KA SHAJI / Kottayam

KERALA’S OLDEST newspaper, Deepika (tiny lamp), is no more the leading light of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful and influential of Kerala’s churches. The paper, hitherto the mouthpiece of the church, has been handed over to dubious NRI businessman MA Pharis, who has been using the paper for making frontal attacks against Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. Pharis, who was recently in the news himself for shadowy deals with Pinarayi Vijayan loyalists in the CPM’s Kerala unit, is the new chairman of the paper.

Resentment is brewing among the clergy and followers against Kanjirapally Bishop Dr Mathew Arakkal and Deepika’s managing director Fr Robin. On August 12, a convention of the Inter-Church Council held in Kottayam to protest against the LDF government’s educational policies was marred by the shouting of slogans against Arakkal, Robin and Pharis. The 120-year-old Deepika, which was launched in 1887 from Kottayam by venerated Christian evangelists like Nidheerikkal Mani Kathanar and Chavara Kuriakose Elias, was officially taken over by a new board of directors led by Pharis Aboobacker in mid-August. Renji Panikkar, a prominent screenplay writer in Malayalam films, was nominated as the vice chairman. This ended the rich legacy of Elias, who was recently elevated to the position of “The Blessed” by the Vatican. It is for the first time that the Deepika has a non-Christian as its chairman and members of the Christian laity, who had invested huge amounts of money in the company, are now making a last-ditch bid to recapture control. But it is unlikely that the decision will be revoked.

Pharis has begun using the newspaper to attack Achuthanandan. The paper has been regularly writing Page One editorials targeting the chief minister and his family. At the same time, the Vijayan faction has come out in Pharis’ support. Local administration minister Paloly Mohammed Kutty said the Deepika now looks more a progressive paper than a church paper. The church, for its part, doesn’t know which side to take. Spokesperson of the Catholic Church, Fr A. Adappoor, said: “Why are they attacking Achuthanandan and projecting Pinarayi as the future of Kerala? Both are Communists with no regard for Catholic values.” Adding to the worries of the church, the newspaper has started relegating church-related news items to the margins to make space for big colour pictures of Kutty and Pinarayi and articles praising their “practical” Communism.

“Deepika is acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for Pinarayi. Taking up cudgels for one politburo member against another is a curious role for the newspaper which led the Vimochana amaram (Liberation Struggle) in 1958 against the Godless Communist Government of EMS Namboodiripad,’’ pointed out Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel, former executive editor of the paper .

The newspaper was operated by CMI Fathers of Catholic Church until 1989, when ownership shifted to “Rashtra Deepika Limited”, a newly created public limited company. Lay people, dioceses and congregations shared ownership of the company that increasingly incurred heavy losses. According to church sources, Pharis came into the picture in 2004 with a donation of Rs 2 crore to the ailing company, officially known as Rashtra Deepika Private Limited (RDL), following its decision to sell shares through private channels. On July 20, 2006, Arakkal sent out a note to shareholders saying, “I made sincere attempts to mobilise funds from within the community but the responses were very disappointing. In these circumstances, I contacted Mr MA Pharis, a Muslim NRI entrepreneur of considerable resources. He agreed to advance a small interest-free loan of Rs 2 crore to RDL for two years. He said if we were unable to repay the loan it would be considered as zakat (charity).” After getting the loan, Arakkal gave Pharis a seat on the board of directors and later made him vice chairman of the company. Pharis is said to have advanced around Rs 10 crore to the company since then and has been dictating its editorial policy.

The Catholic community is now slowly realizing its folly. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) is a divided house over the issue. Most of the bishops now believe it was none other than Arakkal who surrendered the interests of the church to Pharis. In fact, in a recent issue of the respected Catholic weekly Sathyadeepam, Adappoor has advised the Bishops to issue a Pastoral letter informing their flock of the present state of Deepika’s affairs. That, according to him, is the only way to prevent the paper entering Christian homes in a pseudo-Christian guise.

