Monday, December 31, 2007

Kerala under total banking but the poor yet to benefit

KERALA, with its penchant for setting records, has chalked up another first. It now has the distinction of being the first Indian State to achieve complete banking coverage. However, the benefits of the banking system are yet to trickle down to lower levels.

India's Minister of State for Finance Pavan Kumar Bansal, after a meeting with leading bank executives at Thiruvananthapuram last week, announced the successful completion of the campaign to bring all of Kerala under banking cover. At least one member of every family now has a bank account. When the campaign was launched nearly 1.2 million out of 6.7 million families in the State did not have bank accounts.

The minister set a new goal for commercial banks in the State. He asked them to ensure that bank loans are available to everyone who needs them.

Banking in Kerala has a long and glorious tradition. As in the rest of India, rural banking received a fillip in the State following nationalisation of 14 top commercial banks in 1969.

Banking in the State received a further boost in the wake of large-scale migration to the Gulf countries in the 1970s. As the migrants sent their savings home, deposits started piling up in banks in both urban and rural areas.

At one stage, Non-Resident Indian deposits accounted for a substantial part of bank deposits in the State. Later domestic deposits caught up with NRI savings. Now domestic deposits stand at a much higher level than NRI savings. At the end of September, commercial bank deposits totalled Rs.971.13 billion. Of this, only Rs.316.90 billion (32.6 per cent) were in NRI accounts.

While domestic deposits continue to rise, NRI deposits are falling owing to increase in living costs in the Gulf countries and appreciation of the Indian rupee against the Gulf currencies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as bank deposits grew by leaps and bounds, advances did not keep pace. This led to continuous decline in the credit-deposit ration.
At one stage, it dropped to about 40 per cent and banks came under political pressure to raise it. The banks responded to the demand. Last year the credit-deposit ratio stood at 70 per cent. It is expected to go up to 72 per cent this year.

The rise in bank advances has to be seen against the background of the growth of the State's economy. The annual growth rate now exceeds nine per cent. The service sector accounts for much of the growth. The agriculture sector has actually recorded negative growth, and the growth rate of the manufacturing sector is small. Quite naturally the benefits of the accelerated growth do not reach large sections of people who are engaged in agriculture and industry. They also do not get adequate attention from the banking system.

Guidelines drawn up by the Central government require commercial banks to earmark a part of the credit to the priority sector, which includes farmers, artisans and small businessmen.
Actual disbursal of credit to this sector till September this year was Rs125.11 billion, which is just 41.6 per cent pf the target. As against a target of Rs47.49 billion set for lending to small industries, credit provided was a mere Rs9.27 billion. This was Rs660 million less than what was disbursed last year.

The guidelines also require banks to set apart 17 per cent of the credit for minorities. This has been done in the light of the findings of several studies that the weaker sections of the society do not get a fair deal from the banks. The Sachar Committee, which looked into the condition of the Muslims, found that members of that community, too, experienced difficulty in this regard.

On a superficial view, Kerala's minorities appear to be better off than their counterparts elsewhere inasmuch as they received Rs142.39 billion, which is about 21 per cent of the amount disbursed by banks as loans. However, it needs to be remembered that about 45% of the state's population belong to the minorities and they play a major role in the economic sphere.

The Dalits and the Adivasis, who constitute 11 per cent of the population, are virtually out of the banking system. They received only Rs10.70 billion, which is just 1.6 per cent of the amount disbursed. Often they are unable to take advantage of credit facilities as they lack land or other assets to furnish security demanded by the banks. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 31, 2007

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Arrested Maoist editor on fast, removed to hospital

Govindan Kutty, Editor of People’s march, who was on fast in jail, was admitted to the Taluk hospital at Aluva on Saturday, following deterioration in his condition, according to a website bearing the same name as his magazine.

An engineer by training, Govindan Kutty, who is 60, quit his government job a few years ago.. Since then he has been reportedly living in a lodge and editing and publishing People’s March, a magazine which publicizes the activities of the radical Left, particularly Maoist groups active in different parts of the country.

Following the arrest of Maoist leader Mallah Raja Reddy by the Andhra Pradesh police at Angamali, near Kochi, the local police raided his room and took him into custody. He has been charged with sedition and unlawful activities.
Police produced Govindan Kutty before a magistrate, who remanded him to judicial custody for 14 days. He immediately began a fast.
P. A. Pouran, President of the Kerala unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), described Govindan Kutty’s arrest as ''police high-handedness''. He pointed out that People’s March was not a banned publication, but a magazine which was being published lawfully. The police has not been able to bring forth any concrete charges against him.
In a recent interview, Govindan Kutty was asked how old he was and how he was contributing to the Maoist movement. “I am 60 years of age and wherever there is injustice I fight against it and stand against it,” he said. “You should also do the same.”For more information on the subject, please see

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chat with Infosys CEO S. Gopalakrishnan has made arrangements for a chat with S. Gopalakrishnan, CEO of Infosys, on December 31, 2007 at 3 p.m.

Gopalakrishnan, ‘Kris’ to friends, is a founder-member of the Infosys team. He has been its Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer since June this year. In these capacities he plays a key role in defining company strategy and using technology and innovation to maintain its leadership in the IT industry.

For details, kindly visit
Kozhikode has a rich historical heritage. It has a unique place not only in the history of Kerala but also in Indian history and even world history. Public spirited citizens have come together under the banner of Calicut Heritage Forum to protect and preserve this heritage.

Historian M. G. S. Narayanan (President), former IAS officer C. K. Ramachandran (Convener), Dr. K. Madhavan Kutty, Mr. M. Radhakrishnan Nair (Joint Convener) and Professor M. R. Chandrasekharan are among the 18 founder-members of the Forum.

The Zamorin of Calicut and the District Collector of Kozhikode have been named patrons.

The following are the objectives of the forum;

  • To preserve and protect the objects and symbols that embody the history and culture of Calicut;
  • To identify, evaluate, and document such objects and symbols like buildings, monuments, artefacts, documents, photographs, oral traditions etc.
  • To seek professional advice and assistance in the above task;
  • To promote digitalisation of manuscript and other written material for better preservation;
  • To create a sense of awareness and belonging for the city’s heritage among the local community - and among students in particular - and thereby generate social responsibility for their preservation;
  • To facilitate the preparation of guidelines on impact assessment of new building activities on heritage buildings and sites;
  • To canvas support for adopting heritage regulations and preparation of a heritage manual;
  • To design and promote heritage tours of Calicut and its environs.
For more details, kindly visit the Forum’s website.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A disaster named Opportunity

On December 26, the third anniversary of the 2004 tsunami, the Kerala media looked at the progress of the rehabilitation of its victims. They found that many of those who lost their homes are still awaiting rehabilitation.

While the State government was yet to implement many of the promises made to the victims, the Mata Amritanandamayi establishment reportedly completed the task it had been entrusted with.

