The CSR wing of Anna-Kitex, after finding success in gram panchayat elections, has now announced candidates for eight Assembly constituencies.

Kizhakkambalam chief Sabu M Jacob stands on stage waving a flag Hundreds of people stand on the ground
news 2021 Kerala Assembly Election Friday, March 12, 2021 - 18:03

Smoothly tarred roads stretch ahead as far as the eye can see. The well-paved roads are wide, and on either side, uniformly painted houses in hues of beige and brown line the streets. Lush green trees peek from behind the compound walls. The large name board at the entrance of this housing colony reads, ‘God’s Villa’. For someone new to the place, it would be hard to imagine that this housing colony in Kizhakkambalam, a village roughly 25 kilometres from Kochi city in Kerala, was once a dingy and dilapidated place. ‘God’s Villa’ is the brainchild of ‘Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20’, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing of Kerala’s Anna-Kitex group.

Anna-Kitex group is a Kerala corporate with a legacy of over 50 years. The group, which first started manufacturing aluminium products under the name Anna Aluminium, later diversified into manufacturing garments with Kitex Garments. The group also owns Saras, a spice manufacturing firm. In 2015, the CSR wing took control of the Kizhakkambalam gram panchayath, much to the surprise of people across Kerala’s political landscape. It was probably the first time in the state’s history that something like this had happened. Six years down the line, Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20 continues to rule the Kizhakkambalam panchayat, has expanded its control to three neighbouring panchayats, and has been ruling the local bodies with the clear majority that they got in the 2020 local body elections.


Inside God's Villa

Now, the group is set to foray into the Kerala Assembly polls that are taking place on April 6. Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20 has so far announced candidates for eight Assembly constituencies in Ernakulam district. If they win even one of the seats, they will be making history, yet again.

But how did a corporate group enter electoral politics in the first place? And how have they continued to win the hearts and, more importantly, votes of the people?

From allegations to accolades

In 2013, the company faced allegations of polluting water bodies in Kizhakkambalam, due to the effluents from the company’s factories there. At that time, many people in the panchayat turned against the company and formed an action council against the group.

However, in the same year, the company formed its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing, Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20, which kickstarted many welfare schemes in the region. This was a gamechanger for the company.

Sixty-year-old Chandrika Chandran, a resident of God’s Villa, recalls the time when the group conducted a medical camp for all the people in the panchayat. She says that hundreds of people participated in it, and for those who required surgeries costing lakhs of rupees, the CSR wing covered the costs.

This was followed by the opening of ‘Bhakshya Suraksha Market’, a supermarket where the residents say you can buy most products for less than half the market price. For instance, a kilolitre of coconut oil which would cost Rs 230 in a regular market, could be bought for Rs 57 in the Bhakshya Suraksha one.


Supermarket of Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20

In order to shop at the company’s subsidised supermarket, residents had to become members of Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20. (The membership is free — however, there are allegations that supporters of other political parties have had their membership cancelled in recent years.)

Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20’s projects range from the distribution of poultry and milch animals to the distribution of laptops for students, all at a nominal cost.

So, in 2015, when Sabu M Jacob, the Managing Director of Kitex Garments Ltd, who is also the Chief Coordinator of the company’s CSR wing, announced that Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20 was going to contest in local body polls, with the aim to modify the region into a model panchayat by the year 2020, residents were jubilant.

“Unlike the promises of other parties, we believed in him because he was already doing things here. As promised before polls, he constructed good houses for us. We were living in dingy houses with two families sharing a house. Now look how respectably we live,” says Chandrika. It is to be noted that Rs 2 lakh was granted by the state government for each family, for the reconstruction of houses. Earlier, the residents were covered under the ‘Laksham Veedu Colony’ (houses built by the government under the Rs 1 lakh housing scheme).

For scores of people like Chandrika, who have benefited from Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20, ‘Sabu Sir’, as they call Sabu M Jacob, is synonymous with Twenty 20.


