Frugality was the hallmark of communist leaders in Kerala. The then proletariat leaders symbolised idealism and were known for their endurance in the face of adversity.
Times have changed.
A manifestation of the change touched down on the Special Armed Police (SAP) Ground at Peroorkada in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, 20 September, sending up a swirl of controversy. The Airbus-built twin-engine helicopter that reached the state capital is meant for the use of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, and the state police as well.
Though expensive for cash-strapped Kerala, many people in the southern state expressed the hope that the rotorcraft would spare them the inconvenience caused each time Vijayan rode out.
Vijayan’s disrupting jouneys
Sample this: The railway station at Kannur witnessed unprecedented security on 19 August, the day the chief minister rode the Vande Bharat Express for the first time.
Vijayan’s around 280 km journey from Kannur to Ernakulam became the talk of the town after the train was brought to platform No 1 to facilitate the chief minister’s boarding. The train normally pulled in at platform No 3.
Security personnel swarmed the station, with a K9 squad in tow. Elevator technicians were put on standby to avoid any technical glitches. Two police officers were posted at every kilometre between Kannur and Ernakulam, besides the Railway Protection Force personnel manning each station where the train stopped.
Surveillance drones hovered over the railway tracks, looking for possible troublemakers. Regular passengers suffered much inconvenience as the chief minister safely reached Ernakulam. S
ocial media exploded, criticising Vijayan’s trip, with many wondering why he did not hire a helicopter to avoid the hardship common train passengers had to endure.
Kicking up a storm
The answer came on Wednesday when the H135 green-and-white chopper belonging to the Vasanth Vihar, Delhi-based Chipson Aviation touched down at the SAP Ground. The government hired the helicopter ignoring the Opposition parties that questioned the splurge on the chief minister’s travels. The helicopter can fly 11 passengers, including the pilot.
The highly versatile, compact chopper has been hired for ₹80 lakh for flying 25 hours a month, and an extra ₹90,000 for each additional airborne hour, according to officials in the Home Department.
Though the agreement with Chipson is for one year, it has a provision to extend the contract for an additional two years.
While the Congress-led opposition UDF felt the hiring of the chopper was yet another act on the part of the LDF government to please its leader, the CPI(M) leadership argued that a chopper was a necessity considering the chief minister’s age and his need to visit different locations to coordinate with officials and people’s representatives.
The government claimed that the helicopter would also be used for combing the Western Ghats region for suspected Maoists and facilitating rescue operations during natural calamities.
However, the arrival of the helicopter has made a section of police officers heave a sigh of relief as they need not grapple with black-flag-waving protesters. The protests became so frequent that the police removed even black flags mourning the dead and prevented people wearing black — including facemasks — from attending Vijayan’s events.
The crackdown on black even made several social media users wonder if the chief minister was suffering from melanophobia.
Notwithstanding the criticism over the fear of black, the helicopter would be another financial liability for the state, which has even defaulted on various welfare pensions.
‘Waste of public money’
According to Opposition leader VD Satheesan, the hiring of the chopper exposed the chief minister’s hypocrisy, even as he has been encouraging everybody else to cut costs.
“The helicopter is a sheer waste of public money,” he said. According to the Congress leader, the state has been passing through its worst financial crisis.
Funding of daily expenses has gone beyond the reach of the government. Even cheques below ₹5 lakh are not redeemed at the Treasury.
KPCC chief K Sudhakaran also slammed the state government, saying the government was busy buying helicopters when the farmers were not paid for the paddy collected from them over a year ago.
For the LDF and CPI (M), which hitherto spoke of strict austerity measures and a frugal existence for ministers and other public servants, Vijayan and his spending have become a new reality over the last few years, especially after the chief minister won power for the second consecutive time.
Incidentally, the state had shelled out ₹33 lakh in July 2022 to purchase a swanky Kia Carnival (8AT Limousine plus 7) — replacing a Toyota Innova Crysta — for the chief minister.
The chief minister’s office justified the purchase by saying the new car was bulletproof with advanced safety features. The early plan was to buy a Tata Harrier, but the chief minister’s office insisted on the Kia Carnival.
In addition to the Carnival, a fleet of three Innova Crystas was also added to be used as pilot and escort vehicles. The government spent ₹88.7 lakh for the cars. The chief minister’s convoy outside the state capital comprises 42 vehicles, including an ambulance and several police cars.
Cyclone of protests
In January 2018, during his first term as chief minister, Vijayan faced flak for attempting to divert cyclone relief funds to meet expenses incurred on helicopter rides.
