The newly elected Left Democratic Front government’s decision to resume farming on land identified for the construction of an international airport and an eco-tourism project in the state has been greeted enthusiastically by farmers and environmentalists. However, the government is likely to face several challenges in implementing this.
The LDF, as part of its policy to conserve wetlands and promote agriculture, seeks to shelve the Aranmula airport project and the Methran Kayal eco-tourism project that includes hotels, resorts and restaurants. Both were cleared by the LDF during its 2006-11 rule and carried forward by the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government.
The Aranmula International Airport, which received an in-principle nod in 2009, has been stuck over allegations that it flouts environmental norms. Similar concerns have dogged the Methran Kayal project, announced in 2008. The UDF government, in its last few months in power, had ordered the reclamation of ecologically sensitive land in Kottayam district for the project but the Kerala high court stepped in and ordered a stay on this.
Doubts over implementation
Agriculture Minister VS Sunilkumar had made the announcement about resuming paddy cultivation on these lands on Monday and the had asked agriculture secretary Raju Narayana Swami to file a feasibility report on this by Friday.
Government officials and farmers’ representatives, however, are sceptical about the implementation of the decision.
A senior official in the state’s agriculture department said farming cannot be undertaken on either site till land is acquired from the promoters of both projects, a process that, he said, may entail legal hurdles.
While about 500 acres of land acquired for the airport project is still in the possession of KGS Group, headquartered in Chennai, 378 acres proposed for the eco-tourism project are held by UAE firm Rakindo Developers Pvt Ltd and 18 other companies.
However, two state governments over the last three years have not been able to retrieve even the 232 acres in the possession of KGS Group that had been found to be in excess of the limit imposed by the Kerala Land Reforms Act. Though the Kerala Land Board had issued a directive to take back the land, the firm had challenged this before the high court, and the case is still pending.
Any fresh attempt to acquire land from the company might lead to further litigation and make the government’s farming move a non-starter.
Rakindo was given permission to develop the Methran Kayal project on grounds that the land was lying uncultivated since 2007. However, the Methran Kayal is part of the Vembanad Lake, which has been named by the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. Farming had been halted here because of flooding from the lake, and farmers had demanded the construction of an retention wall to prevent this.
After the government paid no heed to this, farmers agreed to sell the land to the real estate firm. Philiphose Thomas, a farmer in the area, said they were ready to resume cultivation if a bund is constructed by the LDF.
Father Thomas Peelianickal, the executive director of Kuttanad Vikasana Samithi, which has been championing the interest of farmers, said that if the government comes forward to construct the bund, which is estimated to cost about Rs 50 crores, the company may offer to undertake farming on the land so as not to let go of the land.
“The government will not be able to make such a big investment for a private firm,” Peelianickal told the Scroll.in. “It will also not be able to recover the land under the current laws unless it is proved that the area is arable.”
Peelianickal said that the government’s plan is likely to remain on paper and that it was probably just a way to attack the previous government. As soon as it assumed office on May 26, the LDF government had announced that it would review all controversial decisions taken by the UDF since January.
“The move might, at best, serve the purpose of sending a message to the real estate mafia against acquiring wetlands for commercial activity,” Peelianickal said.
A tight spot
The government is also in a tight spot because Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been trying to woo investors to boost development in the state, but a move to take land back from private firms could be discouraging to industrialists.
To encourage investment, the party had recently dropped objections raised by the LDF against the Vizhinjam Port project – a proposed multipurpose greenfield port in Thiruvananthapuram district – while it was in opposition.
When the UDF was in power, Vijayan, a member of the CPI(M) politburo (the party was in the opposition at the time) had called the deal corrupt and his party had termed many conditions in the agreement signed between the government and the Gautam Adani-led Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone detrimental to the interests of the state. However, the chief minister did not insist on changing the terms of the agreement when company CEO Karan Adani met him in state capital Thiruvananthapuram last week. After the meeting, Karan had said that they were committed to the project and that there were no pending issues.
Similarly, the LDF has also changed its previous stance on other mega projects like the Kochi-Mangalore-Bangalore Liquefied National Gas pipeline, approved in 2010, which hit a roadblock because of protests by locals over land acquisition, and the construction of national highways. The LDF manifesto has also proposed many mega projects like a high-speed rail corridor from the northern tip of the state to the southern tip, an industrial corridor from Kochi to Coimbatore and an electronic park in Ernakulam district.
The Vijayan government needs private investments to implement these projects and will be careful about making any move that could send negative signals to corporates.