A day after chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan strongly hinted at corruption during the UDF tenure, the opposition sought to turn the tables on the chief minister in the Assembly on Wednesday.
Pinarayi was accused of arm-twisting the Revenue Department to do the bidding of those wanting to convert paddy lands with impunity. The chief minister remained silent all through the discussion.
The charge was that it was under pressure from the chief minister's office that the Revenue Department had junked the collector's report, refused to take the opinion of the Law Department, and issued a quick order to regularise nearly 15 acres of land designated as “paddy land' at Kunnathunadu in Kochi.
The issue was raised as an adjournment motion in the Assembly by Congress legislator and Kunnathunadu MLA V P Sajeendran. Sajeendran said that in 2006, the then land revenue commissioner Alphons Kannamthanam had allowed the 5.84 hectares of land (nearly 15 acres) to be converted on the basis of the Land Utilisation order.
“However, the conversion was not completed by 2008, when the Conservation of Paddy land and Wetland Act, 2008, came into force. So it remained as paddy land and was also included in the data bank,” Sajeendran said. Revenue minister E Chandrasekharan confirmed these observations.
Sajeendran said that owners of the land then attempted to convert the land in 2014. “But this had provoked mass protests. The CPM and its farmers' wing had taken up the protests in the area. The Muvattupuzha RDO had then submitted a report saying that the conversion was illegal,” Sajeendran said.
Three years later, on September 29, 2018, the then Ernakulam district collector issued the order saying that the land be restored to its original condition. “Not only was the collector's order based on section 13 of the Paddy and Wetland Act but he had also secured the advice of the advocate general,” Sajeendran said. (Section 13 of the Act deals with the power of the district collector to take action to restore the original position of the reclaimed paddy land.)
The private owner then approached the government against the collector's order. “The files moved so amazingly fast, quicker than even the rocket fired from Thumba, and the collector's order was overturned,” Sajeendran said.
Sajeendran then alleged that the owner was none other than the man who was once described as “the hated one” by former chief minister V S Achuthanandan. The reference was to the elusive businessman Pharis Aboobacker said to be very close to Pianrayi.
Later, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said that action on the private owner's complaint was settled within 23 days. “Such ugly haste when files take months to move even if insisted by MLAs,” Sajeendran said.
The opposition leaders wanted to know why the then additional chief secretary (revenue), P H Kurien, who had initially sent the file to the Law Department had quickly recalled the file and struck down the collector's order. Kerala Congress leader Anoop Thomas wondered how a conscientious official like Kurien could do such a thing.
“I remember how he opposed a project devised on 500 acres in my constituency saying it would harm the ecosystem. He agreed to the project only when it was pared down to 100 acres,” Anoop said, an indirect hint that Kurien was forced by someone above him. Muslim League leader M K Muneer remarked that Kurien himself had said that he had orders from higher-up.
The revenue minister also admitted that the additional chief secretary had recalled the file before the Law Department could give a considered opinion. He said that he came to know of Kurien's order only from the media. “Once I got to know of the order, I called for the file and froze the additional chief secretary's order finding that he had struck down a decision taken by the collector on the basis of section 13 of the Paddy and Wetland Act,” Chandrasekharan said. The minister said that further steps would be taken after getting advice from the advocate general.
The opposition leader asked what was the need for a fresh opinion when the collector had already secured one before he passed the order to revert the land. The revenue minister replied that though the collector was right to use his powers under section 13 of the Act, it was improper for him to order the cancellation of all transactions related to the disputed land. “We needed an opinion on this, too,” the minister said.