Kerala's finance management is baffling with misplaced priorities bleeding the already depleted coffers. Despite facing a severe economic crisis, the government is now set to construct two official residences for ministers.
Authorities have identified a site for one of the residences at Vazhuthacaud, while efforts are on to find a location for the second. The State currently has 21 residences meant for ministers, including the Cantonment House, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition.
The government approved a proposal by the Department of Tourism to construct two more residences. The department, responsible for providing residences for ministers, had pointed out that minister V Abdurahiman has been staying in a rented accommodation.
Besides deciding to construct two houses, the government has also okayed a proposal to renovate an apartment complex on the MLA quarters' premises. The plan is to construct a 10-storey complex after demolishing the existing structure.
The complex, to be constructed at an estimated cost of Rs 73.19 crore, will have residential units for 60 MLAs, besides two suits for guests.
The decision to demolish the Pamba Block, constructed in 1971, was made following complaints that the rooms lacked adequate facilities, and the corridors, narrow. Incidentally, several MLAs stay in hotels or in their own residences when the Assembly is in session, while their party workers occupy the official quarters.
Comfort first, grievances later
The government has appointed various Commissions to look into the issues faced by the public. The Commissions normally hold their sittings at district headquarters to hear the public.
One such Commission held its sitting at Munnar instead of Thodupuzha, the district headquarters of Idukki, in April last.
The intention of the sitting held at the guest house in Munnar was clear. Besides the Commission chairperson, a secretary, and three staff members reached the tourist spot in three cars, while another one, with family in tow, opted for a personal vehicle.
As many as 18 complaints were received during the Munnar sitting. The Commission spent two more days at the guest house. The government funded the "sitting."
The same Commission held another sitting at Attappady, instead of Palakkad, the district headquarters. All, barring one, who had gone to Munnar, attended the sitting.
Despite the Commission's secretary having an official driver, the officer opted for a police driver from the district. The secretary's official driver, meanwhile, signed the register claiming he was on duty with the officer, though he was in Thiruvananthapuram.
The finance officer who flagged the discrepancy was sidelined with the higher-ups deciding against forwarding files of any such tours to him.
Expensive Human Rights
The State Human Rights Commission has been functioning out of a rented building at PMG Junction, a stone's throw away from the Legislative Complex. Its office is spread over three floors of the 9,000-square-feet building.
The government is paying Rs 3.5 lakh a month as rent for the building housing the rights panel, even as ample space is available at KSRTC's sprawling shopping-cum-office complex at Thampanoor.
Incidentally, there are not many takers for the space available at the KSRTC complex, easily accessible to the public. Shifting the office of the Human Rights Commission to the complex would help KSRTC garner extra revenue as well.
Despite working from a 9,000-square-feet building, the Commission holds only Thiruvananthapuram district-level sittings at its office, which has about 50 employees.
The office of the State Women's Commission, also located at PMG, too is functioning from a rented building. The government has been paying private individuals huge amounts as rent of buildings housing various Commissions, apart from spending crores of rupees annually to keep the panels running.
The government had initiated the construction of a building at Pattom to provide office space for various Commissions. The work of the planned tower has been dragging on, benefiting private players who have rented out space to the government.
The Official Bhasha Commission, too, is functioning out of a rented space at Pettah. The rent is Rs 40,000 a month.
Govt proposes, lobby disposes
The rental lobby has been active in Kerala. For instance, the government had allotted funds, 12 years ago, for constructing a warehouse for the Medical Services Corporation in Kozhikode. The construction work has not yet begun, thanks to the rental lobby.
The warehouse is supposed to cater to hospitals within the city limits. The Medical Services Corporation's warehouse now is located at Naduvannur, 40 kilometres away from the city. The government shells out about Rs 6 lakh as rent of the building housing the warehouse.
If the warehouse is shifted to the Corporation's own building, the amount being spent as rent could be saved. The department owns a property at Chevayoor, where a building for the warehouse could be constructed. Apparently, the officials are uninterested in implementing the government's decision to construct a permanent building for the warehouse.
Culture of commission raj
A fund was raised to financially support artists during the peak COVID-19 days. The Bharat Bhavan-organised 'Mazhamizhi,' a programme held to raise funds, got mired in controversy following allegations of irregularities.
The office of the Minister for Culture ordered a probe into irregularities as skeletons started tumbling out. The order, however, was derailed following political intervention. The investigation completely stopped after the minister was replaced.
Corruption, misappropriation and splurging of funds are rampant in the department, which has 35 institutions under it. Appointments to these institutions are mostly political, paving way for middlemen to have a free run at the government's expense.
The department has enough funds, and paying a commission -- or cut -- at every stage of any cultural event organised is the norm. The vouchers submitted are inclusive of commissions, appropriated for arranging artistes to organising necessary facilities.
A close look at relevant documents will reveal that artists are paid an amount higher than what they charge for a private programme. The artist seldom gets the fee mentioned in the document. The "fee" is inclusive of the commission paid to the middlemen. The commission, incidentally, is shared by all, including those in the department.
There are groups that organise cultural events on behalf of the department across the State. The Onam festival week is the most lucrative season for these groups. A leader from the ruling front, who holds a prominent position in the culture scene in Thiruvananthapuram, has been controlling the groups for several years.
Contracts for organising cultural events are mostly awarded to the same group of individuals. The contracts are awarded without floating tenders inviting quotations. Instead, it will be published on a board in the office. If there are more contenders for a programme, a compromise formula will be thrashed out to share the "spoils" before awarding the contract to those closer to the authorities.
Interestingly, bills of expenses incurred for holding the Bharat Bhavan-organised "Paithrukotsavam" in Kannur were raised in the name of a Vanchiyoor, Thiruvananthapuram-based institution under the department of culture.
A studio, bearing the same name as of the institution, has been functioning from the address provided. The bills also carried the rubber stamp of the studio.
"I thought several times before accepting the post of member, State Planning Commission. Several people made social media posts saying that I could do many things if I joined the Commission. It scared me. I had decided at the beginning itself not to accept travel allowance or sitting fees. I will wait for two years. Well, the government is not required to initiate many things in Kerala. It requires a people's movement. Why should we go after a government which does not have even a penny? People have more money than the government.
Santhosh George Kulangara | Member, Kerala State Planning Commission.
(Next: Party's bash at government expense)
Coordination: V R Prathap