The ruling Left Democratic Front spokesmen repeated the allegation that the previous United Democratic Front administration had diverted tsunami relief funds to areas which were not hit by the disaster. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy rebutted the charge and pointed out that even one and a half years after coming to power the LDF had not been able to produce any evidence in support of the charge.

Against the background of undelivered promises and charges and counter- charges by political parties, Naomi Klein’s observations about Disaster Capitalism, which turns every calamity into a business opportunity, deserves attention.

Naomi Klein, 37, is a Canadian journalist, author and activist. In a book, titled “The Shock Doctrine”, she explains how this doctrine works: “First there is a disaster, a coup or a terrorist attack, a tsunami, a hurricane: the population goes into shock, the economy is in a shambles, it’s a perfect opportunity to push through unpopular economic shock therapy. This means privatizing resources and selling state assets.
Klein travelled from Argentina in Chile, to South Africa and Iraq and to post-tsunami Sri Lanka to study how disaster capitalism works.

Naomi Klein

The San Francisco-based New American Media circulated yesterday the excerpts of a radio interview in which she outlined some of her findings.

On tsunami relief in Sri Lanka, she said, "The U.S. government was pushing that the tsunami was an opportunity for Sri Lanka to really launch its high-end ecotourism market. The World Bank
was very aggressive in pushing to adopt these policies in response to giving aid.

"The NGOs we gave money to were giving aid to people in these inland camps which were holding pens which were keeping these people in a passive state while this theft was going on. There’s a lot of regret now of those on the ground in the tsunami-affected region who realize they were accomplices to the theft."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mao’s Cultural Revolution re-visited

Today, December 26, is Mao Zedong’s 114th birth anniversary. On this occasion, I wish to draw attention to a New American Media report which recalls the heady days of the Cultural Revolution.

In the report, Xujun Eberlein says a month ago a long forgotten photo of Mao with a young girl resurfaced on the Chinese Internet. It generated an instant furore around the girl.
She was 18 or 19 at the time, a senior student at the girls' school that was attached to Beijing Normal University. On August 18, 1966, she went to Tiananmen, as part of a delegation of Red Guards to be received by Mao. She was given the special honor of placing a Red Guard armband on Mao’s sleeve. As she did this, Mao asked her her name and she told him: Song Binbin.
Loosely translated it means “gentle and refined.”

Mao had told her in a joking way, according to the photographer, that gentle was out, and "Yaowu" was in. "Yaowu" means "seeking armed conflict."

Almost overnight, the girl became known as Song Yaowu and famous throughout China. Young and proud, little did she know how history is prone to turning fame into infamy. Soon, her new name evolved into a symbol of Red Guard violence, and for a reason.Just two weeks before this happy moment on Tiananmen, a cruel beating death occurred in Song's school. It was August, and the peak of the three-month activity that marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
Song Binbin is now a scientist living in the United States.
Here's the NAM story
Picture of Mao with Song Binbin

Monday, December 24, 2007

Kerala's urban transport system needs urgent improvement

FOR a state wishing to be on the fast track of development, Kerala has weak infrastructure.
Transport facilities are woefully inadequate. While the state is better placed than most others with regard to road length, officials concede that many roads are in "very poor" condition.

The state's transport system consists of 161,000 kilometres of road, 1,148 kilometres of railways and 1,687 kilometres of inland waterways. There is also an air network that links Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode .

Several schemes for development of transport facilities are in different stages of implementation and new ones are under consideration. However, there is no integrated plan for development of the multifaceted transport system. Nor has there been a proper study to decide upon the right mix.

The state has a road density of 414 km per 100 sq km, as against the national average of 75 km. Road length per 100,000 people is 505 km, as against the national average of 259 km. However, more than two-thirds of the roads are under panchayats, and only about a quarter of them are black-topped.

About 28,200 km of road (17.5% of the total) are under the Public Works Department.
The reasons cited by officials for their poor condition include low budgetary allocation, delay in release of funds, land acquisition problems and lack of timely maintenance The Kerala State Transport Project, which aimed at modernisation of about 1,600 km of PWD roads, has fallen two years behind schedule.

The state's vehicle population, which is already very high, is increasing by 1,200 each day.
Two-wheelers account for more than half of the vehicles on the road.
Their domination is bound to continue as about 760 new two-wheelers are put on the road daily.
On an average, 116 accidents take place daily, resulting in 140 deaths. Two-wheelers are involved in more than half the accidents. Yet there is strong resistance to enforcement of the rule that requires two-wheel riders to wear helmets.

Even a cursory study of the State's traffic needs will show that there is an urgent need to improve communication facilities in the coastal region, where there is heavy concentration of population. The surest way to speed up movement by road in the region is to widen the coastal highway. However, politicians and bureaucrats are more interested in building a new expressway than in widening the coastal highway.

Improvement of rail travel facilities, too, has not received adequate attention. Instead of pressing for more railway lines and trains, the political leadership has been batting for the formation of a railway zone, which will have no direct bearing on passenger and goods traffic.
The schemes drawn up by the Centre for highway development envisage recovery of costs through toll collections. Since the Communist Party of India (Marxist) set its face against the toll system, the State took no interest in these schemes. The party has now revised its position.

Last week Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan conferred with Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Managing Director E .Sreedharan on the proposal to construct a metro rail system for Kochi at an estimated cost of Rs30 billion.

DMRC had earlier expressed readiness to handle the project.
They also had preliminary talks on the development of an inter-city railway system linking Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Palakkad.

It is not clear if the authorities have examined the relative merits and demerits of these schemes. The metro system, which will facilitate quick movement from Kochi's suburbs to the city centre and back, may lead to increased population concentration in and around the city.
The inter-city system, which will help people to commute to the city from comparatively long distances, may act as a check on uncontrolled growth of the commercial metropolis.

Two decades have elapsed since the Centre approved the idea of a national waterway from Kovalam in the south to Hosdrug in the north. Not even part of it is complete. While lakes and canals provided cheap transport in the State at one time, it is doubtful if the proposed national waterway will attract much commercial traffic. It is, however, certain to give a boost to tourism.

The government needs to give thought to the various proposals and integrate them in a unified scheme so that the state derives the maximum benefit. --Gulf Today, December 24, 2007

Who's the Left?

Who’s the Left? This is a question that comes to mind often in the Kerala context. Now it needs to be discussed in the national context as well. Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar, eminent historians based in New Delhi, raise the question in an article published by Hardnews.

“We salute the magnificent spirit in which secular-democratic and genuinely socialist forces in Bengal express their dissent. Maybe, a Left politics will emerge out of this churning. It cannot possibly come out of the morally bankrupt official Left,” say the Sarkars.

Hardnews, which describes itself as the most significant magazine of the thinking Indian, claims considerable readership among the country’s discerning intelligentsia. It adds, “Driven by values that seek to deepen a secular, liberal and democratic order in our society, Hardnews is not aligned to any political party or corporate group.”

