Land-related issues, which had remained subdued for long after erupting due to the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports, have once again surfaced in the electoral scene in Kerala’s Idukki district. Now the issue has come up in the form of a ban on constructing buildings other than houses as per the title deed issued under the Kerala Land Assignment Rules, 1964. The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) has called for a hartal in protest in Idukki district on Friday.
After the two reports on the Western Ghats became a major political issue, Idukki’s poll landscape was free of district-level issues. Like any other district, general issues like development, corruption and those affecting the state were discussed. It was when the political parties framed the main issues to be raised in the upcoming Assembly elections that a twist came.
About a week ago, the district administration refused a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to Manju Santhosh, a resident of Kallarkutty in Udumbanchola taluk. She had filed the application to erect a camping tent on her land for tourism purposes. In reply, the District Collector stated that the title deed issued was under the 1964 rules, which specified that the land can be used only for farming or building a house.
As title deeds were generally issued under the Land Assignment Rules, an amendment of the conditions in the Rules was the only option. According to revenue officials, the 1964 rules specify that the land can only be used for farming activities. Houses can only be constructed for someone to live there. The construction ban will prevail until the rule is amended.
The UDF has decided to raise it as a major issue in the Assembly election. Speaking to TNM, Idukki DCC President Ibrahimkutty Kallar said that in an all party meeting called by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on December 18, 2019, it was decided to amend the 1964 land rules. But the promise remains only on paper, the rule has not yet been amended.
“The Chief Minister and the government have cheated Idukki natives. Now people here can’t construct even a single shop under their title deed. The district administration is refusing NOCs for such constructions,” Ibrahimkutty said.
“We urged the government many times to amend the rules, but they did not take a single step to solve the issue. Now that voters are aware of the land-related issues in the district, it will reflect in the Assembly elections,” he added.
High Range Samrakshana Samithi (HRSS), a farmers’ organisation based in Idukki which had raised the Western Ghats issue and influenced the Lok Sabha election in 2015 and the Assembly election in 2016, also stressed on the need to amend the 1964 rules. HRSS general convener Fr Sebastian Kochupurackal told TNM, “The 1964 rules must be amended with retrospective effect. This is a serious issue and all contesting fronts should reveal their stand before the election. The people in Idukki want this issue to be resolved immediately. However, there is no need to call a hartal during the election period.”
Though HRSS is not contesting the polls, it has continued to serve as a pressure group protecting the farmers’ interest.
Both the UDF and LDF have realised that the land rule will affect the Assembly election results in the district. In a poll meeting held at Vandiperiyar a few days ago, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said that if the UDF comes to power it will amend the 1964 rules within 90 days.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the process of amending the 1964 land rules is underway. He was addressing a public meeting of LDF candidate Roshy Augustine at Cheruthoni last Sunday. “The process to amend the rules is underway. When the LDF government comes back to power, the process will be completed with the approval of the Law Department,” the CM said.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2016 Assembly election, the Kasturirangan report was a major poll issue in Idukki. In 2014, the Kasturirangan committee recommended that 37% of the Western Ghats be declared ecologically sensitive. Of the 123 villages under the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) limit, 48 were in Idukki. The residents in the region feared that it would deprive them of their basic rights over their land and that they would be evicted eventually. HRSS organised large-scale street protests against the report.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the LDF backed HRSS independent candidate Joice George won with a margin of over 50,000 votes. The trend continued in the 2016 Assembly election too. But later it looked like the issue was forgotten. But now, five years later, another land issue is emerging as a main poll issue in Idukki.