A catholic priest and members of a church committee in Thiruvananthapuram district’s Adimalathura have been accused of usurping more than 11 acres of poramboke land and 55 cents (1 cent is 40.4 sq metres) of government revenue land for constructing a convention centre, prayer halls and selling a portion of the land to various people at Rs 1 lakh per plot.
The Vizhinjam Police have registered case against the Fathima Matha Church parish priest Melvin Souza and few church committee members under the sections 145 and 147 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) (dispute over immovable property), sections 447 (trespassing) and 120b (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.
Thiruvananthapuram District Collector (DC) K Gopalakrishnan visited the Adimalathura coastal village on Thursday morning with a huge police force and issued a “stop memo” on all the buildings that were partially and fully constructed on the encroached land. He told TNM that the government would take action immediately to evict all the encroachers of the revenue land.
"We have come to know that the church committee had built a convention centre, a prayer center also functions illegally. They have distributed the government land among the people. They gave 3 cents of land to each family. Two years ago, when we noticed the encroachments, we warned them and had issued a stop memo. But they did not heed the order and continued to construct the building on the encroached land," he added.
He further stated that he has received complaints that the church had collected money from people it had given the land to. "For the time being, we will initiate the proceedings to take back the government land. Further moves by the government will be informed later," he added.
Poromboke land is unassessed lands which are the property of the government under section 3 (1) or (2) of the The Kerala Land Conservancy Act, 1957 and can be used or reserved for public purposes.
Manipulating the community?
The encroachment of public land came to light when the church priest Melvin Souza allegedly boycotted a family after they opposed his move of collecting money in exchange for the revenue land.
TNM had earlier reported about Shinu, his wife Usha Rani and their three children were forced to live in a lodge for 12 days after locals assaulted them. The assault took place after the parish priest allegedly boycotted the family and stated that they were not allowed to return home to Adimalathura.
Usha Rani, a social worker in the area had warned a few of her neighbors to refrain from constructing buildings on government land as it would cause legal issues. The social boycott was allegedly imposed on them after she spoke about the illegality of the parish priest’s move. On February 1 the couple were attacked by a huge mob, and Usha had survived burn injuries all over her body, after an unidentified person threw 'liquid' that smells like kerosene, at her.
"People in my area are less educated and they are not aware about anything around. They blindly follow the church and the priest and they believe whatever the priest tells them. I am sure that they attacked me just because the priest asked them to do so. He told them if they don't shut my mouth, they would lose their land," Usha had told TNM.
Another resident of Adimalathura on condition of anonymity, said that the priest has been misleading the people for the last two years by stating that they would get title deeds for the encroached land if they stick together.
DC Gopalakrishnan said that although he has heard about these claims, the district administration had no plans to provide title deeds. "How can we give title deeds just like that? That is completely false information. We have now communicated it to the people," he said.
Another resident of the village, who bought 3 cents of land for Rs 1 lakh said that they had no idea that they were being cheated.
"We don't know whether others were aware of it. But we had no clue that we would lose the land. We gave Rs 1 lakh to the church and the priest gave us a receipt and of 'donation to church'. We have no other evidence to prove that we gave the money," she said.
Usha Rani said that the priest collected Rs 1 lakh each from 240 families and the remaining land was sold via auction. "He may have secured more than Rs 3 crore in this scam," she alleged.
Vizhinjam station house officer Saji told TNM that supporters of the church prevented the police from doing their duty. "When Usha and her family were assaulted, it was mainly women in the mob and we struggled to protect the family. Even the police officers were assaulted," he had earlier said.
Another resident of the village said that police or social workers were not allowed inside by the locals and that the church had clearly instructed people not to communicate about the land to outsiders.
"This time the collector had come with a huge police force. Up to an extent, people have understood that they were being misguided," he said.