Original damning report of two-member panel is in public domain, thanks to an RTI reply.

 

New Delhi: Kerala may have earned worldwide appreciation for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but its hiring of an American data company Sprinklr early last April to collate and analyse the number of patients continues to be at the centre of controversy in the state. So are the numbers of corona infected growing by the day with Kerala almost at the top in the country. As a political storm gathered over the deal, the ruling Left Front government had discontinued the arrangement and set up a committee to probe into the Sprinklr case. However, the government had refused to make the committee’s report public and, instead, set up another committee to study the aforesaid Madhavan Nambiar committee’s report. But now the original report of the two-member committee (former Civil Aviation Secretary M. Madhavan Nambiar and cyber security expert Dr Gulshan Rai) has come out in the public domain, thanks to an RTI reply. The crucial finding of the panel is very damaging to the government and its claim for efficient governance in the state. According to the committee, former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was also IT Secretary, M. Sivasankar had unilaterally signed the deal “keeping the chief minister and his government in the dark.” It had already been reported that the law department was not consulted at all, though the Law Minister A.K. Balan, had himself justified the deal saying there was no need to take his department into confidence.

Now it is known that the committee was of the view that the proposal formalising a digital platform for analysing a crisis situation like Covid-19 should have been discussed with the Crisis Management group. The group headed by the Chief Secretary along with Secretaries of finance, revenue, health, law and IT should have been consulted. But the Sprinklr proposal was not discussed with the then Chief Secretary Tom Jose. Heal and Family Welfare Secretary Dr Rajan N. Khobragade has also confirmed that he too was not taken on board. “The committee would like to point out that the approval of the Chief Minister, who is also the IT minister, was not taken before the agreement was executed with Sprinklr Inc. Since we are dealing with data security issues and entrusting sensitive data to a foreign company, this could be detrimental to the interests of the state and its citizens,” the report said.

The arrangement on collection of data with Sprinklr had come under public scrutiny after the Opposition–both Congress and the BJP–raised objections saying the tie-up with the US firm was in violation of all norms and arbitrarily taken by the Chief Minister without even discussing the matter in the Cabinet. Asking the government to scrap the deal, they had alleged in May last year that no global tender was floated prior to selecting the company and the legal department was not even consulted. Moreover, according to the Opposition, the data of 1.75 lakh corona affected people were collected without their prior consent. However, the Chief Minister tried to brush aside the allegations in the initial stages—even saying extraordinary times need extraordinary decisions—and had firmly refused to give in to the Opposition demand and cancel the deal. Pinarayi Vijayan, in one of his weekly televised programmes “Nammal Munnottu”, had accused the media of “muck raking” and giving undue importance to controversies at a time when the state was in the forefront of fighting coronavirus in the country. The government would not “step back from the deal because few vested interests had tried to malign it”, Vijayan had said. “Sprinklr offered its services free. The state did not have a comparable IT too, and hence hired Sprinklr,” he had contended.

Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala then asked the Chief Minister to explain why he had “surreptitiously chosen Sprinklr” over the Kerala government’s own experienced Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT), which possess diverse skill sets. The “exposure” on the Sprinklr deal had set off a chain of events—the gold smuggling scandal involving the UAE consulate in state capital Thiruvananthapuram most prominent among them—had led to the removal of Vijayan’s Principal Secretary M. Sivasankaran relating to a host of other financial irregularities centring the chief minister’s office. Sivasankaran and his associates are languishing in jail with the Customs, the ED and the NIA still pursuing a number of cases, all connected in varied ways with the smuggling racket. The continuance of a top bureaucrat in the chief minister’s office behind the bars for over six months should be an embarrassment for any government. But the Left Front led by the CPM is brazenly fighting it out, alleging “political vendetta” on the part of the Central government led by the BJP and “aided by the Congress” in the state.

While political pundits point out that the committee report may be an attempt to exonerate the Chief Minister—Vijayan had all along maintained that he was not aware of his Principal Secretary’s doings under his very nose—the moot question is why then the CM had tried to defend the deal with Sprinklr. Did not Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan depute Sivasankaran to the other Communist Party’s (CPI) office–to the disbelief of the state’s top bureaucracy—to brief its state secretary about the deal? CPI had raised objections to the deal. Didn’t the CM say that the Opposition with the support of “syndicate media” was trying to tarnish the image of an honest IAS officer? Did not the Chief Minister make party comrades and all his Cabinet ministers parrot what he had been saying about the deal? Even if we agree that the CM and his government were in the dark about such an important deal at a crisis time, then the question pops up: what was the government for? Was the Chief Minister sleeping over his job? And now why another committee to “study” the expert Nambiar panel’s findings? Guess who are in the new panel: A retired District Judge and two college professors. All these at whose expense and is this the way an efficient government functions? Come May, people of Kerala will get a chance to make their judgment. Till then all is well with the Pinarayi government.