The Sarkars’ article is at

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Portrait of the minister as an expert

The performance of Dr. T. M. Thomas Isaac, who came to the office of Finance Minister of Kerala with the reputation of an economic expert, reminds me of the story of Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. It is said that an English county, impressed with the detective hero’s investigative skills, offered a top police job to Conan Doyle, but he could not solve any real-life mystery.

Thomas Isaac is the economist who has risen highest in the State CPI (M) hierarchy. He was the prime mover behind decentralized planning, which was presented as the most revolutionary programme since the first Communist government under EMS Namboodiripad introduced land reforms. It took three or four decades for the people to realize that land reform measure could yield only limited good. The limited nature of decentralized planning became evident in less than decade.

Even when programmes fail, their prime movers can succeed. When the Left Democratic Front returned to power, Thomas Isaac became the natural choice for the post of Finance Minister on the strength of his experience as a legislator and a member of the Planning Board and by virtue of his being on the right side in the party. But all his calculations did not work out. The Chief Minister appointed Prabhat Patnaik, who does not share his and the party’s views on Marxist practice in the age of globalization, as vice-chairman of the Planning Board.

The Finance Minister was among the new faces in the Cabinet who declared war on corruption. As he swept everything clean with the enthusiasm of a bride, the World Bank-aided Kerala State Transport Project for modernization of roads attracted his attention. KSTP was launched in June 2002 when the United Democratic Front was in power. If everything had gone as planned, the projected would have been completed by the end of this month. When the LDF took office it was clear that the time schedule could not be kept. The Malaysian company, which was in charge of the work, demanded the contract amount be raised as work had fallen behind schedule due to lapses on the government’s part, including failure to acquire the required land in time. The government argued that the company had not completed the work even in areas where land was made available. At that time the Public Works Minister’s attention was elsewhere. The Finance Minister took the reins from him.

Thomas Isaac is not among those who consider World Bank money tainted. Yet he did not show much goodwill for KSTP. His public statements of the period suggest that he viewed it as a UDF project. He put in the dock the PWD Minister of the United Democratic Front government and the consultants, besides the contractors. He announced a Vigilance inquiry against the former minister and blacklisting of the Malaysian company. Work came to a standstill. The people were in distress. The Malaysian company’s representative committed suicide.

It was the previous LDF government that had initiated the talks that led to KSTP. Yet it became a UDF project in the minister’s eyes because it was the UDF government that awarded the contract. Projects are dear to politicians not because they are good for the people but because they give them the opportunity to award contracts.

The minister’s efforts to award the contract to someone else did not succeed. Realizing that anyone else would have to be paid more than what the Malaysian company demanded, the government finally decided to pay it what it demanded and ask it to complete the work. Loss and ridicule was what the economist’s expertise gave the State. But he still maintains it is all the fault of the previous government and the officials.

KSTP, with an outlay of Rs. 16.13 billion, was conceived with a view to improving about 1,600 kilometres of road and 77 kilometres of waterways. The World Bank offered Rs. 12.24 billion. The State’s share was fixed at Rs. 3.89 billion. The reasons cited by the Planning Board for the difficulties encountered in its implementation are different from those mentioned by the minister. The Board says it fell behind schedule for several reasons, including faulty design. The State, which was to spend a total of Rs. 3.89 billion, had already spent Rs. 8.21 billion, till the end of last year. Prabhat Patnaik, who is opposed to foreign loans, cites KSTP as a classic example of the pitfalls of foreign-funded projects.

Never did the State government spend the entire fund allocated for the project in the budget. In the first year actual expenditure was Rs.670 million against an allocation of Rs.1 billion, in the second year Rs.1.46 billion against Rs.1.55 billion, in the third year Rs.1.97 billion against Rs.2.35 billion and in the fourth year Rs.3.12 billion against Rs.5.75 billion.. In the fifth year, too, the budget provided for Rs.5.75 billion but the Finance Minister gave only Rs.990 million.

The Malaysian company has agreed to resume work on the project within a month and complete it within two years. In the light of the State’s past experience, further cost overrun cannot be ruled out.

There is material for consolation for Thomas Isaac in the Conan Doyle story. Although he failed as a detective, Conan Doyle was able to make a big contribution to the administration of justice. His strenuous efforts resulted in the acquittal of two persons who were earlier convicted unjustly. His exertions also played a part in Britain’s decision to set up a criminal court of appeal. Let Thomas Isaac also redeem himself with good work in some other area.
Based on column “Nerkkaazhcha” published in Kerala Kaumudi dated December 20, 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

More Chinese perform the Haj

A record number of Muslims from the Chinese mainland travelled to Saudi Arabia this year for the Haj pilgrimage, according to a feature circulated by the Delhi-based Women’s Feature Service.

According to the authors of the feature, Wu Chen and Yang Jing, among the millions who gathered in Mecca for this year’s Haj were 10,700 Chinese, including women.

In 2005, only 2,000 Chinese performed the Haj.

Ma Xiulan, a 74-year old woman pilgrim, said she had been dreaming of the holy trip for several years. Family members helped her to go through the pre-departure spiritual and logistic orientation.

Her husband was not with her as she flew out to Saudi Arabia. “My husband said he is stronger than me and can wait a few more years,” she said. “I hope he can also make the pilgrimage one day.”

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Remembering the days when Travancore did not have the death penalty

The Colosseum swathed in golden light

Rome’s Colosseum was swathed in golden light twice during the week as the city celebrated two events: the abolition of the death penalty by the state of New Jersey in the United States and the adoption of a resolution, calling upon the nations of the world to do away with the death penalty, by the General Assembly of the United Nations..

Italy abolished the capital punishment in 1948. The Colosseum, built in the first century AD, was the scene of a series of demonstrations against the death penalty in 2000. Since then, as a gesture against the death penalty, local authorities of Rome change the colour of the Colosseum's night time illumination from white to gold whenever a person condemned to the death penalty anywhere in the world gets the sentence commuted or is released. Also, when there is a significant advance in the cause of abolition of the death penalty anywhere on earth.

The UN General Assembly Tuesday voted 104-54 with 29 abstentions in favour of a resolution declaring a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. Though non-binding, supporters of the resolution believe international opinion against capital punishment is growing. The US voted against the resolution, joining with India, Syria, Iran, China and other nations against Israel, the European Union and other anti-death penalty states.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the vote as "a bold step by the international community."

Amnesty International and anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain also welcomed the news of the resolution's passage.

The erstwhile princely state of Travancore, which lost its identity progressively in the State of Travancore-Cochin (1948) and Kerala (1956), has the distinction of being the only part of India where there was no death penalty for a short period in living memory.

