Last Monday, pillars of an under-construction bridge at Koolimadu near Mavoor in Kozhikode district buckled, and one overhead beam crashed into the water below. Two more beams are hanging precariously on top. The bridge across the Chailyar river was supposed to connect Kozhikode and Malappuram districts.
The contractors are a shady group called Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society (ULCCS). The bridge collapsed when almost 90% of the work (as per ULCCS) was completed. The Koolimadu bridge was to be inaugurated in two months.
Kerala public works department (PWD) minister P.A. Mohammed Riyas sought a report from the Kerala Road Fund Board. A team from the PWD vigilance wing, led by M. Ansar, Deputy Chief Engineer, visited the bridge on Wednesday. He said all the dangling beams must be shifted before they conclude what happened.
Construction work on the bridge began in 2019 and was awarded without tenders to ULCCS for ₹19 crores. It was revised to ₹25 crores and later estimated to cost the taxpayers ₹29 crores. The PWD does not have any idea about the safety of the rest of the bridge.
Political experts say that there is a particular modus operandi at play. Uralungal will quote a particular amount to complete work and seek additional allocation. The additional amount gets diverted for one or other services rendered by family members of the ruling party leaders.
Uralungal said there was no negligence in construction. It denied any lapses from its side. Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund (KIIFB), a special utility vehicle headed by CM Pinarayi Vijayan, defended ULCCS. KIIFB borrows money on the sly to pay off government employees’ salaries.
This is not what happened when an earlier bridge built by the Congress regime showed signs of weakness less than three years after its inauguration. V.K. Ibrahim Kunju, the Indian Union Muslim League leader, was the PWD minister back then. The communists used their street power and hounded him, and an expert team from IIT Chennai inspected the bridge. That infamous incident is called the Palarivattom flyover scam, and Metroman E Sreedharan rectified it. It was also his last job before retiring, aged 88.
The ‘labor contract society’ is an extra-constitutional authority with ₹6,600 crores worth of assets. ULCCS handles only government contracts and is alleged to be a Benami firm. How can a labor supply firm work in Information technology, tourism, and agriculture? This is not the first time the firm has come under doubt.
A prominent lawyer alleged that ULCCS transferred funds to Vijayan’s daughter Veena’s company, Exalogic. Incidentally, Veena is married to Kerala PWD minister Riyas and lives with Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram. Exalogic is a controversial enterprise and is based out of Bengaluru.
Riyas travels all over Malabar with his Marxist media comrades and is seen inspecting government guest houses. After finding some old liquor bottles, he searched the trash and suspended a guest house employee. The bridge collapsed near his constituency in Kozhikode, yet he never visited the crash site. He evaded the media’s questions and said those blaming him have a Palarivattom hangover.
In 2020, after evading questioning by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), CM Raveendran, additional chief secretary to Vijayan, finally appeared before the ED. Vijayan’s secretary had financial dealings with ULCCS, has investments in multiple businesses, made several foreign trips, and is an alleged Benami.
He rented out JCBs worth Rs. Eighty lakhs and earned crores from ULCCS. Suspiciously, Uralungal has hundreds of heavy machinery and equipment and yet prefers to pay Raveendran vast sums of money. Back then, the ED also raided the offices of ULCCS. They were asked to submit details of projects undertaken in the past five years.
Even though the misadventures of the Vijayan government increase day by day, surprisingly the Swapna Suresh gold smuggling saga, Vijayan’s Lavalin graft case, the ED cases against ULCCS, and inquiry against Raveendran and ULCCS have all been put on the backburner by the central government.