As the Kerala Cabinet met on Wednesday, one of the key decisions taken was to transfer Devikulam sub-Collector Sriram Venkitaraman, a 2013 batch IAS officer who has been spearheading an eviction drive in Munnar. The ostensible reason was that Sriram had already completed 4 years in service and he deserved to be promoted. The action has stunned political observers and the public alike for the timing of the decision, especially coming a day after a Kerala High Court decision vindicated the officer’s stand.
The crux of the matter goes back a month even though the officer has been in the bad books of the local Communist Party of India (Marxist) ever since he dared to act against illegal occupations and land encroachments in Munnar town and nearby areas.
Power Minister MM Mani, who has served as the CPI(M) district secretary for more than quarter of a century, had been going around abusing the officer and even went to the extent of saying Sriram be sent to a mental asylum. Local MLA S Rajendran has been similarly engaged in a vilification campaign against the upright officer for sticking to the rulebook. Sriram managed to antagonise the Chief Minister himself when he decided to go ahead with the demolition of a cross on encroached land without waiting for Pinarayi’s sanction.
On June 9, the state Revenue department issued an eviction notice to VV George, a local Congress leader, to vacate his illegally occupied 22 cents of land from where he ran the Lovedale resort. This was after the Revenue department realised that George had grabbed government ‘Poramboke’ land originally leased out by the state in 1986 to a Thomas Michael for a period of three years. Though George approached the District Collector the next day, he got no relief as the Collector didn’t have any mandate. Along with a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, George managed to get local leaders of all the parties in Munnar including Power Minister MM Mani to take his case to the Chief Minister on June 13.
The all-party delegation was directed to the Revenue Minister of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and they presented him with a petition to stop the eviction of George’s land. Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan sought a report from the district administration that dug up proof of George’s bogus claims.
However, the matter didn’t end there. The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) sent a letter to the Revenue Minister stating the Chief Minister had recommended a High-level meeting to discuss the Munnar eviction drive on the basis of a complaint received from the all-party delegation. The Revenue Minister wrote back on June 21 that it would be totally inappropriate to do so as the district administration had found the contentions of George were false including the name of the title deed holder in the Vakalat filed in the High Court.
In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister bypassed the Revenue Minister to send a note directly to the Revenue Principal Secretary PH Kurian, to convene a High-level meeting of the local party representatives, District Collector, Sub-Collector Sriram Venkitaraman and other stakeholders. Despite CPI’s strong objection, the Chief Minister went ahead with the meeting only for the Revenue Minister to boycott it.
CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran chose to remind the Chief Minister on the occasion that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala was a made up of a coalition of parties and CPI(M) alone didn’t have a majority.
However, on July 4, the Kerala High Court upheld the decision of the Revenue department to evict George thereby vindicating Sriram Venkitaraman’s stand. Though the court had actually upheld the government’s decision, Pinarayi Vijayan ended up losing face.
To transfer the Sub-Collector on the very next day on any pretext would be audacious and silly but Pinarayi Vijayan seems to have once again let his famous ego come in the way.
The matter was brought as an ‘out of agenda’ item in the Cabinet - clearly indicating that it was an afterthought - by Chief Secretary Nalini Netto, a close confidante of the Chief Minister. Despite the arguments made by Revenue Minister Chandrasekharan against the decision to transfer the officer in the Cabinet meeting, none of the other three CPI Ministers spoke a word and the decision was near unanimous. The Revenue Minister had to defend the decision to the press as the Cabinet has collective responsibility.
This could also be Pinarayi Vijayan’s way of getting back at CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran with whom he has been engaged in a war of words since late last year. The verbal volleys continued right through the Law Academy issue in January, Jishnu Prannoy’s alleged suicide and the aftermath, and very recently, on the Puthuvype IOC LPG terminal issue.
On every matter that saw the CPI(M) engaged in a tussle with the CPI, it was the CPI and Kanam Rajendran that managed to emerge stronger, as Kanam has been taking a pro-people approach to issues and demanding to stick to the LDF manifesto. The disagreements also stretched to the ecological concerns on the Athirappally hydro-electric project, RTIs and publication of Cabinet decisions on the government website, and on KM Mani’s attempted entry into LDF.
It has been always been the convention in CPI(M) that the party secretary had the last word instead of the Chief Minister. However, incumbent state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has been content to play the second fiddle thereby allowing Pinarayi Vijayan to run the show. But since the beginning of this year, the LDF government in Kerala has been on the backfoot and plunging into one crisis after the other. Most of these crises have been self-inflicted particularly owing to the Chief Minister’s inability to make the right political judgement despite availing the services of a gamut of advisors.
Kanam, the Kottayam-born CPI state secretary, has been a sane voice in the current dispensation. In fact, this seems to have got the Chief Minister’s goat as he hasn’t taken kindly to Kanam’s emergence as a corrective force; a role VS Achuthanandan might have been supposed to perform.
Apart from CPI(M)’s real estate interests in Munnar, the transfer of Sriram Venkitaraman is undoubtedly meant to reiterate to Kanam Rajendran, and the CPI, as to who is indeed the big brother.
Note: Views expressed are the author's own.