Kerala Tea Party
K A Shaji and Suresh Varghese
KERALA CHIEF Minister VS Achuthanandan is a rather lonely man in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) these days after taking on one of India’s biggest corporate houses.
The veteran CPM leader’s decision to reclaim government land in Munnar controlled by Tata Tea of the Tata Group, which enjoys support across the political spectrum and especially among the CPM’s West Bengal lobby, was met with strong rebuttal from Tata and from within his own cabinet. Forest and Revenue ministers Benoy Viswam and KP Rajendran, both from LDF constituent CPI, stated Tata Tea had not encroached upon the reclaimed 1,280 acres and that it was vested with the state forest department since 1971.
The CM braved a heavy downpour to reach Munnar and led the task force to reclaim the land in question. To the astonishment of those present, Achuthanandan personally replaced the “Gundumalai Estate, Tata Tea” billboard with a state government hoarding. He also warned Tata against placing hurdles on his Mission Munnar. “If the Tatas go to court or try some other means to stall the recovery of land, we will cancel the title deed and take back all the leased land given to them. Let this be a warning,” the CM said, referring to a recent Kerala High Court stay on recovery of excess land from the company. The reactions were swift. A Tata Tea advisor threatened legal action. “It’s a poor propaganda stunt. The land the CM reclaimed is nothing but forest land with no plantation at all. We have nothing to do with it,” said T. Damu, advisor to the Tata group. Munnar Task Force special officer K. Suresh Kumar maintained the land was under Tata control. “Whether it was forest department’s land or not was immaterial. Our findings indicate that this land was in the company’s control. Why else did they put up their board?” he asked.
Most CPM central leaders have nothing to say about Achuthanandan’s Munnar operation. When TEHELKA asked CPM central secretariat member Nilotpal Basu about the incident, he said, “I will not comment on Kerala affairs. You must ask any Kerala leader.” Understandably, for many pro-reformist Bengal leaders, Achuthanandan has turned out to be an ideological liability. The CPM, which is pro-Tata and investment friendly in Bengal, is finding it hard to explain the differences in industrial policies of the two Left-ruled states. With the CM’S popularity on the rise, it would be difficult for the CPM to underplay himKK Ragesh, CPM student wing Students Federation of India’s national president, said, “There is no dichotomy in their (Achuthanandan and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) policies.” Ragesh, who belongs to the CPM’s all-powerful Kannur district committee and believed to be close to party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, shed more light on the issue. “Irrespective of Tata or any other group, in Bengal the CPM is committed to carry forward the state’s industrialisation plans. In Kerala too, the LDF government is investment friendly. The best example is the Smart City IT project: the LDF signed it with a Left stamp. As far as investment is concerned, the CPM has only one approach: we welcome it, if it’s beneficial for the people. But in Munnar, it’s the eviction of encroachers; whether Tata is at the receiving end or not is irrelevant.”
Soon after the confiscation, Kerala’s mainstream media, which used Achuthanandan against Vijayan till now, swiftly realigned and targeted their individual enemies. The major media groups — Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi — now find themselves in warring camps. Manorama stepped up its attack against Achuthanandan, provoking the CM to say that he will enquire into encroachments by the group after Mission Munnar. Indirectly supporting the CM, Mathrubhumi, owned by Janata Dal (Secular) leader MP Veerendra Kumar, declared war against the Vijayan faction by exposing the Rs 2-crore Desabhimani scam. Irate over Mathrubhumi’s support to the CM, the CPM organ reported that Kumar had encroached upon acres of forests in Wayanad district. Further, the two CPI ministers’ defence of Tata has added to Achuthanandan’s troubles. The party, which opposed Tata’s land acquisition in Singur in West Bengal, is a staunch supporter of the corporate house in Kerala.
Expressing his dismay over the CPI’s public dissociation, Achuthanandan said: “I will not buy their misleading interpretations. The Forest and Revenue ministers have confused the public. Among the 1,280 acres recovered in my presence, only 60 acres are identified as shola (natural) forest. The rest was under Tata Tea control. They had installed over 20 boards in different places claiming ownership.”
“For decades, the Tatas hogged almost all the land in Munnar, running a parallel government. Even the local panchayat had to beg for land to set up offices and civic amenities. People had to plead with the company even for power connections. They had even admitted in an affidavit in the High Court that they had been selling government land in pieces,” said the CM.
Pertinently, the CPI has its own target. Food and Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran is the proponent of the Kerala State Essential Commodities Act, 2007, which the LDF is expected to pass soon to ban the entry of corporates in the retail sector. Divakaran claims that it would be the first attempt of its kind in the country and the LDF in Kerala doesn’t intend to “regulate” big retailers, as Bhattacharya did in Bengal, but wants to impose a blanket ban. “We don’t want them here at all,” Divakaran said. In Kochi, Reliance has opened six of its proposed 70 supermarkets. “We don’t want to invite trouble by revoking licences which have been issued already. But local administrative bodies have now been directed not to issue any more licences. We will stop Reliance in its tracks,” Divakaran added.
The CPI, which supported Achuthanandan on many issues previously, is ideologically a rudderless ship currently. The party’s apparent double standards in dealing with corporates have left its cadre in a quandary. “The CPI is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It is politically aimless today,” says a disgruntled leader of the CPI youth wing, the All India Youth Federation.
The 80-year-old chief minister seems to be having the last laugh and is not willing to buy reports that the Tata Tea fracas has sullied the government’s image among corporates. He also feigned ignorance about the reported decision of Tata Steel to rethink signing a Rs 1,500-crore agreement with the state government.
According to political observer John Mary, Achuthanandan has nothing to lose in this battle. “For the next Assembly election, he is unlikely to be the leader of the LDF. His only concern is to leave a lasting impression in governance before taking the last bow. Probably, he wants to be known as a fighter for the poor.”