(This is the first part of the Malayala Manorama series 'Government Jobs: Playbook of Nexus and Nepotism')
When 5.5 lakh government employees in Kerala are paid salaries in accordance with the recommendations of the Pay Reforms Commission, there is no such limit on the beneficiaries of backdoor appointments. Dream projects are conjured up to keep their jobs safe and their salaries justified.
Swapna Suresh, an accused in the gold smuggling case in Thiruvananthapuram, had been taking home a pay check which was heftier than that of a district collector. Rules are bent for the favourites of people who are in position. All this cronyism costs the public exchequer dearly.
Swapna Suresh’s appointment to a government-run enterprise was the beginning of a dream run. She even managed to get PwC refer her name as a consultant. And she did that with a fake degree certificate which escaped scrutiny until now.
At first glance, the appointment seemed regular. She was picked by a Faridabad-based firm which acted as a consultant to the multinational consultancy, PwC. The government appointed her to the Space Park as per the referral of PwC. However, the whole episode becomes muddy when we know that the candidate was close to the man who controlled the department, M Sivasankar, who was the Information Technology Department Secretary and the Principal Secretary of the Chief Minister’s Office.
Consultancy firms such as PwC are asked to supply candidates for government jobs. The route could also be used by higher-ups in the government to ask the consultancies to refer only those candidates as the officers suggest.
The state government had been paying PwC Rs 2.7 lakh for the service of Swapna Suresh. PwC, in turn, paid Vision Technology, the Faridabad-based firm which acts as a sub-consultancy, Rs 1.4 lakh as Swapna Suresh’s salary and the commission and taxes (10%).
Vision Technology paid Swapna Suresh Rs 1.12 lakh.
Compare this with the managing director of the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited. That post comes with a salary of Rs 1.5 lakh. The chief secretary of the state draws a salary of Rs 2.25 lakh.
Before Swapna Suresh joined the Space Park as a project manager, she had tried to get into the Technopark or some other government enterprises. She even tried to get back into the UAE consulate. A multinational consultancy firm felt pressure to recruit her. Then she got PwC to refer to the job at the Space Park.
These attempts happened in September. Top companies in Technopark refused to hire her because they did not want to spend big on someone without any serious qualifications. Her promoters tried to appoint her in Coconics, Kerala government’s laptop manufacturing company, but there weren’t any vacancy for her.
As a last resort, a post was created for her in the Space Park. Instead of recruiting her directly, PwC was roped in to create a façade of fair play.
Even Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s exhortation to speed up file movements to help the people had failed to shake up the Secretariat bureaucracy from its slumber. Yet files flew across departments in record pace if they were initiated by a particular officer. Sivasankar could open a file, get it vetted by various departments and make it into an order in a single day. After all, he was the right-hand man of the Chief Minister. The Chief Minister’s Office has an officer responsible for the smooth conduct of files.
Files related to the appointments to the Information Technology Department are not to be found in the Secretariat. Whenever the Information Technology Department wanted to create a post in any of the institutions under it or to make a post permanent, a file would make its way to the Secretariat.
The Finance Department often showed undue haste in approving such requests. Sivasankar was also in good terms with Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac and his staff. When it came to Information Technology, the Finance Department chose to ignore the financial crunch. The request would be approved by the Finance Department and sent to the cabinet for approval.
Other ministers and officers were under the impression that the Chief Minister was privy to such decisions. So nobody bothered to question them. Sivasankar was not without detractors in the Chief Minister’s Office but they were afraid to follow up on the leads they received.
The Chief Minister has said that he was not aware of the appointment of Swapna Suresh to the Space Park. He has set up a probe into the whole affair.
The route to Space Park
The Space Park was set up by the Information Technology Department in association with the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). Somewhere in the middle of 2019, the firm decided to hire a junior consultant and PwC was put on the job of identifying one. PwC is also learned to have received a direction about the possible choice.
PwC did not send its own consultant. The multinational firm outsourced the job to Faridabad-based Vision Technology. Enter Swapna Suresh as a consultant referred by PwC. She had joined as a consultant of Vision Technology within a month of leaving her job with the UAE consulate on August 31, 2019. On October 21, she joined the government enterprise.
A Haryana-based firm, Knowy, was tasked with the job of running a background on Swapna Suresh. An advocate with a Bengaluru-based firm, Crime Check, was asked to run a background check on any criminal antecedent. She was found to have a good track record. It would later emerge that she had produced a fake degree certificate to land the job.
Swapna Suresh was interviewed at the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited by a panel that included a special officer of the Space Park. Though she was on the payroll of a third-party consultancy, she was given a government identity card and visiting cards. Nobody knows how to explain it, especially since the government argues that she was not even a contract employee.
The government justifies the appointment saying that she is not paid out of the public exchequer. However, the government had been paying Rs 2.7 lakh to PwC for Swapna’s services. That included her salary of Rs 1.2 lakh. The rest of the amount is towards the commission of PwC and Vision Technology.
The government also said that Swapna had ties with the Information Technology Department. However, she had placed herself as the face of the Space Park when she approached investors. If she was not an employee, then why was she given an identity card and business cards bearing the government seal. Consultants in other government departments are never given a card with the government seal.
There were allegations that she might have faked the cards but officials later confirmed that they were given by the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited.
The argument that the government had no role in Swapna’s appointment is also without much merit. Though she was a consultant of Vision Technology, she was interviewed and appointed by an official panel that contained a special officer of the Space Park.
Then there is another narrative that she was recommended by an advisory committee of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). The VSSC has rubbished this. The committee that includes the director have not met even once. The formation of the advisory committee was notified three months after Swapna’s appointment.
Does the sole responsibility lie with Vision Technology? The government has entered into a contract with PwC. Vision Technology is only a third party in this case.
A R Naseeja, wife of Minister J Mercykutty Amma’s private secretary, was offered a permanent post with the Labour Department recently. A A Basheer’s wife secured her career as a lower-division clerk in the Kerala Institute of Labour and Employment (KILA) even as about 56,000 candidates who passed the PSC test await their turn to be appointed to the government service.
This appointment contradicts an earlier circular that specifically barred government departments from offering permanent posts to temporary appointees. The then Finance Department Additional Chief Secretary K M Abraham sent the circular in 2016 as a follow-up to a Supreme Court ruling.
The circular blocked the permanent appointment of hundreds of temporary workers but Naseeja could use her political influence. She was offered the post because she had completed 10 years in the temporary post. She joined in 2008.
Another CPM sympathiser was also given permanent appointment as a typist, citing the same reason. She would have been appointed permanently at the time of the previous LDF government but for some opposition.
(Reporting by Renji Kuriakose, Mahesh Guptan, V R Prathap, S V Rajesh, M R Harikumar, K P Safeena and Jikku Varghese Jacob)