The Maharaja of Travancore had abolished the capital punishment by a proclamation in 1946. Four years later the death penalty came back with the introduction of the Constitution of India. Even so, courts in the region refrained from applying the ultimate penalty for a few years. Researchers have established that there was no increase in the incidence of crime when there was no capital punishment.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

REALITY -- in Kerala and in the United States

Reality shows are currently the rage on Malayalam television, as in some other languages of India. They have replaced tearjerker serials as prime-time favourites.

When reality shows were still few and young, I had discussed them briefly in these columns. (“Kerala dances to the tune of television channels”). Now reality shows are the subject of hot debate in many forums in the State. Renowned playback singer Yesudas was reported as saying these shows should be banned.

Kerala Watch, a public interest forum with which I am associated, recently organized a discussion on the subject. (A report in Malayalam is available at Vaayana blog.) I know of two magazines which have solicited comments on reality shows.

Against this background, a commentary circulated recently by the California-based New American Media, is sure to be of as much interest to readers in Kerala as well as to readers in the United States. The commentator, Andrew Lim, discusses the impact of the strike by writers, who are demanding revenues due to them from New Media, on reality shows. Read on: Writers Strike Opens Door for Non-Whites on TV.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Campaign to wipe out illiteracy totally

Kerala, which claimed to have achieved total literacy through a sustained campaign some years ago, is now drawing up a new plan to achieve that target.

When the total literacy proclamation was made, there was still a small number of illiterate persons in the State. In the absence of adequate measures to consolidate the gain, there was subsequently a setback.

The 2001 Census put literacy in India at 65.2%. That meant that 34.8%, which works out to about 350 million people, were illiterate at that time. That makes India the home of the largest number of illiterate people in the world.

In 2001, literacy in Kerala was 94.20% for males and 87.86% for females. There was a gap of four percentage points between urban female literacy (90.87%) and rural female literacy (86.79%).

The variation in female literacy within the State was significant. Kottayam district (94.45%) stood first, followed by Pathanamthitta (93.71%), Alappuzha (91.14%) and Ernakulam (90.96%). Palakkad came last (79.31%).

Female literacy among Dalits (65.03%) and Adivasis (43.53%) was considerably lower than among the rest of the population. Special literacy programmes are being implemented in the Palakkad, Wayanad and Idukki, which have large Adivasi populations.

Writing in the December 2007 issue of Bharanachakram, a magazine devoted to matters connected with administrative reform, Dr. N. Jayadevan, Director, State Literacy Mission Authority, says, “Literacy workers in Kerala must take up the major challenge of making the remaining illiterates also literate so that the State can achieve total literacy literally.”

Indian journalist in US commends Kerala Model of reducing waste

In an editorial in the Centre Daily Times, Pennsylvania, Community columnist Nalini Krishnankutty, a journalist of Indian origin, called for an end to the US practice of wrapping Christmas gifts.

The threat of climate change is reason enough to reduce all that waste, she said, and suggested a better way – give the gifts in re-usable bags or wrapped in old newspaper. She pointed out that no envelopes, cards or gift wraps are used in Kerala at the time of Vishu.

She wrote: "There was a time, someone told me recently, when people received an orange and an apple as gifts at Christmas — unwrapped — and were happy to get an orange and an apple. Does Santa remember that time? What would he say if he heard of gift giving in my parents’ generation, in faraway India?

"For our New Year (Vishu), in April, my family followed a tradition of Vishukaineetam, literally translated to “extending the hand at Vishu” for giving and receiving gifts.

"The oldest person in the house gave gifts to all the younger people and anyone in their employment — gifts of money and fruits to family members and money, fruits, vegetables and rice to employees — all given unadorned and received with thanks.

"As a child, I happily received my Vishukaineetam money directly in my hand while calculating my total “loot” for the day. No envelopes, cards or gift wraps were used, no indulging a need to surprise — saving so many trees and creating less pollution."
Read on: "Helping Santa save the world, one gift at a time"

Monday, December 17, 2007

Kerala looking forward to UAE investments in projects

The Government of Kerala is expecting the United Arab Emirates to invest in some big projects, which it conceived several years ago but has not been able to take up so far for want of investors.

After a two-hour meeting with a UAE business delegation at Thiruvananthapuram last week, Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem said the State government had placed before it four investment proposals. These envisaged a petrochemical complex near the revamped Azhikal port in Kannur district, a power project, based either on coal or gas, in Kasargode district, a road development project and a state-of-the-art financial centre in Kochi.

These projects were among those that the Industries department has been hawking around since the time of the last Left Democratic Front government.
They formed part of a basket of projects presented by the LDF government before a group of foreign investors at Chennai. Early in 2003 the United Democratic Front government placed them before the Global Investors Meet at Kochi.

Last May Elamaram Kareem visited the UAE and held discussions with Minister of State for Finance and Industry Dr Muhammed K Khirbash and officials of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to explore the possibilities of attracting investments to the State. At that time the UAE side showed interest in petrochemicals and power projects. The Emirates Investment Board indicated it was ready also to examine commercial and tourism ventures.

The current discussions between the UAE and the Kerala government are taking place against the backdrop of efforts by the national governments to strengthen bilateral relations.
On March, UAE Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had visited New Delhi for talks on boosting economic and political ties. Sheikh Maktoum, who was accompanied by seven ministers and a high-level business delegation, held discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Leader of Opposition LK Advani.

Two months later Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath and UAE Minister of Economy Shaikha Lubna Al Qasimi discussed measures to provide new thrust to economic co-operation between India and the Gulf region as a whole.

The UAE accounts for three-fourths of India's exports to the Gulf Co-operation Council states.

Later a GCC-India industrial conference was held at Mumbai. This was followed by the first meeting of the India-UAE Trade Policy Forum.

The UAE delegation, which came to Kerala for talks, was led by Younis Al Khoori, Secretary, Ministry of Finance and Industry, and included Jamal Nasser Lootah, Secretary, Industrial sector, in the Ministry of Finance, Saeed Al Roken, acting Director, Industrial Development, and NRI businessman MA Yousaf Ali.

Yousaf Ali is credited with having mooted the idea of an information technology project in Kerala with UAE participation. It was this idea that eventually crystallized into the Smart City project, of which the Dubai Internet City is the chief promoter.
The Vallarpadam container terminal project is another major project in the State with UAE participation. The Dubai Port Authority is the major partner of the project.

Petrochemicals and gas-based power projects are areas which have a natural appeal for the UAE. However, the State Industries department has with it only project outlines, which are too sketchy to go by. After undertaking feasibility studies, the two sides hope to sign a memorandum of understanding early next year.

The UAE, which is endowed with capital for investment, has built up over the past three decades a strong tradition of professional management of institutions. UAE entrepreneurs have good experience of Kerala's human resources. The two sides can combine their strengths and put them to good use for mutual benefit.

A depressing aspect of Kerala's efforts to attract investments is the inability of the leadership to draw up sound proposals based on a proper appreciation of the State's strengths and weaknesses. Some of the projects being canvassed are clearly not suited to the State, which is facing severe environmental problems.

