Housing for the poor launched by Vijayan government is under CBI scanner.

 

New Delhi: It seems that Kerala, the only remaining Left-ruled state in the country, has become the latest hub of Central intelligence agencies. Investigating a slew of cases relating to an unprecedented gold smuggling case involving a foreign country, UAE, with whom the nation has the warmest of relations, the nation’s top investigation agencies such as Customs, Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax Department, the National Investigation Agency are already camping in the state. Added to them is the latest entrant, the Central Bureau of Investigation, probing financial irregularities in an ambitious housing project for the poor launched by the ruling Left Front government led by CPM strongman Pinarayi Vijayan. According to the official web portal of the Government of Kerala, Mission LIFE (Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment) envisages a comprehensive housing scheme for all the landless and homeless in the state. Housing being the very basic requirement that holds the key to accelerate social development in many ways, the Government of Kerala launched Mission LIFE in 2018. The target of the mission is to provide safe housing to nearly 4.30 lakh homeless in the state within a period of five years. It is this project which has now come under the scanner of the CBI, much to the embarrassment and resentment of the state government. The case pertains to criminal conspiracy and Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations in the construction of a 140-apartment complex in a municipality in Wadakkanchery in central Thrissur district, signed between the UAE Red Crescent and a Kerala-based building company UNITAC. Emirates Red Crescent is the UAE affiliate of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The MoU for the project at Wadakkanchery was signed between Red Crescent and Kochi-based private builder UNITAC on 11 July 2019 in Thiruvananthapuram by the project’s CEO U.V. Jose and representatives of Red Crescent. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is the chairman of Mission LIFE, was present on the occasion.

The Opposition brought to light the scam after the gold smuggling case was unearthed involving one of the former employees of the UAE Consulate in state capital Thiruvananthapuram. However, she turned out to be still calling the shots in her previous office. The employee concerned, Swapna Suresh, supposed to be the kingpin of the smuggling racket, has had allegedly tremendous influence in the Chief Minister’s Office, especially Pinarayi Vijayan’s Principal Secretary M. Siv Sankar. Following the revelations, the Chief Minister who initially tried to protect his all-powerful secretary, had to finally remove him, but the political controversy regarding the involvement of the CMO refused to die down with the Opposition Congress and BJP digging out the involvement of a Minister, close to Pinarayi, too, in the smuggling racket.

K.T. Jaleel, Minister for Higher Education, Welfare of Minorities, Wakf and Hajj, was found close to Swapna Suresh and she, in turn, had allegedly used Jaleel to smuggle gold under the cover of import of Quran. Though Jaleel vehemently denies having any knowledge of smuggling of gold, the ED and NIA have already questioned him a couple of times. Simultaneously, the financial scam involving one of the projects of Mission LIFE surfaced, once again brought out by the Congress MLA representing Wadakkanchery constituency. The key accused in the smuggling case, Swapna Suresh, supposedly confessed to the ED and NIA that a sum of Rs 4.25 crore had been paid as commission in the housing project of which over Rs 1crore had gone to her. To make things worse for the ruling government, one of the press advisors of the Chief Minister who also heads ruling CPM’s TV channel Kairali, too, went on record that he was aware of the kickback. He was backed by the state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac who was sitting beside John Brittas, the media advisor when he made the comment. The Chief Minister, however, refused to acknowledge this, saying his media advisor does not have any role in the day-to-day running of the government. Regarding his Finance Minister, Pinarayi dodged in his characteristic wry smile.

Though on Wednesday, the state government had ordered a Vigilance enquiry into the scam, something which the CM had refused to do for the past one-and-a-half months, it was all too clear that the CBI was lurking behind. It is also interesting to note that the state government which had denied a copy of the MoU of the Wadakkanchery project even to the Leader of the Opposition despite repeated requests, all of sudden provided the very same immediately after the announcement of the vigilance probe. Even media organisations that had moved for the same through RTI, too, were given a copy after about one-and-a-half months.

The Left Front government which had in the past two months claimed that the NIA and the ED had been probing the gold smuggling case at the behest of the Chief Minister, is now crying foul, saying CBI has been brought in to settle political scores. The CPM state secretariat said in a statement that “the BJP is misusing investigating agencies for their political end. The probe order is an outcome of a nexus between the Congress and the BJP. The case was registered violating all precedents”. Marxists’ dislike for the CBI is all too well known. The party over the years had been blocking any investigation by CBI into many political murders where CPM workers figure prominently among the accused, fearing that ultimately the role of the leadership in the heinous crimes would be brought to light.

The big political question being asked in Kerala today is why CPM is so scared of a CBI probe while it has no hesitation in welcoming other central agencies to the state. Only the CPM leadership can answer this: why the CBI is a “caged parrot” while NIA and ED are “free birds” floating freely in the Kerala skyline!