Kerala’s communist government is at the receiving end of public wrath after a 49-year-old expatriate investor took his life frustrated by the difficulty for employers like him to open shops. The suicide lays bare the state’s culture of red flags and red tape.
Sajen Parayil in Kerala's Kannur district killed himself a week ago after being unable to obtain permission for a construction project—a convention centre in which he has pumped in ₹18 crore, nearly all his savings after a lifetime in Nigeria. The investor made about 19 visits to the Anthoor municipality, which was supposed to give him the permission, and each time he was sent back by officials citing some minor issue, like the pillars of the building were 1.5 inches off the construction plan.
The municipality's chairperson PK Shyamala, a communist leader whose writ runs large in the area, is also accused of acting in vengeance. Sajen had sought the help of another communist leader from the region, P Jayarajan, to resolve the issue. Jayarajan, who was until recently the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM’s Kannur unit secretary, is known to have differences with Shyamala’s husband, MV Govindan, who also hails from Kannur and is one of CPM’s tallest leaders in the state.
The development has worried the CPM, still licking its wounds after losing 19 of Kerala’s 20 seats in the just concluded Lok Sabha polls. In the assembly session on Monday, the opposition Congress squarely blamed the arrogance of the communist leaders as well as the apathy of the officials for the incident. In protest against the state not registering a criminal case against Shyamala for abetting suicide, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala resigned as vice-chairman of Loka Kerala Sabha, a recently constituted body of expatriate Malyalees.
“Sajen had told his wife that since the rival CPM group had seen him at the wedding of P Jayarajan’s child, his files will not move. It is a strange situation. You will be killed if you either seek Jayarajan's help or go against him," said a member of the opposition, KM Shaji, while moving a motion to adjourn the Assembly and discuss the death.
“On his 19th visit, the chairperson told him that as long as she was the chairperson he would not get the occupancy certificate. She told Sajen that his building would stand as a monument," said Shaji.
The developments come at a time when chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been developing the image of an unlikely communist who wants to showcase Kerala as an investment destination. He had initiated a raft of administrative and policy reforms to bring more investments, and succeeded in bringing carmaker Nissan to set up shop in the state last year.
Vijayan, however, chose to downplay the incident and blamed “omnipotent" public officials and the lack of a robust grievance redressal mechanism for investors. “It is a problem with the municipality building rules. If there is a complaint against the decision of the secretary, the law states that an appeal can be filed only before a tribunal. The council concerned does not have the right to hear the appeal. This is an unfortunate situation," he told the assembly.
Four civic body officials, including the municipality’s secretary, have been suspended in connection with Sajen’s death. Shyamala has stepped down on moral grounds, Vijayan added. A police investigation is on, and the government is working on laws to take away from officials some power over granting approvals and strengthening the appeal process.
But the public mood does not bode well for the CPM. After Sajen’s death, others have come out on social media, sharing their experiences with the bureaucracy and Left politicians. They urge a course correction if the party does not want to end up as it did in West Bengal and Tripura, where systemic failure along with a rising opposition decimated years of Left rule.
“I have started a farm in Angamaly. The plan is to make, process and distribute 200 litres of milk, 500 kg of meat and 1,000 eggs, along with vegetables and fish, every day. But I have to go from pillar to post to get a licence. There is a court order to issue the licence, so we are hopeful. If it does not happen, we will move the farm to Tamil Nadu or Karnataka," wrote entrepreneur Suresh Kunhupillai in Malayalam on Facebook.
“Kerala should realise that (job opportunities in the) Gulf are shrinking. Earlier, someone from the countryside who has not passed Class X and did not know English could have gone to the Gulf and earned a salary higher than a college professor back home… When he comes back, that Malayalee is going to open a bakery or soap company or ironing shop or travel agency or star hotel or jeweller shop. Among them, those deserving should be given approvals," he said.
Kerala has the highest rate of unemployment among the big states in India, at 12.5%. The state’s ranking among 16 major industrial states in India is 12, and it ranks 21 in ease of doing business.
Historically, the ₹1 trillion remittance economy, largely from the Middle East, helped the state to bridge its development gap. Every third house in Kerala has a man working in the Persian Gulf, a region which is increasingly shutting the door on the immigrant workforce because of dwindling oil prices.