"Public Interest or Publicity Interest?" - HC on Congress leader's petition on Pinarayi's KFON project

Engineers at work implementing Kerala Fiber Optic Network (KFON) project
Engineers at work implementing Kerala Fiber Optic Network (KFON) projectKerala Govt

The Kerala High Court today expressed scepticism on a petition lodged by Congress heavyweight and leader of opposition VD Satheesan challenging the Kerala Fibre Optic Network or KFON project. The court was particularly irked that the petition had been filed nearly five years after a consortium led by public sector undertaking Bharat Electronics Ltd was selected as the implementation agency.

"Why it is being challenged after five years," asked the court, adding whether the award of the contract was challenged earlier by anyone else.

Satheesan had filed a public interest litigation in the High Court seeking a CBI probe into the implementation of the KFON project.

"What is the public interest in the matter...We will look into everything and we will pass appropriate orders. At the same time, we will examine whether it is 'public interest' or 'publicity interest litigation'," it noted.

It was seemingly unhappy that the court was being used as a tool to settle political scores.

"Why the court is being used for everything...How can the petitioner challenge the tender notification for the project through a Public Interest Litigation," it asked.

When the court pointed out that the government order selecting the BEL consortium was issued on July 15, 2019, Satheesan's counsel said the CAG had made some remarks about the project on May 16, 2023. The plea, the counsel said, is based on the report of the CAG.

"I am only requesting the court to have an inquiry by CBI in this matter," the counsel added, upon which the Bench comprising AJ Desai and Justice VG Arun asked: "For what purpose?"

Nevertheless, the court directed the state government to file a counter affidavit.

The petition said the CAG had come down heavily on the government for violating tender conditions. The CAG had said that the K-FON project was in a huge mess due to the incompetence of SRIT.

"Due to SRIT's illegal sub-tendering of work to sub-contractors who were more incompetent than them, huge delays had occurred and the quality of work has also suffered," it said.

Advocate General K Gopalakrishna Kurup, the top legal official in the Kerala government, pointed out that the CAG has not completed its full investigations into the matter.

"The CAG has only made some observations and not filed any report in this regard. These are only observations. Subsequently, they may call for the remarks from the department concerned. Thereafter, the matter will be placed before the legislature. Then the legislature subject committee takes a call on it. No reliance can be placed on the [initial] observation," he said.

Satheesan's Allegations

The petition filed by VD Satheesan claims that a contract estimated at Rs 1028.20 crores was auctioned for Rs 1531.68 crores at a staggering difference of Rs 400 crore to the exchequer. Hence the tender was awarded to the consortium at a loss of 400 crores, it said.

According to Satheesan, the project and all contracts arising from it were divided among proxies of the people controlling the government. All the tenders for the project had been awarded to a single beneficiary company which was closely connected with persons in power, he said.

The company then allegedly re-routed the work and financial benefits involved to another company which is associated with the same person in power, he alleged.

The project touted as a breakthrough project to provide internet access to economically backward and streamline government works online had been reduced to a scheme for fitting projects to SRIT Pvt Ltd, Presadia and its subcontractors. A complete violation of administrative action and fraud was committed against the public. The corruption involved in the contract award was akin to the corruption in the implementation of the government's safe Kerala project of the installation of AI (artificial intelligence) traffic cameras, he added.

The petition alleged that SRIT Pvt Ltd bagged all contracts concerning the KFON project in Kerala by using RailTel as its face. All contracts won by SRIT were in turn routed to Presadio as evidenced by the sub-contracting of cable laying by SRIT to Ashoka which issued purchase orders to Presadio, the petition said.

The same pattern of illegal tender proceedings and sub-contracting between SRIT and Presadio is visible in the Al camera project also, it noted.

"The common pattern of fraud in the AI camera project and the KFON project is that wherever SRIT is involved, Presadio is close behind to reap the benefits of the tender issued to SRIT. Presadio, after receiving the sub-contract, again sub-contracts it to other companies. Therefore, the role of SRIT and Presadio is of middlemen, who charge commission for transferring the actual work to third parties," Satheesan argued.

Satheesan said that only an investigation from the Central Bureau of Investigation will reveal the truth in the matter.

Meanwhile, the advocate general objected to what he characterised as "irrelevant remarks" cast by the opposition leader against Kerala Lok Ayukta in the petition.

Satheesan had said: "Yet another forum in which one can approach the Kerala Lok Ayukta. The said forum also has proved by now that they are incapable of performing their duty cast on them. Therefore, the only machinery which can be relied on for the present is the central agency."

Kurup said Satheesan should withdraw such aspersions. The Bench too said that it was an irresponsible statement.

The Bench pointed out that in the writ petition, the opposition leader has stated that he has some more material with him and awaiting the outcome of the CAG report.

"If so, you have to come with all material after the filing of the final report by the CAG."

At this, Satheesan's counsel replied that the report is yet to be placed before the legislature.

"Have you made any request or representation before the authorities concerned seeking to look into the project? Why is the High Court made a tool for all these things?" the Bench asked.

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