment area, river poramboke (unused revenue) land, panchayat and forest land, settlements, and poramboke roads are among the encroached government lands.

The collector’s list has mentioned a CPI(M) local committee office constructed on encroached land at Mannamkandam village .

According to the report, stop memos had been issued. Surprisingly, a cooperative bank, a church, and a temple are also listed as constructed on encroached land.

This time, the court has made it clear to the government that the district collector can be transferred only after the task force’s assignment is completed.

It also advised the election commission not to transfer her as part of the upcoming general election next year.

Now, 16 years after the legendary demolition effort that razed numerous unlawful structures and alarmed the region’s land sharks and large-scale tourism lobbies, the Idukki area, particularly Munnar, is once again facing such a government-level action.

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Eviction campaign

In 2007, Achuthanandan’s task force recovered roughly 11,350 acres. Around 100 ‘illegal’ structures, including resorts, were razed within a month.

The CPI (M) district leadership then denounced the idea, the task group, and the chief minister.

This time, too, the party is opposing the proposed task force. It has already issued a warning against eviction or demolition.

“We will not allow the task force to take action against local vendors and settlers in Munnar and other areas of Idukki under the guise of encroachment removal,” MLA Mani, a member of the party’s State Committee, said.

Mani, a former minister and CPI (M)’s strong man in Idukki was one of the key leaders who attempted to derail the last Munnar mission.

“The first task force abandoned the process halfway through because of CPI(M) leaders’ intervention,” MN Jayachandran, a district-level environmentalist, said.

“The CPI(M) leaders will prevent the task force’s operation if the court does not monitor its activities this time. Mani and others have already indicated that they are against the court order,” he added.

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CPI backs new task force

Munnar monorail Munnar flood 1924

The two-foot light rail, powered by a light-steam locomotive, existed for 18 years until the massive floods of 1921 in Munnar. (Supplied)

When South First contacted CPI senior leader KK Sivaraman, he asked why some individuals were delaying clearing major encroachments in Idukki.

When Mani’s comment that the district had no encroachments was brought to his attention, Sivaraman said he was ready to visit multiple locations to show large-scale encroachments in Munnar and surrounding areas.

Mani, outraged by Sivaraman’s open challenge, asserted that the CPI leader was attempting to discredit him and demanded the CPI turn over the revenue minister’s position to ensure justice for the residents of Idukki.

K Salim Kumar, district secretary of the CPI, also said that if Mani wanted to take over the revenue ministry, he could approach Pinarayi Vijayan, his leader and the chief minister.

According to Salim Kumar, the CPI’s viewpoint is that the task force should evict major encroachers in the district and provide land to landless people.

“In reality, thousands of acres in the district have been infringed upon. There is no need to criticise officials for forming the task force because the state government formed it in response to a high court order,” he said.

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Parties plan to stymie efforts

Meanwhile, revenue officials and environmentalists believe both parties plan to stymie the task force’s efforts.

“In 2007, the task force formed by then-chief minister Achuthanandan was forced to halt the eviction drive halfway after attempting to remove an encroachment by the CPI party office in the heart of Munnar. We believe the new task force will run into the same issue,” a Revenue Department official said.

“If the high court does not monitor the task force’s operation, it will fail like the one in 2007,” Jayachandran said.

Rasak Chooravelil, general convener of the Idukki Land Freedom Movement (ILFM), said that the CPI (M) and CPI were duping the public with inconsistent remarks.

“Both parties are members of the same front, and the opposition now is a ploy to protect their vested interests and the encroachers,” he said.

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Intimidation tactics?

Mani, known for his dark humour and intimidation tactics, has now stated that anyone who attempts to remove encroachments will have their legs severed, heads removed, and tongues pierced.

A view of Munnar. Photo: K A Shaji

A view of Munnar. Photo: K A Shaji

In 2007, too, he made a similar statement.

Sivaraman responded to Mani’s statement with sarcasm, suggesting that the veteran leader should prefer chopping the head because removing the hands and tongue would take more time and energy.

In addition to acting against illegal buildings, the court has asked the district administration to identify hazard zones and landslip-prone locations in and around Munnar.

According to the court, a procedure for identifying susceptible terrain should be in place, and such regions should be protected by prohibiting construction.

The court also questioned why the Union government should have not broadened the scope of the technical committee to investigate the carrying capacity of the 13 Himalayan states, including the state’s hill stations.

”We have hope because the court is closely watching the task force’s activities this time. Munnar must be protected from encroachers since it is heavily burdened by unregulated tourism,” said MJ Babu, a resident and environmentalist.