How Idukki politics fuels Kerala government’s tussle with Governor Khan over a land Bill

Governor Arif Mohammad Khan has been delaying consent for a crucial Bill concerning farmers and landowners in the Idukki district.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 31, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdatedJan 31, 2024 | 9:02 AM

Some of the encroachments at Poorrapara. (Supplied)

Four years ago on 30 January, 2020, the Kerala High Court mandated that No-Objection Certificates (NOCs) from village offices would be required for issuing building permits on assigned (patta) lands across the state.

The implementation of the order — issued on a petition by social worker Laly George of Bison Valley panchayat — would have served the interests of several residents and organisations, specifically in the hilly district of Idukki.

The then district collector also informed the court that illegal constructions were being carried out in the district — including on the Panniyar river and along key stretches of the landslide-prone Kochi-Dhanushkodi Pooppara.

Among the constructions undertaken without an NOC was a CPI(M) area committee office at nearby Santhanpara village. The collector had earlier refused permission for the office.

The high court then ordered the clearing of all 56 major encroachments on roads, rivers, and public land at the Pooppara village, located close to Munnar.

And the already contentious land issue in the biodiversity-rich Idukki district reached a boiling point.

A sensitive issue

Land encroachment has been a sensitive issue in Idukki, and almost all mainstream political parties, including the opposition Congress and the BJP, have supported encroachers as part of their vote bank politics.

The land use violators also get support from the Catholic Church, which has sway over the powerful Christian settler community in the high ranges of the Western Ghats in the district.

On 10 August, 2023, the government presented the Kerala Government Land Assignment (Amendment) Bill, 2023, before the state Assembly, which was then referred to the Subject Committee.

The state Assembly unanimously passed the Bill on 14 September, 2023.

It marked the beginning of yet another flashpoint between Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and the state government after the Raj Bhavan refused assent to the Bill.

Also Read: LDF calls for Idukki hartal as Khan refuses to clear Land Bill

The Bill of contention

The Bill envisaged regularisation of all constructions on assigned lands in Idukki and all other hill regions of the state — in direct contravention to the original purpose (agriculture or dwelling) for which the lands had been allocated.

The earlier law allowed the construction of public roads and houses and took a firm position against tourism-focused “illegal” constructions.

The new Bill, once it becomes law, would empower the state government to regularise any illegal constructions on patta (land document) and violations of the rules made after the enactment of the original Act in 1960.

It would also allow the government to permit the land assignee to use it for purposes other than for which it was assigned. If the government had acted in time, the Pooppara encroachers would not have faced eviction.

The Bill is still pending with the Raj Bhavan.

Two weeks ago, the Governor hinted that he would soon approve the Bill after getting the state’s replies to his queries, raised based on the apprehensions of some environmentalists.

But now that the showdown between the Governor and the Vijayan government has reached a flashpoint, Raj Bhavan sources indicated to South First that the Governor would not approve the Bill, and would soon forward it for the consideration of the President.

Also Read: STF cautious as CPI(M) and CPI spar over evicting Idukki encroachers

Land, patta and vote bank

In the first week of January, the CPI(M) organised a mammoth march to the Raj Bhavan and a hartal in Idukki when Khan visited the district. The hartal was to protest against the delay in giving consent to the Bill.

While addressing the Raj Bhavan march, CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan said the Bill was a milestone in the history of land assignment procedures as it was a long-pending demand of the beneficiaries of patta lands.

He said various court orders, including a Supreme Court order, had made life miserable for the people after assignees violated the conditions attached to the patta.

The CPI(M) leader said the Bill reflected the larger public demand.

CPI(M) Idukki district secretary CV Varghese told South First that the party would mobilise people of the hilly region for an indefinite agitation against Khan if he continued to withhold the Bill.

“It is better that he (Khan) signed the Bill, or he will face the farmers’ wrath. The Bill is a remedy for farmers’ land-related problems. The BJP is using Khan to push its Hindutva agenda in Idukki,” he said.

The CPI(M) also accused the Congress of trying to scuttle the Bill, besides alleging that the Congress administrations in the 1960s and 1990s had aggravated the crisis as part of its efforts to use it as a political tool.

The CPI(M) sees the Bill as its trump card to win over the farmers in the high ranges who have been demanding the regularisation of construction for a long time. The farmers, traditionally, backed the Congress.

Also Read: UDF hartal in Idukki seeking amendment of land laws

Governor’s version

When the protests against the implementation of the Kasturirangan report on the preservation of the Western Ghats were at their peak ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Church-backed Independent candidate Joice George defeated the Congress party’s Dean Kuriakose, as the affected farmers voted against the grand old party.

The CPI(M) and CPI have been accused of having links with several illegal regional constructions. The parties have also set up their offices in high ranges.

Meanwhile, Raj Bhavan sources said Kerala Green Movement, a forum of eco-activists, petitioned Khan against ratifying the Bill, claiming that the amended version would be misused by vested interests and lead to environmental disaster in the high ranges.

The organisation and a few others feared that the Bill would pave the way for the regularisation of all illegal constructions in the high ranges, especially in the hill station of Munnar.

Khan cited the petitions as the reason for not consenting to the Bill.

“I have received several complaints against the Bill. It was sent back to the government for remarks, but there has been no response. I am not a rubber stamp,” he said earlier.