At the dedication ceremony of KFON (Kerala Fibre Optic Network) on Monday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was expected to tackle head-on the grave allegations hurled by the opposition UDF against the internet project. He did, towards the fag end of his nearly one-hour speech.
Nonetheless, instead of opting for a point-by-point rebuttal, Vijayan took the convenient route of political rhetoric.
A few hours before the KFON dedication ceremony, Opposition Leader V D Satheesan had called a press conference and had levelled two new charges against the implementation of the KFON project.
This was in addition to the earlier UDF charge that the government had illegally allowed a tender excess of over 50 per cent for the project; from Rs 1028 crore, the project was granted a tender excess of over Rs 500 crore taking the total project cost to Rs 1531.36 crore.
The first charge Satheesan raised on Monday was that the three main conditions related to the laying of the Optical Ground Wire Cable were thrown to the winds. The three conditions were: one, the cable should be Indian made; two, there should be facilities to test the cable in India itself; and three, the company winning the bid should have laid cables along at least 250 kms in the last five years.
“LS Cable private Limited India that won the contract did not satisfy any of these three conditions,” Satheesan said. He said the company's Haryana factory had no facilities to manufacture these optical ground wire cables. “So they imported cheap quality cables from China,” he said, and added: “Both KFON and KSEBL (a stakeholder in the project) are aware of this.”
The Opposition Leader said there was no quality assurance for these cables imported from China. “Indian cables have a guarantee of 25 years. These cheap Chinese cables could become dysfunctional any moment,” Satheesan said.
The Opposition Leader's second charge related to the point of presence (PoP) structures. A PoP is a local access point that allows users to connect to the Internet with their Internet service provider (ISP). A PoP typically houses servers, routers, network switches, multiplexers, and other network interface equipment.
Satheesan said the contract to create the pre-fabrication structures of PoPs were won by Prasadeo, the company that is allegedly linked to the father-in-law of the Chief Minister's son and was also part of the installation of AI cameras.
“Presadeo does not have the capability and so they imported the pre-fabrication structures from China and Oman,” Satheesan said. “These, too, have no quality. Most of these PoPs are now said to be leaking and are overgrown with weeds for lack of maintenance,” he added.
The Chief Minister chose to touch upon just one of the charges, the one related to the inferior quality of the cables. He did not speak of the three conditions that Satheesan said were violated but merely took cover behind Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), which is the system integrator for the KFON project.
“On what basis did he make the claim,” he asked. “BEL is one of the most prominent PSUs in the country. It is a PSU that continues to function efficiently. One cannot question its credibility,” he said.
Then, the Chief Minister switched to plain rhetoric to debunk charges of corruption.
In a triumphant tone he said that Kerala was not a place where a private or government entity needed to spend money for purposes other than for the project. “Here in Kerala money has to be spent only for the project, not for anything else,” he said.
The Chief Minister did not even mention the word 'bribe'. He just smiled and told his audience that they would have understood what he meant.
“I can say with utmost pride that this is the reality of Kerala. No wonder Kerala has been rated the least corrupt state in India,” he said. Vijayan was perhaps referring to the India Corruption Survey 2019, conducted by Transparency International and Local Circles, that had cited Kerala as one of the seven states in India where citizens reported low instances of corruption; the others being Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, West Bengal, Goa and Odisha.
“Such a rating was given on the basis of feedback from such government and public firms that do business with Kerala,” the Chief Minister said.
Though he sidestepped the graver charges, the Chief Minister did not fail to latch on to certain political allegations made by the opposition leader. Satheesan had called the dedication ceremony an “extravaganza”. He had said that Rs 4.35 crore was being spent on the ceremony at a time when the government could not even pay pensions.
The Chief Minister did not dispute the figure but sought to belittle the charge by painting the audience too as the target of the opposition's charge. “He says we are being extravagant. You are all part of this extravagance. This is their usual strategy, to wildly scatter impotent seeds of lies,” the Chief Minister said.
Satheesan said the UDF would come out with documentary evidence of the charges in the days to come.