(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 19, 2012
A Scandal in Kerala
DURING the Maharajas’ days in what is contemporary Kerala, large tracts of land had been handed over on long leases to private “entrepreneurs” for developing plantations. The exact records of which bits of land were so handed over are not available now; they probably were never available even then. What is more, the private “entrepreneurs” have over the years encroached upon government land that lay close to what was handed over to them, or even lay inside the tracts handed over to them. As a result there are a number of large plantations in Kerala today, where the plantation owners’ claims on the land they assert as belonging to them are utterly dubious. And because of the vexed legal status of these lands, the land reform legislation in Kerala as enacted till now has kept such lands, which are under the control of plantation-owners, out of the purview of the land-ceiling provisions.
The actual land covered by plantation crops moreover is only a fraction of the land under the control of the plantation owners, though even here the exact amount of land covered by plantation crops is not known. Kerala therefore is afflicted by two quite distinct problems: first, a huge amount of land is occupied by a few plantation owners, who have deliberately and willfully flouted the conditions under which the land was made available to them, namely that they should grow plantation crops on them; and second, no record of how much they actually have lease-titles over, how much they actually cultivate, and how much they just occupy without cultivating, exists.
Since, notwithstanding the thorough-going land reforms, there is still some residual landlessness and houselessness in the state, a Study-Group appointed by the State Planning Board under the last LDF government, had made a novel suggestion. It had suggested arriving at the land under cultivation in big plantations by taking the actual employment on the pay-roll of such plantations, and using a “norm”, depending on the crop being cultivated, to make an indirect estimate of the land actually used; it had then recommended that the entire remaining land, i.e. the excess of the land under the control of the plantation-owners and what they are so estimated to cultivate, should be taken away from them and distributed among the landless, houseless poor, or used for some other worthwhile social purpose by the government. While this suggestion merits serious discussion, it certainly underscored the fact that huge amounts of land in the state were illegitimately occupied by a few big plantations, not fulfilling the original purpose, of growing plantation crops, for which it was leased to them by the Maharajas.
The plantation-owners however want to use this illegitimately occupied land to build resorts, hotels and other such real estate projects; and the Congress-led UDF government has all along been supportive of their desire. Indeed in 2005, the then UDF government had passed a legislation permitting them to use up to five per cent of the land under their control for such other purposes, including growing other crops (e.g. medicinal crops) and, of course, real estate projects. But before presidential assent could be obtained for this piece of legislation, the UDF lost the state assembly election in 2006 and an LDF government came to power. The LDF government requested the president to withhold assent to this legislation; and indeed presidential assent was withheld throughout the tenure of the LDF government.
But the proposal for converting the land under the control of the existing plantation owners for building hotels and tourist resorts never really died; and the argument was often advanced even during the LDF tenure that such projects would cross-subsidise the operation of the plantations, so that the losses being made on the crop-production side could be more than made up by these means. This argument would be put forward by central ministers on visits to the state (e.g. the then commerce minister Jairam Ramesh in an official interaction with the chief minister); and on more than one occasion by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, when the Kerala government delegation led by the CM came to discuss Annual Plan proposals with the Planning Commission. But each time it was pointed out by the LDF government that since the land under the control of the plantation-owners was not legitimately theirs, both because it contained substantial encroachments on government land in addition to what the Maharajas had leased to them, and also because, by not utilising all the land under their control for the purpose for which they occupied it at all, they had violated the original contract with the Maharajas, allowing such five per cent use for other purposes would ipso facto legitimise their illegitimate land-occupation.
The matter had rested there until recently, when the 2005 enactment has received belated presidential assent! This, of course, would not have happened if pressure had not been applied by the UDF government on the centre to make it happen. What it means however is scandalous: it means doubly rewarding the big plantation owners, first by legitimising their illegal occupations, both of the land they have encroached upon, and of the land they occupy but do not use for the purpose for which they are supposed to occupy it; and second by converting these illegal occupations into a bonanza by building hotels, tourist resorts and other real estate projects on them.
Environmentalists have pointed out in addition that given Kerala’s fragile ecology, such constructions on land that is necessarily at a height will have serious deleterious consequences by obstructing water flow. The UDF government, of course, claims that no new construction will be undertaken and that tourists will be only allowed to stay in the houses and buildings that already exist on the plantations; but this is simply untrue. If that was the only objective then there was no need for specific legislation allowing the use of up to five per cent of plantation land for other purposes including tourism. Besides, as already mentioned, the central government and the Planning Commission have always been pressing the Kerala government to open up plantation land for tourism and for building hotels for the purpose; so, it is not just a matter of allowing a few stray tourists to stay overnight in existing plantation buildings.
The other argument of the UDF government, namely that this would help the workers, who would otherwise be thrown out of work because of the closure of plantations which are making unsustainable losses, is equally specious. If up to five per cent of plantation land is to be used for the cultivation of other crops in order to protect the interests of the workers, then, to ensure that the plantation-owners do not misuse this provision, the plantation should itself be taken over by the government to be run either as a public sector unit or as a co-operative of the workers.
This has an additional advantage. In plantations run by co-operatives, certain types of MGNREGS operations are allowed, which would enable the workers to obtain central government funds, and thereby either to supplement their existing incomes through additional MGNREGS activities, or to off-load some of the costs associated with plantation work to the MGNREGS. There are already excellent examples within Kerala itself of such extremely innovative ways of making plantations viable by bringing them into the co-operative sector and making use of MGNREGS support. In such a case, even the need to convert five per cent of plantation land for other purposes for making the plantation viable, would not arise. And even if such conversion has to take place, in addition to MGNREGS support, then at least it would be ensured, through a take-over of plantations from existing owners and their operation as co-operatives, that the beneficiaries are the workers themselves, and not a bunch of plantation-owning monopoly capitalists, whose entire history has been one of defrauding the government to amass land illegally.
Chief Minister Oomen Chandy has claimed that the legislation to allow the conversion of five per cent of plantation land for other purposes has the unanimous support of the Plantation Labour Committee which has trade union representatives on it, but this is totally untrue. No trade union has supported the enactment of this legislation; and the LDF government’s opposition to it had evoked no protests whatsoever from any trade union organisation of any complexion.
Given the extremely adverse land-man ratio in Kerala on the one hand, and the thousands of acres of plantation land lying idle on the other, and that too in the hilly region of the state, plantation land constitutes prime property, and is being eyed by the real estate mafia in the state. The UDF government is playing into the hands of this mafia.
There are already ecological guidelines in place in the state against construction on the hills. This makes the mafia’s task that much more difficult. But if in the name of “making plantations viable”, “defending the jobs and livelihoods of the plantation workers”, and “overcoming the losses being incurred by the plantations”, thousands of acres of hill-tracts could be converted into valuable real estate or given over to highly profitable hotel business, then the mafia would have succeeded in its nefarious objective.
The proposed change is not just a minor matter. Kerala has had a trajectory of egalitarian development which is a beacon for the country as a whole and which has attracted world-wide attention and admiration. An important part of this trajectory is the extensive land reforms undertaken in the state. The extension of these reforms to the plantation sector has been under serious discussion in the state for some time now. What the UDF law does is to eliminate any scope for such an extension of land reforms, to legitimise the land holdings of the big plantation owners, to open up huge tracts of land for the operation of the real estate mafia, and to thwart any possibility of using the surplus land at the disposal of the big plantation-owners for settling the remaining houseless and landless households of the state. In short it marks a complete change in the trajectory of Kerala’s development, from one of egalitarianism to one oriented towards benefiting a handful of plantation and real estate owners.