Some of the least heard African nations like Guinea-Bissau and Burkino Faso, and the cashew they produce, had the Kerala Assembly in their grip on Thursday.
While the opposition alleged huge corruption in the import of raw cashew nuts from Mozambique, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau, Minister for Fisheries and Cashew Industry J Mercykutty Amma said the transactions were done in the most transparent manner.
It was Congress leader Thiruvananchoor Radhakrishnan who raised the issue when he sought to move an adjournment motion in the House. Thiruvanchoor's charge was that norms were flouted to import low-quality nuts. “The very reason you formed a special purpose vehicle to import cashew was to do away with middlemen,” he said.
“The ads for the import of cashew were placed in the local papers of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Burkino Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana. And the order was placed with companies there. But the man who actually supplied the raw nuts was a Sahadevan Pillai from Thazhava,” Thiruvanchoor said, causing uproarious laughter on the opposition side. The Congress leader even hinted that the man could be the very same Thazhava Sahadevan who was the BJP candidate for Mavelikkara Lok Sabha seat.
The minister, in her reply, said when the Cashew Board enters into an agreement with foreign suppliers, the suppliers have the right to appoint their own agents. “The board will deal with anyone the suppliers appoint as their authorised agents,” Mercykutty Amma said.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala then pointed out the irony of the new arrangement. “The agents these foreign suppliers had appointed, Sahadevan Pillai and Chandramohan, were the very same persons who had functioned as middlemen earlier. You promised to keep them out but has now brought them back in a new name. This is nothing but old wine in new bottle,” Chennithala said.
Thiruvanchoor was especially critical of the quality of the imported nuts. He said the 'out-turn' of the imported cashew nut kernels was low, and their 'nut count' was high. Out-turn is the weight of the nuts after processing or the shelling of the nuts.
“The out-turn was just about 45 and the nut count was over 190,” Thiruvanchoor said. The lower out-turn meant that a sack of nuts after processing weighed just 13-14 kg. “It should have been at least 50 for it to be profitable,” the opposition leader later said.
Thiruvanchoor said a higher nut count meant that the size of the nuts would be smaller. “The nuts that came here from Africa looked like they had chikungunya,” Thiruvanchoor said.
Further, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said the imported nuts were not fresh. “What we imported were nuts that were languishing unsold in the godowns of these African countries,” Chennithala said. The quality of the nuts, therefore, was all the more worse.
The minister unwittingly endorsed Chennithala's argument when she said Tanzania had approached the Cashew Board for the sale of nuts. “They have two lakh metric tonnes of nut stock lying unsold with them. They are willing to sell it at very low prices. Last year, they were unwilling to sell it for anything below $2000 per tonne,” Mercykutty Amma said.
Dumping of cheap and low-quality nuts by African nations has been cited as one of the reasons why the domestic cashew industry had lost its competitive edge.
Both Thiruvanchoor and Chennithala said the board had suffered a loss of Rs 20 crore by way of import. The minister refuted the charge. “I have no idea from where they have come up with such a figure,” she said.
The nuts, the ones whose quality has now been questioned by the opposition, were imported using the sealed tender route, and not through e-tender. Any transaction above Rs 5 crore should mandatorily take the e-tender route.
The minister said sealed tenders had to be resorted to last year because there was an urgent need to secure raw nuts. “In fact, we had started with e-tenders. But it was found that foreign companies could not take part in the tender process. Then, digital signatures were not approved of. So the board asked whether a sealed tender route could be taken. We discussed it in the cabinet and secured the approval,” the minister said. “Now, we have gone back to the e-tender process,” the minister added.
Chennithala said he did not doubt the thinking behind the decision. “The situation perhaps demanded such a step but what we are saying is that certain vested interests have used the decision as a cover to pursue their corrupt ends,” Chennithala said.
The UDF staged a walkout demanding a vigilance enquiry into the cashew import deals with African nations.