Cattle theft at dairy farm: How top employees milk a bleeding Plantation Corporation of Kerala

PCK Dairy Farm: Plantation Corporation of Kerala set up a mechanised dairy farm with an investment of Rs 5.54 crore in 2016 but it never found its feet. Photo: Special arrangement

Kasaragod: Santhosh S is back at his village at Neeramankadavu in Thiruvananthapuram's Nedumangad taluk running his internet service delivery centre. In June last year, the state government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) plucked him from his village and handed over to him a loss-making but 'hi-tech' dairy farm with 32 Holstein-Friesian (HF) cows in Kasaragod's Ukkinadka in Badiadka panchayat, nearly 600km from his home. The lease agreement said Santhosh would give PCK Rs 38 lakh to run the farm for five years.On June 23, 2023, the day he took over the farm, Santhosh trucked out 17 HF cows, sold them in Kasaragod and bid bye to his dairy adventure. He was in the nick of time for some brisk business as last year's Eid al-Adha fell on June 28. "I got only Rs 1.75 lakh after selling the 17 cows, that is around Rs 10,000 per cow," he told Onmanorama.

PCK called for bids again for the dairy farm, and this time handed it over to a genuine dairy farmer named Aboobacker for Rs 29.40 lakh for five years. It would have been almost business as usual in the Kottayam-headquartered Plantation Corporation of Kerala if not for a faceless whistleblower named Adv Mohammed Faisal who wrote to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan about the broad-day cattle theft and the milking of the loss-making corporation allegedly by its own employees.

After the whistle-blower's letter, PCK officials in Kottayam concluded that it was not aware of the theft of the cows, and have moved in to pin the blame on an assistant estate manager in Kasaragod, P M Ismail. But lessee Santhosh and several employees, retired and serving, in Kasaragod said senior officials such as General Manager (Operations) Justus Karuna Rajan and Managing Director James Jacob were in the loop.

Empty farm/ Milk: The hi-tech farm was built with a capacity of 100 cows and daily production of 1500 litres but with fewer than 20 milking cows, the production never crossed 50 litres. Photo: Special arrangement

Betting big on spurious milk
The Plantation Corporation of Kerala, notorious for aerially spraying endosulfan in Kasaragod, is under the Department of Agriculture. It is majorly into rubber, cashew and oil palm. When rubber prices crashed, it diversified into verticals such as dairy farms, quail farms, carbonated cashew fruit drinks, passion fruit squash and rambutan cultivation. Except for the rambutan plantation, all the businesses are bleeding the company, a former managing director had said. According to the data publicly available, PCK's cumulative losses in the eight years ended 2021-2022 are at 102.18 crore. In a letter written to the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture on June 6, MD James Jacob said PCK has been in loss for the past three years (2021-2022, 2022-2023 and 2023-2024), and it would clear the arrears of employees when the corporation turns around.

In other words, the corporation has been in the red for a decade.In 2013-2014, when PCK last made a profit, it proposed a mechanised dairy farm in its Kasaragod Estate, and the Oommen Chandy government approved it. The proposal was too good to be true. A hundred high-yielding Holstein-Friesian cows, 1,500 litres of milk per day, a breakeven in five years, and then PCK's dairy farm will be in green pastures forever.In February 2016, after spending Rs 5.54 crore, the dairy farm for 100 cows was ready in PCK's Perla Division under Kasaragod Estate. The farm was equipped with milking machines, imported fodder processing units, a pasteurisation unit that can process 1,500 litres of milk every day, a milk packing unit, a milk chilling plant, grass cutters and even an electrical grooming brush to give cows a good scratch. The only thing the farm was short of were cows. "We made a farm for 100 cows but were allowed to buy only 20 cows," said former manager of PCK's Kasaragod Estate Vinod K R, who helped build the farm. He had hand-picked 20 HF cows in consultation with the government vets in Kasaragod district. But every month, the farm was making a loss. "I gave in writing to two MDs assuring them that the farm can be made profitable if they sanction money to buy cows. The officials in Kottayam mocked me and sent me back," said Vinod, who is now leading a retired life in Thodupuzha. For a dairy farm to be profitable, it should be run to near full capacity and 80% of its animals should be milking, he said, based on his extensive research for the farm. After a year, the farm had 13 cows and 10 calves and was producing only 30 to 40 litres every day, a far cry from the dream of 1,500 litres per day. According to the audit reports, the losses of the farm climbed to Rs 1.69 crore by January 2022, its sixth year.By then the incumbent managing director James Jacob took charge. "We decided to lease out the farm to cut our losses," he said.But PCK found no takers for the farm after calling for bids twice. In the third attempt, Santhosh, the owner of the internet service delivery centre, applied and was promptly selected.

