Widely perceived as a major humanitarian initiative undertaken by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan that perhaps ensured him a second term, the ambitious housing security scheme, LIFE Mission, has metamorphosed into a scam that has cast a shadow on Vijayan’s family and even threatens his government.
Three days after arresting the chief minister’s former principal secretary, M Sivasankar, for alleged violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulations) Act in implementing a LIFE Mission mission project at Wadakkanchery in Thrissur district, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) is now investigating the alleged role of Vijayan himself, as well as members of his family, in a scam that has significantly dented the image of Kerala’s ruling LDF government.
ED sources confirmed to South First that the central agency has already interrogated a chartered accountant who handled the financial dealings of Sivasankar, and he would be subjected to another round of interrogation along with the retired civil service officer, who was once the conscience keeper of the chief minister.
The agency is also planning to again interrogate Swapna Suresh, also an accused in the sensational gold smuggling case of Kerala, along with Sivasankar, as part of its efforts to establish linkages between the chief minister’s family and the scam.
Adding to the already murky revelations around the scam, Swapna Suresh told media in Bengaluru on Thursday, 16 February, that Sivasankar was arrested in the Life Mission case based on information she provided, and that clinching evidence about the role of Vijayan, his wife Kamala, and daughter Veena would come out once the ED interrogates CM Raveendran, a member of Vijayan’s personal staff at the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO).
Saying that the ED was on the right track, Swapna Suresh alleged the housing scam took place with the knowledge and involvement of the chief minister, his wife and daughter. She claimed she would produce more evidence during her interrogation, slated for the end of this week in Kochi.
Chief minister and family
Despite Swapna Suresh having raked up the names of is wife and daughter in the scam, the chief minister has remained tightlipped on the whole controversy — he has not said a word even on the arrest of Sivasankar, who initiated the controversial mission, and was once a confidant.
Vijayan’s party, the CPI(M), as well as the ruling LDF coalition, have also maintained a deafening silence, at least for the time being, even as the Congress-led opposition UDF has termed the arrest of Sivasankar a “slap on the face of the chief minister”.
As the ED took up the case on a complaint filed by former Congress MLA Anil Akkara, it would be difficult for the CPI(M) to accuse the BJP-RSS dispensation at the Centre of using the agencies under it to destroy the image of the LDF government in Kerala.
For the CPI(M), the developments have turned into a problem at a time the party’s state secretary MV Govindan is preparing to launch a massive state-wide yatra for mass mobilisation ahead of the fast-approaching Lok Sabha elections.
As the yatra intends to raise serious political questions about the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, it would be tough for leaders to defend the chief minister and his family daily if the ED continues with its plan of speeding up the investigation.
A rude WhatsApp shock
A WhatsApp conversation between Swapna Suresh and Sivasankar, reproduced by ED in its remand report seeking his arrest, has come as a rude shock to CPI(M) leaders as it contained Vijayan’s alleged directive to the senior bureaucrat to offer Swapna Suresh a consultancy job with the state government after she quit her post as secretary to the Consul General at the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.
So far, Vijayan has claimed he never had any personal link with Swapna Suresh. Based on the alleged directive, Swapna Suresh was chosen as a junior consultant by the private implementing agency PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) for setting up the Space Park project of the state government.
Interestingly, Sivasankar was arrested a few days after his retirement, and ED sources confirmed that the arrest was delayed because of the compulsions of the state government. The state government wanted to avoid the damage of an existing civil service officer under it being arrested in a corruption case.
LIFE Mission Project
In the meantime, weeds and plants have started engulfing the skeletons of the almost-abandoned housing complex of LIFE Mission — a flagship scheme of the state government to provide housing to the poor — comprising 140 flats at Charalparambu under the Wadakkanchery Assembly constituency.
Construction was stopped some time ago, and the ED and CBI have seized all the project documents.
The development began soon after the massive Kerala floods of 2018 when the UAE Red Crescent came forward, offering to sponsor a project to build 140 housing units for the flood-affected people of Wadakkanchery.
There were hardly six flood-affected families in Wadakkanchery. And choosing the constituency that the CPI(M) won in the 2021 state election to implement the project, as well as the preparation of the list of beneficiaries based on their affiliation to the ruling party, had generated much controversy in the beginning.
Anil Akkara, the Congress leader who lost the 2021 election, then approached CBI, alleging a violation of FCRA norms in implementing the project with bogus beneficiaries.
“Wadakkanchery was not affected badly by the floods. All six families who lost their homes and livelihood have been rehabilitated using other funds. I approached CBI knowing very well that the project was a scam to benefit some CPI(M) leaders,” Anil Akkara told South First.
Now, with the ED contending that a commission of ₹4.5 crore was given to politicians and government officials out of the ₹20 crore awarded by the UAE Red Crescent, Akkara feels vindicated.
While LIFE Mission accepted money from the UAE Red Crescent, prevailing rules banned it from accepting such foreign funds from another nation. But the mission received the money and work on the flats, and a health centre, was kicked off in Wadakkanchery.
Gold Smuggling and Life Mission: Curious links
While investigating the earlier, sensational gold smuggling case involving Swapna Suresh, Sivasankar, and others, the central agencies had detected ₹1 crore in a bank locker jointly held by Swapna and a chartered accountant said to be close to the IAS officer.
Investigations revealed that the money was transferred from the account of one Santosh Eapen, the contractor of the flats project at Wadakkanchery.
The ED says the total amount of kickbacks in the project was almost ₹5 crore, and that ₹4 crore of this had already been converted into dollars and smuggled out of the country.
ED believes the ₹1 crore found in Swapna’s locker was the amount the contractor gave to Sivasankar, who was then principal secretary to the chief minister, other than heading the LIFE Mission project.
Sivasankar had also received an expensive mobile phone from Eapen, according to the ED, and awarded the project to Eapen’s Unitac Builders & Developers to facilitate the scam.
On her part, Swapna Suresh has said the remaining ₹4 crore was smuggled out of the country by the chief minister’s family for investments abroad.
Swapna and LDF government
Though Swapna Suresh is at odds with the LDF government now and is making allegations even against the chief minister’s family, the LDF government has been lenient when it comes to dealing with even clear cases of violation that she is facing.
Despite ordering the recovery of the salary paid to Swapna Suresh as a junior consultant at the Space Park project through PwC, no efforts are being made in the regard.
The Finance (Inspection Wing-Technical) Department directed the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL) to recover ₹16.15 lakh, minus GST, paid to Swapna Suresh through PwC.
As per documents, the global consultancy firm had recommended her appointment to the plum post at the behest of Sivasankar.
The Inspection Wing had also said that if KSITIL failed to recover the amount from PwC, it must be recovered from officials, including Sivasankar, the then IT Secretary and chairperson of KSITIL. Nothing has happened so far.
LIFE Mission’s future
The Livelihood, inclusion and Financial Empowerment (LIFE) Mission claims to have built over two lakh houses for the homeless across the state during the tenure of the first Pinarayi Vijayan government.
Critics say the mission constructed small flats in tiny land holdings without addressing the needs and comfort of the beneficiaries.
The project has also replaced the old practice of building individual houses after allocating three to five cents of land to each beneficiary.
Now the Wadakkanchery scam and other allegations have left the mission struggling. The government’s financial difficulties and a lack of donors is also preventing the mission from continuing its construction of flats.
A strict no from the Centre to foreign donations and the negative impression evoked by the ED investigation have made LIFE Mission a burden for the second Vijayan government.