April 20: A giant cross atop a hillock in the ecologically sensitive hill resort of Munnar in Kerala was today removed by district officials as part of an ongoing court-ordered drive against encroachments on forest land.
The pre-dawn operation sparked a controversy and drew fire from ruling Left leaders, including chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan who reprimanded the officials and said they "should have been more careful".
More than a hundred policemen joined the officials after clamping prohibitory orders to enforce the high court judgment to clear all illegal construction on forest land. Workers and policemen spent several hours bringing down and clearing the giant cross made of steel and put up on a concrete foundation, an illegally constructed prayer hall and a few sheds on the patch of 2,282 acres in the Pappathi Chola area of Munnar, a popular tourist destination in Idukki district around 280km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
Built by Spirit in Jesus, a prayer group based in Thrissur district, the cross and the adjacent prayer hall were part of what it described as a "spiritual tourism" project.
An earlier operation to clear the land had failed a month ago when a large group of worshippers stopped officials from carrying out their job.
Even today, the officials faced some resistance when they arrived around 4.30am and ran into some people claiming to be worshippers. They later backed off at the sight of the large posse of policemen. The eviction team faced other hurles - huge boulders and cars had been placed on the narrow hill roads leading to the spot. The excavators brought along for the operation came in handy, clearing the roads for the officials to proceed.
The Left government has been under cloud over encroachments, with several local leaders allegedly involved in a scam to usurp forest land by using forged documents. One of them is local legislator S. Rajendran, who allegedly built a house on forest land in the ecologically sensitive hill area that is part of the larger Western Ghats.
An irate Rajendran today accused the district administration of carrying out a "secret" operation to demolish a place of worship. "Why should they do it in secrecy if their intent was right?" asked the CPM leader who had earlier come under fire even from Left partner CPI over land-grab allegations.
Late this evening, chief minister Vijayan chastised the district officials. "What wrong did the cross do? They should've been more careful in handling the issue," he told an event organised by Citu, the CPM labour arm, in Kottayam.
Rajendran had last month joined state power minister M.M. Mani during an agitation outside the office of V. Sriram, the sub-collector leading the anti-encroachment drive. The leaders called off their agitation following the intervention of Vijayan after the CPI slammed his fellow CPM leaders and accused them of backing land-grabbers.
Today, K.K. Jayachandran, the CPM district secretary of Idukki where Munnar is located, also slammed his own party-led government over the removal of the cross. "This is gross injustice in the name of clearing encroachments. The government cannot act on demands made by the media," Jayachandran said, referring to campaigns by some Malayalam newspapers and TV channels against encroachments in Munnar.
A functionary of the Spirit in Jesus said the steel cross was built about four years ago and put up in place of a wooden one. "Some of us pray there everyday but a large number of worshippers go there on special days like Good Friday," said the man who refused to identify himself.
"None of our prayer leaders are in town. So I have nothing more to say," he said when asked about today's operation before disconnecting the call.
M.M. Hassan, the Kerala Congress president, welcomed the drive and said the officials who carried out the operation today had his party's full backing. "We have always been for clearing all encroachments," he said, without explaining why the previous Congress-led government did little to check land-grabbing.
Seen as a local hero for his crackdowns, Sriram, the official overseeing the crackdown, has issued eviction notices to owners of more than a hundred multi-storied buildings allegedly constructed in gross violation of laws in the area.
Munnar has of late become a realtor's paradise amid allegations that local officials have colluded with politicians to sanction construction on land without proper title deeds and records.