THE MISSION MUNNAR
The knives are out for K. Suresh Kumar, the ias officer chosen by Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan to rid Munnar of land sharks and the tourist mafia. Over 3,000 properties in this picturesque hill station are threatened by his drive to reclaim encroached forest and government land. Over a dozen multi-storied structures have already been razed in front of television cameras as part of the drive.
CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, widely seen as Achuthanandan’s rival, is upset with Kumar’s growing popularity. “It is not right to give the full credit to any particular person [for the drive],” he says. The CPI and the Kerala Congress (Joseph), respectively the second and third largest parties in the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), have already expressed their displeasure over the demolition of a portion of the CPI’s office. The United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders sitting in the opposition benches are also worried after a holiday home owned by former revenue minister KM Mani’s relative was demolished.
According to senior government officials, at least half of the large-scale encroachments in Munnar are benami properties owned by politicians cutting across the party spectrum. Records available with Kumar show that one of the illegal mansions is owned by a close relative of former Tamil Nadu CM J. Jayalalithaa.
Kumar is now set to raze illegal structures which belong to the CPM and intuc, the Congress’ labour wing. The CPM, CPI and intuc, all have encroached on government land and each party has rented about 75 percent of the space in its buildings to tourist resorts.
“In the first phase, we are targeting only the big sharks, who have encroached on highly sensitive shola forests, prime government lands and major hillocks. The small encroachers will be evicted only at a later stage after formulating a rehabilitation package,” said Kumar when asked about the drive.
Kumar also faces the formidable task of taking on the Tata group, whose Tata Tea division possesses about 1.5 lakh acres of land in the region. The Kerala government says that the company has encroached upon 50,000 acres of forest land and it has illegally leased the land in 25 locations. Kumar has said the government is planning a fool-proof action plan to clear the encroachments.
The CM has reportedly said that he is ready to promulgate an ordinance if required to remove legal hurdles in evicting Tata Tea.
Kumar had earlier earned the UDF government’s ire for taking on the online lottery mafia. As the state’s fisheries director, he had exposed high-level corruption in the purchase of equipment meant for fishermen. “Munnar’s greenery and salubrious climate are fast vanishing due to the mushrooming of the concrete jungle,” says Kumar. “The CM has promised a new Munnar with a new vision of tourism after three months. I would try my level best to achieve that.’’
“If his mission turns successful, he would have to look for a posting outside Kerala. That is his victory,’’ says Tony Thomas of the NGO, One Earth One Life, which has been fighting to protect Munnar from encroachers for over a decade.