The Believers Church Council which met on Monday in Thiruvalla to discuss the controversy raging over the proposed acquisition of its Cheruvally Estate at Erumeli in Kottayam decided against any such takeover bids.
The Church in Kerala which had earlier evinced its openness to the said proposal -in case the state government officially approached it in the matter- reversed its stance following stinging criticism by the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership.
Speaking to The News Minute, Rev Fr. Sijo Panthappalil -PRO of the Believers Church- says:
“Earlier we had adopted a very open approach regarding the acquisition of the Estate from us for the proposed airport at Erumeli, in case the state government officially approached us. After all, it would -if completed- prove greatly beneficial to the faithful who throng the famed Sabarimala shrine in Pathanamthitta. But the sudden spurt of criticism by certain political leaders targeting our Metropolitan Bishop KP Yohanan in the matter has deeply pained us. They could at least have waited for the High Court to pass its order before commenting on the same –it is after all sub judice. We have hence decided not to hold talks with anyone in the matter.”
The 2263 acres that comprise the Cheruvally Estate was acquired by the Believers Church from the infamous Harrison Malayalam Limited in 2005. The company is purportedly India’s largest producer of rubber and pepper as well as South India’s largest tea-producer. It has time and again gained notoriety for its dubious ownership claims on many plantation-lands.
"The Cheruvally Estate is 2500 acres of rubber plantation. Earlier it was under the custody of some British company. As per law, after independence it should by default, be transferred to the state government. But somehow Harrison Malayalam gained illegal ownership of the same. In all official enquiries conducted by the state government, it was revealed that the company got hold of the Estate through forged documents. In 2005, the Believers Church bought the land from Harrisons, fully aware of its illegal status,” claims Rony K Baby -chairman of the agitation council at the Travancore Rubber and Tea Estate in Kanjirappally and Kottayam District Congress Committee (DCC) general secretary.
The Cheruvally Estate recently hogged headlines when state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan decided to go ahead with the proposal for setting up of an international airport at Erumeli.
Naturally, a political furore broke loose. Many leaders especially those belonging to the BJP vociferously opposed the government move to buy land from a private stakeholder, land which they claim is Revenue Land, going by the “Resumption of Government Land’ Report submitted by special officer MG Rajamanickam IAS in May 2015.
The IAS official had issued an order recommending confiscation of the same, with a clause mentioning that it ‘be implemented as per the directive of the High Court’.
The Cheruvally Estate was part of the 5200 acres of land that was reportedly confiscated by the Special Officer along with land belonging to the Travancore Rubber & Tea Company Limited and Riya Resorts & Properties Private Limited.
The Believers Church approached the High Court in the matter which promptly issued a stay on the order. The matter is currently sub judice.
According to Rony, in case the state government decides to officially buy the land from the Believers Church, the latter would be legally entitled to a stake in the shares issued by the airport, thereby giving the land a legal stamp.
“We are not against the airport per se. But let the government first take over the land. The Believers Church is not entitled to any monetary compensation, as it is government land,” stresses Rony.
Refuting this accusation, Fr Sijo argues: “If that was so, why would the High Court decide in our favour in rulings by its divisional bench on three separate occasions? This is a matter which was brought before the Court accusing us of holding on to land which is not legally ours. But not once has the Court ruled against us. We procured the land from Harrison Malayalam by paying around Rs 83 crores, a sale deed which was legally registered in our name. How come no one from the government protested then? Ours is not a leased property. We possess original documents for the same. We even produced before the honourable Court the 1971 Land Borad Report which clearly mentions that there was no excess land in Kottayam that could be claimed by the state government for its own.”
To add an interesting twist, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) president Prayar Gopalakrishnan recently came forward claiming that 100 acres of the Cheruvally Estate belonged to the TDB as per their records.
He reportedly intends to approach the Believers Church to lay claim to the same on behalf of the TDB, for the setting up of a hospital to cater to the medical needs of the Sabarimala pilgrims.
Commenting on the same, BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan cites the existence of much older land records from the year 1924, much before either Harrison Malayalam or the Believers Church even came into the picture.
“These very old records clearly show that all these lands in and around the said area were once upon a time owned and occupied by the Erumeli Devaswom Board and the state government. They are the original owners,” he avers.
As far as the Cheruvally Estate is concerned -he adds- only after the Chief Minister issues a formal statement clarifying the exact location of the proposed airport at Erumeli, would he like to comment on the same.
Meanwhile, Fr Sijo reiterates that he shares a cordial relationship with the TDB president and he would prefer to wait for the TDB to produce official documents to substantiate the latest claim of ownership of a part of the Estate.
“We actually have no cause for worry. Let the Court decide in the matter. That is all we can say at the moment,” he smiles.