Thursday, February 7, 2008

HMT land deal: dark shadows tell a tale

The HMT land deal is different from the scams of the past. This is not a tale of corruption by one individual, one party or one institution. It is possible to believe that the state has the ability to deal with such corruption. The instruments of the state may not use that ability. Even then it is possible to sustain belief in it. It is, however, doubtful if the state can truthfully investigate the irregularities in this deal. The doubts arise not from the allegations of political opponents but from the explanations offered by ruling party spokespersons.

Lots of files landed on the tables and in front of the cameras of media syndicates last week. As rival factions vied with each other and brought out documents relating to the HMT land deal, dwarfing Shahjehan, who had been enthroned as the emperor of media leaks, one thing became clear. HMT had sold land to a private company with the prior knowledge of the major elements of Kerala’s power structure. Among them are ministers, party leaders, trade union leaders and bureaucrats.

It was to establish that Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan was aware of the deal that the CPI (M)’s Ernakulam district secretary revealed that there had been discussions on it at party and government levels for months. As the main ruling party, the CPI (M) has the right to instruct the government on what policy to adopt. For the present let us overlook the technical argument that since a front is in power, this right actually belongs to the front and not to any single party. But the public is entitled to know what all were discussed for months.

The role of the trade union leaders in this matter is as suspicious as that of the party leaders. A union had played a decisive role in facilitating the deal between Sevi Mano Mathew and ISRO. It was at a meeting convened by the Labour Minister to discuss an issue raised by the union that the decision to remove the obstacles in the way of the deal was taken. Here we see evidence of a strategy of advancing capitalist interests under cover of labour interests. Union leaders are politically impotent. If they allow themselves to be used as a cover, it is reasonable to assume that they have set a price for it and those concerned are paying it. The public is entitled to know what that price is.

The HMT deal became a topic of controversy when the Chief Minister stayed away from the foundation stone laying ceremony at the land Blue Star Realtors Private Limited acquired from it. After laying the stone, Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem said his department had nothing to do with the deal. He added that Kinfra had all information at its disposal. Kinfra is a public sector undertaking directly under the Industries department. Pinarayi Vijayan was quick to realize that if would be difficult for the Industries Minister to escape blame if Kinfra was in the picture. Without losing a minute, he offered an alternative explanation. Since HMT is a Central undertaking, it is the Centre that has to answer the charges about the deal, he said. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan immediately repeated it. Pinarayi has constituted a committee to look into the deal. It is headed by Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. Now we don’t have to wait for its report to know its finding. Why did the party appoint an inquiry committee if it is for the Centre to answer the charges? That, too, after the State government had ordered an inquiry?

According to HMT’s explanation, its deal was transparent. But why it placed the advertisement offering land for sale only in Mumbai papers is a matter worth looking into. Available information about Blue Star Realtors Private Limited, which struck the deal with it, is far from satisfactory. The name itself makes clear that it is a real estate company. HMT and Kareem are saying that it is a subsidiary of a company named HDIL. Kareem claims it acquired the land for HDIL to set up Cyber City, an information technology project. Anyone planning to set up an IT project must approach the IT department. But neither HDIL nor Blue Star got in touch with it. Their contacts are all with Kareem.

When we try to find out what HDIL is, we find that behind those four letters stands Housing Development and Infrastructure Limited. All that it says about itself at its website is that it is one of India’s large real estate developers. Here some questions arise, such as why does a public limited company engaged in real estate developments needs a private limited subsidiary to do the same thing.

When the Kerala government sought to resume 400 acres of excess land in HMT’s possession, it had sought permission to retain 100 acres for its future developmental activities, and this was agreed to. It is from out of these 100 acres that the company has sold 70 acres to ward off financial problems. To get the complete story of the talks at party and government levels which went on for months we have to inquire what happened to the remaining 30 acres also.

The attempt to find out who all knew how much about the deal is no longer quite relevant. For it has been established beyond doubt that people at different levels of the administration were involved in the deal. We should now be considering how the deal can be undone and we can recover the state’s asset that was alienated. It is difficult to believe that the minds and hands of those who are trying to validate the deal, instead of undoing it, are clean.
Based on "Nerkkazhcha" column appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated February 7, 2008

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