AWORRIED CHURCH had recently decided to raise Rs 10 crore to repay Pharis but he refused to accept the money. At one point there was an agreement between the Church and Pharis that the Church would retain its properties at the headquarters at Kottayam while all other offices and properties of Deepika would go to Pharis.

According to conservative estimates, the assets the Church was willing to part with, including a multi-storey building on prime land in Kochi, were worth more than Rs 20 crore. But the agreement could not be implemented as a court ordered a stay following a number of suits filed by shareholders challenging the terms of the agreement. Journalists working in Deepika are now talking about a voluntary retirement scheme introduced by Pharis to lay off excess staff, which was actually used to remove journalists who resisted his policy changes.

With the court staying the division of the Church’s properties in March 2007, there has been a stalemate with the Church keeping out of the paper and Pharis running the show. In view of sharp criticism within the ranks, the Church leadership has decided to make known the fact that Deepika is no longer a Christian paper through a declaration in its various dioceses. It is now only a matter of record for the Church to admit that its centuryold property is no longer in the service of the Church and its laity.


Kareem's Mineral Sand Business

While the historic resistance against the proposed disinvestment in the Bharat Aluminium Company and Neyveli Lignite still lingers in public memory, Pinarayi Vijayan’s ‘new-age’ communists in Kerala — who claim to be champions of public sector units (PSU) — are adopting a new path that is diametrically opposite to the future of PSUs.The Kerala Minerals and Metals Limited (KMML), the state’s second largest profit-making PSU and the world’s leading manufacturer of titanium dioxide, is fast turning out to be the first victim. Kerala’s industry department is impeding KMML’s development by permitting a Russian firm with questionable credentials to exploit the rich mineral sand deposit on the state’s coast. It is also wooing Tata Steel to the same sector by offering a number of incentives. Top industry sources feel the entry of both the companies would jeopardise KMML’s growth and threaten its very survival. The KMML staff expectedly is worried. So are members of the opposition parties. Worse, even the CPM’s allies have expressed fear over the “unilateral” decision of Industry Minister Elamarom Kareem, a trusted Vijayan lieutenant.

The row over the CPM’s new preference for private investment started with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) by the state government with Russian company Rosoboron to set up a Rs 1,400-crore titanium sponge plant within the KMML compound at Chavara in Kollam district. “The MoU wasn’t discussed within the Left Democratic Front. We don’t know the details of the MoU as it was not officially circulated among the Front partners,” points out TJ Chandra choodan, state secretary, Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Congress MLA VD Satheesan says Rosoboron is controlled by the Russian mafia. “They want to steal our mineral sand and technologies. Tata, which plans to set up a pigment division at Thoothukkudy (Tamil Nadu), is after the same,’’ he told TEHELKA. The row has cast a shadow over the future of KMML, the world’s only integrated titanium dioxide facility with mining, mineral separation, synthetic rutile and pigment-production plants.

KMML executives are livid. One executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the Left Front government thwarted KMML’s expansion activities worth Rs 782 crore to roll out the red carpet to Tata and Rosoboron. It was under the previous Left government that had Suseela Gopalan as industry minister, that the expansion had been sanctioned. The Congress-led UDF government that succeeded it, had in principle decided to invite global tenders for international collaboration to produce titanium sponge at KMML, and to write to major players in the field inviting them to participate. The decision had the ratification of the industry department and the company’s board of directors. However, no global tender was invited by the present government before signing the MoU with Rosoboron. No letter was sent out. The company signed the deal on May 17 this year in a secretive manner. Kareem claims the Russian plant would cost around Rs 1,500 crore. Tata is investing an equal amount a short distance away in Pallipuram in Alapuzha district to start a similar plant.

