The story so far: The reinstatement of four out of five employees who were suspended as part of the building number scam in Kozhikode Corporation has put the spotlight back on the scam and the investigation of it. While the investigation by the District Crime Branch has reached no where, opposition parties are demanding a comprehensive inquiry under the watchful eyes of the Court.
What is the scam all about?
On June 17 this year, a section of the local media reported a deep-rooted scam connected to the Sanchaya building tax assessment software used in the corporation as well as all local bodies in the State. It was revealed that the login details of some employees in the revenue section of the corporation were leaked out to allot numbers to a large number of buildings, including a few that were unauthorised or deemed unfit. The report was accompanied by claims by a few officials that they had pointed out misuse of digital signatures through the Sanchaya software almost six months ago, but that the Corporation authorities did not pay heed to it. In what was then perceived as a knee-jerk reaction, the Corporation Secretary K.U. Bini suspended four officials whose login IDs and passwords were found to have been used in the scam.
How did the employees and the opposition react?
The opposition in the Corporation council, mostly the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) soon launched agitations demanding a comprehensive inquiry into the scam alleging that the Secretary had a role in it and hence should step aside to facilitate an impartial inquiry. They conducted protests within the Corporation office, often leading to violence, and even gheraoed the Mayor once. They also alleged that hundreds of buildings were part of the scam while the Corporation authorities confirmed only a handful of cases.
The Corporation employees on the other hand irrespective of their political affiliations, joined hands to launch a strike demanding the reinstatement of the suspended employees, on grounds that they were innocent in the grand scheme of things. The employees alleged that the software developed by the Information Kerala Mission (IKM) had several glitches and was so open that anyone with login details could access it from anywhere to get details regarding property tax in the corporation, and could make changes and even replace an existing file with the one that suited them.
What action did the Corporation take?
As soon as the scam came into light, the Corporation Secretary ordered an internal inquiry led by the Additional Secretary. The Department of Local Self Governance and the IKM conducted inquiries besides the Police investigation into the case. The State Vigilance launched ‘Operation True House’ to unearth similar scams, if any, in other local bodies in the State as the Sanchaya software was used for building tax assessment across the State. The Corporation also appointed a team to check out building numbers allotted in the last year to find out if any of them were part of the scam.
What were the findings of the investigations?
The investigation conducted by the IKM revealed that the digital signatures of a few retired employees as well as an official in the Elathur Zonal Office have been misused, besides those of the suspended officials. The digital signature of a former Deputy Secretary was used for authorising one of the illegal buildings while five of them had the signature of a former Revenue Officer. The login details of the suspended officials were used for authorising a lot of buildings.
The departmental inquiry as well as the internal inquiry highlighted the irresponsible way in which the corporation staff dealt with the password and user id of the Sanchaya software. Regional Joint Director (RJD) (Urban Affairs) of Department of Local Self Governance, D. Saju, who led the investigation pointed out that the user, the verifier, and the approver is the same person in some cases and that the officials were not very careful about keeping the login details confidential despite repeated warnings from the authorities. The faults in the Sanchaya software have also been flagged. The internal inquiry report was less incriminating for the officials, as their ‘lack of technological know-how’ was cited as the reason for the password leak.
What was the result of the police investigation?
The Feroke police team led by Assistant Commissioner M.M. Siddique arrested seven persons in connection with allotting numbers to one of the unauthorised buildings included in the list of suspected buildings provided by the Corporation. At first, the list contained six buildings with 16 shop rooms, but the Mayor recently pointed out that there were ten such buildings.
However, the Feroke police could not go ahead with the investigation due to workload and hence the case was handed over to the District Crime Branch. The 15-member team led by Crime Branch Assistant Commissioner Anil Sreenivasan registered five more cases in connection with the scam. However, his transfer put the investigation in limbo as the officer who took his place is yet to take charge of the investigation.
What is the present state of affairs?
The Corporation Secretary recently revoked the suspension of four out of the five officials, though they faced disciplinary action for their carelessness, while P. Srinivasan, who was the Revenue Officer at the Beypore office, remains suspended. Amid allegations from the UDF and the BJP that the Corporation authorities were trying to protect their favoured people by punishing unsuspecting officials, Corporation Secretary K.U. Bini pointed out that Mr. Srinivasan had not been the whistle blower in the case at any point and that the anomaly in the Sanchaya software that he had flagged months ago, had no connection with the scam. She also alleged that Mr. Srinivasan’s digital signature and his personal laptop computer were used to allot numbers to some unauthorised buildings, which could not have happened without his knowledge.
Meanwhile, the BJP, alleging that reinstating the officials was the first step into sabotaging the case, plans to approach the Kerala High Court demanding a thorough investigation. The party is also planning to go on strike in a few days.