Two graft cases set to be heard in hardly 10 days - the Rs 47-crore shoddily built three-year-old Palarivattom flyover to be redone and the long-pending Rs 86.25-crore SNC Lavalin scam - can rattle the two leading political fronts, UDF and LDF, of Kerala.
While the arrest of Indian Union Muslim League(IUML) leader and former PWD Minister Ibrahim Kunju appears imminent, unless the CPIM, known to have a soft corner for League leader PK Kunhalikutty, decides otherwise, the UDF is already on the defensive over the Palarivattom flyover issue. Kerala High Court orders in the matter can be expected any time.
The Lavalin scam, whose genesis goes back to 1997 when present Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was the Electricity Minister, is to be taken up on October 1 and has been a big thorn in the CPIM flesh. If the CBI succeeds in getting Pinarayi face trial, the fate of party 'big man' may be doomed.
Incidentally, both these decisive matters come as the State gears up for the next round of bypolls to five Assembly constituencies on October 21 and the last date for filing nominations is just a fortnight away.
Hints of Kunju going behind the bars were in the air when Pinarayi minced no words during the very recent Pala bypoll campaign and said some would have to take 'prison food' soon in the flyover case. Political analysts expected the arrest before the September 23 Pala by-election. But then, the much-denied yet acknowledged CPIM leadership's soft corner for League could have stood in the way.
However, by the time nominations are to be filed for the five bypolls a clear picture of action in the flyover scam could be taken. Kunju has been quizzed twice over the Palarivattom flyover on the National Highway 66 Bypass in Kochi which is to be nearly demolished and rebuilt under the supervision of Metroman E Sreedharan early next month.
The Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB) has already arrested former Public Works Secretary TO Sooraj and three other officials in the flyover fiasco where it found compromise on material quality. The flyover was built by the State Government, 'snatching' away the right of the NH department. Even a request by the Kochi Corporation to build it under the JNNRUM was ignored.
The structure was completed in 2016 by PWD subsidiary Roads and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala with design and technical consultancy by Kitco. New Delhi-based contracting firm RDS Projects executed the work. In two years, cracks were noticed and earlier in May it was closed.
Kunju, as PWD minister in the previous Oommen Chandy UDF Government, was the de-facto chairman of RBDCK. He as Minister signed and approved the file to sanction mobilisation advance of Rs 8.25 crore to RDS against rules. Sooraj, seen as a blue-eyed boy of League, told vigilance that the payment was made after approval from Kunju, who later claimed that it was not presented to the Cabinet as it was the 'prerogative' of a Minister. The matter was also not discussed at the RBDCK board meetings. The money was given at an interest of as low as 7 per cent when PSUs took loans at 12 per cent and above. Action against Kunju appears normal as this is a case of so obvious graft and it is "unsafe to travel on and below the bridge".
Lavalin: a thorn in the flesh of CPIM
The Lavalin case is to come up for hearing in the Supreme Court on October 1 after allegations had been flying around of 'purposeful' delay.
But this time, the Supreme Court in clear terms fixed the date for hearing, making things difficult for Pinarayi and his party.
The CBI has been demanding that Pinarayi too be tried in the scam. Kerala High Court had ruled against the trial of Pinarayi in the case where a loss of Rs 86.25 crore was incurred through the Kerala State Electricity Board’s (KSEB) contract with Lavalin in 1997 during the LDF regime under EK Nayanar.
The CBI had said Pinarayi travelled to Canada as a “guest” of Lavalin in 1997. It was then that he decided to promote the company from a consultancy firm to a supplier one and gave the contract for renovation and modernisation of the Pallivasai, Sengulam and Panniyar hydel projects in Idukki.
As part of this, Lavalin would construct a Rs 98.3-crore cancer centre at Thalassery which did not happen. The Comptroller and Auditor General in its report in July 2005 said the State exchequer had incurred huge losses due to unnecessary haste and deviation from norms in awarding the Rs 374.5-crore contract to Lavalin.
There were “willful omissions and commissions on the part of public servants and provided the opportunity to SNC Lavalin for deriving wrongful gain, causing corresponding loss to KSEB”. Lavalin was awarded the contract without inviting tenders and Pinarayi could not be absolved of the charge of causing huge loss to the exchequer, according to CBI.
A criminal case was registered on February 12, 2007, and CBI filed its chargesheet on the same date in June two years later. Kerala High Court discharged Pinarayi and two former KSEB top officials but said three should face trial. The three then moved the Supreme Court against this and CBI has taken the stand that Pinarayi should face trial.
Incidentally, Lavalin was in the news recently as part of the much-hyped masala bonds of the State Government. A major stockholder in SNC Lavalin had a chunk of subscription of the bonds offered at a high coupon rate of 9.723 per cent.