Biju, a branch secretary of the CPM from Mukundapuram near Chavara in Kollam tried to extort money from Shahi Vijayan who is building a convention center there. He threatened him that they would plant their party flag at his site following which no construction would be possible. He wanted Shahi to pay Rs. 10,000 for a memorial being built in the name of a party ‘martyr’ and 15,000 in the name of a temple where Biju is an office-bearer.
Shahi plans to invest Rs. 10 crores in the 75 cent plot, reclaiming wetlands. Biju added that he would bring along the Village and Agriculture Department officials while arriving with the dreaded red flag. This incident brought to light glaring irregularities in the system of such allotments of wetlands and the acceptance of bribes, in the form of compulsory donations and otherwise.
After local media started airing Biju’s voice clips, he called back again to inform Shahi that the reclamation of the remaining 26 cents of paddy field is illegal. Shahi’s wife Shiny has now approached the chief minister and the industry minister to complain against such extortionists.
The CPM is selling off wetlands, drylands and paddy fields to industrialists and others who are well settled abroad. Shahi is a welder and his wife is a daycare center employee, and they live along with their children in Texas, USA. This incident shows that anyone ready to pay will be allowed to construct on ecologically sensitive areas.
To expect justice from the CPM-led regime is foolish, considering the fact that they survive on such ‘levies’ at the expense of both the rich and the poor. The latest to fall prey were 2 construction workers and a contractor who were severely beaten up and hospitalized by headload workers at Thiruvanthapuram.
They were found ‘guilty’ of not paying Rs. 10,000 that the goons demanded as Nokku Kooli (‘gawking’ charges i.e. money extorted for allowing unloading work or transfer of goods) for material being unloaded at a small house that was being built. Around 15 men belonging to both the CPM and Congress-led workers unions pounced on the victims. Only 2 men were arrested though videos showed plenty of them showering blows and kicks.
Wetland Act amendments
Massive encroachments of the land saw the introduction of The Paddy Land and Wetland Act in 2008. The aim was to restrict indiscriminate reclamation and to put a lid on the massive conversion of wetlands and paddy fields, thus encouraging agriculture. Results were evident immediately and in the next five years, paddy cultivation grew. More importantly, it prevented further depletion of such lands.
Between 2015 & 2017 the area under paddy cultivation fell from 1.9 lakh hectares to 1.7 hectares while production declined from 5.49 lakh tonnes to 4.37 lakh tonnes.
At this crucial juncture, instead of encouraging farmers, the CPM diluted the wetland laws. They introduced a new category of land called ‘unnotified land’, other than the existing paddy fields, wetlands, drylands in the land databank. Though the Basic Tax Register mentioned them as paddy fields or wetlands, the data bank was not notified. Some land that was cunningly withheld by most panchayats from being entered in the databank became ‘unnotified’.
Local Level Monitoring Committees were the ones recommending which land belonged to a particular category. In June 2018, knowing well the consequences for the ecology, the CPM regime introduced new wetland laws. Those committees that had recommendation powers were made toothless and the government became the sole decider while reclaiming wetlands.
The new laws allowed filling land for ‘public purpose’ and encouraged a new breed of greedy middlemen. This was done using laws that allowed up to 25 cents of wetlands to be filled for residential purposes. It then allowed the local Tahsildar to alter revenue records which in itself was against supreme court verdicts. It continues even today.
The latest laws introduced this year allow thousands of cents to be filled and when questioned, the government harps on revenue incomes. Other than local illegal levies (what we would call hafta elsewhere) of the CPM, all that the land mafia has to do is pay 20% of the fair price of land and convert it into crores worth of property by filling up the wetland. All such relaxations are available solely for land not covered in the state databank, i.e. unnotified land.
The 2018 Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act (amendment) and further amendments allowed land grabbers and the real estate mafia to reclaim paddy fields aggressively. The administration is busy filling up and pouring concrete into the same ecosystem that prevents rainwater from flooding entire towns by soaking it up.
The courts too are complicit. Inordinate delays and inability to punish real ring-leaders such as crooked politicians, higher officials and developers, emboldens further flouting of laws culminating in tragic outcomes like demolition of private property. Honest citizens who were cheated by the land mafia and the government are at the receiving end.