Mission Munnar
Comrade on a bulldozer

The land-recovery drive led by Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan in Kerala has ruffled many a feather in political and business circles. Sajan Mathews on the much-hyped and controversial drive that has at the end of it all even put a question mark over the CM's campaign

Chief Minister Achuthanandan replaces a Tata Tea board with that of a board of the Kerala Government.
Chief Minister Achuthanandan replaces a Tata Tea board with that of a board of the Kerala Government. — Photo by Babu Kadalikad

Kerala never ceased to be in the headlines. The world’s first ever elected communist ministry, the first state in India to implement revolutionary land reforms, the first state to achieve cent per cent literacy, pioneer in coalition politics, path-breaking forays in population control and healthcare. Yes, "God’s own country" has accolades a lot and the saga continues.

The latest in the saga is the ongoing exercise of the CPM-led ruling coalition to recover massive portions of land allegedly grabbed over the years by both big and small fry across the state, including multinationals like Tatas. At the steering wheel of this massively appreciated mission is none other than the state’s Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, one of the few remaining stalwarts of the firebrand communist movement of yesteryear.

It was virtually a quick start in the state’s misty high ranges of Munnar, known for sprawling tea plantations mostly owned by Tata Tea Ltd. Modern-day demolition gadgets like bulldozers in a single day brought down allegedly illegal constructions —- mainly hotels and resorts —- in the picturesque township and suburbs shocking the entire state. The three-member special task force directly chosen by the Chief Minister, braving stiff resistance from many quarters, including his rival group in CPM as well as some of the major coalition partners, went on doing a wonderful job in Munnar.

Within a few days, the demolition team landed in the emerging metropolis of Kochi, the industrial and commercial capital of the state. The worst hit was the M G Road, the main artery of the city. Sunshades and landscapings protruding into the government land on both sides of the road were mercilessly pulled down. The demolition was watched by hundreds who were hailing the Chief Minister in whom they saw the ultimate reformer and revolutionary.

When the demolition moved to other districts like Kozhikode, it became very clear that Achuthanandan means business. Traders’ organisations and bigwigs who were caught unawares approached the court for relief in vain. In fact, for over two weeks, the common man was under the spell created by the one and only Achuthanandan.

The Chief Minister and his specially chosen task force swelled in the media all through.

There were kudos from everywhere. The beleaguered Opposition led by the Congress was also in shock as this man was doing something which they could have done much before but now there was no other go but to cautiously appreciate what was happening. However there were enough warning notes from intellectuals, media and political observers casting doubts on the sustainability of the apparently single-handed exercise of the Chief Minister.

Within a few days and as expected the murmurings within the CPM, which is heading the ruling coalition and major coalition partners like the CPI, took the form of open public statements and straight attacks against the Chief Minister’s indiscriminatory exercises in coalition meetings. The CPI was the most irked because the JCBs pulled down a portion of the CPI office in Munnar. It was housed in a property which had encroachments. Two youthful CPI ministers K P Rajendran and Binoy Viswam, who handle the key revenue and forest portfolios with a direct bearing on the alleged encroachments, were initially equally enthusiastic as the Chief Minister in the Munnar mission. When it touched the local CPI office and was about to touch the holdings which have a CPM stake, the Chief Minister was in the dock. The now well known factionalism within the CPM- led by Achuthanandan and the party’s state secretary Pinarayi VIiayan only added spice to the imbroglio.

This culminated in the rather ironic suspension of both Achuthanandan and Vijayan from the politburo of the party while allowing them to continue in their posts. More ironic was the fact that the politburo had only praise for Achuthanandan’s land recovery initiatives.

Thereafter the sequence of events was even more interesting and were characterised by the steady slowdown of the much publicised ‘Munnar Mission’ with the task force chief going on leave for two weeks, some of the bigwigs getting a stay on evictions, the Cabinet itself deciding not to touch offices of political parties and religious establishments and the subsequent withdrawal of the decision in the next few days.

The heat went up once again when the Chief Minister dramatically skipped a scheduled LDF coalition meeting at the state capital and landed with his task force in Munnar early this month. This time the target was very clear. The Tatas. The company owns most of the tea estates in the tea-rich Munnar and its suburbs. Braving heavy downpour and extreme cold, the Chief Minister replaced a board of Tata Tea with a Government of Kerala board which he himself brought in one of the tea estates. The takeover declaration by Achuthanandan, clad in protective winter clothing amid pouring rains, hit the TV screens for a full day and night and made headlines in the powerful Kerala vernaculars the next morning.

However things had been going from bad to worse ever since the Tata Tea spokesman stated that the land taken over by the Chief Minister was only government land already in the custody of the Forest Department. Statement of the Revenue Minister in the Assembly also clearly contradicted the Chief Minister’s contention that the land he took over was Tata Tea’s, casting doubts in the public as to whether the Chief Minister was only attempting a political gimmick for survival within his own party and the coalition. Political pundits termed it as a political misadventure. The statement war within the LDF coalition for and against the so-called political misadventure is still on, putting the common man in the worst ever judgment crisis.

Whatever be the political implications, Munnar Mission conceived scripted and directed by Achuthanandan`A0sent a clear warning signal that`A0things will not be that easy for land grabbers any more. If the ruling regime is daring enough, even the strongest edifices built under political patronage could be brought down.`A0For Achuthanandan this may turn out to be his waterloo in politics. But it contains much more serious lessons.