Updated: February 7, 2016 1:41:00 pm
Sometime in 1994, a nondescript hamlet near Chengannur in Kerala organised a function to felicitate a student who had topped the Class X exams in the village and ranked among the first 20 in the entire state. The slight girl, from a lower-middle class family, had scored 538 marks out of 600. Those were rare marks at the time, rarer still for the fact that the girl had lost her father just before her SSLC exams.
A teacher at St Anne’s Higher Secondary School, where the girl studied, says she wasn’t surprised. Calling the girl one of her favourite students, the teacher says, “She made sure nothing affected her studies. She had a thirst to achieve something.”
At the same time, the teacher requests that she not be named. “Otherwise my family and others will think that I am still in touch with her.” The village that once celebrated her too has distanced itself from the girl.
That girl was Saritha S Nair — the 38-year-old whose revelations have kept Kerala politicians on tenterhooks for three years now and who is threatening the Oommen Chandy government in the state.
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‘That smart little girl’
On that brief summer day 22 years ago though, everything seemed to be working out for Saritha. Apart from the village felicitation, there were two other meetings to congratulate her, including one by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and another where she was to get a cash award but had to skip because there was no one to take her.
Her father Somasekaran Nair had been an employee of the NSS, an influential body representing the Nair community in Kerala. Just before her Class X exams, he had died suddenly. Saritha says a heart attack killed him. However, other reports say Somasekaran committed suicide over charges of financial mismanagement.
Following his death, Saritha told The Sunday Express, her mother Indira took tuitions for schoolchildren and worked as an accountant at a private finance firm to meet the expenses of the family, including Saritha and her younger sister.
Then local Congress MLA Sobhana George was the chief guest at the function in Saritha’s village to mark her achievement in Class X. George still vividly remembers “that smart little girl”.
The St Anne’s teacher too remembers thinking that day that Saritha was set to have “a better future, despite all ordeals”.
But by the time Saritha had finished pre-degree from Chengannur Christian College in 1996, those dreams had dried up.
A relative says Indira couldn’t arrange money to send Saritha for a professional degree, and she had to join an engineering polytechnic in Neyyattinkara, her mother’s village, near Thiruvananthapuram.
Again, within no time, Saritha blossomed. A girl who was her classmate for the first year at the polytechnic, talks of Saritha as “one of the most happy, pleasant students on campus”, “a beautiful star”, who soon had admirers even at VTMNSS College in nearby Dhanuvacharapuram. Boys would often approach her seeking to strike a friendship, the classmate adds, and Saritha turned them away with a snub.
Trying to explain what attracted them to the “rather plain” girl, she says, “Saritha was extremely smart… modern in her appearance. She spoke fluent English.”
Another classmate says Saritha also stood out for being really good in studies, whether theory or practicals.
There was at least one mini-scandal involving her, friends add. Campus politics was rife at the time, but one day, students across party affiliations chased away an “outsider” who came to drop Saritha on a motorbike. Motorcycles were a luxury at the time, and that itself was enough for the incident to stick in public mind.
‘Ambitious, efficient worker’
Surprising her classmates, Saritha didn’t finish her course. “She must have done some certificate programmes later. But she got married to a person who worked in the Gulf when 19 or 20,” says a close relative, adding it was an arranged marriage.
In this second phase of her life too, trouble followed closely. Saritha, who continued to stay in India, applied to become an airhostess and was selected by Qatar Airlines. Her maternal uncle, the family head after her father’s death, simply said no, Saritha says. “He tore the offer letter with the Rs 2.5 lakh annual salary.”
Saritha later joined the franchise of a leading share trading company in Ernakulam.
Though Saritha and her husband had a son — he is in Class VIII now — relatives say they had started hearing about problems in the marriage by then. Those close to Saritha blame the husband, but relatives say the reason was disagreements over her “stylish” life, and financial issues.
Her employers though have only good things to say, remembering Saritha as an ambitious, well-dressed woman who liked to talk but who did her job and handled her responsibilities well.
One of her employers was Porinju Veliyath, a leading investor. Saritha worked as a receptionist in his firm for a brief period. “Only after this controversy did I realise that it was she who worked with us,” he says, refusing to say more.
Saritha later joined Kerala Finance Corporation Limited, a private firm, at Kozhencherry near Pathanamthitta as assistant branch manager. Despite this swift rise, says a relative, Saritha proved a good manager. “She got a lot of investments.”
However, again, just when things had started falling into place, rumours started of her closeness to a liquor shop owner. “That was also the time she met the much married Biju Radhakrishnan, an employee at the Kollam branch of the firm. In no time they were very close,” the relative says.
