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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Prevented from using only road to town, villagers in Tamil Nadu’s Kodanad estate ask: ‘What about justice to us’

The 2017 robbery and murder at Jayalalithaa's summer retreat, Kodanad estate, has again triggered a political firestorm in Tamil Nadu. But villagers who live here say in the glare around the property, their issues are missed.

Written by Nithya Pandian | Coimbatore |
Updated: August 26, 2021 9:59:26 pm
Kodanad estate entrance. (Photo: Special arrangement)

The Kodanad estate robbery and murder case has recently rocked the Tamil Nadu Assembly once again, with the AIADMK crying political vendetta and the ruling DMK saying it was only fulfilling a poll promise.

The lush property was the summer retreat of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. From 2017, a murder, a robbery, two “accidental deaths”, a suicide, and accompanying political mudslinging have kept it in headlines.

Jayalalithaa’s Private lake inside the Kodanad estate. (Photo: Special arrangement)

But apart from Jayalalithaa’s bungalow and a private lake (with its own share of controversy), the estate, spread over 906 acres, is also home to about 600 people, mainly Adidravidars living in the two hamlets of Anna Nagar and Kamarajar Nagar.

And these villagers say that in all the high-profile attention the estate attracts, their concerns are going unheard.

So what was life like, living on a former chief minister’s private bungalow?

For one, it meant the villagers had to park their own vehicles outside the property and walk to their homes, as they were not allowed to drive across the estate. With Jayalalithaa’s death, the estate is now attached to the Benami Act, but despite a 2011 Supreme Court order granting villagers the right to passage, they claim the driving ban – on the single road that connects the villages to main Kodanad – is still in place.

Anna Nagar residential area inside the Kodanad estate (Photo: Special arrangement)

“We have been facing this problem ever since Jayalalitha and her aide V Sasikala acquired the property. We are not permitted to drive our own vehicles from the Kodanad main road to our houses. We have to park them outside. Even in the dark, murky, monsoon days, people have to walk 3 km inside this wildlife-bearing area,” says Anand Kumar (44), a resident of Anna Nagar.

The rule, put in place for security reasons, extends even to children from Class 6 and beyond, locals say. The younger kids have a schoolbus.

“Every time we enter the gate, we have to tell the where we are going, when will we come back, whom we are going to meet, what we are carrying with us, etc. In times of emergency, this become a real bother. We have to write a letter giving the details of the emergency to the field officer. He takes it up with the management, and only then do we get a pass to go outside,” Kumar continues, speaking to indianexpress.com on the phone.

The Indian Express’s attempts to speak to the Kodanad estate management on the issue did not elicit a response.

Only ambulances are exempt from the rule, and can drive up to people’s doorsteps.

The restriction applies even though the road was never a private path but was owned by the Kodanad pachayat, says Ponthous, Nilgiris district Panchayat chairman. The restriction has been a frequent flashpoint between the administration and locals, not all of whom work on the estate, Ponthous adds.

Ponthous, the Nilgiris district Panchayat chairman.  (Photo: Special arrangement)

“In fact, once, we had closed gate no. 10, which was frequently used by Jayalalitha and Sasikala to enter the estate. The road to enter gate no. 10 was built on my patta land,” says Ponthous.

In 2009, a helipad was built on the estate.

“This property was purchased in the mid-90s, but people were allowed to carry on as usual. Once the bungalow was built, in 2006, we were asked not to use our vehicles on the road. In 2007, on Gandhi Jayanti, we had planned a Grama sabha meeting inside Anna Nagar. At the time, Jayalalitha was at the retreat house, so Panchayat members were not allowed to hold the meeting. That evening, we staged a protest outside the Panchayat office,” Ponthous says.

Ponthous then was the Kodanad panchayat president.

“Within a week, we received a call from erstwhile chief minister Karunanidhi, and we told him about the issue. He advised us to file a complaint. But the case went from the local court to the High Court and then the apex court. By the time the SC order came, the AIADMK was in power again, and it was not implemented. We hope the renewed interest in the murder case will mean some attention on our plight too,” he adds.

Road that connects Kodanad main area with Anna Nagar residential area (Photo: Special arrangement)

Many locals, specially those who worked on the estate, remember Jayalalithaa fondly.

Divakaran, who worked as a driver for Jayalalitha and Sasikala when they visited Kodanad between 2005 and 2010, says, “Here, you did not see the imperious CM Jayalalithaa. You saw an entirely different side to her. She would walk, meet and talk with tea estate workers, listen to their issues. She never said no to any kind of help sought from her.”
Every year, she presented a half sovereign of gold to the best employee on the estate, residents say.

“For the schoolbus for children up to Class 4, the estate management used to collect a monthly fee of Rs 250 per child. When she came to know about this, she asked the management to stop the practice. She asked them, “How can we collect the money we gave them as salary?”,” Divakaran recounts.

The Kodanad tea estate was established in 1864. It was owned by many people before being purchased by a British man, Craig Jones, in the early 70s. To tide over financial difficulties, he sold several parts of the estate. In the early 90s, the Jones family was looking for the best deal for the property, but was adamant to not sell it to any politician. However, Jayalalitha and Sasikala, who were then looking for a home in Nilgiris, set their eyes on Kodanad.

Jayalalithaa and Sasikala with estate workers. (Photo: Special Arrangement)

In April 2017, after the murder of the property’s watchman, Carig Jones’s son, Peter E Craig, who lives in Karnataka and generally stays away from the limelight, gave a statement to news channels.

“Due to the constant pressure from Jayalalitha and her circle, we had to give up this property. We received harassment calls, they sent goondas. In the end, we sold the property at a low rate of Rs 7 crore. Some pending payment is yet to be made to us,” Craig had then alleged.

Structures built on the property have attracted criticism from environment activists. The private lake on the estate has been built by blocking check dams of Moyar river.

Incidentally, the watchman was found dead near gate no. 10, which Ponthous and others had blocked all those years ago. During the probe into his death, it emerged that Jayalalithaa’s former driver C Kanagaraj and one VK Sayan had allegedly plotted the crime. However, Kanagaraj, and Sayan’s wife and daughter, were killed in separate road accidents. Another employee of the property was later found dead, in a case of suspected suicide.

The DMK government’s decision to press ahead with investigation into the sub-judice case has snowballed into the recent recent political storm. The DMK has consistently said the probe is not about politics, but is to “ensure justice”.

A local DMK leader, Vivek, the Nilgiris district party youth wing deputy organiser, says under the new government, Kodanad residents can hope for justice too.

“It is true that nothing has changed after Jayalalitha’s death. The management is the same. The restrictions are the same. But now, local people are expecting good news from the ruling party,” he says.

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