Kerala's Catholic groups and their land-grabbing spree - it will impact the environment - 03

An illegal  cross in the sabarimala area, Kerala.
An illegal  cross in the state of Andhra.

Above image:  Erection of Crosses on the encroached land is going on other states as well. Cross erected illegally on forest land adjacent to Lakshmi Jagannatha Gattu in Kurnool., Andhra  A Church is now being constructed near the Cross.

Illegal occupation of land Sabarimala, Kerala.

Above image: Nov. 2018. In the Sabarimala area  about 2000 acres of Sabarimala Devaswom land is illegally occupied by the Evangelical group.   The disputed  Cheruvally Estate  is owned by  Bishop K P Yohannan’s Believers’ Church. An airport project was given up due to environmental issues.  Religious and business interests of evangelists and massive corruption plague the present ministry headed by the CPI...............

Please refer to my early posts one and two  on the abuse of environmentally sensitive areas in Kerala by the Catholic Church  groups.  

Regarding August 2018 disastrous flooding and massive landslides  in Kerala that left behind a trail of destruction and chaos,  Madhav Gadgil's   ''Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel'',  squarely put the blame on the state government's utter negligence in the matter of environmental policy. He called it a “man- made calamity” (The Economic Times, August 17, 2018). In the degradation of Kerala in 2018 and  in the  resultant death of people, properties, etc, the Catholic churches'  land-grabbing spree in the forest areas of places like Idukki, Waynad, etc played a major role.

In the wake of the Panel's findings under Gadgil, there were widespread protests by the religious groups backed by irresponsible politicians mostly communists.  Obsessed with illegal land grabbing, the Catholic groups and others did not accept the panel's findings. Nor did they care for the continuing saga of  possible  environmental  degradation and  impact on an ecologically sensitive region if quarrying mining, housing, etc would be illegally continued. Another major flooding will spell doom for this small populous  state

removal of crosses illegally fixed, Munnar, Kerala

Above image: April, 2017. In the Munnar area, a sub Collector of IAS rank  removed the illegal Crosses planted on the hills by the Church. He was severely criticized by the CM  and other politicians for his correct action. It is a good example of vote-bank politics.......    

Now, yet another 10-member high-level working group (HLWG), headed by K. Kasturirangan was appointed  by the central  government  to  study the Gadgil report and come with  review and suggestions  for implementation. The Kasturirangan Committee (April 15, 2013) submitted the report and made several  pro-farmer recommendations. However, based on the observation made by  the Indian Network of Climate Change Assessment (INCCA 2012)  they suggested complete ban on  mining, quarrying and sand mining in Ecologically Sensitive Areas (henceforth ESA) of the Ghats.  Again this time the Catholic church  instigated a big protest against the  Kasturirangan Committee report.

 In November 2013, Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil, Bishop of the Idukki Diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church was against the central government report. Again there were violent agitations by the   Catholic-led  High Range Protection Committee,  a group against the demarcation of   of ESA in Kerala. What was irksome was the threat made by the   Bishop of Idukki Diocese  who said, ''Kerala will be another Kashmir,” as the majority of the ESAs are inhabited by Christians.
The  Thamarasserry Bishop Mar Inchananayil  made a more serious threat one can ever think of. He said, “Jallianwala Bagh will be repeated here” (Hindustan Times, November 27, 2013).  There were many Protection Committees led by priests from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church   and they organized the protest against the government move.  These religious heads had utter disregard for the serious threats to the wildlife habitats that are already shrinking  and ecologically sensitive terrain. Already the incidence of elephants raiding the farm lands and villages for food, water, etc is on the increase  because of shrinkage of their habitats. 

Why are these Christian  Priests particular about places like Munnar or Iddukki and take over the lands for religious activities against the wish of other communities and in violation of  central  and state government regulations?   Many media reports say 'certain' religious heads are more interested in commercial exploration of the picturesque lands than in conducting religious services. There are lots of churches in Kerala to take care of the spiritual needs of the Christian community. As they  get lots of funds from overseas sources under some pretext, grabbing the lands is a way to spend part of the donations.  

The catholic church groups fanned the violent protests  in many places  in Waynad, Kannur, etc against the Kasturirangan report. In November, 2013, the agitation became so violent they set the Forest Range office in Kottiyur (Kannur Dist)  on fire. Hundreds of case files were turned into ashes.  A  frenzied mob of 500 men attacked  the forest range office at Thamarasserry in Kozhikode and many state-owned buses were set ablaze  by the  senseless  mobs orchestrated by the church. 
The  problem of forest land, etc Church vs the state  has been around since the early colonial rule. When Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bai was the ruler of Travancore, the British, it is said, took away   vast temple lands without any compensation  and gave them to the Catholic churches.  Since 1930, the catholic settlers have moved over to Waynad and other forest land to cultivate cash-crops when the British opened the commercial plantations. These settlers,  on a large scale,  replaced the natives Vanavasis who are now landless.  Since 2000 efforts have been made to restore the lands to the native tribes through the court, but the catholic church with powerful lobby does not want any  compromise and  is against the restoration of lands to the  natives.  

As for the Hindu temple lands, like Tamil Nadu, they are being poorly managed by the Malabar Devaswom  Board and a large scale encroachment took place in the past   (The Hindu, September 24, 2008). Vide official report more than 24,900 acres of  land belonging to 353 temples under the Malabar Devaswom Board had been encroached upon (The Hindu, April 5, 2010). Lands  belonging to 245 temples  under the Kochi Devaswom were lost due to encroachment. As for the Travacore Devaswom board,  3,000 acres of temple lands had been encroached illegally (Times of India, January 5, 2016).  The media reports pointed out in June 2019  the  Kerala government headed by the communist party had sponsored illegal-grabbing of ecologically sensitive forest lands by the Catholic Church group at many places in Idukki, Waynad districts, etc. Reason: To stay in power, the government needs the support of the Christian communities. 