What is strange is the government’s decision to terminate the modernisation of KMML, which was recommended by two separate legislative committees, before the deal with Tata and Rosoboron. KMML sources say that the government splurged Rs 120 crore on the modernisation. Leader of the opposition Oommen Chandy believes Tata is eyeing Kerala’s mineral sand and KMML’s unique chloride technology. The opposition in Tamil Nadu against its proposed titanium unit at Thoothukudy is also forcing Tata to focus on Kerala.

PC George, leader of the Kerala Congress (Secular), says Rosoboron has nothing to do with the titanium sector. He says: “It is a weapons exporter with possible links to the Russian mafia...I have heard from official circles that it signed the MoU on behalf of Russian MNC Avisma. Roso boron is a front for the government to enter into a tacit deal with Avisma that has a monopoly in the titanium sector and controls over 30 percent of the world’s titanium deals.” Both the proposed units require mineral sand worth Rs 10 lakh a year. The understanding between the companies and the Kareem is to make KMML the two giants’ feeding unit. KMML’s fortunes started crumbling after Kareem assumed office. Balasubramaniam, a bureaucrat appointed by him as KMML managing director earned the wrath of Centre of Indian Trade Unions workers, who alleged inefficiency and corruption, while he was in charge of the public sector Malabar Cements. The decrease in import duty on titanium dioxide pigment from 145 percent to 10 percent landed the company in an unprecedented crisis. It had sought the modernisation drive to decrease the price of titanium pigment dioxide from Rs 89,000 a tonne to Rs 65,000 to boost exports and compete with rivals. But the new MD’s decision to abandon the renovation in favour of Tata and Rosoboron have plunged it into another financial crisis.

The controversy has also affected the Indian Space Research Organisa tion’s planned joint venture with KMML to produce 10,000 tonnes of titanium sponge every year. Stronger than steel, this lightweight product has applications ranging from space research to health. India imports titanium sponge worth Rs 14,35,000 a year.

Kareem, who claims to be ready for any inquiry into the controversy, claims there is no link between the dropping of KMML’s modernisation programme and the MoU with the Rosoboron. The minister points out it was the government, not KMML which had signed the MoU with Avisma. “It was for the establishment of a separate plant, to be implemented through the MoU route,’’ he said. Referring to the criticisms that the project cost had gone up by Rs 300 crore, Kareem claims that it is Rosoborn, not KMML, which is investing the money. “Russia has the requisite advanced technology but not enough raw materials; we have raw materials and infrastructure.”

Kareem alleges corruption in the contract awarded to Delhi-based firm Mecon for KMML’s modernisation under the UDF. ‘‘The modernisation project was initiated by the former EK Nayanar ministry at an estimated cost of Rs 782 crore. But Mecon prepared a Rs 1,142 crore project. They gave sub-contracts to several MNCs without approval from the government or the board of directors,’’ says the minister.

Meanwhile, the opposition Congress that is campaigning against the deal found itself in an embarrassing spot last week when a senior defence ministry official made it clear that the Centre would give “full support” to Rosoboron’s titanium sponge project, by buying its products for the defence industry.

At a defence industry symposium in Kochi, Defence Production Secretary KP Singh called the MoU a major step. When it was pointed out that the Congress-led opposition was opposing the deal, he said: “We are a consumer and require the (titanium sponge) products that have various applications in the defence industry. We’ll buy them from whoever produces them.” Meanwhile, KMML’s fate hangs in the balance.


Kuruvila In Trouble

K A Shaji/ Thiruvananthapuram

A real estate dealer by profession and a minister by chance, Kerala’s PWD Minister TU Kuruvila was a relatively unknown quantity in Kerala’s political scene until recently. Now this late-bloomer’s tryst with politics is about to be cut short as he stands accused of cheating in land deals and of using advance information on development projects to further his own business interests. The allegations have landed Kerala’s faction-riddled, scandal-plagued Left Democratic Front government into trouble it could have done without.

