Why Oomen Chandy's facing the heat due to Kerala's 'solar scam'
The involvement of two of Chandy's aides in the scam that managed to net investors across the state has only increased calls for his resignation.
Since the 1970s, literate Kerala has been a fertile ground for mega-frauds and Ponzi schemes with home-grown conmen coming up with recycled cheating plans every few years.
The latest, which sought to encash the state’s fast-spreading interest in solar energy, however is different: for the first time, the chief minister’s office is allegedly involved in such a scam and the opposition doesn’t want to lose this opportunity to hunt him down and are on the war-path asking for chief minister Oomen Chandy’s head, both in the Assembly and outside.
On Monday, Chandy told the state assembly that he is not going to resign, even as members of the opposition parties clashed with police at many places in the state. The opposition leader VS Achuthanandan said there’s no going back on their demands for the resignation of the chief minister and a judicial enquiry. The Chief Minister has already refused to accede to both demands.
The story that the Chief Minister is now embroiled in is an interesting one .
A couple, against whom several criminal cases of cheating are reportedly pending, came up with a business scheme to set up solar and wind energy farms in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, in which people were offered a share in lieu of their deposits.
Their plan was simple - the solar and wind farms will produce energy, which will be sold to the power-starved Tamil Nadu for instant profits. People who deposit in the scheme, in turn will become part owners of the business and reap windfall returns.
Apparently the couple even took some people to the locations in southern Tamil Nadu where they said the farms would be set up. A number of people gave large sums of money, with the highest reported amount exceeding Rs one crore. An investor, now a complainant, was reportedly offered the chairmanship of the company.
The couple also offered dealership for their enterprise, franchisee licenses and domestic solar plants - in case one was not interested in depositing in the Tamil Nadu-based farms. A lot of people gave money for these as well - some of them genuine solar energy enthusiasts.
As in any organised fraud, it turned out that neither the farms nor the domestic solar panels ever materialised even after several months. Investors and subscribers first encountered excuses for delays, then promises for action, and subsequently silence. The couple just vanished with the money and their phone numbers went dead. By then they had set up offices and dealerships across Kerala, and had collected money from almost every corner of the state.
The woman, who was involved in the racket, was arrested from Thiruvananthapuram last week where she was apparently hiding, while the man escaped in the nick of time. He later on spoke to TV channels from an undisclosed location, which police believes was in Tamil Nadu.
But where is political angle? Where is Chandy’s involvement?
The biggest asset that the couple flaunted to the foolish or greedy depositors was their claim of proximity to the chief minister, other ministers and people in power and of influence. The conned depositors say that they were shown letters of support from the chief minister and the Asian Development Bank.
The couple constantly dropped names, met with ministers and politicians and had made them inaugurate their offices. The fait accompli was that of a massive business enterprise which had the seal of approval of the government, ministers and politicians. They also dropped names at will - including that of the union ministers P Chidambaram and KC Venugopal.
What people didn’t realise, however, was that the conman was using different identities to present himself. To some, he was a World Bank consultant, to some he was an IPS officer deputed to RAW in England where he became part of the company which he claimed was British, and to others he was a PhD scholar. Like a quintessential conman, complainants have said that he also had different aliases . The woman also had different names.
The chief minister’s office got involved not because there was any evidence of Chandy favouring them, but because of a series of back-and-forth cellphone and landline calls between his most trusted personal assistant and the con-woman. Apparently, they used to call each other frequently - often many times in a day.
Chandy doesn’t carry a cellphone himself, but uses the one carried by his assistant. Essentially, the particular number that the assistant carried was de facto Chandy’s number. Therefore, the surmise is that the calls from and to this number were in fact between the woman and Chandy.
Chandy has an impeccable record in Kerala - never in his career has his name been sullied in a scam. Some of the opposition leaders, even while demanding his head, concede that he is clean. But justifiably they cannot ignore the evidence of the phone calls. Why should a con-woman and the chief minister’s secretary speak so often, if not for the boss himself?
In addition to the assistant, Chandy’s bodyguard had also spoken to the woman many times.
That’s where Chandy’s defense is weak. He may have been completely unaware that his assistant and the bodyguard were speaking to this women, but he hasn’t explained his side of the story beyond reasonable doubt. The fact of the matter is that the duo were very close to him.
His government has asked a special police team to investigate and he wants people to wait till the investigation is complete. Till then, he has suspended his assistant and the bodyguard.
Perhaps it was a honey-trap that the assistant and the gunman fell to and they were unable to resist a calculatedly flirtatious and reasonably good-looking woman.
There is little more complexity to the story.
The conman, while speaking to TV channels in hiding, said that his partner-woman had an illicit relationship with the former state forest minister Ganesh Kumar and that had led to the collapse of his business. He said that he had even met the chief minister and complained to him about Kumar’s liaison with the woman. Another senior Congress leader and the chief minister himself confirmed that such a meeting did happen while Kumar denied the allegations.
The chief minister perhaps met with the conman because his USP this time has been his unhindered accessibility to people. He had made his office transparent to people by telecasting it live on the web and also had organised large-scale grievance-redress programmes in which he directly interacted with people and took their complaints.
This unique contact-initiative, which lasted long hours and covered all departments of his government, had even received UN acclaim as a global governance best practice. Perhaps that there was no background-checks on people who went to him with grievances was a chink that the conman exploited.
This “solar scam” is the latest obsession for the state with more sleaze coming out every day. In the 1970s, it was the promise of a job in the Middle East that scamsters used to defraud people; by the late 1970s and 80s, it was the “blade companies” (local name for finance firms which offered astronomical returns); and in the 1990s, it was the teak-farming, and later fast-breeding goats and exotic trees.
The state then graduated to real-estate, money-chains, direct-marketing and pyramid schemes in the 2000s. And most recently, the trend is solar energy with companies selling the idea of renewable energy, not as a social cause, but as an investment, mushrooming in the state.
It’s highly likely in Kerala that the guy who approached you with windfall-profits by direct marketing of useless plastics yesterday, might come to you with a solar panel today.
Ultimately, whether the chief minister’s office is involved or not, successive governments have failed in preventing large-scale frauds in the state. Both the Left front and the UDF governments are equally responsible for creating such a socio-economic and cultural environment that breeds fraud than genuine wealth creation. It’s such a tragedy that a large part of this is the Rs 60,000 crore that non-resident Kerala workers remit to their state.
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