New lessee and cows: The original lessee bid the farm for Rs 38 lakh but gave up immediately. The new lessee will be paying Rs 29.40 lakh to PCK In five years. Photo: Special arrangement

Former employees such as Vinod and Gangadharan Nair, who has now filed a complaint with the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau said Santhosh could be a benami of a higher-ranked official in Kottayam. When asked about his experience in dairy farming, Santhosh told Onmanorama: "I have one or two friends who own cows".Managing director James Jacob said PCK had no reasons to doubt him. Santhosh bid the farm for Rs 30.6 lakh. "After negotiation, he agreed to pay Rs 38 lakh as lease amount in five years," said the MD who signed the agreement with Santhosh on May 25, 2023. The agreement was the lessee would pay Rs 4.75 lakh to PCK every July 15 and October 15 till 2026. In case of default, he would have to pay an extra 25% as interest. The delay cannot be more than 30 days.Santhosh said PCK jacked up the lease amount by Rs 7.4 lakh saying it was the price of the 33 cows. "I had told the General Manager (Justus Karuna Rajan) before entering into the agreement that we cannot keep unproductive cows in the farm like you have, and so I will be selling them," he said. And he did that on the second day of taking over the farm.Former employees Vinod and Gangadharan Nair estimated a loss of around Rs 12 lakh to PCK for the 17 stolen HF cows and calves. If the lease amount of Rs 38 lakh is added, the total loss would be around Rs 50 lakh, said Gangadharan. Santhosh's claim that he got only Rs 1.75 lakh is a blatant lie, said Vinod. "Where in Kerala will you get an HF cow for Rs 10,000?" said Vinod.

The blame game
Santhosh said he gave up on the dairy farm because PCK had not paid taxes for the 25 acres of land it gave him to run the farm and grow fodder grass. "When I checked in the Revenue Department's computer, I found that the land belonged to private individuals. The re-survey was not done. I had planned to buy new cows by showing PCK's land as collateral," he said. Three months later, that is around September 2023, he formally exited the farm by writing to the MD, he said. But PCK officials said the MD terminated the agreement on September 21, 2023, because Santhosh defaulted on the lease amount.On October 21, 2023, four months after Santhosh sold the cows, managing director James Jacob sent a show-cause notice to Kasaragod Estate manager Ismail asking him to explain why he did not immediately inform the higher-up when the cows were taken away. The MD also took exception to the fact that Ismail did not mention about the stolen cows in his two reminder letters to Santhosh on July 19 and July 31, asking him to pay the first instalment of the lease amount. Ismail gave a weird reply. He wrote: "Violating the agreement, the lessee illegally took away 17 cows out of the farm without the knowledge or consent of PCK". But in the same reply, he said the cows were taken away on the assurance given that the cows would be replaced with high-yielding cows. On not informing the higher-ups, Ismail said, "I informed my higher officials over the phone of the developments the same day". To be sure, Kasaragod Estate Manager Ismail's direct reporting official was General Manager (Operations) Justus Karuna Rajan.But a top official in PCK, Kottayam, said that Justus Karuna Rajan was not involved in the "theft". "Justus had no role in the theft," he said.

Justus Karuna Rajan, who retired on May 31, refuted Santhosh's statement that he was kept in the loop. "If I had known, I would not have allowed the assets of the corporation to be taken out of the farm," he said. He said estate manager Ismail informed him after Santhosh took the cows away. "There is little we can do after the cows were taken away. He should have informed us before," Justus Karuna Rajan said, and added there were civil and criminal cases pending against the lessee.

Gangadharan and Vinod said that Santhosh knew nobody in Kasaragod and the only officials he would be in touch with in Kottayam would be the General Manager (Operations) and the MD. "Without their consent, Santhosh would not be able to take away the cows with such authority on the second day. I can understand if the cows were stolen after a month of acquaintance with the staff in Kasaragod," said the former estate manager Vinod. "The role of the two top officers and Ismail is clear because they did not immediately file a police complaint when the cows were taken away and sold. Neither did they pursue the show-cause notice," said Gangadharan.

Criminal and civil case
Sometime around September 2023, after the whistleblower's letter reached PCK via the Agriculture Minister's office, the corporation filed a criminal breach of trust complaint with Badiadka Police in Kasaragod and moved the court with a civil case to recover the loss. However, according to PCK's board meeting held on November 29, 2023, the MD is mandated to recover only Rs 7 lakh from Santhosh.An anonymous top official quoted above said PCK is planning to recover from Santhosh around Rs 8.6 lakh, which is the difference between the amount he bid and the second lessee.The MD said he initiated a departmental inquiry and served a charge sheet to Ismail, who is now posted at Athirappilly plantation. "I believe there were lapses on the part of Ismail. He will have to explain the one-month delay in filing the police complaint," the MD said.Gangadharan said the departmental inquiry was an after-thought after he filed the complaint with the Vigilance. "Else, how will the MD explain a six-month delay in serving the charge-sheet after he got the reply to the show-cause notice from Ismail in October," said the former employee.

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