Monday, August 27, 2007

Minister's fate hangs in balance as State takes Onam break

FOR the second successive year, the Kerala Congress (Joseph), a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front, finds itself in the unenviable position of having to sacrifice a minister at the altar of public opinion during the Onam season.

Onam celebrations, marking the traditional harvest festival, began on Sunday, coinciding with Uthradam, also known as first Onam day. It was on this day last year that Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph resigned as Minister for Public Works, following a public outcry over an incident of sexual harassment.

As Onam came again, the fate of T. U. Kuruvila, who had taken over from Joseph, was in the balance with the entire Opposition demanding that he resign or be sacked. Kuruvila's position became untenable after KG Abraham, a Kuwait-based Malayalee businessman, accused him of fraud.

Joseph's continuance as minister had vecome untenable after a senior woman police officer, who conducted a preliminary inquiry, found that there was substance in the complaint filed by a woman air passenger alleging that he had misbehaved with her during a flight from Chennai to Kochi.

Kuruvila was Chairman of the Housing Board under the previous LDF government. When Joseph nominated him as minister, Opposition members pointed out that the Comptroller and Auditor General had made adverse comments on his performance in that capacity.

On assuming office Kuruvila said he was only standing in for Joseph, who would return as minister after being cleared of the sexual harassment charge. Although the Chennai police registered a case on the basis of the woman passenger's complaint, there has been little progress in the investigation over the past year.

Kuruvila's troubles began when PC George, Kerala Congress (Secular) MLA, accused him of involvement in irregular land deals in the Munnar area. Few took the charge seriously as George had been engaged in a running feud with Joseph's party since he broke away from it a few years ago.

The situation changed when Abraham arrived from Kuwait and told the media that Kuruvila had persuaded him to buy land in Munnar and set up a resort. Accordingly he had entered into an agreement with Kuruvila's son and daughter and paid an advance to them. He alleged that they had not furnished documents relating to the land within the stipulated period.

Kuruvila's immediate response was to distance himself from his family's land deal. He claimed that Abraham was trying to wriggle out of the deal since land prices in Munnar had fallen following the recent eviction operations. If Abraham had any complaint against his children he could proceed against them, he added.

Abraham conceded that it was Kuruvila's children with whom he had signed an agreement. However, he insisted that the deal was negotiated by Kuruvila himself when while on a visit to Kuwait. Kuruvila's protestations of innocence became unsustainable as the media came out with details of the deal, made available apparently by Abraham or his agents. It transpired that Kuruvila had travelled to Kuwait, on a ticket provided by Abraham, to participate in the anniversary celebrations of his KGA group.

When Kuruvila's children entered into an agreement with Abraham to sell the land in Munnar, they did not even own it. They acquired the land subsequently. The huge difference between the price they paid for the land and the price to which Abraham had committed himself reveals the contours of a land mafia operation.

A more serious charge than that of profiteering has also surfaced. Idukki Collector Raju Narayanaswamy, who conducted an inquiry at the instance of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, found that Kuruvila's family had pressured local revenue officials into completing the formalities of registering the land in their names. He suspended the village officer and transferred all other employees of that office.

There is enough material in the public domain to justify the demand for Kuruvila's resignation. However, his party wants no action taken until a full-fledged inquiry is held into the allegations against him.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the coalition, decided on Friday to refer the issue to the LDF. An LDF coordinate committee meeting is scheduled for August 30. Some observers believe the CPI (M) is delaying Kuruvila's inevitable exit from the Cabinet to mollify the Christian community, from which the Kerala Congress (J) derives support. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 27, 2007.

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