By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: A court in Kerala on June 20 remanded a Catholic priest for 14 days for allegedly forging documents to avail farm loans from various banks.
Father Thomas Peeliyanikkal, executive director of Kuttanad Vikasana Samithy (KVS, Kuttanad development committee), was arrested the previous evening after he ignored summons for questioning from the investigation team of the police Crime Branch, citing health reasons.
The court of the Ramankari Judicial First Class Magistrate remanded the 72-year-old priest of the Changanacherry archdiocese until July 4, TV channels in Kerala reported.
Ramankari is a town in the Kuttanad region, well known for its vast paddy fields and geographical peculiarities, and some 70 km southeast of Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital.
The Kerala police allege that Father Peeliyanikkal drafted fake documents and received millions of rupees illegally as agricultural loan.
The priest is among four people accused in the scam.
The others are Rojo Joseph, a lawyer practicing in Ramankari court, his wife, and KVS staff member Thresyamma. They are absconding
The crime branch investigation team arrested Father Peeliyanikkal from the KVS office.
The police have registered 12 cases in connection with the scam. The priest had obtained anticipatory bail on many of them.
When the case was considered on June 20, his lawyer argued that he had obtained bail from the Kerala High Court. However, the prosecution observed the accused did not get bail for certain cases.
Father Peeliyanikkal’s lawyer insisted that his client has no direct involvement in the scam. He had only recommended banks to provide loan only as the KVS director. However, the court did not accept the arguments.
The KVS website claims it is a voluntary development organization promoted by the Changanacherry archdiocese for Kuttanad, a region covering Alappuzha and Kottayam districts of Kerala.
However, the archdiocese says the organization is independent and that the archdiocese has no direct control over it. “The archdiocese has given one of its priests to KVS to be its director,” archdiocesan spokesperson Joji Chirayil told Matters India on June 20.
Chirayil, a lawyer and one of the few lay diocesan spokespersons in India, also said his archdiocese would let the law take its natural course. “We would cooperate with the law enforcing agencies,” he added.
Father Peeliyanikkal has formed some 1,500 self-help groups of farmers in the Kuttanad region.
However, it has now come to light that the organization had received agricultural loans from banks in Alappuzha with the support of alleged fake documents.
The accused did the forgery and took loans from the banks in the names of the self-help group members without their consent. Many members came to know about the loans only after the banks sent them notices to attach their agricultural land.
Until the scam broke, the organization was hailed for bringing sustainable development to all Kuttanad farmers, irrespective of their religion, and making them self-reliant.
The organization, registered in 1993, has striven to make the Kuttanad farmers self-reliant focusing village self-rule as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi. It focused on the entire rural communities of Kuttanad.
Its beneficiaries are women, farmers, farm laborers, inland fish workers, youth and children. Women are the center of all its programs as it believes them to be key agents and animating and empowering them would help them become multipliers of community development initiatives, the website claims.
The Kuttanad region has the lowest altitude in India, and is one of the few places in the world where farming is carried around 1.2 to 3.0 meters below sea level. Kuttanad is the major rice producer in Kerala. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has declared the Kuttanad farming as a globally important agricultural heritage system.