Honourable men and a deal Wednesday, Oct 24 2007 

Binoy Viswam, Forest Minister of Kerala, IndiaForest Minister Mr. Binoy Viswam is a honourabale man. So is Mr. V. Gopinathan, Chief Conservator of Forests who has been suspended over the Merchiston estate deal. So, what went wrong?

The deal was a legal trapeze act. So, one cannot declare anyone guilty before the courts look into the matter. (The cases will hang on indefinitely. The prosecution may play weak as in almost all forest cases.) But, there were powerful players behind the scene.

Mr. Viswam had come under pressure from his own Cabinet colleagues. A very senior official was putting pressure on Gopinathan. The ISRO was playing every trick in the book to get things done. But no enquiry covered these people. The Opposition all the while is clamouring for the head of Mr. Viswam alone.

Update (25/10/07) : The Chief Minister has finally taken the bold stand that ISRO should not be insisting on land at the Merchiston estate.

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Struggles of a Cabinet committee Tuesday, Oct 23 2007 

Tea Garden

Kerala Cabinet is struggling to have a grip on the Harrissons Malayalam Plantations issue.

As the Cabinet could not arrive at a decision, it appointed a subcommittee nearly three weeks ago to take ‘action’ against the plantation company.

The subcommittee has met more than thrice by now. The Advocate General himself was called in to provide legal advice in addition to those from the Law Department. But the allegations against the company remained a hard nut to crack.

There were reports in the media that the subcommittee has decided to survey the land located in various departments. However, Government sources did not give much currency to the report as the fate of earlier surveys is yet to be known.

It was after several surveys to determine the land in possession of the Tata Tea that a satellite survey was launched. But when the results came in, none could make out anything.

Aerial views and grass root level views are entirely different ball games. Who else than the politicians know that better!

It was 27 years ago that a law to modify the rights of grantees and lessees was passed by the Assembly. But the Kerala grants and Leases (Modification of Rights) Act is yet to be implemented. If implemented, several plantations would have to pay more than 250 times the lease rent they are paying now. (Current rents range from Rs. 1 to Rs. 5 a hectare while government companies pay Rs. 1300 a hectare).

None need expect that the Act could be implemented now. The exact extent of the leased land would have to be determined before the lease rent is revised. (Well, that is because many lessees hold more than what is in the old records!) The Government will have to stick to the old procedure (Kannadi survey) for the lessees would challenge satellite surveys in Court.

ISRO and high attitudes Monday, Oct 22 2007 

ponmudi.jpg

The Indian Space Research Organisation is reportedly insisting that the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology should be in the Merchiston estate area near Ponmudi in Kerala.

If the IAS officers are trained at Mussorie, space scientists too should be trained at a high altitude location. Then, they should have a clear view of skies as astronomy is going to be one of the subjects of study. It has already declared that the Government land at the top of Ponmudi and the old helipad there are unsuitable for the purpose.

V. S. Achuthanandan at PonmudiThey claim that IIST is going to be the third Space Institute to be in the world. This does not appear to be true. (Here is a list of space institutes of the world.) Several of them have campuses in the cities and the plains. Though institutes such as Caltec have facilities on mountaintops for astronomical observations, their campuses are elsewhere. Why can’t the ISRO be satisfied with an observatory at a high altitude location and a campus on the plains?

The ISRO authorities have persuaded Achuthanandan to visit Ponmudi. The Chief Minister understood that it was any way going to work to his advantage. If the Government were to agree to their demand, he would be doing so after an on-the-spot study. If not, it would be another crusade against corruption and environmental degradation.

One of the points that the ISRO authorities was keen to point out to the visiting delegation was that the area cleared for the helipad was in the middle of the tea estate. They were silent about the fact that the estates at Ponmudi are surrounded by evergreen forests.

The Cabinet knows all about that and much more. Hence, the delay in taking a decision. While the Chief Minister is inclined to award the land to ISRO so that the Institute could be retained in Kerala, Forest Minister Binoy Viswam is a cat that fell into the hot water before.

Kerala Government’s Advocacy Saturday, Oct 20 2007 

Tea Garden

The Kerala Government claimed that the Tatas and Harrisons have encroached upon Government land. The companies promptly denied that through newspaper advertisements.

The Government ordered a satellite survey to determine the extent of encroachment at Munnar. Though months have passed, nothing is heard of the survey results. Recently, it asked the proprietors of Merchiston estate to vacate.

Well, the Government does not mean all that it says. It had no objections to the High Court granting a stay to Merchiston estate. To fight the experienced and well-paid counsels of Harrisons, it deputed a son of one the CPI MLAs. He told a television interview recently that the Merchiston and Ponmudi were part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve!

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