Kerala Chief Minister Faces Flak For Hiring US-based Consultant For Sabarimala Airport Project Even Before Finalising Site

by M R Subramani - Jul 29, 2020 06:21 PM +05:30 IST
Kerala Chief Minister Faces Flak For Hiring US-based Consultant For Sabarimala Airport Project Even Before Finalising Site
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. 
  • Pinarayi Vijayan courts yet another controversy with the appointment of a US-based consultant for Sabarimala airport project.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is now embroiled in another controversy — this time over appointing a US-based firm as a consultant for the proposed greenfield Sabarimala airport.

Vijayan, who heads the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the state, has dismissed charges against him on the issue, saying Louis Berger, the US firm, was appointed for feasibility studies.

Last month, the LDF government passed an order to acquire 2,263 acres of disputed land in Cheruvally Estate in Erumely, Kottayam district for the proposed Sabarimala airport project.

An airport for Sabarimala has been in the works for long with pilgrims from other states demanding such a facility.

Currently, pilgrims, coming by flights from other states, land either at Thiruvananthapuram, 170 km from Pamba, or Kochi, 160 km from Pamba, before reaching the hill shrine.

Led by the Congress, opposition parties, particularly the United Democratic Front (UDF), have alleged the government, in which the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) plays a major part, of violating the norms.

Senior Congress and opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala told the media that Vijayan was “using the fig leaf of consultancy to indulge in corruption”.

His contention was that Louis Berger was appointed in November 2017 long before the CPI-M government zeroed in on the land for the airport project.

Stating that such an appointment disregarded norms, Chennithala said the LDF government was appointing consultants even for minor projects.

Lamenting that the consultant firm’s contribution till now has been the submission of a 38-page report, Chennithala said representatives of Louis Berger could not even enter the land, which is in a rubber estate, chosen for the airport as it was in the custody of another group.

A Christian organisation Believers Eastern Church is in possession of the rubber estate, claiming that it held the title deed. However, its claim has been disputed by successive governments in Kerala.

The state government claims that the land originally belonged to it and a civil dispute over the ownership of the estate is pending before a local court at nearby Pala.

A report by a special officer, M G Rajamanickam, to identify the lands owned by British citizens and companies in Kerala before Independence, and verify the ownership in terms of title deeds, had found the Cheruvally Estate lands to be owned by the government.

Later, Rajamanickam issued a directive for a government takeover of the estate. The directive followed after Rajamanickam inspected the estate on 15 January 2015 and found that the sale deed of the Cheruvally Estate, measuring 2,263 acres, not containing any of its survey number included in the original document held by Harrison Malayalam.

Gospel for Asia founder K P Yohanan bought the disputed land, 20 km from Pamba from where devotees start climbing up to go to the Ayyappa temple, for the Believers Eastern Church in 2005 by raising loans and donations from abroad.

The utilisation of the donations received by the church for the purchase of the estate is also disputed as critics argue the donations were not made for any purchase of properties.

Another issue with the land is that the lease period is reported to have expired when the deal between Harrison and Yohanan took place. Thus, the deal is deemed illegal.

Opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam (SASS), have alleged a multi-crore scandal in the airport project.

The LDF government has justified its decision saying that the land was being acquired under the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, and the compensation for it would be deposited in the court where a dispute over the land ownership is pending.

Opposition parties have also questioned the state government’s move to pay the compensation when it lays claim on the land.

On his part, the Chief Minister said the US firm was selected as it scored the highest number of points among the three companies shortlisted for preparing the feasibility report.

He said Louis Berger was selected by a team of officials and experts to make an environmental impact assessment following a transparent procedure.

The controversy over the appointment is the latest one dogging the LDF government in Kerala. First, it came under attack after it appointed a US firm Sprinklr to preserve data of coronavirus patients.

The state government was admonished by the Kerala High Court, which just stopped short of cancelling the deal. Later, the agreement was discontinued.

Then came the contract to allow a Kochi-based firm to develop an app for liquor sales. Then followed the row over selecting a Swiss firm for the electric buses project in the state.

Currently, the Vijayan government is caught on the wrong foot over the Kerala gold smuggling case that is being probed by the National Investigation Agency. The key suspects in the case are alleged to have been in touch with the higher ups in the government leading to the Chief Minister’s Office.

Also read: Kerala Picks Disputed Land For Sabarimala Airport Project, BJP Alleges Multi-Crore Scam By Communists-Led State Government

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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