Fifty years ago Kerala offered enormous concessions to the Birlas to persuade it to set up a factory in the State. The factory provided employment for a few thousand people but in course of time the people realized that it was exacting too high a price by way of air and water pollution and forced it to close down. The authorities do not seem to have learnt a lesson from this experience. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 17, 2007.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dr. Gangan Prathap, new Vice Chancellor of CUSAT

Dr. Gangan Prathap, who has been named Vice-Chancellor of the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), is a distinguished scientist. A product of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, he was associated for many years with the National Aeronautical Laboratory, Bangalore, which comes under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Since the last seven years he has been head of the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation at Bangalore, which is also a unit of the CSIR.

The following material is drawn from an article in Madhyamam’s Weekend edition, in which M.P. Shyamkumar profiles Dr. Gangan Prathap.

Dr. Gangan Prathap has been with us for several years with weather observation and aircraft modelling. One may wonder what is there in common between weather observation and aircraft modelling. The two are closely linked. If it is the wings that control the aircraft it is mountains and sees that control the weather. The calculations behind both are the same.

The list of honours that came to Dr. Gangan Prathap as he went ahead with observations and experiments in the past 29 years is long. Among them is the Bhatnagar Award given to distinguished young scientists.

Dr. Gangan Prathap was the first Malayalee to get the Bhatnagar award. Dr. Ajay Ghosh, another Malayalee, received this recently.

He has published more than 300 research papers. He is a member of the editorial board of several scientific and research publications.

He was a topper from high school level to the highest level of technical education. He passed out of the Raffles School in Singapore with the first rank. He passed the Pre-University examination from the Madras Christian College, also with first rank. He stood first in the all-India engineering entrance examination the same year. He passed out from IIT with B. Tech degree in 1974, again standing first. He then went on to take a Ph. D. degree.

He is the first Malayalee to have stood first in the IIT entrance examination.

Dr. Gangan Prathap’s family had migrated from Mayyanad, Kerala, to Singapore. His father, Narayanan Gangan, who worked for the Royal Navy, was a lover of books. Prathap learnt of the world from the books in his father’s library. Books led him to the world of science.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Celebrating a debt trap

The Left Democratic Front government can claim credit for discovering something new to celebrate. The nationalized banks discovered that distribution of loans is a good occasion to organize a mela. This government discovered that distribution of arrears is also good for the purpose. A minister of the government has been running around organizing arrears distribution melas.

Arrears form part of the experience of those who do contract jobs from the government of Kerala. The long wait does not end even when they get the arrears cheque. To present the cheque for collection, they have to wait until there is money in the treasury. When they finally get the money, no one even knows about it. The Minister for Cooperation has given up the worn-out practice and made payment of arrears an occasion to celebrate. What he distributes at the melas is not the Cooperative Department’s arrears, but the arrears of one of several thousand cooperative societies in the State. Even the money he distributes is not the department’s. It comes from the cooperative banks. How does it come into his hands? Thereby hangs a tale.

Some 60 years some 12 writers, including luminaries like M. P. Paul, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and P. Kesava Dev, set upthe Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, a cooperative, to save writers from exploitation by publishers. In a short while it grew into the biggest publishing house in Malayalam. It attracted attention in the country and abroad as the organization that pays writers the highest royalty.

When the society succeeded, there began a struggle for its leadership. Politicians also set their eyes on it. Literary workers like Kodiyeri Balakrishnan came forward to cooperate. Under Poochali rule (the term is derived from the name of a party nominee who ruled it at one time), the society went deep into debt. The last LDF government allotted Rs. 10 million of taxpayers’ money to rescue it.

It could not be rescued. By the time the LDF returned to power after five years in exile, it became necessary to do something again to rescue it. Since the government is left with virtually nothing after paying staff salaries and pensions, the new Minister of Cooperation had to look elsewhere for money. He did not have to look too far. There was money in the cooperative sector and the cooperative banks were ready to do his bidding.

The writers’ cooperative in a mess because of mismanagement. Those who reached its helm published worthless books which remained in the storehouses for want of buyers. Its income was not sufficient even to pay the wages of the army of employees whom they recruited. The society, which was paying writers royalty of 30 to 40 per cent, when publishers worldwide paid only 10 to 15 per cent, was obliged to cut it to five per cent or even less. It could not pay even that in time. It is the arrears that accumulated in this manner that the minister is trying to clear with the banks’ money.

The minister has asked each cooperative bank to start a library. The society will give them books against the money they are now advancing. The minister’s scheme thrilled the writers. Many of them went to the melas to receive arrears from his highness. The minister went to the houses of some writers who did not care to attend the melas and personally handed over the arrears cheque. It is not clear who is footing the mela bills and paying for the minister’s travels. Whether it is the government or the banks, it is wasteful spending. If the cheque is put in an envelope, a postage stamp worth Rs. 5 is all that is needed to have it delivered to the writer.

The writers’ cooperative was set up to end exploitation of writers. The minister who has come to its rescue is an accomplice to their exploitation. Some writers have said they have been asked to return half of the arrears amount paid to them by way of donation.

The taxpayer has no obligation to rescue a cooperative society which was ruined by politicians. Yet the previous LDF government’s grant to it may be justified as an effort to save an institution that has rendered yeomen service to literature. However, its motive becomes suspect in the light of its failure to take any steps to put an end to maladministration. When the government gave the society Rs 10 million, its debt stood at Rs. 20 million but it had assets worth about Rs. 100 million. Its condition is worse now. Obviously mismanagement continues.

There is reason to doubt if the new scheme will succeed. A library attached to a bank is a good idea. But how many cooperative banks have the space and other facilities needed to run a library efficiently? When 12,000 libraries which enriched Kerala’s cultural life in the past are languishing for want of readers, what is the basis for assuming that the banks’ libraries will succeed? Books which were lying in the society’s storehouses for want of buyers will now be seen lying in the banks’ storehouses, christened as libraries, for want of readers.

The writers’ cooperative in a sorry state because its control has passed from writers to vested political interests. So long as their misrule continues, no amount of money from whatever quarter can save the society. Many new publishing houses have come up in the State recently. Some of them have developed new strategies and registered some success. But writers are facing exploitation as they did six decades ago. The minister’s scheme makes the society a partner in their exploitation. It will not save the society. It may endanger the banks. What the writers’ cooperative needs is not the patronage of the minister but the support of readers.
Based on Nerkkazhcha column which appeared in Kerala Kaumudi dated December 13, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Medics suspend stir in response to court orders

RESPONDING to a call by the High Court, state government doctors, who launched a 'non-co-operation movement' on Oct.1, suspended the agitation and resumed normal work on Friday.
The court gave the state government four weeks' time to consider the doctors' demand for wage revision.

