| Government|

Solar scam heat scorches Kerala

P N Venugopal
30/07/2013

Oommen Chandy
Kerala CM Oommen Chandy
(Pic:wikipedia.org)

Date : 9 July 2012

Time : 8.30 pm

Place : Kerala CM's Office, Thiruvananthapuram

Attending Members : Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister; Tenny Joppan, personal assistant of the CM; Sridharan Nair, an entrepreneur; Saritha S Nair, Director, Team Solar, a company promoting non-conventional energy sources.

Minutes : The CM extols Team Solar and encourages Sridharan Nair to associate with them and also to spread the word among his peers. Saritha hands over a cheque for Rs 2 lakh, favouring the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.

This is the version given by Sridharan Nair of a meeting between the CM and the people mentioned above. Nair, one of the many complainants against Team Solar for cheating and defrauding huge amounts of money, divulged these details in a television interview about a fortnight ago. One Biju Radhakrishnan and his live-in-partner Saritha S Nair had floated Team Solar two years back, at a time when the state was reeling under a severe power crisis. The government had come up with several schemes for generation of power from solar and wind energy at the time, and the ambience seemed just about right for investment in this sector.

Team Solar placed advertisements offering packages providing a spectrum of services - setting up of solar panels, wind mills, obtaining government subsidies and facilitating absorption of the generated power to the state power grid. Prospective entrepreneurs were taken for 'guided' tours of government lands at various places as the spots where their solar or wind energy unit would be set up. Some were even shown windmills in Tamil Nadu that were flaunted as Team Solar projects. A big incentive for the investors was the absence of any kind of hassle over raw material, land, labour, and marketing, that are normally associated with any industry. The path seemed to be simple and transparent enough: sign an MOU, part with the money, sit back and enjoy the returns of your investment.

But there were more than one doubting Toms and it is here that the CM's office and other power centres come into the picture. "If you are not convinced, here is the CM's PA Tenny Joppan on the line, please speak to him," would usually clinch the issue. If not Joppan, it would be Salim Raj, Chandy's security officer or Jikkumon, another of his assistants. Details obtained by media of calls from the cell phones of Saritha Nair and of these gentlemen, as well as from the CM's landline, reveal hundreds of calls made every week. The two powerful groups in the Congress party which leads the coalition (UDF) have been at each other's throats over the last few months and the solar scam has given the anti-CM group a powerful baton to beat him with. Coalition partners such as the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress(M), a party confined to Kerala, are disgusted with the developments.

The fact that the Chief Minister of Kerala did not have a mobile phone and all those who wanted to contact him, including MLAs, had to call his personal aides who in turn put them through to the CM added to the credibility of the duo, because it was as good as speaking to the CM himself. Sreedharan Nair had signed an MOU with a commitment of Rs 5.5 crore and had already paid Rs 25 lakh out of the first instalment of 40 lakh and wanted further assurance about the project; it was then that he was taken to the CM's office, he claims. Another victim of the couple, and one of the first to lodge a police complaint, KM Sajad of Kollam, who lost Rs 40 lakh, was shown a letter in the letterhead of the CM and with his signature. (The police claim it to be forged).

Oommen Chandy was quite proud of his office which was open to all at anytime '24/7'. Apart from the closed-circuit tv, there was live streaming video of his office (without audio) for anyone to see on the Internet. The CM used to boast about this, citing it as proof of transparency.

31 cases have been registered against Biju Radhakrishnan and Saritha S Nair in police stations across the state. The amounts involved vary from a few lakhs to a few crores. Saritha was arrested on 3 June and Biju Radhakrishnan who had gone hiding was arrested on 17 June. Joppan, personal assistant to Chandy, was arrested on 28 June when the CM was in Bahrain to receive a UN award for his mass contact programmes.

The telephone call-list revealed that ministers including the home minister were in touch with the major actors in the scam. The CM admitted that he had a one-hour discussion with Biju Radhakrishnan on the recommendations of a Congress member of parliament, M I Shanavas. However, he refused to divulge what passed between them and stated that they discussed only family matters. Media and Opposition immediately raised questions about 'whose family matters' and what those matters were, especially as Biju is the main suspect in the death of his wife a few years ago.

The Opposition has demanded the resignation of the CM and a judicial probe into the scam, including the role played by the CM's office and others wielding positions of power. The state assembly was adjourned on 9 July sine die, after a bunch of bills were passed without discussion. The amount involved in the scam amounts to approximately Rs 15 crore, according to the CM himself. The state has not lost any money, he asserts, which is also true. But what has made it a political issue is the sustained patronage extended by the high and mighty to the couple, despite their known criminal background and the existence of several cases against them, including a murder charge.

