Opinion may be divided on whether the State government should move now to collect revised rents from Tamil Nadu for the forest land leased to it. However, a legislature committee had suggested last year that it should and its report has now been published by the Legislature Secretariat.
More than what the report says, there may be something to read between the lines in the report.
An Act had been passed by the Assembly as back as in 1980 to revise the rent on grants and leases given by the erstwhile princely States of Travancore and Kochi which later became part of Kerala. However, it remained unimplemented for years, allowing large gains for the plantations. In the nineties, the Forest Secretary stayed revision of the rents on a representation given by planters. Though the Act was subsequently amended to reduce the rents proposed and remove some practical difficulties, it took years for the law to get the President’s assent. The Central department delayed it raising questions such as those relating to the profitability of plantations though they were not relevant to assent for an Act passed by the legislature after due consideration.
Government’s after government deferred implementation of the Act. At one point, the late T. M. Jacob of Kerala Congress raised a written allegation in the Assembly that bribes had been taken to delay revision of the rents. Finally, it was the last LDF government that gave the green signal for enforcement of the Act. However, steps were taken only in some districts such Thrissur for revision and the process is yet to be completed.
The Public Accounts Committee has not delved into these issues apparently because it was dealing with Periyar Tiger Reserve area. (Besides, other committees have gone into the issue previously and even quantified the losses to the exchequer. The LDF government had estimated the losses as per the amended Act to be about Rs. 18 crore a year in its Budget). It finds that besides the Periyar lease in favour of Tamil Nadu, there are other lease holders in the Reserve area including the public sector Kerala Tourism Development Corporation and a private plantation contiguous to the protected area. The Committee has firmly recommended that their rents should be revised, but has suggested that the provisions of the Act should be verified in relation to the Periyar lease. It has not gone into detailed examination whether the provisions of the Act applies to the Periyar lease but left it to officials to examine the question and renew the rent. The Forest Department has maintained that the matter could not be decided at its level because it is an inter-State matter.
An interesting aspect of the report is the strictures made by the committee over the delay in notification of the contiguous habitats of the Reserve as ecologically fragile, as envisaged in the Environment Protection Act for the past 30 years. It also criticizes the quarrying done by Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu in the area during the period. Was the notification been delayed for the benefit of the lease holders in the area?
If the Kerala government now proceeds to revise the rent of the Periyar lease under the Act, it would have the effect of the State recognising the validity of the lease deed as it had done indirectly in 1979 by signing a supplementary agreement. The supplementary agreement is now considered as a major blunder of Kerala government. So, it the rent is to be revised, the Kerala government would have to first cancel the original lease deed (this will require legislation unless violation of lease deed could be cited) and grant fresh lease with revised rent for a limited period.