Within 24 hours, the government began conciliation efforts.
After a meeting with Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and Health Minister PK Sreemathy on Saturday, representatives of the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA) exuded optimism about a satisfactory settlement.

Doctors had received a raw deal from the last Pay Commission, whose recommendations were implemented in 2004. They were peeved that after the pay revision they found themselves below other government employees, such as college lecturers, who were earlier on a par with them if not below them. Apparently the Pay Commission and the government did not take the doctors' dissatisfaction over salary scales seriously since they have the opportunity to supplement their income through private practice.

It is believed that many government doctors probably make much more through private practice than they earn by way of salary. However, according to the Indian Medical Association, a study conducted three years ago had shown that only about 20% of government doctors did private practice.

At one time, a government job was the first option of every medical graduate. Often he had to wait for up to three years after graduation to enter government service. As private hospitals that sprang up all over the State and they started offering higher emoluments, the government job became less appealing. The revised starting salary of a doctor in government service is only Rs11,500. Some private hospitals pay up to Rs25,000 to new entrants. This is the salary the KGMOA wants at entry point.

When the KGMOA asked that the injustice done to the doctors by the Pay Commission be remedied, the government took the line that while minor anomalies could be corrected, there could be no general revision of scales until the next Pay Commission was appointed.
Dissatisfied with the government's attitude, the KGMOA took to the path of agitation. Instead of calling for strike, it asked the doctors to 'work to rule.' This meant that they would only attend to normal duties and would not be available for other work entrusted to them. They shunned VIP duty and even refused to do Sabarimala duty.

An estimated 15 million pilgrims from all over the South visit the hill shrine at Sabarimala during the season. The government said it would make alternative arrangements for the pilgrims. However, most of the doctors who were drafted for Sabarimala duty failed to turn up.

The work-to-rule agitation paralysed the State's health care system, which is short-staffed.
As against a sanctioned strength of about 3,000 doctors, there are only 1,875 on the rolls of government hospitals at present. Out of them, 440 are due to retire by March 2008.

Earlier this year the State Public Service Commission offered jobs to 930 medical graduates.
Only 90 of them joined the service and 50 of them resigned later.

The government placed some doctors under suspension and threatened disciplinary action against other agitators. Doctors, on their part, threatened to resign en bloc. To reinforce the threat, many of them handed over resignation letters to the KGMOA.

The matter came up before the High Court in the form of a writ petition. The petitioner wanted the court to invoke the Essential Supplies Maintenance Act and declare the doctors' agitation illegal. While voicing disapproval of the agitation, the bench headed by Chief Justice HKL Dattu showed evident sympathy for the doctors' cause.

The KGMOA claims that the Health Minister is convinced of the justness of the doctors' demand but the Finance department stands in the way. In talks held in the early days of the agitation, the government had offered to pay the doctors some allowances in order to put more money in their hands. The KGMOA rejected the offer since in the absence of revision of basic pay the doctors would be at a disadvantage at the time of the next wage revision too.

A formula now being discussed envisages treatment of the additional emoluments as special pay, instead of allowances. Unfortunately, the only issue figuring in the current discussions is that of providing adequate compensation to government doctors. Neither the government nor the KGMOA is addressing the larger question of rescuing the State health care system from collapse. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 10, 2007.

Friday, December 7, 2007 we do not go back to the lunatic asylum

It was only natural that the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) saw the coming together of ten Christian Churches and the Nair Service Society to oppose education reforms as a prelude to a new ‘liberation struggle’. After all they were the prime movers behind the agitation against the Communist government’s proposals for educational reform 50 years ago.

Many movements in Kerala and their leaders are prisoners of the past. Each one has chosen a period from the past, built a prison there and remains happily in it. They need to be reminded once in a while that times have changed. This must be done without unnecessary provocation.

While the CPI (M) State Secretary tried to dissuade the Church leaders by reminding them of the changed circumstances, the Education Minister sought to save himself by stating that there were no proposals before government for educational reform.

What irked the Churches and the NSS were moves to transfer control of educational institutions from the State to the local bodies and to entrust the State Public Service Commission with the responsibility of appointing school teachers. It is no secret that the Left Democratic Front government is interested in both the ideas. Members of a committee set up by the government have indicated that it will make recommendations in this regard. So the plea that there is no proposal for reform before the government is merely a technical argument.

The Devaswom and Cooperation Minister and the Education Minister are two members of the government who have been making heroic statements periodically. For one and a half years the Devaswom Minister strove tirelessly to cleanse the temple administration. Eventually the High Court appointed someone else to look into temple matters. The Education Minister worked hard to rein in the self-financing colleges. Result: managements who were ready to settle for 75% of the seats got 100%! It was perhaps this experience that prompted him to surrender to the school managements even before the first shot was fired.

Those who favour change argue that since the government pays the salaries of private school teachers the power to make appointments must also vest in it. The government started paying salaries directly to teachers following widespread complaints that school managements who received grants from the state were not paying teachers’ salaries promptly. Recently a Church dignitary said that since the government was paying teachers’ salaries out of the tax revenue they were only getting what they were entitled to. The managements who did not pay salaries promptly after accepting the money from the state were guilty of misappropriation, which is a penal offence. But the state did not initiate legal action against them. The authorities must have the courage to bring the guilty to book.

The Churches made a big contribution to Kerala’s progress in education. But service was not their sole motive. In the early years, they were also interested in conversions. Neither service nor conversion is relevant today. Those who come forward to start educational institutions now are guided by profit motive. The Churches in Kerala enjoy favourable circumstances in comparison with the others. They have the benefit of the good reputation earned by Christian institutions by rendering good service over a long period. They also have the physical resources needed to set up new institutions. In some places, these include land generously made available by the state.

As a religious minority, the Christians are entitled to certain rights under the Constitution. Their demand that these should be protected is quite legitimate. However, the Churches are not a minority in the State’s education sector. On the contrary, they constitute the majority. According to official documents, 67.6% of the lower primary schools, 71.2% of the upper primary schools, 67.0% of the high schools and 58.0% of the higher secondary schools are under private managements. In the field of higher education, too, private managements are dominant. As many as 150 out of the 189 arts and science colleges and 70 of the 84 engineering colleges are under private managements. The situation is no different in the fields of medical and nursing education. Official documents do not indicate who owns how many private institutions. However, it will not be wrong to assume that a majority of them are under the control of the different Churches. The government has a duty to gather precise data before embarking upon educational reform.

As institutions that represent large sections of the population, the Churches have the responsibility to present their case without being provocative. Some recent public statements of Church leaders lacked the restraint expected of them. One of them was reported as saying teachers appointed by the government will not be allowed to teach in their schools. Such statements should be avoided. If the appointments are legally valid, the Churches have to accept them. Having conducted successful litigation against the state, the Church authorities know that it is for the courts to say whether the appointments are valid. One proposal mooted with regard to appointment of teachers is that the Public Service Commission or some other independent agency must prepare a list of persons eligible for appointment and the managements must be free to make appointments from that list. The Churches must respond constructively to such proposals which do not take away their rights with regard to appointment.

