BJP leaders in Kerala had met the central team visiting Cyclone Ockhi-hit areas in the last week of December and sought a mechanism to ensure that funds sanctioned for the victims were not diverted.
But two days prior to that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government had already diverted Rs 8 lakh toward the use of a private helicopter for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to meet the central team. The sum was sanctioned from the state disaster relief fund (SDRF) for his travel from his party meeting venue in Thrissur to the state capital and back on 26 December.
With the issue triggering a row, the state government has cancelled the order to use the disaster relief fund for the helicopter journey and instead ordered officials concerned to make the payment from the general administration fund. However, opposition parties have questioned the propriety of this, saying that the journey was connected with the party programme.
Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) general secretary Joseph Vazhakkan said the helicopter was hired to facilitate the participation of Pinarayi in the CPM Thrissur district conference. It cannot, therefore, be justified as an expense incurred by the chief minister for a public purpose, he added.
"The central team was in the state for three days from 26 December to 28 December. The team’s itinerary was known to the chief minister in advance. If he wanted, he could meet the central team at the time of his convenience. Unfortunately, the party is more important to Pinarayi than the people," he said.
Social activist CR Neelakandan said people of Kerala could not expect more than this from a chief minister, who took seven days to visit the Ockhi-hit areas despite being present in the state capital. The affected areas are hardly 15 km away from the seat of power.
The government has justified the payment of the helicopter charge from the state exchequer, saying that it was an accepted practice in a democratic set-up to meet the travel expenses of the chief minister and the prime minister. Law and Cultural Affairs Minister AK Balan said there was nothing improper in the chief minister’s travel.
“He took the helicopter journey to meet the central team. The SDRF, which contains 25 percent state share, was designed to meet such expenses. The payment for the helicopter journey could be made from the fund,” he asserted.
He said that the government had cancelled payment order following a false propaganda that the payment went from the Ockhi relief fund. The minister rejected a suggestion made by Tourism and Cooperation Minister Kadkampally Surendran to make the payment from the party funds.
“There is no need for the party to pay for the trip since the chief minister had gone to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the central team. It will be met from the state fund,” he said.
Activists like Neelakanan viewed the payment of the helicopter charge as a sign of things to come. He told Firstpost that there was a possibility for diversion of more disaster relief fund since the state government is passing through an acute financial crunch now. The finance department is finding it difficult to pay even salaries and pensions to the government employees in time. It has imposed severe restrictions on payments from treasuries to tide over the crisis temporarily.
The major reason for the crunch is the dip in state revenue in the wake of the introduction of goods and services tax (GST). The government had expected the revenue to grow post-GST by 20 percent whereas the actual growth is only 10 percent. Though there is a provision in the GST for the Central government to compensate the loss, it is pegged at a maximum of 14 percent.
Neelakandan fears that the state government may use the cyclone relief fund to meet the shortfall in revenue collection. The Latin Church that pleaded the cause of the fishermen, has also shared these fears. In fact, one of the major demands of the Raj Bhavan march undertaken by the Church on 11 December was an assurance from the government not to divert the Ockhi relief funds.
This was because of massive diversion of Tsunami Relief Fund (TRF) sanctioned by the Central government for the relief of the victims of 2004 December tsunami victims for other purposes. The previous governments had diverted a major chunk of over Rs 1,400 crore received from the Central government.
A major chunk of this was diverted to develop tourism infrastructure. A report by the London-based Tourism Concern alleged that the state government had allocated about Rs 85 crore of the TRF for beautifying beaches and construction of toilet blocks, kiosks and amphitheatres needed by the tourists
The fund was also used in areas totally unaffected by the tsunami. For example, Rs 9 crore from the fund was diverted for laying pipes for water supply in Cherthala and Aroor in violation of the then Planning Commission guidelines that TRF funds can be used only for rehabilitation of damaged sites.
Paradoxically, some of the tourism projects affected the livelihood of the fisherfolk, who were hit hard by the tsunami. For instance, more than 500 fishermen at Kovalam lost their livelihood due to the construction of a 500-metre long artificial reef there for water skiing, surfing and swimming.
The state has sought a relief package of Rs 7, 434 crore from the Centre toward the relief and rehabilitation of the Cyclone Ockhi victims. The Central government has already released Rs 133 crore. Apart from this, the chief minister’s relief fund for Ockhi victims has mopped up Rs 120 crore from the public.
The cyclone that battered the coastal areas of Kerala’s southern districts on 29 and 30 November has claimed over 70 lives while more than 100 fishermen are still missing. Neelakandan, who is also the state convenor of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), has demanded weekly publication of the details of the money spent from the relief fund to ensure that it is not diverted.
“Apart from paying compensation to the kin of few deceased, the government has not undertaken any works for the rehabilitation of the cyclone victims so far. People have a right to know how this fund is being used by the government,” Neelakndan said.
Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council vice president Shaji George said the rehabilitation package announced by the state government had not addressed the basic livelihood needs of the fishermen. He said that the package prepared without consulting the fishermen and their representatives had many loopholes for diversion of funds.
“It has earmarked a large chunk of money to be spent in sectors like agriculture, public works and tourism. This will not have any direct benefit to the fishermen, who have lost their bread winners, houses and fishing equipment. What is needed by fishermen most is the restoration of their houses and fishing gadgets and sea walls to protect from disasters like this in future,” George said.
Updated Date: Jan 11, 2018 19:41 PM