What triggered the scandal was a major real-estate deal Kuruvila made near the proposed multi-crore Smart City project undertaken by Dubai-based TECOM Company in Kochi. Having procured confidential details of the project months before the government signed the MoU with TECOM, minister Kuruvila purchased about 20 acres of land for Rs 60 crore in the project’s vicinity, which following the unveiling of the project is now valued around Rs 200 crore. Kerala’s special branch police has informed the state Home Department that the land deal involving Kuruvila in the Smart City area was a clear case of under-valuation of land prices. Kuruvila is also said to have employed a strategy of purchasing land close to major PWD projects and highways in advance, and then by blocking road access for people living behind the property, forced them to sell their plots to him at cheaper rates.

A recipient of the `Chevalier’ title from the Christian Patriarch of Antioch for safe guarding the interests of Jacobite Church in Kerala, Kuruvila’s public life is a heady mix of politics, religion, real estate, money and muscle power. According to special branch police sources, he owns a `land bank’ of more than 5,000 acres in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In spite of his `smart’ performance as a real estate promoter, the political fate of Kuruvila is now hanging in balance.

To add to his troubles, the coalition partners of LDF are now demanding his resignation in a case of cheating an NRI businessman by trying to sell encroached government land to construct holiday homes. KG Abraham, an NRI entrepreneur from Kuwait, never knew that the property in Rajakumari village of Munnar in Idukki district was encroached, or that its documents were fabricated by the Minister and his family by influencing local revenue officials. According to Abraham, he had no plan to invest in Munnar, but the minister, who visited Kuwait in January this year, had proposed the deal, convincing him of the immense tourism potential of Munnar.

The deal was that the Kuruvila family would sell 50 acres of land for Rs 100 million. As per the agreement, Abraham paid Rs 67.5 million but soon learnt that the land was part of the ecologically sensitive Cardamom Hill Reserve Area, where no construction is permitted as per the law. He felt cheated, but offered to settle the matter if the money was returned. But after Kuruvila’s son-in-law, son and daughters, all parties to the deal, refused to return the amount, Abraham decided to go public on the matter. He informed the Kerala Chief Minister and senior political leaders that he was cheated in the deal, with the active involvement of the Minister. According to government sources, Idukki district administration chief Raju Narayanaswamy, who was asked to probe the land transactions involving Kuruvila, has found seven violations in land records entries in connection with the deal.

The issue turned murkier when Kuruvila’s friend turned foe MLA PC George, a close confidante of Chief Minister Achuthanandan, alleged that Kuruvila had fabricated documents for the government land using fictitious names of half a dozen Tamil estate workers. After the efforts of the Revenue Department to trace the `Tamil workers’ failed, the demand for Kuruvila’s resignation has gained momentum, and there are indications that the LDF would oust the Minister by the first week of September.

But Kuruvila’s troubles won’t end with a mere resignation. His Smart City land deal has come under a vigilance inquiry, and the Vigilance Court has already ordered an enquiry into the minister’s assets. To add to his woes, yet another case has surfaced, wherein Kuruvila is said to have cheated C Mohammed of Edavannappara in Malappuram district, by grabbing 273.45 acres of land by paying only a meagre amount; an allegation to which Kuruvila is yet to respond.

Kuruvila’s party Kerala Congress (Joseph) is a rightist Christian majority outfit that found place in the Left front because of the vote bank politics pursued by a section of CPM leadership. He had assumed charge of the PWD exactly a year back, when his party boss PJ Joseph was forced to step down from the post following a controversy involving his ‘misbehaviour’ with a lady passenger in a Chennai-Kochi Kingfisher flight. “Joseph was kicked out of the ministry following his indecent behavior in flight against a lady. If that incident happened in the sky, the trouble for Kuruvila is related to land and earth. That means the Kerala Congress Joseph group leaders are not decent either in the sky or on earth,’’ says PC George, whose Kerala Congress (Secular) party is a minor ally of LDF.