A suicide bid, a ‘murder’
Sometime in 2003, both Saritha and Radhakrishnan resigned from their jobs to start a firm called Credit Finance Shop that offered low-interest loans. Later, Kerala Finance Corporation Limited sued Saritha for “financial mismanagement”.
Saritha was the marketing head of Credit Finance, and a source close to her and Radhakrishnan says it was she who helped build both the business and get investments. In the acquaintance’s words, Radhakrishnan “used” Saritha, as he had “done with other women employees”.
Successful initially, the business soon ran into rough weather when customers claimed they had been duped. Saritha and Radhakrishnan’s relationship started showing the strain, says a close relative.
In 2005, Saritha says, a daily published a report and photographs alleging an affair between her and a local police officer. She believes Radhakrishnan was behind it. Her husband, who was stalling a divorce, finally agreed to the same. There was furore in Saritha’s family. She admits she tried to commit suicide. “I got scared of newspapers.”
Saritha filed a police complaint against Radhakrishnan for harassing women.
Soon after that, she left Kozhencherry to join a call centre in Ernakulam handling credit card operations of HSBC. Within a few months, she was transferred to Thiruvananthapuram, reportedly at her own request. In 2006, Radhakrishnan again found her there, she says. “Biju came with goondas demanding Rs 5 lakh that he alleged I took from him,” she says.
By then, Radhakrishnan was an accused in his wife Reshmi’s death, at their house in February 2006. A source close to Saritha says the patch-up between Radhakrishan and her was swift. “He managed to foist moral guilt for his wife’s death on Saritha.”
‘Friends’ in high places
Solar energy was just taking off at the time and Saritha and Radhakrishnan smelt an opportunity. In 2007, he started a solar equipment company called ICMS based in Thiruvananthapuram. There was a CPM-led LDF government in the state and, as per a senior government official close to Radhakrishnan, his ties with the Left ensured ICMS had a sunny start.
“Radhakrishnan’s main strength were his influential friends, including Bineesh Kodiyeri, son of then home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan,” says the source. He also remembers Saritha dropping names of VIPs, including “Kodiyeri uncle”.
Balakrishnan, a CPM Politburo member, denies knowing Radhakrishnan, or ever meeting Saritha. “I first heard about her when I came to know that she cheated someone using my name. I asked Bineesh too. He said he didn’t know Radhakrishnan. In fact, he was a law college student then and it was my ministry that arrested Saritha (in December 2009),” Balakrishnan says.
Both Saritha and Radhakrishnan faced financial mismanagement and cheating charges, filed by individual customers.
Saritha was eight months pregnant at the time of the arrest. She says there were regular fights between Radhakrishnan and her by then. “I had an affair with a politician and got pregnant. So Radhakrishnan started torturing me more.”
Last month, the judicial commission probing the solar scam asked Saritha to reveal the name of the father of the child born to her in jail. She protested that it affected her right to privacy.
While Radhakrishnan managed to get bail soon, Saritha spent six months inside jail as there was no one to raise money for bail. She didn’t want to ask Radhakrishnan for help, she says, but eventually it was he who got her out, beholding her to him again.
In late 2011, the Centre rolled out a programme offering grants to states under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission.
Radhakrishnan and Saritha were back in the game, with ICMS renamed as Team Solar, this time cashing in on new-found acquaintances in the UDF regime.
Many who met the duo in connection with business remember Saritha as an “amazing conversationalist” and, again, as a name-dropper, who would list UDF ministers and MPs as friends. Despite their time behind bars, they appear to have had easy access to the power corridors.
A source who worked with Saritha in land deals involving politicians acknowledges her ambition but clarifies, “She never sounded like a con woman. We were very good friends and she would tell me to ask for help anytime I needed as she had free access to ministers. She also had close ties with their families, used to visit them often, even nurse them when they fell sick.”
One such family, Saritha claims now, was Chandy’s, though Chandy has told the solar commission he had met Saritha only three times.
In 2011, Team Solar company approached Chandy with a proposal to install solar panels on roofs of 10,000 houses in the state, suggesting that the government fund it. Saritha had participated in government-run programmes across the country and come up with the idea. “We expected Rs 15,000 profit per kilowatt,” she says.
Saritha has told the probe panel that the CM asked for a bribe of Rs 7 crore to clear this, and that she was asked to meet Power Minister Aryadan Muhammed, who demanded a further Rs 2 crore.
Saritha claims to have paid Rs 1.9 crore to Chandy’s aide Thomas Kuruvilla and Rs 40 lakh to Mohammed’s secretary Kesavan.
Besides, Saritha alleges, Chandy’s son Chandy Oommen was to become a director in the solar firm. She claims the son had a stake in a US firm, and that he planned to import solar panels from it. Chandy and Muhammed have denied all allegations.
