Gifting public property
Gifting public property
News analysis

Gifting public property


Kerala may or may not be God’s own country, but it is unique. Here we find jet red communists, saffron Parivar and white khadi clad Congress socialists, a species threatened with extinction, with laissez faire instincts. Naturally in such a State none can complain if the respect towards private property is higher than that for public property. Nor can anyone object to if leaders devote better attention to private property.

Given the ground realities one need not be surprised when a priceless heritage of Kerala, the Halcyon Palace in Kovalam was given to a private hotelier, very little protests were heard in a state where every leader is looking for some protests, some demonstrations, some satyagraha or some controversy, main rewarding occupation, except from leaders like V.S. Achuthanandan, V.M. Sudheeran, Ramesh Chennithala, etc. Even a known dissenter like Kanam Rajendran of the CPI chose to be silent, perhaps defying his own instincts. Even the media, a section of which used to object loud and clear to this transfer of heritage as a betrayal of the people in the past, this time looked the other way.

The ITDC, which originally built a star hotel in Kovalam, did not have proper documentation on the ownership of the land, according to Arun Shourie, Minister of Disinvestment, in the Vajpayee government. Two IAS officers and a tourism minister of UDF government tried for the gift of the Palace and its compound unsuccessfully as even then there was no proper documentation. There is no Cabinet decision on the subject. And CM Antony was not ready to oblige. But a dominant section of both the LDF and UDF wanted to gift it for reasons known to them. Had they done so earlier the man, a Gulf businessman, who bought the hotel from the ITDC, would not have sold the hotel. The Leela Group, which bought it from the Gulf businessman, would have also not parted with the property, perhaps. The issue went to court and in spite of a strong case Kerala Government lost the case. The best course would have been to go to Supreme Court in appeal. Once the case of the Kerala government is successful there could even have been a proper sale on commercial rates or the state could have preserved the heritage building, which is the best thing to do.

Why did LDF government take such a decision while former Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan consistently opposed the move and had led an agitation against its handing over to a private business group years ago? No clear explanation has come so far. Some point out that children of senior LDF leaders are employed by the hotel group in senior positions with handsome salaries and perks. Can such a reason influence a government decision? One is not sure. But the UDF too, it is clear, would have only taken such a decision. Maybe children of UDF leaders could have bagged plush positions. The opposition led by V.M. Sudheeran and Chennithala limited themselves to issuing a statement. More of an on record act. VS too is not saying anything these days. A great heritage building of the state being gifted is now almost a reality if it is not objected to politically and effectively.

But this is nothing surprising. Maithran Kayal was almost handed over by the previous government and it is to the credit of present Agriculture Minister that the decision was reversed and agricultural operations have begun there. There are many in the UDF and the LDF who would like to see that it is disposed of to some big group even now. Why? Well the answer is known to the Kerala public. But the public can do precious little when the two powerful political groups think almost identically, not for reasons of upholding the principles and values of Adam Smith or for that matter lessez faire but for special untold reasons, but known to all.

Thousands of acres of forest land were given to British companies, then known as Sterling companies, by the rulers of the area during the British times to develop coffee, tea and cardamom estates. These were all for a fixed time period. Most Sterling companies sold these properties to Indian companies. In a number of cases the periods of contract have expired. The Government should have taken possession of these estates. Though in some cases the government has moved legally in many cases the approach is lackadaisical. What sort of underhand deals have the politicians in mind is not clear. But the two political groups, which rule the state taking turns, seem to have an understanding in the decision-making on this matter.

There is fear that the state’s interests are ignored by the dominant sections of the two political groups who share common instincts. These dominant sections can easily dismiss the objections of V.S. Achuthanandan and V.M. Sudheeran.

The minimum requirement is that the Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL) should be returned to the forest department and made part of the forests, as the forest cover in the state has depleted to dangerous levels. Secondly, if the estates are to be sold these should be given to the highest bidder and not distributed for considerations other than a fair deal.