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Murkier and Murkier

Murkier and Murkier

Author: KA Shaji
Publication: Tehelka
Date: February 16, 2008
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main37.asp?filename=Ne160208murkier.asp

Introduction: Two Cabinet ministers in Kerala face charges of selling off government land to a Mumbai-based real estate firms

Two senior ministers of the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, Elamarom Kareem of the CPM and KP Rajendran of the CPI, have come under the scanner for their alleged role in the land scam involving property of the public sector Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT). The land at Kalamassery near Kochi had been given to HMT years ago by the state government for setting up manufacturing units. But now, the company has handed over 70 acres to Mumbai-based real estate company Bluestar Realtors Ltd, a subsidiary of the Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited (HDIL), to construct a "cyber city", at a nominal Rs 91 crore.

Kareem, the industry minister, is said to have given the green signal to the deal in spite of opposition from Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. Revenue Minister KP Rajendran is also accused of hobnobbing with the HMT management to misappropriate prime government land. The state Cabinet has now directed Chief Secretary PJ Thomas to probe the allegations of foul play.

The Cabinet decision has come as a boost for Achuthanandan's anti-corruption image. It was the chief minister who had first brought attention to the irregularities in the deal. He had also declared that the proposed cyber city has nothing to do with IT, and that neither HDIL nor its subsidiary had experience in setting up an IT firm anywhere in the country or outside. The issue has snowballed into a major political crisis and hurt the image of both the CPM and the CPI.

The Congress-led Opposition and the BJP are clamouring for the expulsion of the two ministers from the Cabinet and a judicial probe into the deal. A substantial section within the CPM had also voiced the need for a detailed probe. In the meantime, the Kerala High Court has issued notices to the state and Central governments on the deal, after accepting a public interest litigation seeking to scrap the deal and to affix responsibility. According to top sources in the government, the land was given to HMT on the company's request. It was exempted from the land ceiling regulations in view of HMT's expansion plans, and was neither saleable nor transferable.

Kareem and Rajendran had taken only a couple of hours to finalise the deal with HDIL at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram. This was after the state law secretary had formally recommended that the government take back the land from HMT. Now the state Additional Advocate General has conceded in the High Court that there might have been discrepancies and the government is open to taking corrective action.

Achuthanandan was originally supposed to lay the foundation stone for the cyber city, but he backed out at the last moment saying he didn't have enough details of the project.

The state IT department, which is under the chief minister, says it has no clue about the project and was not even approached for clearance. It was left to Kareem to lay the foundation stone for the project, and in his speech marking the occasion, he insisted that the deal was above board.

Giving a new twist to the controversy, state Law Minister M. Vijayakumar confirmed that his department did recommend that the land be taken back by the government, and urged the Cabinet to sit together and find out why the recommendation was not heeded.

Kareem claimed that HDIL won the bid for the land in a "global tender". But the tender advertisement had been placed only in Mumbai papers. The minister also said that the project would measure up to two of the state's strict benchmarks for government-facilitated IT projects: employment generation and only a fraction of built space to be used for commercial or real estate purposes. But no enforceable agreement has been inked between the government and HDIL on either count - Kareem has since maintained that the promoter's brochure says the project would generate some 60,000 direct jobs, and that HDIL has promised that 70 percent of the constructed area will be devoted to IT-related purposes.

However, the promoter's formal request for a fast track clearance, submitted to both the revenue and industries ministers, talks mostly about housing and other real estate construction - mentioning IT-related activity only in passing.

According to activist Joy Kaitharam, who approached the High Court seeking cancellation of the deal, HMT entered into an unauthorised agreement with HDIL. "The decision to sell the land was not backed by any government sanction. The industries minister or any such authority has no legal right to assign public property to any private company or individual,'' he says.

IT'S BEEN left to CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan to try save his fellow reformists' skins. Both Kareem and Rajendran belongto the Vijayan camp in the bitterly divided state unit. According to party sources, the industries minister will have to face the music if an inquiry is instituted by the chief minister.

"Vijayan himself is on a sticky wicket after the order from the Politburo to correct the lapses in the Thiruvananthapuram district conference of the party. He will not dare intervene in the land issue," said a top party source.

There is a feeling in the Vijayan camp that Kareem has fallen into a carefully laid trap ahead of the CPM state conference in Kottayam starting February 11. "No big land deal in Ernakulum, leave alone one involving HMT, can take place without the knowledge of the VS men in the district. If Kareem went to lay the project's foundation stone despite Achuthanandan's warning there could indeed have been a trap by VS men pretending to be in favour of the deal," said a source in the party, pointing out that Kareem said he went for the programme because of "local political compulsions".

"Now," added the source, "there are only two persons in the whole affair who should feel insecure: Kareem and Rajendran.''

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