A day after a state IT department employee emerged as a key figure in the gold smuggling racket operating through the diplomatic cargo channel, the Kerala government removed senior IAS official, M Sivasankar, as the principal secretary of Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, after his role in hiring the employee came under the scanner. He has been replaced by IAS officer Mir Muhammad Ali.
The alleged involvement of Swapna Suresh, who had worked as a manager with the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITL), has deeply embarrassed the government, with the Opposition parties claiming that the CM’s Office (CMO) has links to the racket.
Dismissing the allegations, Vijayan had said Swapna had been appointed without his knowledge. “I don’t know under which circumstances she was appointed. It was not with my consent,’’ he said.
Sivasankar is also the state IT secretary and the chairman of KSITIL, where Swapna was employed. Following the controversy, the government had terminated her service.
On Sunday, the Customs seized 30 kg of gold, valued at Rs 15 crore, at Thiruvananthapuram airport from a diplomatic cargo addressed to a person in the UAE Consulate-General here. Sarith Kumar, a local resident who had earlier worked with the Consulate-General’s office as a PRO, was arrested. Sarith had told the Customs about the role of Swapna, who had also worked with the Consulate-General office as an executive. Swapna is reportedly absconding.
According to the Customs, Sarith, who is no longer associated with the consulate, took advantage of the immunity and privileges enjoyed by diplomatic missions. Sources said the smuggling attempt was foiled, and the consignment seized, on the basis of a specific tip-off indicating gold concealed in the cargo.
Officials said Sarith had come to the airport to collect the cargo and was apprehended.
The UAE Consulate General office has disowned the cargo and has “promised to cooperate with the investigation”, Customs Commissioner Sumith Kumar said.
Kumar said the gold was found concealed in the form of small cylinders in the cargo, comprising plumbing items, water taps and door locks.
“Diplomatic cargo has protection, and normal checking cannot be done (on them), but we took special sanction from the government to examine the cargo,” he said. Kumar said the Customs suspects a well-organised syndicate is behind the smuggling.
“The Consulate General office has told us that the mission was not involved and they have nothing to do with the consignment. However, we will look into whether anyone from the mission was involved in the racket,” he said.
Kumar said they are also looking into the role of Swapna. “Swapna is also involved in this case. We hope she will appear before the Customs to give her statement. If she fails to do so, we would explore legal options,’’ he said.
Congress leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala, demanding a CBI probe into the case, said, “The chief minister has removed his secretary because he fears the case will reach him too…we have been ministers too. If our secretary or private secretary takes any decision, we are responsible too. When the chief minister’s secretary is misusing his official position by attempting to protect an accused in a gold smuggling racket, there’s no doubt that the responsibility of the same lies with the chief minister too.”
BJP state president K Surendran termed the gold smuggling case a repetition of the solar scandal involving prime accused Saritha Nair that plagued the previous Congress-led UDF government.
“The chief minister says he was not aware of how Swapna was appointed in the IT department. In the initial days of the solar scandal, former CM Oommen Chandy had also said he didn’t know Saritha Nair,” said Surendran.
“CM Pinarayi Vijayan has known Swapna Suresh from the beginning of 2017. It’s a big lie if he says he doesn’t know her,” the BJP leader alleged.