A Church dignitary recently asked all Christians to send their children only to Christian schools. An explanation followed that the suggestion was aimed at ensuring that the new generation imbibed Christian values, and was unconnected with the issue of educational reform. What will happen if all caste and religious groups think along these lines? The Churches, which made possible the social renewal that rescued Kerala from darkness by establishing modern educational facilities, should not become instrumental for a return to the lunatic asylum.
Based on “Nerkkazhcha” column, which appeared in Kerala Kaumudi on December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

CPI-M poll process makes progress despite sectarianism

AS the election process in the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) moves to the final phase, it is clear that the central leadership's effort to contain sectarianism in the Kerala unit has not succeeded fully. However, the faction feud caused disruption only at a few places.

The Kerala party, which had 341,006 members last year, is the CPI-M's largest unit. The West Bengal party, which has been in power continuously from 1977, had only 290,164 members at the time. Bengal's population is two and a half times that of Kerala.
The conferences held at various levels in advance of the triennial party congress provide CPI-M members the opportunity to express their views on the organisation's working and elect new office-bearers.

As the party's 26,000 units decorated their localities with red banners and festoons for the meetings, Kerala had a festive air. Last week district-level conferences began, raising the noise level. The State conference will be held at Kottayam in February.

The party has been in the grip of sectarianism for several years. Last May, the Politburo suspended both State party Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who lead the rival factions, for feuding in public. Before going into conference mode, the Politburo revoked their suspension. It also issued a set of election guidelines to contain sectarianism. They provided for immediate intervention to deal with any manifestation of factionalism. CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat said the Politburo would intervene if the guidelines were not followed.

The media took keen interest in the electoral process. By all accounts, the leadership of the organisational and governmental wings came up for severe criticism from supporters of the rival faction at the lower level conferences.

Thanks to the party's tradition of democratic centralism, delegates usually accept officially circulated lists of office-bearers. However, contested elections are not unknown. This time there were contests at many places. There have been reports that the factions either captured or retained control of committees at different levels. However, there is nothing to indicate whether there has been a change in their relative strength.

The district level conferences are spread over a long period. When all 14 district meets are over, the stage will be set for the State conference. The final line-up will be available only then.

Pinarayi Vijayan said last week that the guidelines had helped contain factionalism. But the spate of complaints that flowed to the central leadership shows that members divided on factional lines even at the lowest levels. Charges levelled by each side against the other include abduction of delegates, use of money power and resort to blackmail tactics.

The reasons why the guidelines have not been very effective are not difficult to fathom. When the higher body, which is required to supervise the proceedings, is affected by factionalism, it cannot be expected to act decisively against sectarianism at the lower level.

There are definite limits to the Politburo's ability to intervene promptly at the lower levels. Now that the process has reached the district level, the State committee is directly in the picture as the sole supervisory body. Also, it is possible for the Politburo to keep a close watch on developments and step in if the guidelines are not followed scrupulously.

Aware of this, the leaders of the two factions, which fought bitterly at the lower levels, are reportedly demonstrating willingness to avoid direct conflicts, and accommodate each other instead. Pinarayi Vijayan, who was present at the Kottayam district conference, strove hard to promote unanimous election. Some observers, however, thought he did so to prevent the rival faction taking advantage of the differences between two of his local supporters.

The two factions had gone to the last State conference, held at Malappuram, determined to fight it out. Prakash Karat appealed to them to elect the State committee without a contest, but they ignored his plea. In the contest that followed, the Pinarayi Vijayan faction emerged victorious.

This time, too, the electoral process began amid indications that the two factions are determined to fight it out. However, the way Karat has handled the sectarian issue in recent times suggests that, unlike last time, he may now be willing to assert the authority of the central leadership and prevent a fight to the finish. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 3, 2007.

Monday, November 26, 2007

War clouds gathering over education sector

Ten Christian denominations and the Nair Service Society of the Hindu Nair community came together last week to resist the Left Democratic Front government's plans for reform in Kerala's education sector.

Church leaders visited the NSS headquarters at Perunna, Changanassery, on Thursday, reportedly at the instance of Joseph M.Puthussery, a Kerala Congress (Mani) legislator.
A constituent of the opposition United Democratic Front, the KC (M) draws its support mainly from the powerful Syrian Christian community.

The Perunna meeting formed an action committee with Syro Malabar Archbishop Mar Joseph Perunthottam and NSS general secretary PK Narayana Panicker as chairmen and Church of South India bishop Thomas Samuel and NSS joint secretary G Sukumaran Nair as general secretaries.

The Churches and the NSS were together in the 'liberation struggle' that led to the Centre's dismissal of the first Communist government in 1959. The main provocation for that struggle, too, was an attempt at educational reform.

Christian missions were pioneers of modern education in Kerala. They received firm support from the rulers of the erstwhile states of Travancore and Cochin.

Official statistics show that private managements control 67.6% of the lower primary schools, 71.2% of the upper primary schools, 67.0% of the high schools and 58.0% of the higher secondary schools. Most of them receive grants from the State government.
Private managements dominate higher education too. They run 150 of the 189 arts and science colleges and 70 of the 84 engineering colleges.

Official documents do not indicate how many of the private institutions are under the control of the Churches. According to knowledgeable sources, different Christian missions manage more than three-fourths of the private schools. The NSS controls a majority of the rest. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam of the Ezhava community and the Muslim Education Society are among the other minor stakeholders.

All but a couple of clauses of the Kerala Education Act, which was enacted by the Communist government 50 years ago, survived the legal challenge mounted by private managements. The Kerala Education Rules framed in terms of that law still hold the ground.

A committee appointed by the present government, with retired Chief Secretary CP Nair as chairman, is now reviewing the KER provisions. It is expected to submit its proposals for changes in it before the year-end.

The day the bishops and the NSS leaders conferred in Perunna, Government School Teachers Union president K Vikraman Nair resigned from the committee to register his opposition to the draft proposals formulated by it. He was the only pro-UDF member of the committee.

Two proposals mooted by LDF supporters have invited the wrath of the private managements, particularly the Churches and the NSS.

One of them envisages transfer of supervisory control over educational institutions from the State governments to the panchayats in furtherance of the policy of decentralisation of power.
Opponents argue that this will enable local politicians to pressure school managements.

While the LDF and the UDF have been alternating in power at the State level, the LDF has been controlling a majority of the local self-government institutions continuously.

The other reform proposal envisages vesting of the power to appoint teachers in the State Public Service Commission. Supporters of the move argue that since the government pays the teachers' salaries the right of appointment must vest in it.

