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Representative image of Kudumbashree workers
Representative image of Kudumbashree workers|Photo credit: Asianet
Governance

How False Charges Were Foisted For Questioning Kudumbashree Leadership

Vinodini was removed from her post as accountant despite votes being in her favour thanks to party politics

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

In the first part of our series on the politicisation of Kudumbashree, we told you the story of Jinesh who was removed from his post as accountant over flimsy reasons. Despite High Court orders stating that hearings must be conducted by the Executive Director, it was not obeyed. The CPI(M)’s long and powerful arm hovers over Kudumbashree and its accounts.

In this second part, we tell you the story of Vinodini who was slapped with charges of possessing marijuana simply because she refused to step down from the post of accountant in the organisation.

Asserting Rights Over Kudumbashree

In 2018, far from Koothattukulam Panchayat, 140 kms away in Pazhayannur Panchayat of Thrissur district, bordering Palakkad, a similar fate fell upon Vinodini.

Vinodini AG, 36, joined Kudumbashree CDS in Pazhayannur Panchayat as its accountant on 10 July 2010. Ever since, she had been working as an accountant and Pazhayannur CDS was among the top CDSs within Thrissur district.

In her eighth year, on 13 July 2018, the Pazhayannur CDS committee held its monthly meeting as scheduled and dispersed with no significant decisions.

But the minutes of the meeting which were taken to the President’s office later came to add four points under “decisions taken” which were not part of the initial minutes.

Written in a neat handwriting incongruent with rest of the writing, the additions said:

The working of the Accountant is not satisfactory.

The Accountant is not cooperating with the CDS Chairperson

Kudumbashree mails are not brought to the attention of Chairperson as well as the Panchayat President.

It was decided to remove the accountant.

The original minutes book has not been seen ever since. The above copy has been obtained through RTI.
The original minutes book has not been seen ever since. The above copy has been obtained through RTI.

The edited minutes carried the seal of not only the CDS chairperson who is the head of CDS but also the Panchayat President who has no role whatsoever in deciding the internal affairs of CDS leave alone to give her approval.

In keeping with the decisions in the minutes, on 25 September 2018 an order was issued by the District Mission Coordinator (DMC) to remove Vinodini. She was asked to leave office by 30 September 2018.

While all procedures were technically completed, there remained a hole in the make believe story scripted by the Panchayat President and the chairperson. None of the CDS members were aware of the so called decision cleverly added on to the minutes.

The very next day, on 26 September 2018, 12 CDS members of the 22 member Pazhayannoor CDS wrote to the Executive Director of Kudumbashree conveying their surprise at the decision to remove the accountant without their knowledge whatsoever.

In the letter, they pointed out that no decision had ever been arrived at in any of the CDS committee meetings held, nor was it ever kept on the agenda for discussion. Yet no action was forthcoming from the Kudumbashree officialdom who conveniently turned a blind eye.

The letter also mentioned that when they asked for the minutes of the meeting, they were told that it was with the Panchayat President.
The letter also mentioned that when they asked for the minutes of the meeting, they were told that it was with the Panchayat President.

The Lineage Test

Vinodini had joined Kudumbashree as an accountant at a time when the LDF was in power. Her husband was a cadre of CPI(M). Having returned from the Gulf, her husband is now a lease farmer in nearby Palakkad district.

Her family too has been supporters of LDF but her brother is a supporter of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Her brother’s political leanings was held against Vinodini, according to what she had gathered.

This was important, as Pazhayannur Panchayat was held by UDF in the previous term which ended in 2015.

The previous Pazhayannur CDS chairperson whose 3 year term ended on 26 January 2018 too had held an affinity towards the UDF. In between, Kerala switched back to LDF rule in the by now legendary swing and switch in 2016 giving the CPI(M) an added vigour.

Vinodini by virtue of having worked during the previous dispensation came to be seen as a residue of the UDF at a time when political clean-up was being taken up.

She holds that she holds no special relationship with any party in particular. Her closest friend, a CPI(M) supporter is also a member of the same CDS and attests to it.

But her brother’s leanings were not viewed sympathetically.

