In Kerala's IT department, some job offers are 'tailor-made'

(This is the second part of the Malayala Manorama series 'Government Jobs: Playbook of Nexus and Nepotism'. Read Part 1 here: Backdoor appointments cost the public money and the government its face.)

As many as 41 lakh job candidates are awaiting their chance to receive an appointment letter from the Kerala government.

The Kerala Public Service Commission has about 3 crore applications from job aspirants.

Many of them would never receive that appointment letter.

Many lose out in the competitive exam by a whisker. Many just witness their rank list being outdated.

On the other hand, if you know which strings to pull, you can land plum posts in the government without breaking a sweat.

Unlike the multitude of toiling contract workers, these elite backdoor entrants take home a fat paycheck for little work done.

The row around Swapna Suresh, an accused in the gold smuggling case who had worked as a consultant to the government-run Space Park in Thiruvananthapuram, led us to a Faridabad-based company.

PwC sourced Swapna Suresh from Vision Technology before referring her to the government job.

We tried to contact the company. We had a hard time. When we emailed the address found on the company website, we received a system-generated reply that the email address was not in existence. The two phone numbers provided on the site were not functional too.

This was the company which PwC had chosen to work with.

We then tried to track Sunitha Sehti, a senior human resources executive whose name had appeared in the offer letter given to Swapna Suresh. Her LinkedIn profile suggested she was working with a company with a different name, Vision Technologies. That is a U.S. company with no presence in India.

We tried to contact Sethi on social media. All we wanted to check was if the offer letter was genuine or not. Sethi wouldn’t confirm that. She replied that she had left Vision Technology in April before ending the chat and blocking the account.

When we pointed out the confusion to the government circles, we were told that the company might have goofed up while updating the LinkedIn page.

Vision Technology had a LinkedIn profile in the name of Vision Technologies for years.

And they still managed to partner with a reputed multinational company.

Strange pattern

While M Sivasankar was the Information Technology Secretary, the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited created 34 posts, 16 of them permanent. It was in this firm that Swapna Suresh was appointed as an operations manager.

The entity tasked with the implementation of Rs 3,000 crore needed more personnel to man it, the government was told. Sivasankar was able to convince Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan about the need for more staff in the firm.

The Chief Minister signed the order without much thought to the recommendation of an expert committee to avoid creating more posts as part of austerity measures. The new posts cost about Rs 2 crore a year in salaries.

Several staffers have been appointed as IT project assistants in the offices of the Chief Secretary and other secretaries. All these contract appointments are supposed to help the officers in IT-related matters. Is it safe to trust the contract short-term workers with the confidential files that reach these offices? Nobody dared to ask. Sivasankar had a halo. He was considered too close to the Chief Minister.

Sivasankar had a confidant in his office. He retired from the Secretariat as an office assistant 15 years ago. To know how he is still drawing government salary, we have to explore the backchannels of the Secretariat that opens to the people in the good books of the higher-ups.

The IT cell in the Secretariat seems to have been created with the sole purpose of employing 'favourites'.

Anybody can be appointed to the IT cell on contract basis. Their real job may be something else. This utter waste of taxpayers’ money becomes all the more outrageous when we consider the proposal to redeploy about 200 office assistants in the Secretariat to more useful jobs.

Unwanted sections

The enthusiasm to appoint people to the Information Technology Department is significantly lacking when it comes to lesser departments. When the Revenue Minister requested the creation of eight posts to form a tribal taluk in Attappadi for welfare measures, the Finance Department objected to it citing the financial crunch.

The Revenue Minister was forced to withdraw his request in the face of stiff objections.

However, later meetings of the cabinet became the venue of a liberal grant of posts as asked by the Information Technology Department.

The cabinet or the Finance Department had no idea who was appointed in the posts created.

The decision to set up a Digital University under the Information Technology Department was not communicated to all the ministers until the matter reached the cabinet for its perusal.

Why did we need a digital university when we had the Cochin University of Science and Technology and the APJ Abdul Kalam Technological University? Nobody dared to ask.

The backdoor appointments often rub the party workers the wrong way.

Even CPM workers question the wisdom of the appointment of an 'expert' in the Startup Mission, another entity lorded over by the Information Technology Department.

She was apparently a bitter critic of the party and the government on social media until she was appointed as a senior fellow in the product marketing section with a salary of Rs 80,000.

She owns an IT company in the United States and holds a green card. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has alleged that the appointment was not transparent.

Costly endeavours

The firm set up to promote research into free software comes with a hefty bill. The International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) that works out of the Sports Complex in Kariavattom near Thiruvananthapuram is a swanky site.

The monthly rent of the building is Rs 13 lakh. The department has spent about Rs 5 lakh for interior development.

The centre looks like a five-star hotel. The monthly bill runs up to Rs 3 lakh. Still a part of the building is leaking and that part is where the servers and power unit are located.

The authorities got a temporary shed over the roof for six months, at a cost of Rs 3 lakh.

The ICFOSS easily beats the previous record for the highest rent – that of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) which pays Rs 5.48 lakh as monthly rent.

All the employees of ICFOSS have been appointed on a contract basis, yet everyone carries identity cards with the government seal on them.

The fact that ICFOSS is yet to make its mark in the field of open software has not deterred the government from creating 11 more posts recently. The plan is to secure the future of the current contract employees.

The director of the firm draws a salary equivalent to that of the Kerala University vice chancellor under the new rules. The others get salaries on the scale of professors and associate professors. Those who take home a pay check of Rs 1 lakh currently can expect to get about Rs 80,000 more.

Why does the ICFOSS need professors and associate professors when the Information Technology Department is planning to set up a digital university? Clear answers were not forthcoming.

Apart from the academic posts, the ICFOSS is also lobbying to make the temporary posts of technical coordinators, system administrators and programme coordinators as permanent ones. Whose interest is it trying to serve?

(Reporting by Renji Kuriakose, Mahesh Guptan, V R Prathap, S V Rajesh, M R Harikumar, K P Safeena and Jikku Varghese Jacob)

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