The just concluded 21-day session of the Assembly, from May 27 to July 4, saw a spirited opposition hurling potentially unsettling charges - from administrative weakness to land grab and custodial torture - against the LDF Government.
Some of the charges were tactfully deflected but some had the Pinarayi government in a spot of bother. Onmanorama recalls five such instances.
Masala bonds and SNC Lavalin
This was the first issue that brought the 15th Assembly session alive.
It was young Congress MLA K S Sabarinadhan who put forward some uncomfortable questions. His focus was mainly on two aspects of the bond issue. One, special favour to a Canadian firm called CDPQ, which the opposition said had crucial stakes in the hugely controversial SNC-Lavalin company, an early association with which had landed Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a soup.
Two, the coupon rate of 9.72 per cent, which the opposition called “exorbitant”.
Isaac had ready answers. About the high interest he said: “I had never claimed that the interest rate was low. If we wanted the money now, this was the best available rate. We had attempted to mobilise the money from the domestic market but when we found that the interest rate was 10.2 per cent we desisted from going ahead with the issue. We tried again later. Then it was 10.25 per cent. It was only then did we go for the masala bond issue.”
As for the special favour done to CDPQ, he said: This was not a secret private placement. We have to make offer circulars for each country on the basis of their rules. Further, the bid was open only to institutional investors, not retail investors. We had no idea about Canada's interest until they came to us. This was why we had to introduce an addendum to incorporate institutional investors in Canada.”
On CDPQ's links with SNC Lavalin, Isaac said: “It is true that CDPQ holds Lavalin's shares, but only 19.9 per cent. Why do you think that they have limited their share to 19.9 and not 20 per cent. Simply because CDPQ has no intention of taking control of SNC-Lavalin. CDPQ is a government-controlled pension fund that has investments in 68 countries.”
But Isaac failed to answer a crucial question. What is the extent of KIIFB masala bonds with CDPQ? Sabarinadhan says it is more than 90 per cent.
He said the coupon rate was kept conveniently high for the benefit of the sole company that was willing to purchase them. “The KIIFB bonds have a low BB rating. It has as much value as a school mark list with only C-plus scores. No investor worth his salt his going to purchase these bonds,” Sabarinadhan said.
Kunnathunadu paddy land conversion
The opposition had put Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself in the dock. They also cleverly used the CPI-CPM rift on the issue.
On June 12, Congress MLA V P Sajeendran alleged that under pressure from the Chief Minister's office, the Revenue Department had junked the collector's report, refused to take the opinion of the Law Department, and issued a quick order to regularise nearly 15 acres of land designated as “paddy land' at Kunnathunadu in Kochi.
The 5.84 hectares of land (nearly 15 acres) was allowed to be converted on the basis of the Land Utilisation order in 2006 but the conversion was not completed by 2008, when the Conservation of Paddy land and Wetland Act, 2008, came into force. So it remained as paddy land and was also included in the data bank. Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan confirmed these observations.
The attempts to convert the land in 2014 was met with stiff opposition, and later the Muvattupuzha RDO, too, officially recorded that the conversion was illegal.
Three years later, on September 29, 2018, the then Ernakulam district Collector, after consulting the advocate general, ordered that the land be restored to its original condition.
The private owner then managed to get the collector's order overturned. The revenue minister admitted that the additional chief secretary had recalled the file, which sought to overturn the Collector's report, before the Law Department could give a considered opinion.
Sajeendran alleged that the owner was none other than the man who was once described as “the hated one” by former Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan. The reference was to the elusive businessman Pharis Aboobacker, said to be very close to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The chief minister remained mum all through.
Magisterial powers for police
This deeply polarising decision was put on hold after the opposition tore into it saying it would upset the checks and balances inherent in the system.
“The government is in no haste to implement the system. It will be done only after holding wide discussions and evolving a consensus on the issue,” the chief minister said in the Assembly on June 18.
He also shot down one of the most crucial powers sought by the police force: the power to detain known goondas' under KAAPA (Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act).
It was Congress MLA V T Balram who raised the issue in the Assembly. The principle argument of Congress MLA V T Balram, who raised the issue in the Assembly, was that under such a system both the complainant and the judge would be the same person.
According to him, the police was a prejudiced force. “It is modelled on the Irish constabulary and treats the public as enemies. So a non-uniformed civilian authority was a necessary safeguard against police excesses,” he said. “Just imagine what will happen if the power to conduct inquest is vested in the commissioner in a custody death case,” he said.
Balram said that even now higher officers hand down detention targets under KAAPA to lower-level policemen. “Now, if the magisterial powers are given to the police, it will be the commissioner who will judge the appeal against these detentions,” Balram said.
Had the chief minister remained adamant about magisterial powers for police, he would have been forced to rethink after Raj Kumar's custody death. In that sense, the chief minister's back down on June 18 saved future embarrassment for the government.
Suicide of NRI entrepreneur
This was the only issue for which the opposition disrupted proceedings for an entire day this session.
The provocation was Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's attempt to heap all the blame on officials, letting municipal chairperson P K Syamala off the hook. Muslim League leader K M Shaji, who raised the issue in the House on June 24, said the chairperson had told Sajen that as long as she was the chairperson he would not get the occupancy certificate for his convention centre.
Shaji alleged that Sajen's death was the result of the power struggle in the Kannur unit of the CPM. “Sajen was ignored by the municipal chairperson because he had sought the help of P Jayarajan,” Shaji said.
The mention of infighting in the CPM so angered Pinarayi Vijayan that he irritatingly recalled, in an indirect way, his long turf war with V S Achuthanandan.
“Even before, there were attempts to use certain idols to undermine the CPM. The CPM was not destroyed by such tactics,” he said. This was for the first time that the chief minister had given a clear indication that he was troubled by the increasing attempts to 'idolise' P Jayarajan.
Nonetheless, both the chief minister and the party continues to hold bureaucratic high-handedness, and the law itself, responsible for Sajen's suicide.
“It is a problem with the Municipality Building rules,” the chief minister said. “If there is a complaint against the decision of the secretary, the law states that an appeal can be filed only before a tribunal. The concerned council does not have the right to hear the appeal,” the chief minister told the Assembly.
Syamala was spared.
Raj Kumar custodial death
The questions swirling around the custodial death of financier Raj Kumar saw power minister M M Mani and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on two sides of the divide. While the power minister backed the police, the chief minister asserted that the police should be held accountable.
Mani had also insisted that Congressmen in Idukki were behind the death. This, too, was not shared by the chief minister. To his credit, the chief minister, at no point, had attempted to defend the police in the Raj Kumar custodial death case.
Pinarayi Vijayan even said it felt strange that a man as seriously ill as Raj Kumar was transported by the police from Peerumedu to Kottayam Medical College and then taken back. “Why should a man so unwell be taken on such a long journey. And why was he not admitted in the Kottayam Medical College,” Vijayan had said.
The opposition onslaught was led by Congress MLA V D Satheesan. He called the Idukki SP Mani's hit man. Satheesan also said it was perplexing that the CPM-led governing body of Pattom Colony Cooperative Bank was unaware of Raj Kumar's activities. It was in this bank that Kumar had deposited the money he had collected from gullible investors. (Kumar had sold a scheme under which a person would get Rs one lakh in return for Rs 1000.)
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, then, challenged the chief minister to order a judicial probe.
Pinarayi Vijayan did not pick up the gauntlet in the Assembly but a judicial probe was eventually ordered, after the Assembly session was over. And as demanded by the opposition, the SP, K B Venugopal who was allegedly M M Mani's close aide, was also removed from his post.