What started off as a farmers’ struggle against forcible acquisition of their paddy fields to build a National Highway bypass in Kerala, has now snowballed into a broadside against the Centre by the state for its “infringement on federalism”. “Vayalkili Samaram”, the farmers’ collective in Keezhattoor in Kannur district, got a fillip with the Centre deciding to send a team of experts to review the situation and find ways for a possible new alignment for the bypass. This was announced at a meeting called by Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari with the protesters and senior BJP leaders from Kerala. Union Minister of Tourism, Alphons Kannanthanam, who hails from Kerala, too attended the meeting. However, no one from the state government was invited to the meeting. It was felt that the state government’s proposed alignment will adversely affect the environment. Many houses, especially belonging to SC/ST families, will have to be demolished and precious farmland destroyed. If the bypass road is built through the paddy fields, remaining water resources too will dry up. Though there was a proposal from the protesters’ side to build a flyover instead of the bypass, Gadkari shot it down saying that the main road was not wide enough for such a project. Anyway, all these aspects would be looked into by the expert team, Gadkari reportedly assured the delegation. Earlier, a study by the environment ministry too had pointed out the pitfalls in the state government proposal. But the state overruled those objections and decided to go ahead with its plan. It is this plan that stands cancelled now, at least till such time the team submits its report.
Quite understandably, the Centre’s decision to hold talks with “Vayalkili” representatives and select BJP leaders has come in for severe criticism from the state and ruling CPM leadership. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was in Delhi to attend a CPM meeting, was furious with the Centre for not taking his government into confidence before holding talks with the protesters. Seeing a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hand in playing such “dirty politics”, Vijayan said the Centre has made a wrong move by deciding to interfere with the development of highway in the state. “The Centre has done a wrong thing by inviting those opposing the NH alignment, while the state government was not invited to the meeting. This is the game plan of the RSS. What is even more surprising is that a Union Minister from Kerala was also present at the meeting,” a visibly angry Vijayan told reports in Delhi. Incidentally, the minister, Alphons Kannanthanam, is a one-time protégé of Vijayan, having initiated the former bureaucrat into politics by fielding him as a Left supported candidate from Kanjirappally in Kottayam district, where Alphons had served as Collector, in the 2006 Assembly elections in Kerala. Once the term of the Assembly was over in 2011, Alphons promptly deserted Vijayan and joined the BJP, where he has had a phenomenal rise, overshadowing many hardcore BJP/RSS leaders from the state. Vijayan had hosted a dinner in honour of Alphons at the Kerala House in Delhi when he was inducted into the Narendra Modi Cabinet last September, much to the annoyance of many senior comrades in the CPM. All that has turned bitter now with Alphons “brokering” a meeting with “known renegades” and help “sabotage” development projects in the state, a CPM leader opposed to Vijayan said. Alphons, on his part, hoped that the meeting with Gadkari would help resolve the issue amicably.
The Keezhattoor bypass falls under NH66 between Kannur and Payyannur in north Kerala, stronghold of ruling CPM. It was the CPM which first launched a movement against the proposed bypass, saying it would be the death knell of paddy farmers in the area. But for some strange reason the party backtracked and turned against the agitation overnight, barring all its members from taking part in the stir. It was when the local leadership started speaking in favour of the bypass that a few party members whose farmland was under threat if the bypass came through, broke away and formed the group they named “Vayalkilis”, the birds of the fields. Soon its leader, Suresh Keezhattoor and others became “enemies of CPM” and “agents of Sangh Parivar”. They were promptly suspended from the party and physically threatened. It is true that the BJP-RSS combine was the first to come in support of the Vayallkilis. Later, as environmentalists, well known writer activists such as Sugatha Kumari and Left sympathisers joined the struggle, CPM was isolated. Still the government persisted with the project branding those opposing it as “anti-development and anti-CPM”, a la the BJP at the Centre, said Civic Chandran, poet-activist who was targeted by CPM activists many a time. Since Sangh Parivar came into the picture, CPM was finding it difficult to dictate terms in the area. Hence Vijayan singled out RSS for torpedoing the country’s federal structure. State CPM secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan also slammed the move by the Central government and charged that this is a grave violation of the accepted norms in Centre-State relations that the state government was not invited to the crucial discussion. “This is done purposely by the Centre,” charged Balakrishnan. Gadkari and the Central government, too, have not clarified as to why the state government was not kept in the loop about the meeting. Alphons, of course, was too eager to take credit for bringing the protesters to the table in Delhi, though the newly appointed state BJP president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai is yet to comment on Vijayan’s outburst. The CPI, a constituent of the Left Front, but supports Vayalkilis, has not responded to the latest development.