With the Congress-led Opposition in Kerala terming Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s ongoing foreign visit a leisure trip at a time the state is in the throes of a financial crisis, the spotlight is back on all such jaunts by ministers and senior officials during LDF’s six-and-a-half-year rule.
Vijayan, some of his Cabinet colleagues, and senior officials, including the state’s chief secretary, left for a visit to European and Gulf nations on 4 October. They will be back on October 14.
Vijayan’s wife, daughter and grandson are accompanying him on the trip, which the chief minister began a day after the funeral of party colleague and CPI(M) Politburo member Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Among the ministers who are part of the official team, is School Education Minister V Sivankutty, who is accompanied by his wife.
Opposition leader VD Satheesan said there was no transparency about such trips, and even those who went on them lacked clarity about their purpose. He also challenged the government to detail the benefits to the state from earlier foreign trips involving the chief minister and his Cabinet colleagues.
Instead of accepting the challenge, senior CPI(M) leader and former minister AK Balan defended Vijayan, and indulged in some whataboutery by saying that a minister in the previous Congress ministry had undertaken 23 foreign jaunts and that he was accompanied by his wife on a dozen of those.
How many trips so far?
Going by information available from government sources, ministers in the two successive regimes under Vijayan were prone to embark on foreign trips at the drop of a hat, except for the two-and-a-half years when Covid-related travel restrictions prevented them from doing so.
Information available with the General Administration Department shows Vijayan has so far undertaken 16 major foreign trips, including the ongoing one to Norway, Finland, the UK, and Dubai, in his tenures as chief minister.
The total number of foreign trips undertaken by the two successive regimes headed by Vijayan stands at 85.
Former tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran stands second to Vijayan with 13 foreign trips, while former industry minister EP Jayarajan is a somewhat distant third with seven visits.
The countries Vijayan visited during his 16 trips include Japan, South Korea, the US, UAE, France, and Switzerland. On most of his foreign trips, he was accompanied by his wife, daughter and grandchild.
As per an official release issued by the Chief Minister’s Office, the ongoing tour is aimed to attract large scale foreign investment, harness modern technology for maritime development, study the famed Finland model of school education, and interact with Malayali expatriates in Europe, especially the UK.
16 vs 3 vs 0
The urge to embark on foreign visits appears to be a rather recent phenomenon, becoming pronounced in the two Vijayan-led governments.
For instance, Vijayan’s predecessor and Congress party veteran Oommen Chandy travelled abroad only thrice during his five-year tenure as chief minister — and those visits were to the Gulf countries at the invitation of the Malayali communities there.
Vijayan’s senior party colleague and bete noire, VS Achuthanandan, did not embark on even one foreign trip when he was chief minister of the state.
Vijayan defends accompanying family
While inaugurating the Europe-UK regional conference of the Loka Kerala Sabha in London on Sunday, 9 October, Vijayan said there was criticism by the Opposition that the government agency for non-resident Keralites, Norka, was funding the regional conferences of Sabha.
He clarified that no government money was being spent on such conferences and that the Malayali diaspora organisations were meeting the expenses.
He also brought up the issue of his family members travelling with him on his foreign visits.
Referring to the criticism that he was engaged in a family outing using government funds, Vijayan said his relatives accompanying him are meeting their own expenses, and not using government funds. They are meeting their expenses, he said.
Vijayan’s daughter Veena is an IT entrepreneur.
What have the trips achieved?
“Forget about the public money spent on such trips and the political affiliations of the leaders who went on them. The larger question is whether Kerala has benefitted from such trips,” opined John Samuel, president of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Institute for Sustainable Development and Governance (ISDG).
“Ministers often justify such trips as part of attempts to invite huge investments, apart from learning and emulating good administrative practices existing in developed countries. In general, these trips failed to elicit the expected results. At a practical level, most of them remained pleasure trips abroad,” he told South First.
Before and after the trips, the ministers make tall claims to justify spending public money. However, officials confirm that only very few journeys yielded even partial results.
In the case of Vijayan, his most talked about foreign trips after becoming chief minister were in 2018, after the devastating Kerala floods.
He went to the Netherlands accompanied by a set of ministers and officials to learn and implement the much-celebrated Room for the River Project, which aims to protect areas adjoining rivers from routine flooding and improve water management systems in deltas.
In addition, he visited Switzerland to learn about the country’s celebrated solid waste management system.
However, both trips failed to produce any tangible result. No follow-up action was visible.
Kunju and a collapsed bridge
In the previous UDF government led by Oommen Chandy, public works minister and Indian Union Muslim League legislator VK Ebrahim Kunju wanted to improve the condition of roads and bridges in the state.
So he extensively toured the US, China and Australia in 2012 and 2013 to study their advanced construction technologies.
However, the roads and bridges in the state are still in bad condition, and road travel has become a nightmare for the public.
And, ironically, Kunju is now facing prosecution for the faulty and dangerous construction of a road overbridge at Palarivattom in Kochi.
He was arrested by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau in 2020 on the charge of corruption in the construction of the now-decommissioned flyover bridge.
Then Congress minister KC Joseph went to China to study its development model, but nothing from there has yet been reflected in the development sector of the state.
Visits that bore fruit
The major exceptions to the mostly dud foreign visits are Vijayan’s trip to the UK to raise “masala bonds” for infrastructure projects visualised under the public sector Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, or KIIFB, and Oommen Chandy’s UAE trip to realise the Smart City project in Kochi.
Though they invited criticism from adversaries, they fetched results.
Among Kerala’s ministers on foreign jaunts, those who handled the tourism portfolio are far ahead of others.
They say they had to travel abroad often to showcase the state’s enormous tourism potential. Their visits could be termed as successes given that Kerala has achieved a certain international profile as a tourism destination.
Former tourism ministers AP Anil Kumar of the UDF and Kadakampally Surendran of the LDF have travelled abroad 21 and 13 times, respectively.
Trips during LDF 2.0
According to a statement tabled in the state Assembly, the 50 foreign trips undertaken by Vijayan and his ministers in the current LDF government (till end-September) had fetched investments worth ₹300 crore to the state.
The same statement claimed that discussions on further investments to the state as part of the promises made were underway. The government also explained that all official trips were not aimed at gaining investments.
Study tours, international tourism fairs, and seminars must also be treated as official visits, said the document submitted in the Assembly.
According to a highly placed source in the Chief Minister’s Office, who prefers anonymity, the chief minister’s official visits to Japan and South Korea involved several investment discussions — none of which fructified.
The much-publicised promise by Japan’s automobile major Toyota to set up a hydrogen fuel cell unit in the state also remains on paper.
The source, however, cited Covid-19 as a reason for the lack of follow-up actions on the Room for the River Project.
“The chief minister and some Cabinet colleagues have gone abroad with their families. It would not be a crime to seek clarity and transparency in such actions from the ministers. It’s indeed a bad precedent,” said Satheesan when contacted by South First.
“We all have the right to know how this foreign jaunt will benefit Kerala. I knew only through the media about the Loka Kerala Sabha programme in London,” he said.
According to ISDG’s Samuel, each foreign trip by ministers and senior officials must be followed by periodic progress reports.
“They are bound to answer questions from the public,” he said.