When a former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was invited to launch the company logo of a Kerala-based domestic airline, little did he know that the man behind the venture was an accused in three cases of running counterfeit currency rackets. On 15 June, at a glittering function in Kochi city’s Le Meridien Hotel, former ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair released the logo of Kairali Airlines Ltd — a budget carrier launched by Kaithakattu Krishnankutty Praveen Kumar. Kumar was introduced as a Dubai-based businessman with operations in Malaysia.
“Kumar had met me a month earlier at another function in Kochi and invited me for the launch of the airline’s logo,” says Nair. “He said that TKA Nair, adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will also be attending as the chief guest. So I accepted his invitation.”
During the Kairali Airlines function, however, Nair was astounded to find that none of the people with Kumar in the venture seemed to have any basic knowledge of the airlines industry. Nair claims he had no knowledge about the antecedents of the company’s directors when he was invited for the function.
TEHELKA has found that Kumar, the chairman and managing director of the newly launched company, was arrested thrice by the Crime Branch of Kerala Police for his alleged involvement in three cases related to fake currency rackets in the state.
Kumar was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a case dating back to 2001, but was acquitted by the Kerala High Court. In another case, the trial court sentenced him to seven years rigorous imprisonment for printing and circulating fake currency, but he appealed the conviction. His appeal is pending before the high court.
“There is a third case in which trial is pending and he is out on bail,” Additional Director General of Police Vinson Paul told TEHELKA.
Says another police official who had earlier arrested Kumar, “Kumar was born in a poor family and ran a network circulating fake currency. We also suspect him of being involved in money laundering. But his new avatar as a multi-millionaire really surprised me.”
The Rs 350-crore airline company plans to start operations on 1 November, Kerala Day (commemorating the day the state of Kerala came into being in 1956). The company claims it will provide domestic air travel at fares 25 percent lower than other airlines. At a press conference in Kochi on 9 June, Kumar announced his company will offer flights connecting Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode airports in Kerala with Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mangalore, Coimbatore and Lakshadweep. He also said there are plans to tie up with an international carrier for flights to the Gulf nations.
The budget airline will start operations with five aircraft procured on ‘wet lease’ — a short-term leasing agreement in which the lessor provides aircraft and crew, besides being responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft. The company claims it has already got 80 percent of the required clearances from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to start operations.
A resident of Ashtamichira village in Thrissur district, Kumar registered Kairali Airlines Ltd on 9 January this year. Among the company’s eight directors is an Italian, Carlo Cefis, based in Bergamo city of Italy.
Some of the other directors who are based in Chalakudy town of Thrissur district have a shady past. One of them, Nangini Thomas, is an accused in several cases of cheating. Thomas used to run a poultry shop and later ventured into the chit fund business, allegedly duping many people. The airline’s registered office is in Thomas’ residence. Another director had gone bankrupt after incurring heavy losses in the real estate business. The police suspect all the directors have links going back to the past, and are investigating if they were involved in illegal activities.
Even as Kerala Police and its intelligence wing have started probing into the business deals made by Kumar’s new venture, there are unconfirmed reports that some Kochi-based political leaders were promoting the company among businessmen in the city.
Opposition Leader VS Achuthanandan has demanded a probe against Kairali Airlines and its promoters. “Many such people are setting up fraudulent businesses and using their political clout to con investors who fall into their trap. I suspect Kairali Airlines to be doing the same,” he says.