5,200 feet above sea-level, the lush green tea and cardamom plantations in these hills of Kerala have an immediate calming affect. But they are studded with multi-storey buildings - hotels and resorts, most of them illegal, that draw lakhs of tourists to one of the few hill stations in the South.
As Munnar struggles to preserve its environment, a 30-year-old bureaucrat has quickly emerged as the sheriff rescuing a town in danger. Sriram Venkitaraman was posted to Munnar in July last year as a sub-collector. He has risked the wrath of local politicians from all parties, who have direct or proxy investments in the illegal hotels, and forced the removal of parts of resorts that encroach upon public land despite the police often refusing to cooperate.
A young man in his 30s who asked not to be named, said, "What the sub-collector is doing is powerful. We are with him. I can show you also the encroachments, but I can't risk my life by speaking on camera. I am an ordinary man. Sriram sir will go, but I have to stay here with my family."
Mr Venkitaraman, who sports glasses and a beard, is often spotted riding his Royal Enfield, which adds to his image as a cool customer used to tackling the heat of a land mafia and its political patronage. "It's not difficult to tackle encroachments. As a revenue officer, I am just doing my job and going by the rule book. I am a doctor and chose to become an IAS officer because of the large canvas it offers to serve people. That's what I am doing", he said.
The sub-collector was reportedly even admonished by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan after a cross was demolished on land that had been encroached. But Mr Venkitaraman says overall, the government is backing him. "I have received immense support from my immediate senior - the Collector to the highest in the government, including the revenue minister. I am strengthened in my resolve."
(Sneha Mary Koshy is NDTV's Kerala correspondent.)
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