Uralungal got maximum number of contracts during Oommen Chandy's tenure: Chairman Ramesan Palery

ULCCS chairman Ramesan Palery

The offshoot of Atma Vidya Sangham’s (AVS) fight against inequalities and financial exploitation was the denial of jobs by authorities. To tackle this issue head-on, AVS founder Vagbhadananda Guru established the Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society (ULCCS) in 1925. Uralungal is a village located five kilometres north of Vadakara in Kozhikode district.

The ULCCS started with just 16 members and undertook small labour works worth Rs 200 to Rs 300 initially and made a profit of Rs 493 in ten years. The first major labour contract it took was pavement laying work in 1962. Six decades later, it has grown as a major labour contract society capable of undertaking and executing even national highway work projects worth Rs 1,700 crore.

Ramesan Palery, chairman of the ULCCS, which has even diversified into the information technology vertical, opened up about the recent controversies surrounding the society, as it gears up to celebrate its centenary.

How do you evaluate the growth of ULCCS?
ULCCS provides employment to nearly 18,000 workers, apart from 1,500 engineers and a similar number of staffers. This makes it the second-largest cooperative of its kind in the world. It is also Asia’s largest. At a time when superstitions and wrongdoings were rampant, ULCCS was a beacon of hope for the youth. ULCCS is entering its centenary year with a firm belief that change has to be embraced. Its motif is honesty and ULCCS has succeeded in upholding that.

You have been at the helm of ULCCS for 29 years. Can you describe the evolution of ULCCS during this period?
ULCCS has succeeded in marching forward by adapting to the changes that happen in every era. At times, its graph had also gone down. After 1995, the growth of ULCCS can be attributed mainly to the People’s Planning initiative. From the contract works of the Public Works Department, it began to garner works of local self-government bodies and executed it with finesse, thus gaining the admiration of the common man. It embraced changes, and it was able to adapt to new technologies and engineering possibilities during this period.

On ULCCS’ emergence as a brand in manufacturing
ULCCS has undertaken works running from Rs 50,000 offered by a panchayat to a National Highway contract worth Rs 1,700 crore. The main aim of ULCSS is to provide employment opportunities not to make profits alone. The works are overseen by teams spanning various verticals. Our success is due to meticulous planning and an emphasis on teamwork. All workers have a bond with society as they think of ULCCS as their own institution. This is a relatively new culture in the cooperative sector. We do not sublet contracts and instead do all the work ourselves. We realise that without such an approach we cannot stick to the high standards set by ULCCS.

Diversification of ULCCS to various sectors
The children of ULCCS employees have got higher education. So it became imperative to find employment suitable to them also. ULCCS set up a cyberpark in Malabar realising that to create employment for the next generation information technology is the most suitable domain and that an IT park is essential for the northern part of the state. Today, the IT park employs 3,000 in over 40 companies including design and technology services provider Tata Elxi.

On the ULCCS’ advocacy of a cooperative university
An engineering graduate will take 5-10 years to achieve excellence in work. To bridge this gap we need to put in place a system which syncs education with practical skills. To fulfil this vision, we believe we should work to establish a model university.

Allegations against ULCCS over obtaining contracts through backdoor
The bane of our state is the protracted nature of contract works which stretch for years. ULCCS executed contracts and completed works way ahead of deadlines. Before the Left governments assumed power, we got the maximum number of contracts during the tenure of former CM Oommen Chandy. We finished the Kozhikode bypass work in 16 months two months ahead of the contractual deadline thereby making massive savings in fuel charges alone. That boosted the image of the government also. The governments and the people benefit from the association with ULCCS. It is beneficial for us to go through the tender process quoting the requisite amount as per the prevailing market rates. Nowhere in the world, a contract is assigned to any collective without a tender. No one has given much thought about its benefits for the nation. Detractors make baseless charges without fully understanding this. If the government or common man doesn’t need our association so be it. ULCCS is all for participating and competing in a tender process with competitors and winning contracts. No one bothers about the prolonged delay in executing projects.

Does competition make many projects a success?
We do not wish to be assigned any projects directly by authorities. No other company or collective from Kerala has bagged the contract for a mega project like National Highways. Of the contracts undertaken in various ‘reaches’(stretches) of national highways in Kerala by 18 companies, the Kasargod stretch was completed at lightning speed. People have acknowledged this.

A charge is that as a cooperative ULCCS gains 10 per cent more than the norm
It is rightfully due to ULCCS as per the constitution. If anyone thinks this is malpractice let there be a probe. Ours is a cooperative and we are subject to all probes. If there is some graft issue after a probe is conducted, let contracts be annulled. We value the ideals of Vadbhadananda Guru. Such charges should be seen as a case of sour grapes.

The SC has observed that awarding  a contract to an institution quoting thrice the lowest bidder’s price is unusual
These are baseless charges. We did not get the contract for the Kannur court complex quoting thrice the lowest bidder’s price. The court itself will make it clear. ULCCS is an institution in which the government holds 82 per cent stake.

Despite holding 82 per cent stake why is it that there is no government nominee in the ULCCS board?
The National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) was set up to uplift the institutions in the cooperative sector in the country. Financial assistance worth up to Rs 4,000 crore is disbursed via NCDC.

In Kerala, the government provides assistance to cooperatives through budgetary allocations. Loans are given through various routes as stakes in projects, subsidies and grants. Our projects are classified as 40% stake, 50 per cent loan and 10 per cent contributory allocation. We need to make payments in eight years for those stakes and loans should be repaid in ten years, including the interest as per policy. ULCCS functions in a democratic manner. Here no matter how much stake you own, you have just one vote. As per law, there need not be a government nominee in primary cooperative institutions. What the government provides is financial assistance. So it is counterproductive to say that the government should exercise control or that a periodic audit by the auditor general should be held. The cooperative department is conducting the audit regularly without fail.

The Opposition is charging that the benami funds of CPM leaders are parked in ULCCS
We are all from Onchiyam but we do not toe a particular political line. A majority of people from Onchiyam are likely to be communists and perhaps that is why such a charge is doing the rounds. If a cooperative that provides yeomen services to the nation is seeped in graft as charged, there is a mechanism in this nation to probe that and take necessary measures to end such malpractices. We ourselves will be at the forefront to shut the cooperative if such a charge is proven. This institution is not run by an individual. The ULCCS gets the benefits mandated as per the constitution only and not by flaunting influence. This is an age in which a bridge and such infrastructure projects are built in 3-4 months in many countries like China. Shouldn’t we also aspire for such lightning speed or go ahead in a casual way taking 7-8 years to implement a project? There have been many baseless charges churned out by a host of media outlets, but nothing was proved. That is because such charges are a figment of imagination and we have nothing to do with it.

ULCCS’ links with SRIT India Private Ltd, the controversial company linked to the artificial intelligence camera deal, is also under a cloud of suspicion
We are free to associate with any firm. After our experiment with SRIT failed we dissociated with them. We had a tie-up for a project, which was later shelved when we realised that it did not suit us. We had nothing to do with the AI camera project.

Will your centenary celebrations be out of the box?
We are not going ahead with mere celebrations. Instead, we plan to develop technology which will benefit the next generation for 25 years. As the focus shifts to major contingencies like climate change, we may not be able to go ahead by defacing natural landscapes like hills. New technologies to overcome such issues should emerge and discussions are revolving around this. We will roll out a model in which other cooperative collectives will also be able to flourish.

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