Kollunna Raajaavinu Thinnunna Manthri
by P M Ravindran on 10 May 2020 10 Comments

The above quip, For the king who kills, The minister who eats, conveys the modus operandi of a team that commits a crime and leaves no trace of it. Such a crime manifested in Kerala during the Covid lockdown. Kerala is the only State where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in power. There have been rave reviews, even at the international level, on the way this government has managed the pandemic problem in the State. These are mainly the work of “embedded” journalists far removed from ground realities. Of course, the whole country is fighting Covid. Under these circumstances, the Sprinklr (no ‘e’) controversy has played out in Kerala.


Sprinklr is a Keralite-owned, US based company that claims to be an expert in data analysis. They approached the Government of Kerala and offered to help with the analysis of data of those affected by Covid and whose details were included in the data base of the government. It was a free of cost offer and on that count beyond reproach. But cyberspace has it that the cost of such data of even an individual varies from Rs 15,000/- to Rs 1,50,000/- among pharma companies. And the data with the State Government ran into a couple of lakhs.


The controversy erupted when a journalist asked the Chief Minister, during his then regular 6 p.m. briefings on the Covid situation, why a foreign firm had been entrusted this job and how the personal information was transferred to a private firm. The Chief Minister initially defended it on the irrelevant ground that it was free and there was no loss to the government. But soon he lost his cool and called off the briefing. The briefings stood cancelled for the next few days.


The briefings were resumed only after Secretary of the IT Dept., of which the Chief Minister was in-charge, admitted that he was responsible for the deal in all its aspects and that he had not even deemed it necessary to approach the Law Department for advice. Of course, he must have been reassured that the Chief Minister would not permit his prosecution.


The matter reached the High Court of Kerala which pulled up the Government for failure to follow procedures and directed them to recall the data already uploaded to Sprinklr’s website and give it back to them after hiding the personal identifiers. A great decision indeed, for the layman. For those better informed about technology, it is stupid.


Meanwhile, the Government constituted a committee of two former bureaucrats to probe the matter. Rajeev Sadanand, a member of the committee, was Health Secretary during the Oommen Chandy government in 2012. The UDF Government had then ordered a study, the Kerala Health Observatory Baseline Study (KHOBS), to be done along with a Canadian firm, Population Health Research institute. The study was stopped when the opposition, then headed by Pinayari Vijayan of the CPI(M), alleged data leak.


When Pinayari Vijayan became Chief Minister in 2016, Rajeev Sadanand pushed the same study, with the same Canadian partners, under the name, Epidemiological Surveillance. This was also given up when it became a controversy. But not one to give up, Sadanand initiated a move to compile the health data of about 10 lakh citizens, with their permission, over a 10-year period. This project, KIRAN (Kerala Information on Residents-Arogyam Network) was to be executed with the help of the Achutha Menon Centre for Medical Science and Technology of Sri Chitra Institute, Thiruvananthapuram. But then, information leaked out that it was the directors of the Canadian company who were funding the survey. Questions asked had no responses.


Rajeev Sadanand is also under suspicion of trying to favour two medical colleges that had been denied permission by courts to admit students for their MBBS course. Need one say more where the report of this committee will lead to?


Cyberspace is rife with speculation regarding the involvement of the Chief Minister’s daughter, T. Veena, in the deal. She is the MD of Bangalore-based IT firm Exalogic Solutions Pvt. Ltd., with an investment of Rs 100 crore. This company does business in the same field as Sprinklr. Further indictment came when it was reported that in the registration documents of the company, the address of the owner is given as AKG Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and the nominee is Kamala Vijayan, wife of Pinayari Vijayan; her address was given as that of Pinayari Vijayan’s house at Thalassery. Earlier, media reports stated that during the last nation-wide strike, the company had a regular working day when Kerala was under a lockdown.


As Chief Minister, Pinayari Vijayan has made many foreign trips to seek investment in Kerala, particularly from Non-Resident Keralites. This brings me to the case of Dr. Jacob Thomas, the senior most serving member of the IPS in the State and currently MD of Metal Industries, Shornur, a Government of Kerala undertaking. The firm manufactures spades, pick axes, shovels etc. It has four officers and 36 employees, besides the MD. The salary of the senior most officer, the Works Manager, was Rs 43,890/- as on November 15, 2019.


Dr. Jacob Thomas invited the wrath of the IAS lobby after he sought permission to prosecute some of them as Director, Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau. The lobby tried its best to get him removed, but Pinayari Vijayan was in no mood to relent. The lobby threatened to go on mass casual leave. The Chief Minister called them and, according to a report in Mathrubhumi daily, said he had withheld sanction to prosecute the then Chief Secretary, K.M. Abraham, and the then Additional Chief Secretary, Tom Jose (current Chief Secretary, due to retire) in cases of disproportionate assets. He indicated he had protected another Additional Chief Secretary, Paul Antony (without naming him) in a case of nepotism.


The mass casual leave protest collapsed. But indirect pressure tactics continued till Jacob Thomas was shifted to a nondescript organization - Institute of Management in Government. K.M. Abraham retired and has been given a sinecure as ex-officio Secretary of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), currently resisting audit by the CAG. Even the compensation offered to him is reportedly in violation of all rules.


The hounding of Jacob Thomas continued with cases initiated against him for saying publicly that the relief work, post the Ockhi typhoon, was not adequate and for publishing a book, ‘Swimming with the Sharks’, without prior permission from the government. He was under suspension for almost 18 months when the Central Administrative Tribunal ordered his reinstatement in an equivalent position. Hence his assignment as MD of Metal Industries with the same status of Director, Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau, through order dated October 5, 2019.


On learning about the above appointment through the media, I complained to the Governor, Kerala, on October 16, 2019, on grounds that thought Dr. Jacob Thomas had accepted this low-level assignment, I am concerned as a citizen at the high cost incurred by the exchequer in granting him a designation, pay and perks, beyond the entitlements of the office he is now serving; and that this is tantamount to abuse of office by the appointing authority. I urged the Governor to ensure that the officer is posted to an office befitting his experience, grade and status, or ensure that his cost to the exchequer does not exceed that of his predecessor. The complaint was forwarded to the General Administration Dept. on December 3, 2019.


Meanwhile, in response to an application under the RTI Act, the PIO of General Administration Dept. provided a copy of the Government Order dated October 5, 2019 and nothing more. It mentions Rule 12 of IPS (Pay) Rules, 2016.


No information was provided regarding the applications seeking prosecution of the three members of the IAS, and the file notes leading to denial of permission. Now, can anybody guess who is the king who kills and the minister who eats in our system of government?


The beauty is that while the king who kills is present all through the narrative, the minister who eats has not appeared at all. And after the minister finishes eating there is (practically) no sign of the crime. 

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