“Callgate” / “Kerala Solar Scam”: Part 1 – Team Solar


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Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj

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Three year ago when the Kerala State was reeling under a severe power crisis, the Kerala government came up with several schemes for generation of power from solar and wind energy.

Saritha S. Nair (Photo: Indiavision)
Saritha S. Nair (Photo: Indiavision)

Sensing the ambience was just about right for investment in these sectors, Saritha S. Nair and live-in-partner Biju Radhakishnan, now under arrest on charges varying from cheating people of crores of rupees to murder, floated the now defunct company The Team Solar Energy Company (Team Solar). When it was in business, Team Solar advertised itself as “one of the world’s largest renewable energy groups,” and had an impressive clientele. They placed advertisements in the media offering a gamut of services such as setting up solar panels and windmills at cheap rates, obtaining government subsidies, and making it easy for the absorption of generated
power to the state power grid.

Zonal office of Team Solar on Chittoor Road in Kochi (Photo: H. Vibhu)
Zonal office of Team Solar on Chittoor Road in Kochi (Photo: H. Vibhu)

Saritha Nair and Biju Radhakishnan had been charged earlier in various cheating cases and were out on bail. In 2009, Saritha Nair was arrested for cheating a resident of Kakkanad of र1.60 lakh after promising to install a windmill plant. This was besides other cases that had been registered against them elsewhere

Interestingly, even though the duo was out on bail, Saritha got in touch with senior police officials over the phone for new assignments. In 2012, Team Solar was assigned to set up solar power equipment at the top-level offices of the City Police – office of the City Police Commissioner, senior police officials, the Police Club – and at the offices of ministers.

Team Solar provided guided tours for prospective entrepreneurs and took them to government lands at various places claiming that they were the spots where their solar or wind energy units would be set up. They even showed some people windmills in Tamil Nadu which they claimed as Team Solar projects.

The investors were asked to sign Memorandum of understanding (MOU), part with their money, and then sit back and enjoy the returns of their investment. Team Solar also inveigled investors by offering to make them business partners.

An undisclosed source inside Team Solar said that even though Team Solar had its hands full of orders, only those of celebrity clients were taken up.

Team Solar assuaged any doubting Thomas by using the stock phrase:

“If you are not convinced, here is the CM’s PA Tenny Joppan on the line, please speak to him.”

If Joppan was unavailable, they would call the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s security officer Salim Raj, or Jikkumon Jacob, a member of chief minister’s personal staff. The fact that the Chief Minister of Kerala did not own a mobile phone went in favour of the scammers because anyone who wanted to contact the Chief Minister, including MLAs, had to call his personal aides who in turn put them through to him. Later on, the media revealed that Saritha Nair made hundreds of calls every week from her cell phones to these gentlemen in office, and received many calls from the Chief Minister’s landline.

Salim Raj, former Security Officer of Kerala CM Oommen Chandy
Salim Raj, former Security Officer of Kerala CM Oommen Chandy

Salim Raj, 42, was an ordinary constable in the Kerala Police and a former bodyguard of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Salim wielded so much power that on October 1, 2013, Justice Harul-ul-Rashid of Kerala High Court, while hearing petitions seeking a CBI inquiry into a land grab case against Salim Raj, remarked:

“Is Kerala’s administration functioning only to serve the mafia? Does this mere police constable think he is the chief minister? Why should people be so afraid of him? Is even the state DGP scared of this policeman? What kind of democracy is this?”

The judge’s remark came in the wake of complaints from many members of the public, the Opposition, and even repeated comments by the courts about the United Democratic Front (UDF) government’s unstinted support for Salim Raj, whenever he landed in trouble. Justice Rashid was particularly disturbed by the state DGP K.S. Balasubramanian, who on receiving an alleged land grabbing complaint against Salim Raj forwarded it to the Chief Minister instead of taking action himself.

