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ISRO Purchases Government Land From Dubious Man



The ral estate lobby is behind the acquisition of protected land for a space research institute in Thiruvananthapuram

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

Troubles for VS Achuthanandan’s government seem to be growing by the day. The Opposition staged a walkout from the Assembly a day after state Chief Secretary Lizy Jacob went on protest leave after submitting three months notice for voluntary retirement. Achuthanandan had publicly criticised Jacob, saying Rs 1 crore was sanctioned without his knowledge for a helipad at the site of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) proposed educational institute in Thiruvananthapuram. All this came after it emerged that ISRO had bought the land for its institute from a dubious real estate businessman who had forged documents to sell protected government land.

The 82 acres purchased by ISRO for setting up an Indian Institute of Space Technology at Ponmudi in eastern Thiruvananthapuram fall within the zone marked as “ecologically fragile”; the land is to be merged with the adjoining forest area under a state government law. The Opposition is now baying for the blood of Forest Minister Binoy Viswam, a CPI member, as officials in his ministry are alleged to have helped businessman Xavy Mano Mathew get the ecologically fragile status of the land revoked. To make matters worse, ISRO has made it clear that its land deal was perfectly in order and has warned the government of legal action if there is a probe into the deal.

Tempers ran high on the Assembly floor with the Opposition demanding the resignation of Viswam, asking how the land under his ministry came to be in possession of a private individual. Though Viswam is known for his integrity, his party, the CPI, has been accused in the past of hobnobbing with the land mafia. CPI’s state assistant secretary KE Ismail is alleged to be close to Xavy Mathew. Mathew’s connections with the CPM also became a subject of hot debate. The LDF government had recently appointed Mathew, who has also produced several Malayalam films, as one of the directors of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan lives in a house owned by Mathew.

On his part, Mathew has denied that he sold government land to ISRO. “The government had denotified the area and it is no more in the ecologically sensitive zone,” he said. Mathew, however, has a tainted record as a businessman and is facing a set of criminal cases for illegally felling trees in forest areas.

According to former forest minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, the denotification was illegally done to help Mathew, and Viswam knew about it. Viswam refuted the charge and blamed the Congress, saying the businessman had bought the land in March 2005 when the UDF was in power. “Why did the UDF government not take action against Mathew?” he asked.

The irregularities in the deal turned controversial after it was revealed that the land was part of the 707.23-acre Merchiston estate taken over by the government under the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act of 2001. It was also discovered that Mathew had sold parts of the estate to many other individuals after getting the estate de-notified. When contacted by TEHELKA, Viswam said he was not aware how the land was de-notified. “We are ready to rectify that mistake. The Chief Minister has already promised 200 acres of land free of cost to ISRO in Ponmudi. It is not wise for ISRO to stick to the deal with Mathew, who has a shadowy record,’’ Viswam said.

ISRO claims it decided to purchase the land from Mathew after getting a letter from Thiruvananthapuram District Collector N. Ayyappan saying no government land was available for the institute. Ayyappan later said that a junior revenue official had sent that letter without his knowledge. Reports also say ISRO had informed the Chief Minister’s office about the deal in advance. Sources say the information was passed on to one of Achuthanandan’s secretaries who is a close relative of Mathew. That secretary kept the information secret.

Kerala Chief Secretary Lizy Jacob is under fire for her role in the affair. According to her, she got a message from the Prime Minister’s Office that Manmohan Singh would soon be coming to inaugurate the institute. She immediately released Rs 1 crore to ISRO for constructing a helipad for the visit, without waiting for the consent of the chief minister or the finance minister. The helipad is now almost ready. Opposition leader Oommen Chandy says the PMO had given no such information to the chief secretary. According to forest department sources, Mathew would be the main beneficiary of the helipad as his eco-tourism venture is taking shape in the vicinity.

ISRO is yet to respond to the state government’s offer of another 200 acres of land free of cost. “Real estate interests of top officials in ISRO also contributed to the present controversy,’’ said a senior forest department officer.


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