Road leading to God's Villa

“Who will spend a share of their hard-earned money for a stranger? No one will. But Sabu Sir does. Lakhs of rupees are being spent to construct houses for people and for surgeries for poor people. With Rs 1,000, a small family can buy groceries for a month from Twenty 20’s supermarket,” says 58-year-old PK Vijayan, a shopkeeper. “Where in the country is that possible, now? We will continue to elect whomever Sabu Sir fields as candidates.”

With its welfare measures and supermarkets, Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20 is so popular among people, that thousands turned up at their rallies for the local body elections held last year.

The people of Kizhakkambalam say they depend more on Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20 than on the local panchayat body. “There are ward-level executives who are appointed by Twenty 20. They see to the needs of the people,” says Vijayan. “More than the local ward members, these executives help us. If there is an emergency or difficulty, they will verify the issue and get us the aid we need from Twenty 20.”

Autocracy in the cover of welfare measures?

Though the Kizhakkambalam model has garnered some criticism from outside, with many calling it a system of quid pro quo, it was not easy to find too many people from within the community who were unhappy with the way things were. However, there were some voices of disgruntlement and others who are closely watching the corporate group and their functionings.

One of the allegations they make is that the outfit functions in an autocratic manner since attaining power in the local body elections. The famous Twenty 20 supermarket doesn’t allow everyone from the panchayat to shop there. There have been instances where the membership card issued to families by Twenty 20, which is needed to purchase items from the store, has been cancelled for people who support other political outfits.

“When they first started the supermarket, almost everyone was issued a membership card. But once they came to power, they cancelled my card, saying I was a Congress supporter,” says Sreedhar* (name changed on request), a street vendor. Sreedhar’s friend, another street vendor, also tells TNM that his card was cancelled in 2015 after the group came to power.

“But now, ahead of the elections, they have again issued the card to me, though I did not request it,” says Sreedhar’s friend.

There are also allegations that Twenty 20 asks its members not to mingle with supporters of other parties. “My neighbour might be a supporter of another party, but when a wedding or funeral happens in my house, obviously they will be invited,” says Sreedhar, “But this was something which was opposed by Twenty 20 initially; they created issues over it. Nowadays, people are not raising such complaints. Maybe they changed their stance.”


Sabu M Jacob

Reji, an auto driver alleges that even if an autorickshaw driver wants to enter the supermarket premises to pick up or drop off customers, they have to affix the name board ‘Kizhakkambalam Twenty 20’ on their vehicles. "So, if the driver is a supporter of another political party and refuses to fix the Twenty 20 name board, they cannot enter the premises," he says.

Jinson* (name changed on request), is another native of Kizhakkambalam who was earlier a member of the outfit when it had just started. However, he resigned from the group within two months.

“I was approached by the Twenty 20 local body officials asking to give a few cents of my land for expansion of the road but without any payment in return,” says Jinson. “But when I demanded money for my land, they turned against me. This made me quit the outfit,” says Jinson. He alleges that to date, the road in front of his house is not tarred, even while other roads nearby were fixed.

“There are not even street lights in the road now. When I complain to ward members, they say they will discuss with Sabu Sir and tell me. But why are these matters discussed with him?” Jinson asks.


Road leading to Jinson's home

He also alleges that Twenty 20 was started, in the first place, to silence the protests of people who were against the pollution allegedly caused by the company’s factories.

“Though the group is doing welfare measures that cannot be practically done by political parties, they are becoming autocratic in ways political parties do not become,” Jinson adds.

While a few, like Jinson, say that the group has not fulfilled its promise made in 2015, of making the panchayat a model village, many are ready to forgive the company for this. “We know they are doing a lot of things. Everything cannot be done at once, just give them some time,” says Sibi, another resident.

The CSR wing has also had internal tussles. In January 2020, panchayat President and one of the popular faces of Twenty 20, KV Jacob quit his post and revoked his membership from the outfit. Similar to what Jinson tells TNM, KV Jacob, while resigning, told the media that the local body administration is under the control of Sabu M Jacob and is autocratic in many ways. In turn, allegations of corruption were levelled against KV Jacob by Twenty 20.

However, for the majority of the people in Kizhakkambalam, Twenty 20 has done what no political party who has governed them before has ever done. And they strongly vouch for the outfit and want it to contest and win in the Assembly polls.

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