TWENTY-FIVE km from Kochi, at Kizhakkambalam, a huge model of a yellow mango fruit, with two thin leaves, standing on a podium, greets visitors. For local politicians of all hues, the mango, the poll symbol of Twenty20, symbolises the apolitical movement that for the second time running has wrested control of Kizhakkambalam panchayat.
In fact, Twenty20 has done one better. Though the Congress and CPM, sworn rivals in Kerala, fielded joint candidates to keep out the organisation, whose success threaten entrenched politics such as theirs, Twenty20 didn’t just retain control of the panchayat in its hometown Kizhakkambalam, but also won one more than its tally of 17 wards out of 19 in 2015 (the only ward not won by Twenty20 this time went to the UDF).
The reasons for this astonishing performance are all around in the panchayat, with KITEX not just banking on government funds for schemes but also its own contribution, and CSR funds of other firms — filling a crucial financial gap in welfare schemes. While panchayat members usually receive Rs 7,000 monthly from government as honorarium, KITEX pays the panchayat president Rs 25,000, vice-president Rs 20,000 and other members Rs 15,000, in addition to honorarium.
KITEX MD and Twenty20 Chief Coordinator Sabu Jacob says his group has spent about Rs 170 crore in Kizhakkambalam in the last five years. “Only 10% of that would be CSR. The rest is from our ventures and other institutions.”
One of the most successful schemes involves construction of 72 ‘villas’ — with two bedrooms, a toilet, and a kitchen — for families who lived in single-room settlements.
Jaya Muraleedharan and her husband, both daily wagers and former CPM supporters, are among Twenty20’s new voters in the Kunnathukudi ward of the panchayat. “Our life has changed. For years, we lived in a slum. We had four cents of land, but no money to construct a house. Twenty20 gave us a new house,” says Jaya.
A majority of the Twenty20 supporters are women like her, won over not just by the housing scheme but Twenty20 measures such as a ‘food security market’, where provisions are available at subsidies between 50% and 70% to those who have joined as members, depending on economic status, with a monthly ceiling. (In Kizhakkambalam panchayat, it has 8,500 members.)
Says autorickshaw driver Jose Sebastian: “We cannot fill stomachs with political ideology. Twenty20 provides all essential items at subsidised rates. I can purchase a litre of coconut oil at Rs 60 a month from their store, when it is Rs 200 in the open market.”
R Bindu, a housewife who won from Ward No. 8 on a Twenty20 ticket, says it is natural for women to vote for Twenty20 as they are the biggest beneficiaries of the schemes, including the creation of self-help groups. “The food store helps them run their kitchens without bleeding their family budgets. Home appliances can be purchased on instalment,” she says.
To cut down on irregularities, there is a punching system in place. Members must use it when meeting at the ward level or for purchases at the food security market.
Sabu Jacob says that in the five years that Twenty20 has been at the helm, the panchayat has transformed from owing liabilities of Rs 39 lakh to holding a balance of
Rs 13.57 crore. “We have increased efficiency in governance apart from increasing the bouquet of welfare schemes for people. Corruption was eliminated,” he says.
Jacob oversees functioning of Twenty20 closely, with KITEX’s salaried executives, including management and social work graduates, calling on people and conveying their requirements to the Managing Director.
K V Jacob, a former CPI local secretary who was an early convert to Twenty20 in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat, says there are both good sides and bad to this “autocratic” and corporate approach to democracy by Jacob. “While all schemes in the panchayat are funded by the exchequer, Sabu has ensured that the entire money is used for the project. When politicians handle panchayats, only 60% of the funds are ploughed in, the rest goes into their pockets,” Jacob says.
However, he adds, Sabu’s intervention means elected panchayat members like him have less and less say. “Panchayat members are reduced to mere puppets. Twenty20 executives are in touch with the local people. Nobody should question Jacob. I could not accept it and hence quit as panchayat president in January this year,” Jacob says.
Two others who had won on Twenty20 ticket in 2015 also quit over disagreements.
Others point out that many contractors too have backtracked from taking up projects in Kizhakkambalam, consequently ensuring that a majority of the works in the panchayat are done by KITEX’s own men.
Local CPM leader K V Alias says this transforms democracy in ways that can’t be ignored. “We are not against road development, but there have been incidents of the panchayat forcibly widening roads without the consent of landowners. Besides, provisions at subsidised rates are given only to Twenty20 members. Benefits mainly go to them,” he alleges, adding that the CPM has held several protests against this.
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