Thiruvananthapuram: In the dispute regarding land held by Harrisons Malayalam Limited (HML), Law Secretary GB Harindranath revised his recommendation. The correction was made in the decision taken at the meeting presided over by the chief minister held to discuss the crisis in the plantation sector.
When revenue minister E Chandrashekharan stuck to his guns in the matter, Law Secretary gave the new legal advice that cases can be filed in civil courts. With this, the move of Law Secretary and Additional Chief Secretary, Revenue to collect land tax without any norms, will become a cropper.
What came to the aid of the revenue minister is the advice earlier given to the government by Special Office MG Rajamanickam. As per the new decisions, the government will file cases in civil courts to prove its title to the land now possessed by HML.
The advice given by Law Secretary BG Harindranath also mentions that accepting the land tax of the plantation land sold by HML will be subject to the courts' order in the civil cases. This point had been pointed out by High Court Justice Anu Sivaraman.
The move of the Revenue department now is to file suits in the civil courts of eight districts, where HML holds land. The earlier advice given by Law Secretary was that in the backgrouind of the High Court having nullified the Special Officer's act of acquiring Harrisons' land, the government should not go for any further legal battle. He had also noted that the court had nullified the appointment of the Special Officer. But minister E Chandrashekharan returned the report pointing out the factual errors in it.
The minister highlighted that raising points that did not exist in the high court verdict was to help the plantation owners and he requested fresh legal advice. Since there was difference of opinion at the higher echeleons also, the draft order was not considered at the cabinet meeting.
All the same, a proposal for permission to fell the trees in the land possessed by HML, is pending before the government. It was also decided at a meeting of Labour Departement to give a concession in the tax paid at the time of felling trees (seigniorage) of Rs 2,500. Although the Forest Department has issued orders, a case in this matter is pending in the High Court.
A win for the Minister
It goes to the credit of the minister for having won against a legal opinion from Law Secretary, which would have become a setback for the government in the land dispute case of HML. It was thanks to his firm stance that Law Secretary was forced to retrace his comment.
The Secretary's revised opinion states that accepting land tax for the plots sold by Harrisons will be subject to the verdict of the civil courts in the matter. The original advice was to accept tax unconditionally, on the basis of the High Court verdict. Although the then Revenue Secretary PH Kurian had also taken the same stance and put up the file before the Revenue Minister, the latter refused to sign it which had created some controversy.
The High Court, while setting aside the action of Special Officer MG Rajamanickam in taking over 38,000 acres of land from Harrisons, had also asked the government to approach civil courts to prove its title to the land. But even months after the judgement, the government did not file any case.
Now in the light of the new legal advice, the government can move in that direction. In the meantime, the High Court had granted permission to pay tax for the 236 acres of land in Ria Estate which was sold by Harrisons. It was as a precursor to issuing the order allowing payment of this tax, that the file was placed before the Revenue Minister.
The move made was to get a government order issued after the Minister signs off the file and the cabinet approves it. Had this GO been issued, those who purchased land from Harrisons, Bishop KP Yohannan, Boyce and several others would have paid the tax and the door would have thus been opened for their obtaining ownership of the land. And Harrisons themselves would have been able to pay tax on the same basis. It was with a clear grasp of this situation that the minister moved his pieces and returned the file to Law Department.
The reaons for giving a legal opinion that would have resulted in government losing ownership of precious land, are beyond comprehension. Law Secretary's note had also raised other points than the ones in the High Court verdict. And the Revenue Minister highlighted that these were to help the plantation owners and sought legal clarification again. However, due to the sensitive nature of the dispute, the cabinet has not so far deliberated on the matter.