Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seems to be caught in one controversy after the other in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite an admirable response to contain the rapid spread of the viral disease over the past two months, Vijayan has been battling controversies — first over the closure of hundreds of liquor outlets, then the handing over of sensitive personal information on COVID-positive patients to an American firm.
A new addition to the list is the offering of a contract to develop an app for online liquor sale to a one-year-old firm. Vijayan has not been forthcoming with information, but instead flown off the handle when questioned.
Amid the lockdown, Vijayan had been waffling on the opening of liquor shops. Initially, the government refused to close liquor shops saying it would cause social unrest and result in the sale of illicit liquor. Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of liquor in India. But when the Opposition, women and churches protested vociferously, the state backed down.
Since then, there have been numerous reports of illicit brewing of liquor — one man went on to seek the online blessings of not only the public but also the Excise Department. Officials immediately arrested him and seized large quantities of raw materials.
Alcoholism is a serious problem in the state, along with suicide and spousal abuse. Liquor sales fetch the government nearly ₹15,000 crore a year through some 300 outlets of state-owned Beverages Corporation (Bevco) and Consumerfed.
Officials and courts have opposed the reopening of outlets, fearing overcrowding and near-riots that were seen in other states.
The government then decided to implement online sales and toyed with roping in food delivery companies such as Zomato and Swiggy. Later, it decided on a token system to stagger crowd that would reach sales outlets or any of the nearly-400 bars and 350 beer outlets that wanted to get rid of their stock.
For nearly two weeks now, tipplers and even the Opposition have been taunting the government over the long delay in the release of BevQ, an app being developed by a private firm.
The Congress, which is the main opposition in the state, has alleged a major corruption in the offering of the contract to FairCode Technologies Private Ltd., a firm with just one year of experience in the field and run by a Communist sympathiser.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has demanded an investigation into the government’s decision to hand over the contract to a startup. He has also demanded that the contract be cancelled.
Chennithala has sought an explanation from the government on why it agreed to pay FairCode ₹3 crore at a time when such apps are usually developed for barely ₹10 lakh. But the government has not answered.
Surprisingly, the government has agreed to give the app developer 50 paise for each token generated by a user. Chennithala alleged that the delay in launching the app was due to the company’s inexperience.
The state Congress chief, Mullappally Ramachandran, was blunter. He said 27 firms had bid for the contract, but they were sidelined and the contract was awarded to FairCode by the IT Secretary S Sivasankar. He had earlier unilaterally awarded the contract on processing COVID data to a US firm, reportedly bypassing standard government procedures.
BevQ encountered problems when it ran tests. The system was unable to handle the load properly during trial runs and coders went back to the drawing board.
In early tests, it found that many customers could use two or three smartphones to get tokens, which could increase traffic considerably. Similar virtual queuing apps launched in Tamil Nadu and Delhi had crashed because of the load.
On Tuesday (May 26), Google finally approved the app, bringing cheer to liquor consumers in the state. Online booking will start on Wednesday and customers will be able to collect liquor at stores from Thursday (May 28). BevQ provides a token to each customer and specifies the time when the customer has to pick up the liquor at the outlet.
Critics say once liquor flows freely, all the accusations against Vijayan will be forgotten. The Opposition, however, is certain to rake it up when the state legislature meets again.
(G Krishnan has worked for 40 years with Indian and international publications)