In the state of Kerala, the illegal encroachment of the government forest lands including those close to the wildlife habitats is being systematically carried out by certain Catholic groups. It is a matter of serious concern, as the lands they have occupied are ecologically sensitive zones. The reason is there is a strong nexus between the religious groups on one hand and unscrupulous politicians from the communist party and the Congress party on the other. This nexus has been there since the time of the ministry headed by doyen E.M.S. Namboodiripad from 1967 to 1969. The KTP Karshaka Thozhilali Party founded by Joseph Vadakkan and B. Wellington was a coalition partner then (The Hindu, December 30, 2002) and this paty had links with the religious groups. In the last one decade, the Catholic church group has been on the land – grabbing spree despite police action.
The catholic groups are in the forefront in the decimation of the ecologically- sensitive forest land in Idukki and waynad areas. Their Modus Operandi is very simple. A group of poor people under the direction of the church will move uphill and illegally occupy a suitable forestland and fix a huge Cross there. Sometimes, they will intimidate the tribes there and buy the land at rock-bottom price. After sometime they will start tea-plantation or raise cash-crops to get regular income. Gradually they will either buy the adjacent lands at cheap rate or encroach on them. Over a short period of time, the church, at any cost will get the government to issue patta – official ownership record. Since the church group forms a big vote bank, the government will have to go along with the church and legalize the ownership of the land. The forest officials have to oblige the government orders. There are several church groups that get money from foreign countries for various reasons. One third will go for the construction of schools, etc and two thirds will be with the trustees of the church group. In the name of religion lots of wheeling and dealing is going on and the poor people and the newly converts are taken for a ride by these groups, according to some insiders.
As in many states, vote bank politics based on caste or religion rules the roost in Kerala and the politicians have to bend a lot to stay in power with support from the dominating caste or religious groups, In the long run, it is mutually beneficial to the parties involved. meaning if they commit glaring mistakes like land grabbing, etc in the name of religion, the ruling party will keep it eyes shut or look other way.
Among the Indian states except Kerala and West Bengal, the Communist Party of India is not a force to reckon with. But they did create problems for the governments through farmers and labor unions in some southern states. This is the reason why many international companies do not want to invest in Kerala, because labor unions are being controlled by the communists.
The state land reforms of the 1960s introduced by the coalition government were in favor of the illegal settlers in the wooded areas of Waynad, etc. In the 1970, the land tribunal recognized their ownership and issued pattas accordingly. Thus illegal occupants became legal owners. In the 1980 and 1990s, to improve income, they raised cash crops in these lands like pepper, etc and made a bundle by exporting it abroad. Thus in the Waynad region, extensive lands were grabbed by the Catholic groups in collusion with the state government.
A little unknown fact is the lands in places like Waynad were once owned by the natives – vanavasis who had been living there for centuries. During the colonial rule when commercial plantations came up, migrant workers began to settle down there. gradually displacing the vanavasis. Later, they were in a wretched state after having lost their tribal lands to the settlers. Even now, despite efforts through court directives, the state government was unable to restore the lands to the primary land owners – Vanavasi tribes. The Kerala government in Feb 2010 informed the Kerala High court that 14,200 tribal families still remained landless in the State. Once there were 40000 vanavasi people living in that area in particular Waynad. The land restoration to the tribes was not implemented because the Catholic church groups had a powerful lobby in the state assembly, besides a big chunk of votes in that constituency.
Recently, the Church groups like ‘The Little Flower Church’, Pushpagiri in Koodaranji village, and St George Church, Chundathumpoyil in Kumaranalloor village in Kozhikode district, both under the Thamarasserry diocese, had quarries in 1.75 acres and two acres respectively. Media reports point out that the Believer’s Church, functioning under the trust called Gospel for Asia, got foreign donations of Rs 1,044 crore over a period of 15 years. According to a Communist member, the church had bought nearly 2,800 acres of land, including a 2,200-acre rubber estate (The Telegraph July 13, 2008) to increase their revenue.
In 2017 the government anti encroachment cell removed a 30 foot tall metal cross near Munnar, Idukki district, as it was fixed by a Christian group called Spirit in Jesus on an encroached land of nearly 30 acres in Pappathishola hills near Suryanelli in Chinnakanal village, around 25 km from Munnar town.
Like wise the Christian groups targeted the Bonacaud Reserve forest in Thiruvananthapuram district. Bonacaud in Agastyar Biosphere Reserve, is one among 20 World Biosphere Reserves added by UNESCO to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in March 2016. When the cross was removed by the forest officials, the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), in August 2017 protested against removal of the cross. They wanted the site reopened as the cross had been there for several decades. It is very unfortunate, some catholic groups whose aim was to make money do indulge in religious fanaticism and cause resentment among true Christians who follow the Gospel of Christ in letter and spirit.
The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church is in a mess now. Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, Major Archbishop, as one of the prime accused in a case filed by he state government.
According to Madhav Gadgil, who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, says that what happened in Kerala in 2018 is a man-made natural calamity coupled with irresponsible environmental policy of the state government that caused worst flooding and scores of landslides. (The Economic Times, August 17, 2018). The 2018 flooding was the result of large scale encroachment of Ecologically Sensitive Zones in Western Ghats by various Catholic Christian groups and also by Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. With a large voting base and money power, these religious groups not only intimidated the critics who voiced their concern against illegal occupation of government land but also did not show any hesitation in instigating armed violence against environmental committees and their reports, using the name of Christ. .
According to the minister, severe action would be taken against the illegal land deal and encroachments and the fishermen families will be rehabilitated to a suitable location.