Governments are well within their right to shift and transfer officers from one posting to another. The decision that requires just a Cabinet nod neither has to be explained to the concerned officer nor can the government be held accountable for it.
But when an officer who is on a special mission like the Munnar eviction drive is suddenly transferred out to an insignificant posting it certainly rings a few alarm bells.
That the concerned officer had received accolades for his credible work while in the same posting from none other than the highest judicial power in the state, just 48 hours before the transfer, adds to the suspicion that there is more to the decision than what meets the eye.
Read more: Govt needs to show political will: HC raps LDF over Munnar encroachments
Sriram Venkitaraman, IAS, the sub-collector of Devikualm had sent out a report on June 30 to his immediate boss, the district collector of Idukki, recommending that steps be initiated to hand over 1206.75 acres of revenue land in Chinnakkanal and Bison Valley villages of Munnar to the Forest Department.
The report sent by Venkitaraman had far-reaching implications for the corridors of power in the state. This piece of revenue land, which is government owned, was being held by some private owners with bogus land deeds. The state government has the responsibility to evict them.
By handing it over to the forest department, Venkitaraman was necessarily sealing the fate of those who had illegally held possession. Noted environmentalist Harish Vasudevan, who is among those fighting to get Munnar back to its pristine glory, says the young officer was doing the right thing to save Munnar.
“In Munnar, the real issue is a continuous violation of the forest conservation act which has been willfully taking place in collusion with revenue officials. Sriram's action was necessarily changing that which means any future encroachments would have been impossible as he was planning to hand the land over to the forest department for protection. This would have broken the encroachers' backbone completely. But obviously, the government had to protect their interests," Vasudevan told Asianet Newsable.
Also unfortunately for Venkitaraman, among those illegally holding the land was Lijeesh Lambodaran, the son of MM Lambodaran, who is the brother of none other than controversial minister MM Mani, the Man Friday of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
According to documents with the revenue department while 7.5 acres of land at 'Gap Road Area in block-6 Re-survey-1' at Chinnakkanal belongs to Lijeesh another 12 acres belong to Jimmy Zachariah, a highly influential businessman whose cosiness to the CPI(M) is a well-known fact in Munnar.
Till now Venkitaraman might have only been blowing the whistle against Mani and his associates at Munnar. But by recommending that the land 'illegally' held by Mani's near and dear ones to be taken over as forest land, the 'whistleblower' was himself typing out his transfer orders.
The CPI(M), the LDF, the Chief Minister, the Cabinet - everyone seems to have succumbed to pressure in Munnar as they, in one voice, decided to shunt out an officer who was on a mission mandated by the same Cabinet.
“We will not allow any more eviction in anywhere in Munnar. If the next officer who replaces Venkitaraman comes here with this agenda, then we will oppose him too. Whatever the party or government feels about it, we will not allow eviction," declared Rajendran from CPI(M)'s Munnar party office.
Everyone has a share in Munnar
Munnar is perhaps one rare occasion which brings both the main political fronts in Kerala together. But that it is for the wrong reasons is reflected in the intentions of this unholy alliance.
Both the CPI(M) – CPI combined and the Congress have been systematically sharing the profits that encroachments in Munnar had been bringing over the years, and the reactions of the all the concerned parties to Venkitaraman's transfer only reflects the same.
The Revenue Minister himself, who had been going to town with his open support for Venkitaraman's crusade in Munnar, was quick to change colour calling the transfer “an administrative decision that had nothing unusual about it and no officer can insist on continuing in the same office for a very long period."
Even if one were to go by the yardstick that no officer should continue for more than four years at a post continuously, it was only in June 2016 that Venkitaraman assumed charge as the sub-collector of Devikulam.
Also perhaps the government had conveniently forgotten that when it comes to special projects and missions, such administrative technicalities could be overlooked at the discretion of the government and it has precedence too.
But when you have an entire district's political set up (including the party in power along with those who have invested a fortune in the area) breathing down the government's neck, the Pinarayi Vijayan regime perhaps had few options.
The Congress party too played its role to perfection. AK Mani, the former Devikualm MLA who jumps on any bandwagon that attacks the CPI(M), seem to have found some unlikely friends in the comrades while saying "it is the prerogative of the state government to decide whom to transfer and whom not to".
But then the highly subdued responses from Mani's bosses at Thiruvananthapuram would mean the party's Idukki strong man was not overstepping his brief after all.
"The state government has every right to transfer its officials. But when it does in certain situations and circumstances it raises some doubts in the minds of the people," added former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
But for the people of Munnar, in particular, among those who are fighting to protect its environment, there is hardly any doubt. They know where both these fronts stand as far as encroachment is concerned.
"The entire political class in Munnar has been sold over to the land mafia and resort lobby. All of them have made money from them, and these elements have been funding almost every political party. It is foolish even to think that any one of them will stand up and fight this," Manoj V Nair, a local environmental activist based in Munnar told Asianet Newsable.
Perhaps the CPI - that plays second fiddle to big brother CPM in Idukki district - did make some noise when its district secretary called the decision "inappropriate and not in lines with the policies of the left front". But whether the CPI will take the fight any step further is anyone's guess.
Munnar mission – a damn squib
Perhaps it is now beyond doubt that the Munnar Mission Two has been converted into a damn squib by the very party that had set it in motion.
To understand this one needs to put the work of Sriram Venkitaraman in the right perspective. This junior civil servant did not invite praise from the civil society in a very short period for no reason.
When most of them shied away from going by the book, Venkitaraman had no qualms about not just doing it, but even taking the bull by its horns. He was opposing the all powerful local leadership of the CPM, CPI and the Congress in Munnar with a strong conviction that as long as he is there, he would do his job.
It is here that a democratically elected government riding on a brute majority from the people has seemingly back stabbed an officer who was only doing his duty.
"Munnar mission is over, no doubt. But this also sends out a larger message to the honest officers across the state that you may do your duty with utmost dedication, but there is no guarantee that this government will support you all the way. Also, this is a public statement that we are not going to do anything against encroachers," Joseph C Mathew, who had been an advisor to former Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan, told Asianet Newsable.
That history repeats itself cannot be more right in this context. Eight years ago when another Left government, with Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan at the helm, went in with the bulldozers for the first time in Munnar it was S Suresh Kumar instead of Venkitaraman.
Two months down the lane Kumar too was shunted out to yet another insignificant post from where the highly promising officer had no respite, with him finally hanging his boots with a voluntary retirement.
Venkitaraman is still young and has much more years of service than Kumar had, but it remains to be seen how well the officer would take this morale-shattering move by the government.
But then such issues hardly matter for a government run by a party that puts everything else away when it comes to pushing its interests ahead. The Chief Minister himself represents this way of politicking where undoubtedly he is in a situation to pay back to those from whom he had extracted support during his game of political one-upmanship against his own party rivals.
"When VS was leading the first Munnar Mission, Pinarayi was the party secretary. He then fished in troubled waters. In exchange for the Idukki district committee's swearing allegiance to him, he scuttled the entire mission. Now when he is CM, they are extracting their pound of flesh and Pinarayi can do nothing," added Mathew.
With Venkitaraman's ouster, Munnar Mission Two is already on the ventilator and is all set to meet its silent death like its predecessor.
Perhaps it will be faster this time round since the Union government too has conveniently clipped the wings of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which was the last saviour of Munnar, with its latest notification.