Bar bribery scandal: Chief Secretary to the defence of tourism minister Riyas

Dr V Venu. File photo: Manorama

After the Tourism Director's explanation on May 26, it is now Chief Secretary V Venu's turn to defend Tourism Minister P A Mohammad Riyas and the government. An official release put out by the Public Relations Department in the Chief Secretary's name termed media reports that hinted at a relaxed liquor policy as "baseless".

"Media reports on the lines that the State Excise Policy will be tweaked to do away with dry days are baseless," the PRD release said quoting the Chief Secretary. "Such propaganda is being spread by misinterpreting the meetings called at the behest of the Chief Secretary to improve the financial position of the state," it said.

It was a voice clip that popped up recently that made the tourism director (in charge) Shikha Surendran’s meeting with tourism stakeholders on May 21 controversial. The voice clip - of Animon, the Idukki district president of the Bar Owners' Association, and recorded on May 23 - exhorted members across Kerala to contribute Rs 2.5 lakh each to get the Excise Policy revised in their favour. This was widely seen as a bribe mobilisation drive two days after the tourism director's meeting to discuss the 'dry day' issue.

Tourism Minister P A Mohammad Riyas. Photo: Manorama

The tourism minister denied any knowledge of such a meeting. "I have not asked to make any changes in the Excise Policy," Riyas said. The tourism director (in charge), too, said that the meeting was not held under the instructions of the minister. She said the meeting discussed the hurdles that stood in the way of transforming Kerala into a wedding destination and also the problems of MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, conventions, exhibitions) tourism.

The PRD release on Monday said that a meeting called by the tourism director on May 21 was part of a series of meetings that were held after the Chief Secretary convened a meeting on March 1 and asked secretaries to come up with innovative measures to tackle Kerala’s fiscal distress.

The meeting of secretaries called by the Chief secretary on March 1 discussed the state's fiscal situation and also ways to improve the efficiency of governance. "Many issues were discussed during the meeting, including the consequences of the centre's move to curb the state's borrowing limit," the release said. "The utilisation of Urban Infrastructure Development Fund, cases pending in courts and ways to improve Ease of Doing Business were also discussed," it said.

At the March 1 meeting, the secretaries were told to hold further discussions on the issues. They were told to actively participate in these discussions, contribute ideas and eventually come up with plans of action within two months.

The March 1 meeting also identified various issues and sectors that required greater attention. One such issue, according to the Chief Secretary, was the 'dry day' problem and how 12 dry days a year was affecting the MICE sector.

The Chief Secretary had also directed the tourism secretary to do a fact-based assessment of the losses suffered by the tourism sector as a consequence of the 'dry day' policy. He also told the tourism secretary to hold discussions with various stakeholders in the tourism sector and to submit a detailed report. The release also said that it was routine for the tourism director to hold constant interactions with stakeholders in the tourism industry.

Further, Venu said that the demand to scrap 'dry days' was a long-standing demand of the tourism sector. The same demand had been voiced by stakeholders in the excise sector, too. The issue came up during a meeting of excise stakeholders called by the Chief Secretary on January 4.

However, a final decision on this has not been taken. "Such discussions on improving the finances of the state were held only at the level of officials. It was these discussions of a routine nature that are now being misinterpreted to mean that the government was planning to revise the Excise Policy," the Chief Secretary said.

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