Now, the church group is eyeing on the sacred Sabarimala Hills, the abode of Lord Ayyappan. The Christian church with the alleged help of the communist government of Kerala was already accused of encroaching the ‘sacred forests’ associated with the Sabarimala temple, known as ‘Poonkavanam’ in Kerala, reported Organiser. But the illegal activities by the religious group go unchecked and the people are sore about the attitude of the government toward land mafias wearing the garb of Christian preachers. 

The following are the various  incidents involving church groups that are bent on illegal occupation of wooded areas in places like waynad, Idukki, etc.

 01. Two CPM committee offices, four  Jacobite and Catholic churches and  one branch of the SNDP union were the illegal occupants in the Munnar area, according to  the revenue officials.  It included ill-legal construction in non-patta land. The CPM has  constructed two offices  at Mannamkandan  encroaching on 66m2  of land and 0.0139H in Idukki district. 
 Illegal occupation of lands was noticed in the areas of  Kanan Devan Hills, Pallivasal, Chinnakanal panchayat, Santhanpara, and Mannamkanda.

02. The land in Panchalimedu, a hill near Mundakayyam, is considered one of the 18 sacred hills related to Sabarimala and part of the ''Poonkavanam'' (sacred forest area) of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala temple.  The 145 acres of land was part of excess land in possession of the private party and was taken over in 1976 through a government order.     A village officer has ordered the demolition and removal of crosses planted by a Christian Church on the hills of Panchalimedu in Idukki district by Monday, reports Janam TV. The encroached lands are part of the ‘sacred forests’ associated with the Sabarimala temple, known as ‘Poonkavanam’ in Kerala. This area is a seen of massive encroachment by the church group with a vested interest with open support from  the communist government of Kerala.

03. A catholic priest and members of a church committee in Thiruvananthapuram were facing charges of having illegally taken over  more than 11 acres of poramboke land and 55 cents (1 cent is 40.4 sq metres) of government revenue land and  for having built  a convention center and  prayer halls. Besides, they were  selling a portion of the land to various people at Rs 1 lakh per plot.  The Fathima Matha Church parish priest Melvin Souza and few church committee members are facing charges under sections 145 and 147 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CRPC) (dispute over immovable property), sections 447 (trespassing) and 120b (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.  The Vizhinjam Police already registered the case against. 

04. It was earlier reported that the sacred forests of Panchalimedu have seen massive encroachment by the church allegedly with the support of the communist government of Kerala. The Church has allegedly resorted to its usual strategy to seize government and forestland by occupying it with support of the state.
A report by the Malayalam newspaper Janmabhumi pointed out that  that there had been a massive encroachment of forestland near Panchalimedu, a part of Sabarimala forests in Idukki district. The entire region is designated as an ecologically fragile under the Environment (Protection) Act. (June 2019)

05. The Amalolbhava Matha Church ( a Latin Catholic church)  at Adimalathura had been accused of encroaching upon acres of puramboke land and selling it as smaller land parcels to fish worker families for construction of houses.   Around 167 houses were nearing completion on the plots. The church had divided the land into plots of 3 to 5 cents and sold to the fishermen families.  The government was planning to take legal action on the illegal occupants and the District Collector took a grim view of such encroachments by the religious group (Feb 2020). This commercial exploitation of lands was for personal  gains. 

06. According to the  state minister, the fishermen families will be rehabilitated to a suitable location. As for encroachments stringent action would be taken against them and the administration won't   tolerate these encroachments. The church committee should not challenge the government. If there is any  natural disaster , the blame will be on the government. So appropriate action would be taken soon (Eeb. 2020) .

07. ''The Spirit in Jesus'' was formed by  one Tom Scaria two decades  ago. It is yet another fringe group using religion as an excuse to make money and the family members, it is said in the media,  are involved on a large scale illegal grabbing of environmentally sensitive forest lands. They have been dodging the crime branch because of their political clout. The Crime Branch had formed a special team in 2013  after it was found that Vallikkunnel Scaria and family engaged in large scale encroachments in Munnar. Scaria belongs to the Vallikkunnel family.
The Catholic church body, it is said has kept a distance from  from the  various prayer groups as their belief, etc are at variance with them, though initially they attested the prayer meetings.   The prayer group used to hold its prayer meetings in the land it occupied in the ecologically sensitive area  and the devotees used to stay in the  resort near Pappathichola during the retreat. The income  from the resort will go the family. The  resort's land deal, it is said, is  a forged one. The govt later removed the cross installed by this group for this action the officials got a rap from the CM and other  Communist leaders.  The CM was highly criticized for his biased support to this group - the Spirit of Jesus which is not part of a Catholic group, according to one Fr. Jimmy Poochakkat, spokesperson of Syro-Malabar Church.
Kerala Council of Churches president Geevarghese Mar Coorilos (Niranom diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church)  commented that there were instances in the past of misuse of the cross by vested interests for colonization or encroachment. ‘‘Jesus Christ might have been the happiest one to see the cross removed by the revenue authorities from the encroached land,’’ the Metropolitan said in his Facebook post.

Thrissur Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhath  said,  Encroachment in the name of faith is against Christian belief'.  He  did not support encroachers.  The Church does not approve of the Spirit of Jesus. The teachings of the group do not match with those of the Church.

Serious and concerted efforts are needed  to rescue the lands from the land mafiosi who do it in the name of religion. The government should form a special task force and give serious punishments like long-term imprisonment, hefty fine and confiscating the properties of the law-breakers. Because of some greedy priests, scores of Christian priests in Kerala get a bad rap.