Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A one-man crusade against Lavalin

Activist C.R. Neelankandan’s book on the Lavalin deal has brought the focus back on the controversial deal

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) announced that the SNC Lavalin deal, to modernise three plants of the Kerala State Electricity Board, had caused a loss of Rs 274 crore to the public exchequer. It was signed by signed by then Electricity Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in 1997.

Earlier, in 1996, a 26-member committee, chaired by the late E. Balanandan, had recommended that Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited do the renovation at a cost of Rs 100 crore, but it was overlooked by the state government.

Following the CAG report, social activist C.R. Neelankandan got interested in the case. He studied papers and documents and over the years wrote several articles in various newspapers and magazines and spoke in public meetings denouncing the deal.

Last year, Neelakandan brought out a book in Malayalam called ‘SNC-Lavalin - The Real Picture’. Released by Olive Publishers, it did not make much of an impact. But later, when the English version came out Neelakandan, who is also a member of the CPI (M), took it to Delhi and gave copies to all the members of the Politburo.

“The Politburo had assumed it was a feud between the Pinarayi and [Chief Minister] Achuthanandan factions,” says Neelakandan. “They never believed there was any corruption in the Lavalin deal. My book opened their eyes.”

Most of the members who go to Delhi from Kerala for the Politburo meeting are supporters of Vijayan, says Neelakandan. “They would say, ‘The old fellow (Achuthanandan) is making trouble for the government and the party. The party should stand by Vijayan.”

At Delhi, there were other people who showed interest in the book. Communist Party of India General Secretary A.B. Bardhan spent one and a half hours with Neelakandan to learn the intricacies of the case. The national media began detailing the material in Neelakandan’s book. As a result, things began to get hot for Vijayan back in Kerala.

So, the party retaliated by launching an attack on Neelakandan. There were articles in ‘Deshabhimani’, the party organ, which stated that Neelakandan was using foreign funds to destroy the party.

“They said I was working in partnership with the United Democratic Front,” he says. “Interestingly, till now, they have never said that the official documents, which have been published in the book, and which prove there is corruption, are forged.”

Meanwhile, there was more trouble in store. Neelankandan, who is a deputy general manager of the state-owned undertaking, Keltron was summarily transferred to Hyderabad. He obtained a stay order. But now that has been vacated and he is on long leave without pay.

“I have had to curtail my expenses to a great degree, since I don’t have any income now,” says this father of two college-going daughters. “I am dependent on my wife, poet V.M. Girija who works in All India Radio. But I don’t have any regrets. I am doing this for a good cause.”

So, is he scared about the future? “Not at all,” he says. “The media has been a source of great protection for me.”

The party also needs some protection. “There is a perception among the people that the government is corrupt,” says Neelakandan. “Talk to the local workers and they will confirm this. The message from the top is: ‘You can be corrupt, but the party will support you.’ The party is not built on ideological bricks. It is made whole by the adhesive of corruption, just like any other party.”

And one of the biggest power centres in the party stands accused of ill-gotten gains. In December, 2009, Vijayan appeared before the CBI special court, where he is an accused, and obtained bail. He is the first Politburo member to be prosecuted for corruption.

But Neelakandan says that Vijayan is not an exception. “About ninety percent of the ministers are dishonest,” he says. “So I will have to continue with my crusade.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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