Pala: A 50-year-old cooperative society, which has been defunct for the past five years, could be a decisive factor in the outcome of the September 23 Assembly bypoll in Pala constituency.
The Meenachil Rubber Marketing and Processing Co-operative Society Ltd, founded in March 1960, had been the backbone of the latex-based economy of the constituency until it shut operations following mounting debts – the result of alleged mismanagement and corruption.
The Society, which had been running two factories successfully apart from a few medical stores and two supermarkets, incurred a loss of Rs 155 crore as per the audit report of 2013-14.
The Society reportedly owes over Rs 60 crore to hundreds of depositors and farmers. The number of liabilities varies from Rs 40,000 to Rs 25 lakh, according to civic activists who have been working to revive the Society, which has more than 12,000 members on its rolls.
One of them, a local Congress leader, told Onmanorama that the anger of the affected people was a key reason for the decline in the vote share of Kerala Congress (M) chief K M Mani in Pala in the 2016 assembly polls.
“People say allegations over bar bribery scam led to the fall in Mani's vote share. More than that, the Meenachil Society scam had a toll on the poll results. It had become a major issue during the election campaign, but then the Society could arrange a certain amount of money as loans from two cooperative banks and settle the debts of a few people. Others were promised that their money will be refunded immediately after the polls, but nothing has happened since then,” the leader said.
“The amount owed to the Pala diocese and various churches under it was also paid in a bid to keep the clergy on the UDF's side,” he said. The Meenachil Society had been ruled by nominees of the Kerala Congress for years.
The cooperative department of the Kerala government had in June slapped the director board with a fine of Rs 6 crore.
The director board includes former MP Joy Nadukkara, former MLA Joy Abraham and UDF candidate Jose Tom.
The cooperative department conducted an inquiry into the allegations against the director board following a High Court order.
The board members are learnt to have approached the High Court challenging the penalty. “They are also highlighting the fact that they haven't been issued any revenue recovery notice,” the leader told Onmanorama.
The UDF is silent on the issue whereas the LDF has made it a major poll plank. LDF candidate and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Mani C Kappan highlights the issue in his poll rallies. He promises to find a solution to the issue.
A rough estimate is that around 3,500 families in the area have been affected by the closure of the factories. This includes nearly 200 employees of various ventures of society. The workers are yet to be paid the salaries for over a year. Indirect employees such as drivers and barrel makers are also among those affected. The most affected are the small-scale rubber farmers, who deposited the price of their products in society.
“We were all happy during the golden age of society. It was highly profitable for years. Then they (the management) ruined it and many of us lost our jobs,” Divakaran, a barrel maker, said. Hundreds of barrels that were used to store latex now lie rusted on the premises of the Centrifugal Latex Factory near Pala town.
Divakaran said several machinery have been stolen. He said the public anger against those who drove the society to closure could reflect in the bypoll.
The Centrifugal Latex Factory was established in 1975 with the aid from National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC) and Rubber Board. The society began its business activities by starting a rubber nursery in 1963.
In 1965 the society constructed two smokehouses for producing quality RSS-grade sheets.
With the establishment of a Crepe Mill, Meenachil started its diversification in 1969.
Over 14 per cent of the total rubber produced in the country is from the area of operation of the society, according to the society's website.
Activist in poll fray
George Pooveli, a farmer and activist, is contesting the bypoll as an independent candidate. Pooveli has been campaigning alone with a pamphlet detailing the sad plight of the rubber farmers following the closure of the Society.
Pooveli, who claimed he is a former Kerala Congress worker, said even his party leaders had expressed helplessness whenever he tried to raise the issue with them.
Pooveli believes that society could be revived if the government can pool in some funds. He said the administration of the society should be entrusted with honest and non-corrupt officials.
Asked how many votes he was expecting to garner, Pooveli, a member of the Meenachil Heritage Forum, said, “I will win. It's not a joke.”
Thomas, a driver in Pala town, who was eager to see Pooveli after reading his pamphlet, said he is likely to get a considerable number of votes.
If the anger and distress of those who lost their hard-earned money to the cooperative are translated into votes, it is likely to have an impact on the poll results.
KM Mani had won the last Assembly polls with a margin of 4,000-odd votes.