“Can we change our family for a job?” asks Vinodini. “I had cleared exams to get this job.” Vinodini had come first in the exams which were conducted in 2013 and she had reasons to feel bitter.

Pazhayannoor CDS she worked in was among the first in the district when it came to submission and settlement of accounts. The evaluation of the district officials in the appraisal form was proof enough she held. What added to the insult was that her removal had nothing to do with the CDS that she worked for.

“President instead of the chairperson took the appraisal form from me,” says Vinodini. “In Pazhayyannur, the CDS chairperson Thajunisa has no powers. Even CDS meetings are held only after taking permission from the Panchayat President,” said one CDS member who chose to remain anonymous. And it was in the chairperson’s evaluation column that Vinodini was given marks of 3 and 4 out of 10.

When The Lede reached out, the chairperson’s phone was attended by a lady who initially said she was the chairperson but when asked about the allegations said she was just a CDS member.

“It was all given by the President,” says another CDS member. The low marks given in the chairperson’s evaluation stood in sharp contrast to that given by the Assistant District Mission Coordinator of Thrissur district, Valsala P, who coordinated Vinodini’s works.

But the Panchayat President Shobhana Rajan when asked says, “The CDS chairperson takes all decisions after discussions with the CDS committee. Vinodini was removed because of mediocre performance.”

Asked about her role in CDS and why she was overly involved, Shobhana Rajan said, “Kudumbashree is part of the panchayat. The President has powers by virtue of being ex-officio member of the CDS.”

On pointing out that ex-officio members have no special powers in the CDS and that Kudumbashree had its own by-law and a separate existence from the panchayat she said, “My decisions are not forced on the CDS.”

Pazhayannur chairperson Shobhana Rajan wrote this letter to the DMC directly asking him to remove Vinodini.
Pazhayannur chairperson Shobhana Rajan wrote this letter to the DMC directly asking him to remove Vinodini.

“Vinodini was removed because she was not good at work,” held Shobhana Rajan when asked again as to the reason behind her removal.

About the minutes book which was alleged to have been tampered with, she denied adding anything to the original minutes. “The post of accountant is a contractual position. The CDS committee decided not to extend her term. The DMC approved the decision. When she went to court the decision was stayed and a hearing asked to be held,” she said.

Vinodini got her removal stayed by the High Court of Kerala on 29 September 2018.

The court asked the Executive Director of Kudumbashree to schedule a hearing, to hear all the CDS members and take an appropriate decision at the earliest.

When Vinodini returned to work, she was made to wait outside the office every day. Keys to the office were not given to her and she was kept waiting until CDS members arrived. Even inside the office, access to the almirah was denied to her.

The hearing was eventually held in Thrissur and presided by Program Officer, Pramod KV on 15 May 2019.

Contrasting marks in Vinodini’s appraisal form
Contrasting marks in Vinodini’s appraisal form

Pazhayannur panchayat has 22 wards and hence 22 CDS members. During the meeting, four additional members attended claiming to be ex-officio members. But the panchayat had never appointed ex-officio members for the CDS. Nor do ex-officio members hold any voting rights.

But under the vigilant eyes of the program officer, all 26 people present were allowed to record their vote.

After assuring that the votes of the ex-officio members would not be counted, when the order was issued on 07 June 2019, the Executive Director had stated that as per the voting held for the 22 member CDS committee of the Pazhayannur CDS, 15 members voted to remove Vinodini while 11 members wanted her to continue.

It was clear for those fighting for a fair hearing as to whom the Executive Director and his officials were working so hard for.

They Giveth And Taketh

Meanwhile, an anonymous complaint sent to the Excise Department accused Vinodini and her brother Vinod of being involved in selling of marijuana. Vinodini, the complaint alleged, used women as carriers.

An enquiry was conducted and officers later told Vinodini that it was a case of personal scores being settled.
An enquiry was conducted and officers later told Vinodini that it was a case of personal scores being settled.

While 10 of the 12 members who had initially supported Vinodini’s continuation were supporters of the UDF, two had belonged to CPI(M).