The Left front government’s image has been tarnished by a string of scandals starting from that of the 'blade mafia', the 'lottery mafia' and so on, all of which were brushed aside as minor aberrations. But with the case of a minister directly engaged in dubious real estate deals, that too involving the protected land, the LDF leadership will have a lot of explaining to do in the coming days.



Madani Returns

K A Shaji / Thiruvananthapuram

The faction-ridden Left in Kerala has won a coup of sorts by winning the confidence of Abdul Nasser Madani, the radical cleric who has returned from a nine-year stint in jail wearing a martyr’s halo after being acquitted in the Coimbatore blasts case. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent in the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as a part of the upa government in New Delhi, is smelling trouble and Union Minister of State for External Affairs, E. Ahmed, was forced to relinquish the post of IUML state secretary within a few hours of the court acquitting Madani. Firebrand leader PK Kunhalikutty, who was Madani’s chief rival nine years ago when there was a mass exodus of IUML men to Madani’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been reinstated in that post. Kunhalikutty had to resign as state secretary last year following the party’s poor performance in the Assembly poll and a sex scandal involving him.

Madani’s endorsement of the Left has shocked almost all Muslim outfits. While no UDF leader was invited to speak at thereception accorded to Madani at the Sankhumukham beach in Thiruvananthapuram a day after his release, Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Education Minister MA Baby were there from the CPM. The Revolutionary Socialist Party’s Water Resources Minister NK Premachandran was the other prominent Left leader at the function. On his part, Madani showered lavish praises on not only Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan but also on his bĂȘte noire Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM state secretary. Baby’s presence also assumes significance as several Muslim outfits including the Muslim Educational Society have expressed reservations over his educational policies. The UDF’s campaign of accusing then chief minister and late CPM Politburo member EK Nayanar of being responsible for Madani’s arrest also failed to yield the desired result. In fact, Madani praised the ldf for taking good care of his health while in jail.

Talking to TEHELKA at the reception venue, Madani said it was unlikely that he would fall back on his Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) days, a body he founded as an Islamic version of the rss and which was later banned. Instead, he was keen to project his pdp as a party whose main plank was the unity of minorities, Dalits and backward classes. “I would try my best to set up a fund to help those affected by epidemics. There are several other social welfare schemes in my mind. Yet another agenda is reviving my party, which is in a shambles now,’’ he said.

The response of the IUML was a guarded one and it made it clear that political differences with Madani still exist though it welcomes the court verdict. Though there were reports that Kunhalikutty had called on Mahdani after his release, the IUML denied it. The militant National Democratic Front (NDF) is also watching the developments closely. It had actively campaigned for Madani’s release and was instrumental in forming a body to provide him legal assistance. But there is a concern in the organisation that Madani might outwit the NDF and invade its cadre base. The NDF, which is accused by the police of fomenting communal tension across the state, is happy to associate with the revived pdp and strike a “no-poaching pact” with it.

Madani had emerged a key figure in the 2001 and 2006 Assembly elections, with debates revolving around him. In 2001, he backed the Congress-led UDF. At that time, the CPM mouthpiece People’s Democracy accused the Congress of joining hands with “an extremist Muslim organisation’’. But the UDF romped home in style.

Madani claims he is a changed man now. During the 90s, he was a charismatic rabble-rouser known for communally charged speeches. He lost the lower half of his leg in a bomb explosion at his office in 1992. “No more bodyguards and no more such speeches. Life in jail for nine years has changed me and my perspectives a lot,’’ he says.



Fariz Football

KA Shaji from Thiruvananthapuram and Kannur

It used to be a party that attacked other political organisations for corruption and lack of transparency in financial dealings. But now all that seems to have been a thing of the past, at least in the CPM’s Kerala unit.

Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM state secretary whose camp rules the roost in the party, is the first top CPM leader to come under CBI scanner for his alleged involvement in a corruption case. CBI sources say a crucial file pinning his role in the SNC Lavalin case has been unearthed recently. To add to the faction’s troubles, the state vigilance bureau, which functions under Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, has registered two corruption cases recently in which top CPM leaders like party central committee member EP Jayarajan are facing a probe.

