Western ghats as viewed from Thiruvananthapuram. File photo: Manorama

Onmanorama Explains | Why does a new Kerala law pardon eco violations in Western Ghats

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the ruling LDF and the Opposition UDF unanimously passed the Kerala Government Land Assignment (Amendment) Bill, 2023, on September 14.

Through two major amendments, the Act seeks not just to legalise all the violations done on government land during the last half century and more but also decriminalise activities that were prohibited till now.

Under the original Land Assignment (LA) Act, 1960, and the rules framed under it in 1964, the government land assigned to a title holder, mostly the landless, could not be put to any other use than to construct a house and for agriculture.

What are the amendments?

Amendment one, 4A(1), authorises the government to regularise all infringements of the conditions under which land was assigned under the Act.

Amendment two, 4A(2), is about assigned land in which no violations had taken place, their holders hoping, perhaps, in revenue minister K Rajan's words that "the law would be suitably amended in future".

If the title holder now wants to use this land assigned to him for purposes other than to have a roof over his head and agriculture, this amendment grants the government the right to sanction these.

So the amendments not just pardon the violations of the past but also strike out these from the list of violations.

Why the amendments?

Lands have been assigned under the LA Act indiscriminately and without proper scrutiny, especially after the tourism boom of the nineties. Around four lakh acres of government land have thus been distributed to the supposedly landless in Idukki district alone.

Government turned a blind eye to the violations of the LA rules. Even the increase in fake LA deeds were ignored; 'Raveendran pattayams' and 'Vrindavan pattayams' are some of the notorious fake deeds.

As the LA community grew, so did their needs. Townships sprung up. Hospitals, educational institutions and places of worship, though prohibited under the Act, became a necessity.

A part of the Western Ghats as seen from Teekoy. File photo: Manorama

An NGO, One Earth One Life, finding the situation unsustainable, went to court saying that it was forest land that was being distributed under the LA Act; in the Kannan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act, 1971, these lands are described as "jungle forest and grasslands".

After the 2018 floods, the High Court took serious note. Its intervention prompted the Idukki district collector to impose severe restrictions on construction in 13 panchayats in Idukki. Any new construction required a no-objection certificate from the revenue department.

Infuriated, settler groups in Idukki approached the court saying they were deprived of the rights LA landholders in other parts of Kerala enjoyed. The High Court, rather than freeing Idukki from the alleged discrimination, extended the restrictions to all assigned lands in Kerala. The Supreme Court seconded.

From powerful farm and mining lobbies to the poorest settler were affected. The only way to supersede the courts was to amend the original LA Act. A consensus was quickly forged.

Will violations be automatically regularised?

No. The title holder should apply. The procedures to be followed will be detailed in the rules that will be drawn up soon.

The two other minor amendments in the Amendment Act, 2023, relate to the power to make such rules.

For regularising constructions that were formerly prohibited but were linked to livelihoods and those that are under a certain size, say 1500 sq ft, there could be an application fee and a nominal regularisation fee. Such modest charges will be there for new such constructions, too.

The regularisation procedure for non-commercial public buildings like hospitals, schools and places of worship, too, will possibly be hassle-free and virtually free of cost.

What happens to CPM office and Kuzhalnadan's resort?

For regularising or starting big commercial operations -- like resorts and mines -- the rules will have, besides the application and regularisation fees, a plethora of hefty cesses; one-time and annual cesses, and even a green tax.

On the other hand, party offices would probably be seen, like schools and hospitals, as a public necessity. The CPM's Santhanpara office, constructed in violation of rules, would therefore be legitimised without any fuss and pay.

CPM's area committee office, which is under construction at Santhanpara. Photo: Special arrangement

In other words, if you are rich and powerful, environmentally unsustainable activities could be carried out in the ecologically fragile regions of the Western Ghats.

Hungry for tourists, the government is also eager to allow construction along slopes in landslide-prone Idukki, an activity all scientific studies done after the 2018 floods had warned against.

This being the case, the extensions made in Mathew Kuzhalnadan's Udumbanchola property, now under the vigilance scanner, can easily be regularised. At the most, he and his partners will have to shell out some money.

Mathew Kuzhalnadan, Bungalow | Video Grab: Facebook, @mathewkuzhalnadanofficial
Kapitan Bungalow; Mathew Kuzhalnadan. Video Grab: Facebook/@mathewkuzhalnadanofficial

Why are green activists furious?

One, for the most obvious reason. The possibility of indiscriminate and unscientific constructions and an increase in mining activities in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats.

Two, the commercial value of land will increase, prompting title-deed holders to sell it to big corporate players.

Three, high non-agricultural activity in the Western Ghats would worsen man-animal conflict.

Four, the eco-restoration of these fragile tracts becomes impossible.

Five, now that old wrongs have been sanctified, the 40-odd resorts that were demolished by V S Achuthanandan in 2007, and had gone to court, will find their arguments against the government's anti-encroachment drive in Munnar acquiring fresh legal muscle.

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