For decades, influential politicians and industrialists ran roughshod on the fragile ecology of Kerala’s scenic Munnar as they bulldozed through lush forests and valleys to build resorts, shopping plazas and hotels. The land mafia, with backing of local leaders, indiscriminately felled trees to make way for highrises in what the courts have called “rape of mother nature”.
But now, a young IAS officer says he is taking the mafia head on, serving eviction notices to 100-odd resorts and commercial establishments in the past month. Sriram Venkataraman, 30, has stirred protests in the area and even a public threat from controversial Kerala minister and local strongman, MM Mani.
But the 2013-cadre officer is unfazed. “I am not afraid of anyone. I am only implementing the law of the land,” says the sub-collector, also a doctor, who bagged the second rank in the tough civil services examination.
He has earned praise from former chief minister and Left stalwart VS Achuthanandan, who led a massive demolition drive in the misty hills of Munnar in xx, pulling down 92 illegal buildings and resorts.
Others are less than impressed. Devikulam MLA S Rajendran (CPI-M), who built a palatial house at the heart of Munnar town, said the sub-collector was illegally dubbing valid residents as encroachers. “It is nothing but mere publicity stunt. It seems the sub-collector is carried away by media glitz,” he said. Rajendran also had a running feud with Achuthanandan, who had called the MLA a part of the land mafia.
At stake is the delicate ecosystem of the picturesque Munnar, situated 1800 m above sea leavel, that houses two national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries that collectively hold more than 3,000 species of flowers, endangered birds, insects, mammals and amphibians.
“Once they encroach on land, they legalise it and manage survey number and other details somehow. It is an organised activity going unhindered over a period of time,” Sriram said adding land-grabbing was going at an alarming rate.
The officer says he has faced week-long protests by the ruling CPI(M) for serving notices to 100-odd resorts and unauthorised constructions. He also put on notice cardamom and tea plantations, which were on lease, for converting estates into resorts. Last week, a worried government beefed up his security. Two ruling alliance partners, CPI(M) and CPI, even locked horns over his operation.
The trouble began last month when he started implementing a government order to give construction licences only after examining land-holding records in at least five ecologically-sensitive villages in Devilukam taluk. The records revealed grave irregularities. Sriram says encroachers included politicians, religious leaders, government officials and businessmen.
During an eviction drive last week, police present ignored his order to evict people, fearing a local backlash. Later, he had to contact higher officials to rush more forces to evict protestors. With the sub-collector remaining adamant, CPI(M) workers, who had encroached on the government land, themselves demolished sheds and concrete fences. State revenue minister E Chandrasekharan and nature-lovers lauded his initiative.