How Kerala's killer red tape garotted NRI businessman Sajan Parayil's Rs 15 crore dream

From a Rs 15 weekly wage, Sajan Parayil rose to become an entrepreneur, who built a Rs 15-crore convention centre on his own; but the neta-babu nexus demolished the man and his dreams.
NRI businessman Sajan Parayil committed suicide after failing to get an occupancy certificate from Anthoor municipality for a convention centre he had built. (Photo | Twitter)
NRI businessman Sajan Parayil committed suicide after failing to get an occupancy certificate from Anthoor municipality for a convention centre he had built. (Photo | Twitter)

ANTHOOR (KANNUR): Sajan Parayil, 49, liked to flaunt his newly built convention centre to his close guests and relatives. He preferred to take them to the centre at night. Once the sun sets, Partha Convention Centre -- on the national highway at Nelliyodu near Bakkalam -- turns into a bright glass ball. Inside, the fibre optic lights make the ceiling look like a moonless starry night.

Spread over 35,000 sq ft, the 1,000-seat auditorium was also Sajan's secret crash pad to unwind. “He would ask me to turn on all the lights and would sit there for some time,” says N Raveendran, a security guard at the centre. “He appeared pleased by his creation.” The watchman could never read Sajan’s troubled mind. 

On June 16, a Sunday, Sajan -- owner of Partha Builders -- rode pillion on the motorcycle of his sales executive to the convention centre. That was the last he saw of his dream project. On June 18, he was found dead, hanging on the rafter of the terrace roofing of his house at Aryambath, 15 km from the convention centre. 

Garroted by red tape 
For the past six months, Sajan Parayil had been running around to get an occupancy certificate for the convention centre from Anthoor municipality, headed by PK Shyamala, wife of senior leader M V Govindan. 

Sajan had built the centre by pumping in Rs 15 crore he made working in Nigeria. It is an eco-friendly pre-fabricated structure, says Sajeevan K, manager of Partha Builders. The pillars and beams are made of steel and not concrete. The roof is galvanised sheet, and the entire structure is wrapped in glass. 

But every time, Sajan approached the municipal officials for the occupancy certificate, they would cite trivial issues and send him away or serve him with a notice, he says. Without the occupancy certificate, he cannot throw his centre open for business. “It is very unlikely the officials of Anthoor will stonewall such a project without tacit support from political bosses and that troubled him a lot. I will say he died because of the ego of the chairperson,” says Sajeevan, a confidant of Sajan. 

Explaining the ‘ego factor’, his family said he had approached CPM’s then-district secretary P Jayarajan for help when the project first got entangled in red tape in November 2017. The municipality had issued a notice to stop construction then. “Jayarajan intervened for Sajan, and in a way doomed the project because he and Govindan are bitter rivals within the CPM,” said a family member. 

The inside view of Partha Convention Centre, built by NRI entrepreneur Sajan Parayil
The inside view of Partha Convention Centre, built by NRI entrepreneur Sajan Parayil

Sajan’s son Prathiv, a class XII student, says he had never seen his father so tensed as he saw him in the last few days. “Achan is always composed and never brought home his work tensions. But the last few days were different,” he says. 

Sajan’s death has snowballed into a political controversy and put the CPM in the dock. As a face-saver, the government is considering overhauling the building rules and suspended four officials of Anthoor municipality. The Kerala High Court registered a suo motu case saying it was unfortunate that an investor was pushed to the brink by the insensitive attitude of regulatory authorities and the state should be concerned about the signal it gave to prospective entrepreneurs.  In Anthoor, the CPM is a divided house - the supporters on one side and the leaders on the other.

The supporters are miffed this fate befell on one of their own. Sajan is an ardent supporter of the CPM, sponsoring many of its programmes. “Everybody was a beneficiary of Sajan’s generous heart,” says Selvaraj, a coconut plucker and his childhood friend. Even after becoming wealthy, he stayed rooted and built a home at Aryambath, a rural area. He had drilled a borewell in the next-door Saraswati Vidyalayam, a lower primary school, and bought benches and desk for the children. He bought boots for the children of a football academy at Aryambath. 

Business plans for Kannur

Sajan had big plans for Kannur. He set up Partha Builders in 2011 and started off making small apartment blocks. He also made 10 villas right next to the convention centre. “He sold seven of the 10 villas,” says Sajeevan. In an interview he gave four years ago, Sajan said he wanted to invest in the hospitality sector in Kannur, considering that the airport has taken off. But the auditorium was supposed to be his springboard. He put in everything he had in the business.

In the same interview, when asked about the troubles he faced in Kerala, the entrepreneur says: “The documentation is the major problem we face for anything we go to a government office. If only the government can resolve that, many will come forward to invest in Kerala.” In the diary the police recovered from his home after his death, the NRI entrepreneur begins by paying obeisance to Nelliyodu Bhavathi Devi and writes: ‘In (E K) Nayanar’s land, a few anti-developers killed my dream project’. The police are not yet treating it as a suicide note. It names those who helped him during his short stint as an entrepreneur in Kerala. But it does not name who turned the lights out on his dreams.

A victor of many life battles 
Sajan may have lost out to the obdurate political system and bureaucracy of Kerala. But he had won many battles life threw at him. Born in a poor joint family at Aryambath, Sajan was the fourth child of Lakshmanan Kottiyali, a timber merchant in Chikmagalur, and Mythili, who worked as a farm labourer and in construction sites. “Though my father used to come home only once in six months, together they raised five children,” says Sreelatha, elder sister of Sajan. The parents invested in the education of their three daughters. Sheila, the eldest daughter became a nurse, the second daughter Valsala did her graduation in commerce and the third daughter Sreelatha is an economics graduate.

“The sons had to take care of the family,” says Sreejith, the youngest of the five siblings. “We did not have proper clothes or good food to eat,” he recalls. After class X, Sajan joined a motorcycle workshop opposite at Chettipedia, he says. He was paid Rs 15 per week. Unhappy with the meagre wage, he dropped out of the workshop and joined a cooperative college at Pallikkunnu. After five years, he became a commerce graduate. He joined Opal, a sanitary ware shop in Kannur, as an accountant, says Sreelatha. After a year, his maternal uncle Sadanandan Parayil brought him to Mumbai in 1993 in search of a job. In 1995, Sreelatha married a Bombay High Court lawyer and came to the city. “He came and stayed with us and started learning computer,” she says. Sreelatha too got a job as a secretary in GR Exports, run by Sindhi brothers Raju and Sathish Gahani. “Raju would export garments and steel utensils to Nigeria and his brother Sathish would distribute it in the country,” she says.  “He impressed the brothers with his hard work and grasp of the business,” says sister. In 2004, Raju asked him to join his brother Sathish in Kano in Nigeria.

“That move changed the fortunes of Sajan,” says Sreelatha. After a few years with Gahani, Sajan joined Hakan Agro Group, an agricultural commodities trading company, in Kano. Within a decade, he rose to become the country head of the group. Four years ago, he shifted his wife Beena and two children Parthiv and Arpita, now in class IX, to Anthoor -- his hometown. Since then, he had been shuttling between Kano and Kannur, says Sreejith. “This time he came in April and was set to return to Kano in September,” he says.

But Anthoor municipality had other plans for him.

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