Triumph of the Mill

How a corporate charity won panchayat polls in a Kerala village

Sabu Jacob, the managing director of Kitex Garments, waves a flag during an election rally in Kizhakkambalam. shijo cherian
01 January, 2016

On an afternoon in early December, as the rest of Kizhakkambalam was deep into its midday lull, there was a flurry of activity on the village’s outskirts, at a shed roughly the size of a basketball court. A massive blue-and-white sign at the entrance read “Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam.” Outside, three men unloaded a truck full of white plastic bags, each containing about six kilograms of assorted vegetables and stamped with a royal blue logo reading “Twenty20” in Malayalam. These were placed on iron shelves inside, to be sold to Kizhakkambalam’s residents at a subsidised price of Rs100. At market rates, each such bag would cost Rs200. Almost every family in the village I spoke to shops at the store.

In the rest of India, “Twenty20” summons up images of cricket pitches and cheerleaders, but Kizhakkambalam’s residents might sooner associate it with a local charity founded by Sabu Jacob, the chairman of Anna-Kitex Group—a Rs1,200-crore corporation headquartered in Kizhakkambalam, and widely known in Kerala as a garment manufacturer.

Twenty20’s stated mission is to “make Kizhakkambalam a model village by the year 2020.” Since it was started, in 2013, the outfit has built tanks to provide drinking water, sold food at subsidised rates, and run a free 24-hour ambulance service, all funded by the Anna-Kitex Group. In October, 19 members of Twenty20 contested local panchayat elections as independent candidates. The outfit promoted them under its own logo, and Kizhakkambalam voted 17 of them into power.

This triumph was especially surprising in Kerala, with its deep history of leftist politics and unionism. Twenty20 claims its motives are benevolent, and that its entry into politics is simply part of its charitable mission. But the state’s two biggest political parties, the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—or CPI(M)—have questioned Twenty20 and the Anna-Kitex Group’s true motives, pointing to old pollution charges against a company-owned textile unit in Kizhakkambalam, and suggesting the corporation might try to unfairly influence local administration. Whatever Twenty20’s intent, its electoral success could provide a model for corporations looking to influence public affairs.

Kizhakkambalam, in Kerala’s Ernakulum district, lies roughly 30 kilometres north-east of Kochi. It has a population of over 23,000, and a voter base of over 13,000, all sustained by local industry and agriculture. The Anna-Kitex Group—comprising Kitex Garments, Anna Aluminium and Saras Spices, among other enterprises—is the largest company in the area. It employs roughly 1,000 people from Kizhakkambalam itself, alongside thousands of migrants from states such as Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar. Twenty20, which Kitex Garments lists under its corporate social responsibility initiatives, has 162 employees, including welfare workers, doctors and nurses, and an executive committee of 50 people from all of the village’s 19 wards. At its head is Sabu Jacob.

On 1 December, I visited the Kitex Garments campus, a sprawling 68-acre compound that houses a manufacturing unit, an administrative building, and living quarters for 9,000 workers. I met Jacob in his massive office, which resembled an opulent hotel lobby. Dressed in a crisp light-green shirt and black trousers, he told me that “the seeds for Mission 2020” were sown at a company-organised medical camp in early 2013. “People approached us with various issues relating to necessities like food, shelter and drinking water,” he said. “This is when we realised that many people in the panchayat were suffering.” He told me the group’s CSR department carried out “a detailed survey” of the panchayat’s problems, after which he set aside roughly Rs150 crore for charitable aid. Soon, Twenty20 was formed, and registered under the Travancore-Cochin Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act, 1955.

In late 2013, Twenty20 started issuing registration cards to residents of the village, which allowed them to use the organisation’s services. “At first, people refused to accept the cards or provide us with photographs for them,” Jacob said. “But today, this card is the most valuable card in the panchayat, and everyone wants one.” So much so that many villagers now prefer Twenty20’s programmes to overlapping government-funded welfare schemes.

PP Baby, the local secretary of the CPI(M), told me over the phone that Anna-Kitex, like all large Indian corporations, is legally required to spend a certain share of its profits on social welfare. But, he said, Kizhakkambalam’s residents “are mistaking government-mandated CSR initiatives for charity that is coming out of Anna-Kitex group’s benevolence.”

Jacob told me that Twenty20’s decision to contest panchayat elections came in August 2014, after panchayat officials and local politicians accused the group of constructing an unauthorised shed for Onam celebrations. After violent clashes between party cadres and Twenty20 workers, the district collector issued prohibitory orders, bringing Twenty20’s celebrations to an end. “We had a meeting the next day, and decided that if we have to continue the work we are doing without any resistance from the political parties, we will have to be in control of the panchayat,” Jacob told me. “That was when we decided to field candidates for the upcoming elections.”

Twenty20 did not cut any corners in its poll campaign. It printed brochures outlining its work over the past two years, and distributed them at numerous rallies. The organisation enforced strict eligibility criteria for its candidates: that all of them be theists who respect all religions, be below the age of 55, be family-oriented, and not be addicted to alcohol; that all of them be residents of the wards they wished to represent, and that at least 70 percent of them be college graduates. The final candidates were voted upon by Twenty20’s executive committee, and were made to sign promises that they would resign if two-thirds of their constituents petitioned for it. They included seasoned local politicians such as KV Jacob, who is now the panchayat president, but were mostly newcomers, contesting elections for the first time.

Anil Kumar, a former panchayat president and a member of the CPI(M), told me that Twenty20’s campaign—which involved “rallies where voters were treated to lavish spreads and given complimentary products”—was effectively an exercise in buying votes. He said that locals with existing political loyalties stuck by their parties, but Twenty20 succeeded in capturing the swing vote.

When I met Savita at her home in Njaralloor colony, a few kilometres away from Kitex Garments, she told me that she counted herself in the latter category. Standing in the shadow of a new, Twenty20-sponsored water tank in her front yard, she said that the community had “benefitted a great deal from their initiatives.” She added that the charity is planning to soon rebuild, with improvements, homes in the colony that were originally constructed under a government aid scheme.

When I asked Jacob about the pollution allegations against his company, he brushed them aside. According to the charges, a Kitex Garments’ processing unit, set up in 2008, was discharging effluents into the Periyar valley canal and surrounding paddy fields. In the company’s defence, Jacob said that Kitex’s presence in North American and European markets is contingent upon adherence to international environmental regulations, and that flouting them would be bad for business. As for suspicions of wanting to influence local administration, he claimed that the panchayat has little to do with environmental clearances and licensing.

Baby, of the CPI(M), wasn’t convinced. “Kerala’s history,” he told me, “proves that people cannot be fooled for too long.”