Decision To Sub-lease Land For Vanilla Crop Puts PCK In A Spot

Kochi, Nov10: | Updated: Nov 11 2003, 05:30am hrs
The decision of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) to sub-lease 724 hectares of forest land to private parties for cultivation of the now hot money-spinner vanilla has landed it in a spot. Besides, serious allegations of flouting environment norms and amending the agreement to help the firms have also cropped up.

In July this year, PCK invited tenders for sub-leasing 724 hectares of land now under oil palm cultivation for growing vanilla. PCK decided to sub-lease the land since it did not have funds for vanilla cultivation that needed huge investment.

In 1987, the forest department leased out 4,260 hectares of land to PCK in the Chalakudy and Angamaly forest ranges for rubber cultivation. The forest department is already in arrears of over Rs 13 crore as lease rent. In the mid-90s when rubber prices dipped to abysmal levels, the corporation decided to shift to oil palm cultivation on 724 hectares of land. Now, it decided to go in for vannila, the money-spinner commodity. Its unprocessed beans fetch around Rs 2,500 per kg and a metre of vine sells at over Rs 100.

But as a major amount would be needed as investment, the corporation decided to bring in private parties through a bid.

There was no competitive bid and rates were fixed before the tenders were invited. It was on a first-cum-first-served basis and while several of those within the State were late in submitting their bids, some others outside succeeded in the bids, leading to allegations of large-scale corruption. Ten private parties were given the land divided into different estates. While the agreement was fixed at Rs 10,000 per hectare for the first three years, the rent for the following years was fixed at Rs 14,000. Though the tenders were invited for a period of 12 years, the agreement period was amended to 14. Forest officials see this as a ploy to help the private firms as the lease period for the land would end after 14 years and once PCK was out of the scene, the forest department could not stake claim for the land as the agreement of the private plantations was with PCK. Corporation officials were not available for comment.

No mention was made in the agreement regarding supply of power and water and this was incorporated into the agreement with PCK taking up the responsibility for which it is likely to incur an expenditure of Rs 3 crore.

PCK has also agreed to take up fencing of the area.

Even the buildings on the land which were as per the agreement with the forest department to be used only to accommodate PCK staff and workers, have now been leased out to these private firms for the whole period of 14 years. These were recently renovated to be made luxurious resort-like quarters. Incidentally rent agreements are for a period of 11 months though here it has been for 14 years.

Forest officials say that as the agreement with PCK does not allow sub-leasing and also as the recent empowered forest committee of the Supreme Court had made it clear that exotic varieties should not be grown in forest land there was a clear case for the department to evict PCK from the land and vest its rights back with the department. Papers in this regard have already been sent to the authorities concerned.