Before the second hearing, one of the two was coerced to change her vote. She apologised to Vinodini for her helplessness. But the other member, Indu Balan, stuck to her stand. This would make Vinodini’s a litmus test for the Kudumbashree officialdom laying bare what it has always been accused of - being stooges blindly carrying out party orders.

Indu Balan who had been a working mate within the Kudumbashree was soon removed from the responsibility of mate.

Mates supervise work undertaken under NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and earnings from the works completed. They are trained to estimate works and oversee their timely completion using NREGA labour.

Indu who had grown dependent on her earnings was denied her source of income for standing up for what she felt was right.

The trend of Kudumbashree unfairly and repeatedly taking back what it helped build, raise some questions which needs serious pondering as to the purpose of its existence.

The Second Hearing

On 29 August 2019 based on the second court order asking the Executive Director to conduct a hearing himself, Executive Director Harikishore IAS attended the hearing in Thrissur, the district headquarters.

Vinodini was confident that she would get a fair trial not only because the Executive Director himself was present but also because unlike many others in her position, she had equal support to continue in her job in the 22 member CDS.

“During the hearing when he was told about the member supporting me losing her mate work, the Executive Director asked what was the big deal if mate work was lost,” says Vinodini. “He doesn’t seem to understand how people grow dependant even if on a small source of income.”

Ironically, Harikishore is the man heading the largest women-empowering project in the country aiming to alleviate poverty.

After the hearing, by the order issued dated 30 September 2019, Vinodini was again ordered to have been removed from the post. But the reasoning was an innovative con.

While 11 CDS members supported her staying on, the order reasoned, 11 opposed her continuing.

So the Executive Director decided to sack Vinodini by basing his decision on the opinion of the Thrissur District Mission Coordinator Jyothish Kumar who lent weight to the earlier decision arrived at by the CDS (the one where 12 CDS members wrote to the Executive Director saying no voting ever took place!).

Vinodini’s was a test case for many more like her to throw open the sham that Kudumbashree hearings became.
Vinodini’s was a test case for many more like her to throw open the sham that Kudumbashree hearings became.

The President had incessantly called the minister to get Vinodini removed according to those in the know. But Vinodini has now got a new order from the High Court on 14 October 2019 and has got the new order removing her stayed a third time.

Vinodini has been given a month’s time by the court. The local body elections are scheduled for next year.

Activists say that this is the new norm for Kudumbashree since the Pinarayi Vijayan government took over.

“There is a widespread attempt underway to politicise Kudumbashree,” said activist Sunil PG. “What was started with a lofty vision is being destroyed. Attempts to capture Kudumbashree and vendetta politics is behind this. Many CDS accountants have been removed at the behest of local leadership.

Dirty games are being played and people victimised. Those targeted include honest accountants who had helped make Kudumbashree what it is. It is not limited to them alone. From top to bottom, many other functionaries too have been removed," he said.

Sunil is an activist based in Koothattukulam and he says that the chairpersons of Kudumbashree CDSs are political appointees.

"Accountants in Kudumbashree CDS work on contract basis," he continued. "It is required to be renewed every year. In the previous few years, things have become bad. Many times 90-95% CDS members have supported an accountant continuing in their post.

But CDS chairperson and municipal leadership insists, new committee meetings are held & decisions reversed. Chairpersons are slaves of the party leadership, so they are forced to take such stands. They get elected for being compliant to the party leadership.

Once elected, they become mute spectators to political interference. Many people I know have been suffering in silence. Even after they approached the courts, the government machinery has not mended its ways," he stated.

Meanwhile, a new accountant has been appointed by the Pazhayannur CDS on daily wages.

When Vinodini, equipped with the stay order went to the Kudumbashree office on 16 October 2019, she wasn't allowed entry saying they have already appointed someone new.

When she asked for a written explanation as to why court orders couldn't be executed, she was given in writing by the member-secretary, CDS Pazhayannur, that since a new accountant has been appointed on 14 October 2019, they will give an explanation in the High Court regarding the same only once they are in possession of the High Court's notice staying Vinodini's removal.

(In the next part of the series, we bring you the story of many others who have faced similar harassment as well as what is going within Kudumbashree)