For the people staying at the Community Hall in Kuruppankulangara, Cherthala – a flood-hit town in Alappuzha, Kerala - it is not unusual to leave their houses at the time of heavy rainfall and stay elsewhere for days. They are mostly poor people, rushing off to a make-shift relief camp at the nearest space available. It is from this temporary relief camp that a man called Omanakuttan has suddenly made news for all the wrong reasons.
A day before, media channels called Omanakuttan – a worker of the ruling party CPI(M) – a cheat, for allegedly taking money from the poor dwellers of the camp in the name of ‘paying off the electricity they borrowed from private parties and the food to be brought to the community hall’. Immediate action followed. Complaints were raised against Omanakuttan at the Revenue Department, which were then taken to the police. The CPI(M) suspended him and a police case was filed against him. By then his face was splashed across channels, he had been branded a cheat.
But what really happened – what did Omanakuttan actually do?
It started with a random video being circulated, showing Omanakuttan collecting money. No one – not the media channels which reported the incident, and neither the authorities taking action against the so-called culprit – verified the truth behind the video. Even CPI(M) Minister G Sudhakaran, who visited the camp, reprimanded Omanakuttan.
When one journalist, KT Madhu, a local channel reporter, tried to tell Sudharakan that no one in the camp had a complaint against Omanakuttan, the minister shouted at him too.
“The minister only spoke to the village officer to know what had happened. The village officer was not present at the time the money was collected. I tried to tell him no one had raised a complaint,” says Madhu. Sudhakaran asked Madhu if a mistake would not be considered a mistake if there was no complaint. He then told Madhu that a case should be filed against him too for encouraging such stories.
What Madhu knew and everyone else at the camp did too, was that Omanakuttan had only been collecting money (Rs 70) to pay off the auto-rickshaw in which he'd brought rice from the civil supplies for the people staying there.
“It is the most common people who stay at that camp. Some camps are put up by the government. Some others are spaces that end up as camps after people run off from their flooded homes to the nearest safe shelter. Such camps are run by some people who take on the leadership to arrange things – like electricity and food. Omanakuttan was one such leader who was also residing in the camp. He would have been doing this for years but now he is suddenly in the limelight because of the controversy,” says activist Sabeesh.
A few hours after the party suspension and police action, Manorama News interviewed Omanakuttan and others in the camp who clarified that he had not been collecting hafta, but wanted the money for the auto. In a video that came later, women at the camp can be seen vouching for Omanakuttan. “He was only collecting Rs 70 to pay for the auto-rickshaw, not 7000 but 70!” a woman says.
"They were not aware that electricity and other facilities would be provided to them by the village office. They have shelled out money from their pockets in previous years too, during flood time. “It shows the inefficiency of Revenue officials. Tahasildars have crores of rupees in their savings account to provide for the flood-affected people, but they spend very little money. That’s why people like Omanakuttan end up running the camps,” says Municipal Councilor and Advocate Manojkumar.
When the truth came out in a second round of media reports, the Principal Secretary of Revenue and Disaster Management, Venu V, wrote a long Facebook post, regretting the action taken against Omanakuttan, and apologising to him. “Collecting the money would be wrong in front of the law but it has put forth values of humanity. The department is convinced that it is a genuine action taken during an urgent situation,” Venu wrote. After discussing with the District Collector, the police complaint against Omanakuttan has been withdrawn. His suspension from the party has also been revoked. Omanakuttan told TNM that his family is relieved that the truth is out. To another channel, he said that the stand taken by the party is right, since they have immediately taken action when they thought there was a mistake by a party worker, and had also corrected it later.
A few media channels have also started apologising to Omanakuttan. Below are screenshots from Mathrubhumi News and News 18 Keralam with their apology.
Caption in Mathrubhumi says, "Forgive us, Omanakutta.."
Caption in News18 says, "Sorry"