Just days away from curtains falling on the fourth edition of the prestigious Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the art exhibition has run into financial trouble with a contractor sending a legal notice over alleged non-payment of dues for structural works done at some of the venues. Additionally, daily-wage labourers, ranging from masons to plumbers to fabricators, who worked independently have also come to the fore complaining that their wages have not been paid since December.
The legal notice sent on behalf of Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers (TCID) Pvt Limited on March 18 to the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), that runs the art exhibition, warned of civil and criminal proceedings if it fails to pay the contractor a sum of Rs 77.59 lakhs towards pending bills. The notice, in an annexure, also names ten other related vendors whose collective unpaid bills allegedly stand at Rs 45.75 lakhs.
“Our client has been left in a precarious financial situation because of the trust it reposed in you, since, it is not a small amount of money that you are illegally retaining with yourself. Till date, our client has not been able to pay the vendors from whom it had sought help in order to complete the works entrusted by you. Our client fails to understand how a foundation that has always prided itself as giving voice to a people’s movement can adopt such unethical and hypocritical practices that hurt the very same people – vendors and countless employees – of Kochi, who have worked extremely hard for the success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018,” the legal notice read.
Appu Thomas, Director, TCID, told indianexpress.com that he agreed to set up major infrastructure especially at venues like Aspinwall House and Cabral Yard of the Biennale in the light of his long-standing relationship with the foundation in previous editions of the exhibition.
“(Biennale) is a very beautiful and most admired programme. We have worked with the foundation in the past and have worked out things amicably. But this year, there has been mismanagement of funds. And there’s no one to talk and rationalise within the KBF. They still don’t have a chief financial officer,” said Thomas.
He complained that they were handed the venues for the works just two months prior to its inauguration and that workers, mostly locals, had to spend days and nights getting the installations in time.
When the bills were raised with KBF, Thomas claimed, they responded with the need for an independent valuer as some of the expenses were exorbitant. He said questions were asked about items as basic as sofas sitting on which KBF staff gave interviews to media. “They didn’t question the expenses when we informed its cost at the time of buying. After using it for nearly three months, they are raising questions now,” said Thomas.
An independent valuer is said to have recommended a little over half of the amount claimed by the contractor. There are also allegations that there is no proper work orders, invoices or a tendering process.
Simon, a local mason contracted by Thomas’s firm for the Biennale, said he is yet to receive a sum of Rs 3.52 lakhs for the works he and his team of labourers finished at some of the main venues.
“I’m sitting on top of huge debts. I had to sell the jewellery of my wife and my daughter-in-law to pay off the wages of my workers. We had worked day and night to finish all the works. We did everything they said and we are still not paid after three months,” he said.
“In 2016, when we worked similarly for the Biennale, despite demonetisation, we were paid. So there’s no reason for them to not pay us off this time,” he said.
“There has to be a solution to this. Every week, they keep saying that they will clear our dues. They should know how difficult the market is right now,” said Royce, who completed fabrication works at the Cabral Yard Pavilion, one of the main venues of the Biennale.
He clarified that invoices and bills were submitted at regular intervals as the work progressed. But at that time, he added, they were not interested in expenses as they wanted the work completed before the inauguration.
The KBF in a statement responding to the allegations said, “The contractor and his vendors entrusted with the construction of the Biennale Pavilion at Cabral Yard have to-date been paid Rs 1,80,59,000. The payment of on-ground workers is the responsibility of the contractors. The payment of on-ground workers is the responsibility of the contractors.”
“Since the final bills submitted by the contractor were considered exorbitant, the Foundation, in mutual agreement with the contractor, appointed an independent government approved valuer to look into this. The report submitted by the valuer has found that the bills are greatly inflated, and that the amounts demanded by the contractor are arbitrary. This matter is now being pursued legally,” the statement added.
This year, the KBF received Rs 7 crore from the Kerala government and additional funds from private sponsors and through sale of public tickets. The 2018 Biennale, curated by Anita Dube on the theme ‘possibilities for a non-alienated life’, kick-started on December 12, 2018 and is scheduled to come to a close on March 29. It features paintings, photographs, art installations, daily music and dance performances by over 100 artists from across the globe and has come to be known as a permanent fixture for art connoisseurs in the continent.