However, by 2013, the house of cards had started tumbling. A tough stand taken by the Agency for Non-Conventional Energy and Rural Technology of the Kerala government ensured that Team Solar, which wasn’t in the empanelled list of the Union ministry, didn’t get the tender. When customers who had paid money to Team Solar for the panels — money that it, in turn, used to allegedly bribe politicians — started lining up, the complaints against Saritha and Radhakrishnan mounted.
The two also had vicious fights, say those close to them, with Radhakrishnan raking up her “relationships” with politicians.
In June 2013, Saritha and Radhakrishnan were arrested.
‘I was in a trap’
The girl whom everyone had big expectations of once wasn’t done though.
While in jail near Thiruvananthapuram, Saritha wrote a letter naming VVIPs who had allegedly used her physically promising solar business contracts. A set of videos of her in the nude, which she says she shot for private use, soon hit the media — a leak by police, she says, to portray her in a bad light. A laptop and cellphones she had submitted never reached court, Saritha adds.
The then jail DGP, Alexander Jacob, remembers the handwritten letter, running into 42 pages, naming 13 VIPs and one police officer. The first two and a half pages detailed how senior Congress leaders had sexually used her, naming each, narrating how, when and where, Jacob says.
Saritha would later release only a four-page letter, after a visit by her mother and an unidentified man. Saritha told media she left out information regarding Chandy after the CM approached her, saying he would help her in cases.
In December 2015, Radhakrishnan stated before the solar commission that he had a CD containing evidence to prove that Chandy and five others had sexual links with Saritha. A 10-hour trip to Coimbatore, however, proved futile as he was not able to retrieve the CD.
Lately, Saritha has found a new career: in music albums and films. “I am doing it purely for money,” she says.
While post-production work is on in four music albums she has recorded, she has contracts for four films. “Few schedules are left to be completed in a film that I’ve finished shooting for,” Saritha says.
The albums include Christian and Hindu devotional songs, while in one of the movies she plays a police officer. A music video from the film, titled Vayyaveli (Imbroglio), was released on the day she raised major allegations against Chandy.
Saritha says the money helps her support her two children — the son and the girl born in jail, who is now 6. They live with Saritha’s mother in Ernakulam. Saritha’s sister is married.
Describing herself as “a sinking ship”, “going from one mistake to another”, Saritha adds that she has decided to now stop lying. “I don’t want anyone to give me a clean chit… First I was in the trap of Radhakrishnan, then in the hands of politicians. Until 10 days ago, I was in that trap. I lied before everyone thinking they would save me from all cases as they promised.”
Sarah Joseph, leading Malayalam writer and activist, slams the media for focusing on the sleaze angle in the Saritha case. “She is a woman who knows the system, who tried to make use of corrupt politicians. The campaign of portraying her as the main accused may be incorrect as the politicians who used her for sexual pleasures and took bribes were no lesser criminals… The evidence submitted by Saritha should be used to expose this larger political scam,” Joseph says.
Jacob, the former jail DGP, observes that his most lasting image of Saritha in his custody is not the letter. On the first day that she was there, he says, jail authorities received about 150 applications to visit her — from “mostly politicians”.
As for Saritha, she still retains that dream of what could have been. She talks of her plans for a mega power project in the renewable energy sector which, she says, she discussed with the CM.
“It would have made us the largest players in the renewable energy sector in the country. I would have been the CEO. For me, it was also a way to escape from Radhakrishnan’s Team Solar.”
Solar scam timeline
Dec 2010: Biju Radhakrishnan arrested along with Saritha S Nair in a cheating case. She delivers a child in jail.
2011: The two approach the Kerala government with a proposal to install solar panels on 10,000 houses. Over two years, Team Solar collects several lakhs promising larger projects, using names of ministers, the CM.
June 2013: Saritha, Radhakrishnan arrested; CM Oommen Chandy’s PA Tenny Joppan, personal staff member Jikkumon Jacob removed from posts
July 2013: A petitioner against Saritha says she helped him meet Chandy.
August 2013: Judicial probe ordered.
September 2013: Chandy’s gunman Salim Raj arrested.
January 2014: Radhakrishnan sentenced to life term, his mother too convicted, for his wife Rashmi’s murder in 2006.
March 2014: Saritha alleges Congress MLA A P Abdullakkutty raped her.
July 2014: Saritha tells probe panel politicians had no role in the scam.
Jan 25, 2016: Chandy tells probe panel he says may have met Saritha thrice.
Jan 29, 2016: Saritha tells panel she gave Rs 1.90 crore to Chandy, claims Chandy’s son had business dealings with her.
Feb 1, 2016: Saritha submits tapes of Congress leaders “asking her to depose in favour of Chandy.
For more stories on the Kerala solar scam, click here
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