Thiruvananthapuram: It was clear the UDF-led Opposition was determined to disrupt Assembly proceedings on Monday over the Brahmapuram fire.
Eventually, when the Opposition Leader V D Satheesan declared that the UDF would boycott the day's proceedings, the reason cited was the government refusal to call for a CBI inquiry into what Satheesan called a "criminal act" that led to the burning of the waste heaps. His charge, which he first raised in the Assembly on March 6, was that the contractor had purposefully set fire to the waste mounds to burn away all signs of his negligence.
Local Self Government Minister M B Rajesh said the allegations against the company (Zonta Infratech) were baseless. "The propaganda is that the company is an inexperienced, fake and even an entity only on paper," Rajesh said.
"This company is functioning in over two dozens of cities in the country," he said. They are leading the waste treatment activities at Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Raipur in Chattisgarh. He mentioned these two cities specifically to provoke the Congress as both are under Congress rule. In fact Raipur is where the Congress plenary was recently conducted. Rajesh stressed this fact to some bitter shouting from the Opposition side.
Further, Rajesh said the company was functioning in Bhubaneswar, Bhopal, Chennai and Ranchi. "This company has waste treatment plants in various states ruled by various parties," Rajesh said. After the Brahmapuram fire broke out, it was alleged that the company was led by the son-in-law of top CPM leader and former LDF convenor Vaikom Vishwan.
Even Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) has shares in this company, Rajesh said. "GAIL cannot take the shares of the company without the Centre's approval. This company got a contract in Bengaluru under the Congress regime. Though the BJP had alleged corruption, a probe had revealed the BJP charges to be false," the LSG minister said.
The Opposition Leader said the company could not have got a better spokesman than the minister. Satheesan hinted that the government had taken over waste management in Brahmapuram with the intention of granting the contract to Zonta Infratech.
He said the LDF government had issued an order on March 5, 2020, that had invoked the Disaster Management Act to take over the waste management at Brahmapuram from the Kochi Corporation. The LSG minister wanted to respond to this but Satheesan refused to yield. Rajesh kept asking Satheesan for a chance to make his point but the Opposition Leader turned him down.
Rajesh could make his point only after the UDF members had crowded the Speaker's dais and the House drifted into pandemonium. He said the government had to take over the job because the previous Kochi Corporation led by Congress's Soumini Jain had refused to heed the National Green Tribunal's order on waste removal.
Satheesan refused to hear the minister and went on to suggest that the 2020 government order opened the doors for Zonta Infratech.
"Since March 2020, waste management in Kochi was the government's responsibility. And what did they do? They brought in this company with insufficient previous work," Satheesan said.
He said the tender document had stipulated a previous work of at least Rs 10 crore. But he said the total contract value of the company's previous work was for only Rs 8.56 crore, for Tirunelveli Corporation.
The company then included the annual maintenance contract (AMC) amount to the figure and submitted a revised previous work amount of Rs 10.3 crore. Satheesan waved both the original and revised submissions of the company and, peppering his words with sarcasm, said: "Was it not clear from these two papers that this globally renowned company had not undertaken a work of even Rs 10 crore."
He then painted a picture of the company that was in contrast to Rajesh's description. Satheesan said the company once had a collaboration with a German company. "This German company had sued them for defrauding them of 2.5 million euros. The German ambassador came all the way to Bengaluru to file a complaint against this company," Satheesan said.
He said the contract of "such a big company" had been cancelled by both Kollam and Kannur corporations. "In Kozhikode, you have extended their tenure and have also given them advance mobilisation," he said. The Opposition Leader alleged that the company had doused the waste heaps at Brahmapuram in petrol and set them on fire. "Now they will say that the fire had happened when they had only an insignificant amount of waste to remove," Satheesan said. "You people are throwing a protective cordon around these bandits," he said.
Satheesan said the government was unwilling to conduct a probe even after it became clear that a loot of great magnitude had taken place. "Without even conducting a preliminary probe, the minister has mounted a defence of the company," Satheesan said.
Health Minister Veena George and Rajesh more or less repeated what they said in the Assembly on March 6, notably there was nothing to worry and the government had taken prompt steps to address the crisis.