In the face of intense protests, the government backtracked from paying the amount from the funds meant for Cyclone Ockhi victims. The helicopter was then hired for Vijayan’s to-and-fro journey from Thrissur to Thiruvananthapuram. The cost of the journey was ₹8 lakh.
When the issue attracted ire, the government issued a statement claiming the payment was issued without the knowledge of the chief minister or his office.
It was also clarified that the helicopter was hired for Vijayan and other ministers’ journey for a meeting with the visiting inter-ministerial central team that had come to assess the damage caused by the cyclone. However, Vijayan and some of his Cabinet colleagues have also attended a party conference in Thrissur by keeping the helicopter waiting. Finally, the CPI(M) cleared the bills.
When the new official vehicle purchased for Vijayan created headlines, the government chose to dilute the impact by purchasing new luxury vehicles for the Governor and some Cabinet ministers.
Around ₹5 crore was spent on those vehicles. Officials confirm that the government spent ₹36 lakh on buying an Innova Crysta for use by the chief minister in Delhi.
The government spent ₹85.2 lakh for a new Mercedes-Benz car (GLE 300d 4Matic LWB) for Governor Arif Mohammad Khan.
Additionally, ₹36 lakh was sanctioned for buying a new Innova Crysta for the exclusive use of the Governor in Delhi. In the Cabinet, six ministers were allotted new Innova cars.
An amount of ₹1.5 crore was spent on the same. Sources told South First the request of another four ministers for new cars has also been approved, and funds would soon be released.
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Among the chief ministers of Kerala, Vijayan is the one who has travelled widely across the world. Though the achievements of the official tours are debatable, the chief minister, his Cabinet colleagues, and family members have gone on 17 foreign outings so far, and the destinations included the US and Cuba.
There was no transparency about such trips, and even those who went on them lacked clarity about their purpose.
The countries Vijayan visited also included Japan, South Korea, the UAE, France, and Switzerland. On most foreign trips, he was accompanied by his wife, daughter, and grandchild.
In comparison, Vijayan’s predecessor and Congress party veteran Oommen Chandy travelled abroad only three times 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, undertook only one foreign trip when he was chief minister of the state.
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 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.
Vijayan, born to a working-class family amidst poverty, is today known for his lavish life, and he has spent a lot of public money on sprucing up the official residence, Cliff House. An amount of ₹49.20 lakh was spent on a cowshed at the Cliff House during his second term.
The state-of-the-art 800-sq-foot cowshed accommodates half a dozen high-yielding cows. Fans and a music system have been added to the shed.
When the cowshed courted controversy, the chief minister said only the ground floor would be used as a cow shed, and there would be more floors in the future to accommodate his security staff.
However, the tiled roof of the cowshed prevents the possibility of constructing more floors.
“The chief minister’s cows are more fortunate than the fish workers of Thiruvananthapuram who face large-scale sea erosion and loss of livelihood. The government is providing ₹10 lakh to a four-member family to construct a concrete house,” political analyst Dr Azad Malayattil pointed out.
Recently, the government fixed the annual maintenance contract of the swimming pool at the Cliff House at ₹4 lakh.
The amount is equal to that of a house being constructed under the hyped Life Mission. According to information available through RTI, ₹42.50 lakh has been spent on the swimming pool in the Cliff House ever since Vijayan took over as the chief minister in 2016.
Will CPI(M) introspect?
The swimming pool, constructed during the tenure of K Karunakaran as the chief minister, had remained unused till Vijayan took over as chief minister.
Karunakaran, injured badly in a road accident, had constructed the swimming pool on doctors’ advice. Vijayan was one of the biggest critics of the pool, terming it an avoidable waste of public money for a single individual.
It should be noted that the financial crisis has been forcing the government to withhold payments for several months in several financial assistance schemes to the poorest of the poor.
Disbursement of scholarships to deserving students, honorarium for Anganwadi workers and welfare pension arrears are pending under various schemes.
The crisis in KSRTC also needs to be solved, with the payment of salary and pension in the corporation getting delayed every month.
“Vijayan is setting a new model for future communists in Kerala. CPI(M) stalwarts like EMS Namboodiripad, EK Nayanar, and VS Achuthanandan were chief ministers in the past. Still, they won public admiration through frugal living and simplicity in actions,” Joseph C Mathew, communist fellow-traveller and an advisor to Achuthanandan when he was the chief minister, told South First.
“Here, a new chief minister conducted his press meeting after a gap of seven months. With his immediate family members also facing allegations of amassing money illegally, the CPI(M) should do a lot of soul searching,” he added.