There has been little progress in the efforts to trace the whereabouts of farmer Biju Kurian who went missing during a government-sponsored study tour to Israel on 17 February.
Though Biju Kurian contacted his family a day after his disappearance, assuring them that he was safe, efforts to locate him have failed to make any headway.
This, despite the Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala writing to the India’s Embassy in Israel seeking revocation of his visa and immediate deportation to India,
At home, meanwhile, the issue has become another embarrassment for the ruling LDF government and its Agriculture Minister P Prasad.
Talking to South First, Prasad said circumstantial evidence suggests that Biju Kurian has committed the offence of illegal migration by misusing the facilities provided by the state government during a tour to Israel to learn advanced farming practices.
The minister also termed his disappearance from the hotel where the 27-member delegation stayed as “pre-planned”.
Opposition steps up attack
The Opposition Congress-led UDF and the BJP are terming the whole episode as “state-sponsored human trafficking” and have alleged that basic procedures were not followed in selecting the farmers for the foreign trip organised by the LDF government.
They have sought a detailed probe to ascertain whether, in fact, some state government officials conspired with the missing farmer to facilitate his “illegal migration”.
The local-level selection process under which the 27-member team was constituted is also under the scanner.
However, the agriculture officer in Biju Kurian’s native Iritty in the Kannur district has submitted a report to the government saying he was selected as he met all the criteria required to be a member of the official delegation.
Biju was a bonafide farmer, and he faced no disqualification, the officer said in the report.
But the Opposition blamed the government for not choosing credible and original farmers as part of the team.
Who is farmer Biju Kurian?
Forty-eight-year-old Biju Kurian belongs to Peratta village in Ulikkal grama panchayat of Kannur district.
According to local Agriculture Officer KJ Rekha, her office received his online application to become part of the study team for Israel on 20 December, 2022. She then verified his agricultural properties in both Peratta and Kiliyanthara in Payam Grama panchayat.
“In Kilianthra, he has 2.5 acres of agricultural land. In Peratta, he has one acre of agricultural land and 30 cents of residential compound. He had been culativating pepper, coconut, plantain and rubber,” Rekha told South First.
Biju has left behind his wife and two children.
Locals South First contacted said the house has remain locked since the controversy broke and the family has shifted to a relative’s house elsewhere.
When the local media attempted to contact her, the wife said she was not interested in talking to reporters.
She is housewife and the children are in high school.
Local people said Biju Kurian’s principal job so far was that of an LIC agent and agriculture was not his full-time occupation.
They are now accusing the Agriculture Department of not doing proper due diligence before picking Kurian for the Israel visit.
‘An unnecessary visit’
“Why did the cash-starved government send such a team to Israel? They claim it was to study better farm practices there and to replicate them here. But they chose a disgruntled farmer who hated Kerala, possibly because of lack of governmental support,” Opposition leader VD Satheesan told South First.
“He has now become an illegal migrant — like scores of Malayalis who prefer to escape to other countries and do menial jobs there for survival rather than stay here,” Satheesan added.
“It is a symptom of a larger disease. People are fed up with the situation here and prefer the risk of going abroad illegally and somehow surviving there, even abandoning their families and comfort. This phenomenon needs to be studied. Why is Kerala failing even its farmers despite the tall claims of the government about social progress,” questioned Satheesan.
Meanwhile, BJP leaders have smelt a conspiracy between some top ruling LDF leaders and the farmer to facilitate his “escape” while in Israel.
What team-members say
The rest of the team, led by the Agricultural Department Principal Secretary B Ashok, returned to Kerala the day after Kurian went missing, after instructing the embassy to lodge a police complaint and launch a search operation.
Ashok claimed the cyber police of Israel are after Kurian and that he would soon be caught and deported.
Other farmers who formed part of the team now contend that it appeared as if Kurian joined the the delegation fully intending to slip away once he reached Israel, according to media reports.
Some of them said they saw him converting ₹50,000 into Israeli currency, presumably for immediate use after escaping. They said Biju Kurian has relatives in Israel, and he might have evolved a plan in advance to escape.
While other farmers were attempting to learn new farm practices, Kurian was reportedly more concerned about the higher wages there.
When somebody told him that one could earn ₹15,000 daily by engaging in cleaning works, he was apparently excited and began collecting further details on that possibility.
The team said Kurian escaped with all his luggage.
An ill-fated tour
From the time it was conceived, the high-profile trip had courted political controversy in Kerala, with the Opposition accusing the cash-starved government of embarking on an unnecessary junket.
Then a set of selected farmers expressed readiness to meet their travel expenses themselves, and Kurian was one among them.
However, his visa was issued based on a request from the state government. The visa is valid till May 8.
Interestingly, Chief Minister Vijayan sought to scuttle the tour by citing a recent terror strike in Israel. But Agriculture Minister Prasad and Ashok remained adamant, saying the tour would benefit Kerala as farmers would learn advanced farming techniques.
The government then limited the delegation to farmers who could afford to meet their travel expenses.
However, as the day of departure loomed, the CPI, the second-largest constituent of the ruling LDF coalition, told Agriculture Minister Prasad, a party member, to stay away from the trip because of its Opposition to Israel’s policies.
Both the CPI and its coalition partner, the CPI(M), are staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause, and they term Israel a “terrorist state” that infringes upon the legitimate rights of Palestinians.
When Prasad refused to relent, saying his visit had nothing to do with Israel and its Zionist political philosophy, the CPI(M) leaders took the issue to their national general secretary Sitaram Yechury in Delhi, who, in turn, met his CPI counterpart Raja and briefed him about the possible political implications of the visit.
When Raja asked state unit leaders of the CPI why they had permitted Prasad to organise a visit to Israel, he was told that the minister still needed to consult them on the issue.
It was then that Raja told Prasad a firm ‘No’.
Now, CPI leaders believe it was Ashok who landed the government in a soup by conceiving and implementing the trip in a way that facilitated one among the members to escape.