Of the several takeaways from the results of the Kerala Local Body elections this month, the political growth of Twenty20, an organization launched to disseminate the Corporate Social Responsibility funds of Kitex Garments is as worrisome as it is unusual. As a majority of the state tended towards the CPIM-led Left Democratic Front(LDF), Twenty20, a corporate organisation, seized power and majority in Aikkaranadu, Kunnathunadu and Kizhakkambalam panchayats in Ernakulam district while simultaneously putting up a significant opposition in Vengola which is situated beside these panchayats.
Twenty20 made its advent into politics in the local body polls of 2015 when it won the Kizhakkambalam gram panchayat. Since then, there have been welfare activities in the panchayat including groceries at reduced rates made available in the supermarket, better house projects and better roads. In an interview with Madhyamam, Sabu M Jacob, MD of Kitex garments, further claims of reduced incidence of serious crimes and decreased mortality rate. Shopping mall, multiplex, health centre, coaching centre, and revenue tower are next in line, added Sabu.
Kitex, the corporate behind the body, was started in 1992 by MC Jacob and is currently the second-largest children's garment provider across the globe. The company focuses on export to the US and Europe. Additionally, under the parent Anna-Kitex banner, there are several other firms like Anna Aluminium, Sara's curry powder and Chakson pressure cooker. In the last financial year, the company reaped over a 1000 crores.
The campaign for Twenty20 targets the public disappointment towards political parties in meeting the public's needs. Dismissing all political parties and politicians as corrupt and needless, the party pitches itself forward as the provider of amenities. Twenty20 dresses as the much-needed alternative in an exploitative political and economic framework. Sabu puts it simply as, "People want a change."
However, the public have a different story to tell. In 2012, the people came together to form a working committee against the release of toxic wastewater from the bleaching and dyeing unit of the company and organized a protest march to the panchayat office. While the panchayat readied to issue a stop memo, the company threatened to shift to Sri Lanka rendering the workers jobless. Negotiations ensued and the government gave the company time to set up a treatment plant and ordered the construction of 3 lakes to purify wastewater until then. However, these instructions were not carried out.
Twenty20, public claims, was formed to shift the attention from the protests. Welfare activities were taken up to submerge the allegations of pollution and evade the demand for a wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, despite winning the panchayat, Twenty20 has not managed to win in the Chelakulam ward where the company is located in 2015 or 2020.
While Asma Aliyar, an independent candidate backed by the UDF won this time, UDF candidate Anoop PH had won in 2015. Anoop PH raised allegations that his ward faced a shortage of funds due to its support for a non-Twenty20 candidate.
While the panchayat is being hailed for better roads, the public alleges that these roads mostly lead to the company. Before the elections this year, certain other routes were refurbished to counter public backlash. Though the company claims of having refurbished 37 homes under its God's villa scheme with 14 lakhs each, there has been criticism regarding the utilization of the same.
Sabu Jacob has also put forth claims that the panchayat now has a profit of 13 crores when initially before Twenty20, it was facing shortage of funds. Dr M Gopakumar, the Additional Private Secretary of finance minister Dr Thomas Isaac refuted the claims and noted that one cannot keep away profit to release as per goodwill without spending it for the development of the panchayat.
He further added that this simplification of civic administration to corporate charity put forth by Twenty20 is a dangerous precedent. CPIM and Congress have also slammed Twenty20 for the lack of utilization of this fund.
The public testimonies reveal a dictatorial system wherein critics are denied access to welfare schemes of both the company as well the gram panchayat. The twenty20 card issued to avail groceries for a reduced price from the supermarket is denied in case of criticism or allying with political organisations.
The engagement of Twenty20 in the electoral-political process is justified by drawing parallels with independent candidates. However, the engagement of independent candidates and an apolitical group funded and at the service of corporate interests bear stark contrasts in terms of interests, intentions and allegiance. Meanwhile, Sabu Jacob hinted that Twenty20 may contest in the upcoming assembly elections.
(With inputs from the article series done by Naheema Poonthottathil for Madhyamam Daily )