Due to Salim Raj’s clout with the government his name was not included in the FIR registered by the police on a land grab case in Kochi in spite of the petitions asserted that he was the main culprit.

Salim Raj has also been accused of having played a role in the solar scam in addition to other charges related to land grab, fabrication of records, abduction, among others.

Salim Raj who belongs to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s home district Kottayam has been the CM’s official bodyguard since 2005 when he was an Opposition leader. In 2009, Chandy inducted Salim Raj into the Chief Minister’s security detail, ignoring adverse intelligence reports about him.

Sridharan Nair (Pic: Indiavision)
Sridharan Nair (Pic: Indiavision)

When Sreedharan Nair, a victim of the scam, wanted further assurance about the project to manufacture solar panels, he was asked to sign an MOU with a commitment of र5.5 crore. He then had to pay र25 lakh out of the first instalment of र40 lakh before being taken to the Chief Minister’s office, where Tenny Joppan gave an assurance for the investment in the solar panel plant to be installed at Kanjikode in Palakkad district. An agreement in this regard was signed at Joppan’s cabin at the Chief Minister’s office. Sreedharan Nair had asserted that he had even met the chief minister, accompanied by Saritha Nair.

To gain media coverage and credibility the Global Management of Team Solar instituted awards that carried prize money. On June 11, 2011, at a function held at Hotel Dreams, Ernakulam, six prominent people of Kerala were proffered the ‘Virgin Earth Golden Feather Environment Awards 2011‘ and ‘Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar‘ award for their work in the field of environmental protection.

Prof. Dr. S. Sitaraman, renowned environmental activist and Secretary of Association of Environmental Protection was presented the 'Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar' by K. P. Mohanan, Minister for Agriculture in presense of company officials and Hybi Edan, MLA, Ernakulam.
Prof. Dr. S. Sitaraman, renowned environmental activist and Secretary of Association of Environmental Protection was presented the ‘Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar’ by K. P. Mohanan, Minister for Agriculture in presense of company officials and Hybi Edan, MLA, Ernakulam.

Prof. Dr. S. Sitaraman, renowned environmental activist and Secretary of Association of Environmental Protection and president of Kerala Brahmana Sabha, Aluva Upasabha, Fr. Johnson J. Palakkappillil, principal, Sacred Heart College and Dr. Georgekutty Karianappalli, CEO, Lifeway Solar were awarded the ‘Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar‘.

 Malayalam film star Mammooty is among six persons chosen for the ‘Virgin Earth Golden Feather Environment Awards 2011′ and ‘Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar’ award for their work in the field of environmental protection.
Malayalam film star Mammooty is among six persons chosen for the ‘Virgin Earth Golden Feather Environment Awards 2011′ and ‘Green Golden Feather Environment Puraskar’ award for their work in the field of environmental protection.

Malayalam cine star Mammootty, Kochi Mayor Tony Chammany, and K. K. Krishnadas, CEO of Vallarpadam Transhipment Terminal-DP World, were among the six beneficiaries of the ‘Virgin Earth Golden Feather Environment Award‘.

K.P. Mohanan, Minister for Agriculture, and Hybi Edan, MLA, Ernakulam attended the function.

Mayor Chammany told reporters that Saritha under the name Lakshmi Nair had approached him and told him about their award. He said he had met Biju Radhakrishnan at the award function and was introduced to him as Dr. R.B. Nair. He further said:

Kochi Mayor Tony Chammany“I was told that the award, as part of their World Environment Day celebration, was for the council’s decision to adopt energy efficient lighting practices. As many other eminent people were also receiving the award, I did not see anything wrong in accepting it. It is only now that I found out about her name and the scam. … But she has not received any help or support from me.”

Even though there were some complaints about Team Solar, no action was taken against them. A senior police official said:

The problem was that no one came forward to lodge a formal complaint, as they used to concentrate on people with unaccounted money. A majority of the victims chose not to proceed with the case and were happy if they got the money back.

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Next → Part 2 – The Arrests

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