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Construction Workers Claim Kochi-Muziris Biennale Shorted Payment

A contracting company says it “has been left in a precarious financial situation” after the biennial declined to pay its full construction costs. The biennial says a government-approved valuer found “that the amounts demanded by the contractor are arbitrary.”

Display at the 2017 Kochi-Muziris Biennale (via Wikimedia Commons)

Stories and accusations of misconduct continue to plague the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KBF), this time from a subcontractor and numerous workers who claim that the biennial is withholding wages.

On March 18, KBF was served a legal notice by the lawyers of Appu Thomas, director of Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Limited (TCIDP), a contracting company based in Kerala which claims it “has been left in a precarious financial situation” because the KBF is declining to pay for costs associated with the construction of a large pavilion in Cabral Yard, the centerpiece the biennial.

With only one day to go until India’s largest biennial closes this Friday, March 29, legal counsel from Thomas Clery Infrastructures and Developers Pvt Ltd allege that fees owed to its workers have not been paid, despite numerous attempts to collect the remaining amount owed.

Last week, following the legal notice, an anonymous Instagram account, @justicefrombiennale18_19, went online. As of press time, it has 70 posts. Many of them are first-hand accounts of wage workers who allege the biennial is withholding their final wages.

One of the posts is attributed to KT Shaji, a wage worker. It reads: “he worked for different venues of Biennale 2019 from October to December 11. No Payment given.” Another post, featuring Aneesh, reads “the plumber who made the exotic water work of Sue Williamson possible.”

For its part, KBF says the final bills submitted by TCIDP are “exorbitant” and “greatly inflated.” In a statement, KBF called the allegations a “disinformation campaign” and says that it has already paid the contractor the full amount owed, 18,059,000 rupees (~$260,000 USD).

According to the legal notice served to KBF, a New Delhi–based firm Anagram Architects had created the design of the main biennial pavilion in Cabral Yard, but that the KBF grossly underestimated the actual cost of its construction. The legal notice filed by the contractor says the biennial failed to account for additional electrical work and lighting. An alternative plan was then put forward by the contractor, the legal notices says, but in the end, it alleges that the KBF decided to go with the original plan, which included significant cost overruns. The legal notice served to the biennial alleges TCIDP is still owed 7.76 million rupees (~$112,000) to cover the remaining expenses of the pavilion’s construction.

KBF says the contractual obligations it had with TCIDP have been sent to an independent government-appointed arbitrator. “Since the final bills submitted by the contractor were considered exorbitant, the Foundation, in mutual agreement with the contractor, appointed an independent government-approved valuer to look into this,” their statement says. “The report submitted by the valuer has found that the bills are greatly inflated, and that the amounts demanded by the contractor are arbitrary. This matter is now being pursued legally.”

“They have paid every other vendor from outside the country, every other artist from outside the country,” Thomas told ARTnews. “Everyone except the local vendors, which is a double standard.” He then called the work done for the biennial “slavery.”

The legal notice goes on to say that failure to pay the remaining amount owed to the contractor is “eroding the values that the Biennale as an event has always stood for.”

The recent allegations of misconduct are not the first to surface in reference to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, now in its fourth edition. Shortly after opening last December, one of the biennial’s founders, Riyas Komu, stepped down after #MeToo allegations surfaced against him via another anonymous Instagram account, @herdsceneand.  The biennial, entitled Possibilities for a Non-alienated Life, was curated by artist Anita Dube. Dube’s curatorial note, released prior to the legal controversy, explains, “at the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a ‘politics of friendship.”

What’s clear, however, is that a large and vocal group of locals seem intent on holding the biennial to account, signaling what might, in the end, be more accurately referred to as the possibilities for a non-paid life.

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