Now the Pinarayi faction’s reputation has touched a new low with reports of a Rs 60-lakh deal with a businessman of “dubious” credentials for organising an international soccer tournament that was held in memory of the popular CPM leader and former Chief Minister EK Nayanar in April this year. The contribution came from Parrot Grove, a Chennai-based company owned by NRI businessman Pharis Abubacker, that is behind several international business ventures including a call centre, but has never engaged in any business in Kerala.

“Though the company run by Abubacker was the major sponsor, no banner or hoarding of that company was displayed at the stadium. We are curious to know what is the interest of Abubacker’s company in that football tourney and what is the CPM’s relation with him,’’ asks K. Sudhakaran, the Congress MLA from Kannur, where the soccer tournament was held. According to senior BJP leader O. Rajagopal, there were reasons to suspect Abubacker as the custodian of Vijayan ’s illegally amassed wealth. “Abubacker is the custodian of the bribe Vijayan received in the SNC Lavalin deal,’’ he alleged.

Abubacker is a close friend of Vijayan and has been in the news since he took over Deepika, Kerala’s oldest newspaper. Abubacker, who took control of Deepika in a non-transparent way, has changed the newspaper’s colour altogether. Earlier owned by one of the state’s many Catholic church, it is no more the champion of the Catholic cause but virtually an organ of the Pinarayi faction. Ever since Abubacker took over, Deepika has run a prolonged character assassination campaign against Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, Vijayan ’s chief rival.

Even before taking over Deepika, Abubacker created headlines in Kerala for his alleged involvement in misappropriating funds of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), Singapore. There was a case in the Singapore High Court seeking compensation worth Rs 40 crore from five persons including Abubacker , who was forced to pay his share in court. Abubacker seldom appears in public despite being chairman of a leading Malayalam daily, and his photographs are also not available as he doesn’t allow people to photograph him.

Recently, in the face of mounting criticism, Abubacker was forced to come out in the open. CPM’s own Kairali television channel deputed its editor John Brittas to interview Abubacker , the ‘invisible man’, and set aside two hours of primetime for the interview. But VS loyalists aren’t buying it. “Till now, I have regarded John Brittas as a journalist. Now I am realising that he is a best actor too,’’ lampoons CPM MP S. Ajayakumar, Achuthanandan himself said the interview was stagemanaged. “People would not believe such ill-motivated attempts to defame my character,’’ he said.

The CPM’s decision to organise such a soccer tournament in Kannur raised eyebrows right from the beginning, as no other party in the country had held such an event. Moreover, the late Nayanar was not even fond of football. However, an organising committee was formed with Vijayan as chairman, disgraced Deshabhimani GM EP Jayarajan as working chairman and party state committee member MV Govindan as general convener. Furthermore, the issue assumes national significance as several national and international teams participated in the tournament, and was attended by VIPs including CPM general secretary Prakash Karat and Achuthanandan.

However, neither Vijayan nor Jayarajan came out in the open about taking money from Abubacker . Govindan, who issued a press statement claiming that all deals related to Nayanar Memorial Soccer Tournament were transparent, said nothing about CPM’s connection with Abubacker or about Abubacker ’s interest in soccer and North Kerala.

“All the sponsors except Abubacker ’s company are well-known among the people of Kerala. All the sponsors of the event except Parrot Grove had boards and hoardings displayed in and around the stadium. Why did that company contribute Rs 60 lakh without any commercial interests? To my knowledge, Abubacker has no business interest in Kannur,’’ points out Berlin Kunhananthan Nair, a CPM leader who had to face the party leadership’s ire for his open criticism. Chief Minister Achuthanandan was also at pains to talk about the deal. “We would inquire into the issue. I am yet to look into that matter,’’ he said in reply to a question raised during his weekly press briefing.