Facing opposition heat over an order for payment of his helicopter ride from disaster relief fund, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan today sought to play down the controversy, saying there was nothing wrong or unusual about it.
He said when the matter came to his notice last evening, he had immediately asked the concerned persons to make the payment from the general administration department (GAD). "There was nothing wrong in the procedure adopted by the government. This is a usual practice," he said addressing a public meeting organised in connection with the ruling CPI(M)'s district conference in Idukki.
The order for payment of Rs 8 lakh from the state disaster relief fund (SDRF) toward the use of the private helicopter by Vijayan to travel from a party meeting venue in Thrissur to the state capital and back on December 26 kicked off a row with Congress and BJP slamming the government for 'diverting' the relief fund. However, the order was cancelled last night by the government.
Vijayan had rushed to the state capital on December 26 to meet an inter-ministerial central team on a visit to assess the damage caused by the 'Ockhi' cyclone which had hit the state's southern coast on Nov 29-30.
Congress and BJP today sharpened their attack on the LDF government over the matter. While Congress demanded registration of a corruption case, BJP wanted the Centre to monitor utilisation of 'Ockhi' cyclone relief fund.
Rejecting their charges, Vijayan said such journeys would have to be undertaken by any chief minister and it was a usual practice. He also sought to turn the tables, saying a former chief minister had taken a helicopter ride to Idukki while in power and the expense was met from the disaster relief fund then. However, he did not name anyone. "But, I have decided not to use the SDRF. These things happen normally. There was nothing wrong in it," Vijayan said.
He also flayed the statement of BJP that the Centre should monitor the utilisation of Ockhi relief fund. Earlier in the day, KPCC President M M Hassan said the attempt to divert the SDRF funds was not only an irregularity, but amounted to corruption and so a Vigilance Case should be registered against the Chief Minister.
"The government fund was utilised for a private purpose," he said alleging the Chief Minister "has committed corruption to the tune of Rs eight Lakhs (cost incurred for the journey)."
In Kochi, Leader of the Opposition in the assembly Ramesh Chennitha said it was a "serious lapse" on the part of the government and a highly 'condemnable act'.
BJP President Kummanam Rajasekharan said diverting SDRF fund was a 'heartless' action and a criminal offence. The Chief Minister and the CPI-M cannot absolve themselves now and it was a 'naked misuse of power', he alleged. BJP State General Secretary M T Ramesh wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking to monitor the utilisation of Ockhi Relief Fund, a party release said.
The LDF government also came in for criticism from the Latin Catholic Church, to which most of the cyclone-affected fishermen belong, over the issue. Church officials said the incident was a pointer to the possibilities of Ockhi relief fund getting diverted instead of reaching the deserving persons.
Meanwhile, state Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan said an explanation had been sought from the Revenue Secretary P H Kurien, who had issued the order for the payment. He also said neither he nor his office was aware of the controversial order. The government while cancelling the order had maintained that it was issued without the knowledge of the chief minister or his office.
A statement issued by CMO's office had clarified that the helicopter was hired for Vijayan and other ministers' journey on December 26 for a meeting with the central team. That was why the State Disaster Management Authority issued the order for the payment from the disaster relief fund, it was stated.