Kerala: CPM MLA’s tirade against IAS officer underlines continuing tensions in Munnar

Vishnu Varma
On Monday, the state women’s commission filed a Suo Motu case on the basis of media reports against Devikulam MLA S Rajendran for calling sub-collector Renu Raj ‘brainless’ and ‘lacking common sense’.

The recent disparaging comments made by an MLA of the ruling CPI(M) against a woman IAS officer in connection with alleged encroachment in Munnar hill station in Kerala underlines the uneasiness that exists between bureaucrats and politicians in the region.

On Monday, the state women’s commission filed a Suo Motu case on the basis of media reports against Devikulam MLA S Rajendran for calling sub-collector Renu Raj ‘brainless’ and ‘lacking common sense’. The CPM legislator was speaking informally to locals last week near an alleged encroachment site when cameras caught him making snide comments against the young bureaucrat.

"Has she studied the sketch and plans? She is brainless, just because she got into IAS, she’s acting smart. People who study to become a collector would only have so much brains…she has no right to interfere….such people without any common sense and brains are sent here," the MLA was heard saying in comments directed at Raj, a young medical graduate-turned-IAS officer of the 2015 batch.

The legislator was livid after the sub-collector issued a stop-memo to the construction of a shopping complex by the local panchayat in connection with allegations of encroachment. The sub-collector has also submitted a report to the advocate general, pointing out that construction work still continued in violation of court orders and despite the stop-memo issued by the revenue department.

Rajendran, who’s been at the centre of such allegations in the past, has been roundly criticised by leaders of all parties, with the district unit of the CPM demanding an explanation for his comments. Under pressure, Rajendran expressed regret on Sunday, however, at the same time, complaining that the administration has willfully ignored the concerns of a public representative. There are also unconfirmed reports that Raj, who was appointed sub-collector in November last year, could be shunted out in the weeks to come under political pressure.

This is not the first time that local politicians have engaged in verbal duels with IAS officers in Munnar, a popular tourist hot-spot whose cascading cardamom and coffee plantations superimpose over severe encroachment concerns. An ecologically fragile region which is home to dozens of resorts and hotels, Munnar has captured attention for its troubling links of local politicians with large-scale encroachers. When the state’s revenue department, headed by the local IAS officer, orders eviction drives against such encroachers, it results in hostilities between bureaucrats and politicos.

In July 2017, Sreeram Venkitaraman, a young IAS officer who was serving as the sub-collector of Devikulam revenue pision in Idukki district, was transferred to the employment department which the government termed was ‘routine.’ But his abrupt transfer was widely seen as the outcome of his anti-encroachment drives against resort owners at the hill station. His actions, including the pulling down of a cross put up by an evangelist group on encroached land, had attracted the wrath of the ruling CPM.

Before his transfer, MM Mani, the power minister and a legislator from neighbouring Udubanchola, had called Venkitaraman an ‘RSS agent’ for dismantling the cross. He admonished the young IAS officer publicly, saying the bureaucrat must be sent to a mental care facility. Rajendran too had complained to the chief minister about the bureaucrat.

The take-down of the iron cross then had also brought to the fore, heightened tensions between ruling allies, the CPI and the CPI(M) who share strange animosity in Munnar and surrounding areas. The plantations of Munnar, home to almost 12000 workers, were long considered the bastion of the AITUC, the trade union wing of the CPI. In the past decade, however, the CITU, the trade union wing of the CPM, has successfully managed to seep into these plantations, at the displeasure of its ally. This was evident when the CPI was one of the first parties to come to the defence of Venkitaraman, even before the main opposition Congress. In the recent case of Rajendran too, CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran has hit out hard against the CPM legislator.

It now remains to be seen how the ruling CPM tackles the issue, whether it will choose to admonish its legislator or once again shunt the bureaucrat out.