The CM initially flatly refused that Sridharan Nair met him in his office along with Saritha S Nair. Sridharan Nair and the opposition demanded CCTV footage of the CM's office to prove the claims, to which it was replied that CCTV images are automatically deleted after 14 days and cannot be restored. This is being contested at present and the special investigation team enquiring into the scam is looking into the matter after much dithering from the CM.

Meanwhile, the bail application of Joppan has been rejected by the High Court. The state Director General of Prosecution himself attended the court for the government and opposed the bail application, arguing that he had misused his proximity to power and promoted swindlers. This is a steep come-down for the government from the early days, when the CM defended his PA and others in his office saying that telephone conversation was not a crime. The CM has also shifted his earlier position that he had never met Sreedharan Nair or Saritha S Nair. Now he says that he had met the former in his office as part of a delegation of quarry owners and the latter in a public meeting. It is this kind of prevarication that is strengthening the feeling among the public that there is something more than that meets the eye. No chief minister of Kerala has ever been caught in a web of words of his own creation, as Chandy has.

The two powerful groups in the Congress party which leads the coalition (UDF) have been at each other's throats over the last few months and the solar scam has given the anti-CM group a powerful baton to beat him with. Coalition partners such as the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress(M), a party confined to Kerala, are disgusted with the developments. There were even reports of the Kerala Congress (M) quitting the coalition, which has only a majority of three members in the assembly.

In all that has emerged till now, the credibility loss has been immense. General administration has come to a virtual stand still. Monsoon fury has created havoc all over the state and there have been massive crop losses. Relief work has been tardy. The roads are full of potholes and not even stop-gap remedies have been attempted.

A trail of sordid sagas

Dance teacher and TV actress Shalu Menon is under custody for abetting Biju Radhakrishnan to abscond, by providing him her car and mobile phone. She is also accused of being party to Biju's cheating games, having received Rs 46 lakh from these activities. She came to the limelight through her connection to Home Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan. The minister had at first denied any acquaintance, but had to retract when telephone calls between them were traced and photographs showed him visiting her house on the occasion of her house-warming ceremony. On 23 July, the High Court, hearing the bail petition of Shalu Menon expressed displeasure over the lack of coordination in the investigation. Justice Satish Chandran asked if the police had made any attempt to trace the money that has been misappropriated.

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In a related case, Justice VK Mohanan of the Kerala High Court asked whether a probe was not necessary to ascertain if the Kerala Chief Minister knew about the scam. He made this observation while considering a petition filed by MK Kuruvila - a Bangalore-based coffee planter seeking crime branch investigation into the defrauding of Rs one crore. However the actors are different this time. One Binu Nair had taken this money from him, promising implementation of solar power projects with the help of Korean technology. He had convinced Kuruvila that one Andrew Puthuppally, who was the cousin of Oommen Chandy, was also a director of the consultancy firm implementing the projects. Kuruvila alleges that he had approached the CM for a probe when the projects did not fructify. Instead of a thorough probe, false cases were foisted on him and he was imprisoned.

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Firoz, the suspended Director of Kerala's Public Relations Department (PRD), is under judicial custody since 19 July. A case was registered against him, Biju Radhakrishnan and Saritha S Nair in 2009 for swindling Rs 20 lakh out of a businessman as processing fee for a loan of Rs 20 crores that they promised to arrange for him from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It is alleged that it was Firoz who introduced the duo as officers from ADB. It is also alleged that he received a car and gold for this and for providing referrals to well-to-do people. This is among the many cases of deception against the duo before they became the 'Solar Couple'.

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It has been confirmed from the statement of accounts of the Chief Minister's Relief Fund that a cheque for Rs 2 lakh issued by Team Solar was accounted for on 10 July, 2012. The cheque bounced on presentation to the bank. It is indeed surprising that Team Solar was entertained by the CM's office even after that, till 2 June 2013, the eve of Saritha's arrest. There was a flurry of phone calls between Saritha and the CM's aides.

The most glaring lapse has manifest itself in the tragic death of more than 45 new born babies in the tribal belt of Attappady during the last six months. Various studies, by central and state agencies and the UNICEF, had attributed this to malnutrition of mothers and the government had announced a package of Rs 125 crore a month ago. Even the promised distribution of eggs and milk has not commenced, let alone implementation of lofty proposals such as 'Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres.' Unfortunately, even the right words seem to elude the Kerala CM and his ministers. It was only the other day that the CM commented on the death of the infants in an interview, saying "these people don't eat properly." If anything was left unsaid, his cultural minister K C Joseph added the next day: "the infants die because the pregnant tribal women drink too much arrack."

Clearly, there is a lot that needs to be sorted out in the state!

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