Kerala Picks Disputed Land For Sabarimala Airport Project, BJP Alleges Multi-Crore Scam By Communists-Led State Government

M R Subramani

Jun 23, 2020, 03:56 PM | Updated 03:54 PM IST

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
  • It is feared that the Kerala government’s decision to acquire disputed land for Sabarimala airport project may lead to high-level corruption.
  • The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala last week passed an order to acquire 2,263 acres of disputed land in Cheruvally Estate in Erumely, Kottayam district for the state’s proposed Sabarimala airport project.

    However, the announcement by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led government has come in for sharp criticism from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam (SASS), which are alleging it is a multi-crore scandal.

    State Revenue Secretary A Jayathilak, in the order, asked the Kottayam district collector to acquire the land in the estate for the airport project which is about 20 km from Pamba, the base from where Ayyappa devotees begin climbing to the shrine.

    An airport for Sabarimala has been in the works for long with pilgrims from other states demanding such a facility. Currently, pilgrims, coming by flights from other states, land either at Thiruvananthapuram, 170 km from Pamba, or Kochi, 160 km from Pamba, before reaching the hill shrine.

    The Pinarayi Vijayan government, which decided to acquire the land according to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, said the compensation for the land would be paid to the Kerala High Court where a dispute is pending.

    A Christian organisation Believers Eastern Church has the possession of the rubber estate, claiming to hold its title deed but its claim has been disputed by successive governments in Kerala.

    The state government claims that the land originally belongs to it and a civil dispute over the ownership of the estate is pending before a local court at nearby Pala.

    BJP Kerala president K Surendran, addressing the media during the weekend, wondered why the Vijayan government should choose to pay for the land on which the government has laid its claims.

    He said a report by a special officer, M G Rajamanickam, to identify the lands owned by British citizens and companies in Kerala before Independence, and verify the ownership in terms of title deeds, had found the lands to be owned by the government.

    Later, the special officer issued a directive for a government takeover of the estate. The directive followed after Rajamanickam inspected the estate on 15 January 2015 and found that the sale deed of the Cheruvally Estate, measuring 2,263 acres, not containing any of its survey number included in the original document held by Harrison Malayalam.

    Gospel for Asia founder K P Yohanan bought the disputed land for the Believers Eastern Church in 2005 by raising loans and donations from abroad.

    The utilisation of the donations received by the church for the purchase of the estate is also disputed as critics argue the donations were not made for any purchase of properties.

    Another issue with the land is that the lease period is reported to have expired when the deal between Harrison and Yohanan took place. Thus, the deal is deemed illegal.

    Efforts by previous governments to take over the estate through Rajamanickam's directive have been struck down by the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court on the grounds that the special officer does not have the powers to decide on land ownership.

    The case has been referred to the Pala court after the Supreme Court said the land ownership can be settled through a civil suit.

    Besides, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which supervises the administration of over 1,240 temples, has claimed that it owns nearly 100 acres of the Cheruvally Estate.

    BJP’s Surendran said that the LDF government move will lead to corruption amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees since the state government will be paying the Believers Eastern Church for its own land.

    He said that it will also hamper government efforts to reclaim the land, which is reported to have been encroached through various means.

    Alleging a conspiracy involving Vijayan and the Believers Eastern Church, the BJP leader wondered why should the CPI-M government acquire over 2,000 acres when the airport needs only 700 acres.

    Surendran, however, made it clear that his party was not against an airport for the hill shrine but it opposed a “hugely corrupt deal”, fearing similar deals could follow soon.

    The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is observing a studied silence on the issue.

    In 2016, the CPI-M-led government had got an informal clearance from the then Union civil aviation minister Anand Gajapathy Raju to build an airport nearer to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.

    The Kerala government has been looking to construct an airport following demand from pilgrims.

    The previous UDF government led by Oommen Chandy planned to construct an airport through a private player at Aranmula but it got derailed in view of various controversies.

    The Vijayan government, on its part, revoked the permission for the airport at Aranmula and began hunting for another place before zeroing in on Cheruvally Estate.

    Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan has alleged the land deal is a scam worth Rs 25,000 crore. It is a move to help the private estate owner to sell an illegal land in possession to the state government, he charged.

    The Vijayan government is also trying to give the Believers Eastern Church a legal sanctity for its illegal possession by offering to make it a shareholder, the Union minister said.

    The Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajan has flayed the order as one of dubious nature since the state was trying to pay compensation to a third party “in the course of affirming its rights”. It said the order “smacked of corruption”.

    Believers Eastern Church spokesperson Sijo Pandappallil has said that it owns the estate and the dispute had been settled in its favour by the Supreme Court.

    He said the church was not against development and would extend all help for the airport project.

    M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.