While the Christian missions and the NSS want to retain the right to appoint teachers, the SNDP Yogam favours entrusting the task to the PSC. It hopes this will make it possible to bring teachers' jobs within the purview of the reservation policy. CP Nair has indicated the possibility of creating an alternative mechanism for selection of teachers on the lines of the one in the banking sector.

A clash between the Church-NSS axis and the government on the reform proposals cannot be ruled out. However, much water has flowed under the bridge in the last half-century.
The political situation in the State and the nation as a whole has changed so much that any hope of repeating 1959 is a pipedream.

At the same time, the social and economic power of the forces ranged against the government cannot be wished away. They have enough clout to scuttle the government's plans. This is borne out by the way the managements of self-financing colleges have frustrated all attempts of the LDF government to rein them in. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 26, 2007.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Politics of Coconut

The Kerala Chief Minister's lament that a court order has pushed coconut growers into the abyss and the withdrawal of the judge who pronounced the order from the case prompted me to look at the politics of the coconut.

According to the CM, the court order adversely affected the State’s 3.5 million coconut growers. The State has a total of 6.7 million families. Anything that hurts 3.5 million of them must certainly worry him. But is that really the case?

Going by Planning Board figures, the area under all kinds of cultivation in the State is 2.15 million hectares. Coconut is grown in 900,000 hectares. Last year’s production was 6,013 million nuts. When we try to draw the profile of the average coconut farmer from among the 3.5 million people, this is what we get: he has about 0.25 hectare (about 0.5 acre) under coconut. He gets 1,715 nuts a year. A coconut does not even fetch three rupees now, says the Chief Minister. So the average farmer’s annual income from coconut is about Rs. 5,000. The Chief Minister reminds us of the time when coconut sold at Rs. 6.20. Even if we recreate that golden era, the average farmer’s income can only be pushed up to about Rs. 10,000. That is not enough to make his life secure.

Price rise helps the producer. At the same time it hurts the consumer. Whether a higher price for coconut is good or bad depends on whether one produces it or consumes it. The coconut farmer is not merely a producer of coconut. He is also a consumer of coconut. Keralites can be divided into three groups: those who produce coconut to sell, those who produce just enough coconut for their needs and those who do not produce enough coconut for their needs and so buy it. A price increase will benefit the first group. It will not directly benefit or hurt the second group. It will hurt the last group.

Official statistics do not indicate how many of the 6.7 million families belong to each of these groups. The State, which has a duty to protect the interests of all sections, must have the data. If it does not have them, it must collect them. Precise information is needed to take a just decision. In the absence of such information it becomes easy for an organized group to persuade the government to take a decision favourable to it. Such a decision need not be in accord with wider public interest. Often it will be contrary to public interest.

The government has before it the arduous task of reconciling the conflicting interests of the producer and the consumer. Both the State and the Centre have responsibility in this matter. In discharge of this responsibility the Centre has allowed import of palm oil. The action is intended to keep the price of edible oil in check. Unloading of palm oil at Kochi was banned after Kerala represented that the import was against the State’s interests. This decision came up for scrutiny before the High Court.

As unloading at Kochi was banned, the ship moved to Beypore. If the State protests more loudly, it may be diverted to Mangalore or Thoothukudi. But, then, if there is demand for palm oil in the State, it is bound to reach here by road even if the consignment is unloaded at a port in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. Kerala has now demanded that it should not be unloaded at any port in the South.

The solution to the problems of the coconut grower lies in making coconut farming profitable. Kerala’s right to rake pride in the coconut palm is shrinking. According to the Coconut Development Board’s statistics, productivity in Coconut’s Own Land is below the national average. In India as a whole, the yield per hectare is 7,608 nuts. In Kerala it is 7,048.

At the time of the first five-year plan, only 626,000 hectares were under coconut in the country. As with some other commercial crops, Kerala had a virtual monopoly over coconut. Now 1,946,800 hectares are under coconut but Kerala’s share is down to 46%. The State still holds the first place. But the other southern States together have almost as much land under coconut (the precise figure is 846,600 hectares) as Kerala has.

It needs to be noted that other States have not only taken to coconut cultivation but are also doing it more efficiently than Kerala. Lakshadweep, which gets 19,630 nuts from a hectare, tops in productivity. It is a group of islands with special characteristics. It will not, therefore, be fair to compare Kerala with it. What about Maharashtra, which gets 15,189 nuts from a hectare, and West Bengal, which gets 12,882 nuts? Maybe they too need to be excluded as they have comparatively small areas under coconut – 24,600 hectares in West Bengal and 18,000 hectares in Maharashtra. But we have to ask ourselves why we get only 7,048 nuts from a hectare when Tamil Nadu, which has 357,000 hectares under coconut, is able to get 13,133.

The Planning Board has the answer to this question. In this year’s Economic Review, it says one-third of the coconut palms in the State are senile and unproductive and the root wilt disease is a cause for concern. This is not the first time the Board has drawn attention to these problems. Instead of solving the problems, the State government is seeking to appease the producer by imposing a burden on the consumer.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi of November 22, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

Agitation by landless poor gathering momentum

KERALA'S landless are on the warpath. Small, scattered movements demanding land are going on in various parts of the State for some time. The mainstream political parties and the media are ignoring them. Yet they appear to be gaining momentum and to hold the potential to develop into a major challenge to the administration.

About 25,000 people have been squatting on a rubber plantation at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district since early August demanding that the government make good the promise of land made to them a year ago. So far the authorities have turned a blind eye to the agitation.

In Kuttanad, 250 landless families are up in arms against a co-operative society, which allegedly turned over to a tourist enterprise the land that the government had allotted to them.

At Nainankonam in Thiruvanathapuram district, villagers are getting restive again as their demands, which the government had conceded, are yet to be implemented fully. They had won the demands after a prolonged agitation.

Most of the landless people in the State are Dalits and Adivasis. This may be one reason why the political establishment and the media tend to ignore their agitations.
Dalits and Adivasis, who form only 11 per cent of the population, are a small segment of the social spectrum. They do not have sufficient numerical or economic strength to command the attention of the political parties.

The Adivasi leader, CK Janu, was able to draw attention to the plight of her people by staging a long agitation in the State capital in 2001. At that time the government agreed to give land to every landless Adivasi family.
When it failed to fulfil the promise, she and her followers occupied an abandoned plantation at Muthanga in 2003. They were ousted in a bloody police action. Subsequently the United Democratic Front (UDF) government distributed land to some Adivasi families. Under Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule, distribution of land to Adivasis has continued but partisan considerations have crept into the process.

Distribution of surplus land to Dalits and Adivasis is a policy which is accepted in principle by successive governments. However, they have been tardy in implementing the policy. As a result, large sections among them are still landless.

The land reform initiated by the first Communist government in 1957 did grave injustice to Adivasis. It treated the Adivasi who was in possession of forest land as the landlord and the settler from the plains who cultivated that land as tenant. The law thus became an instrument for dispossessing the Adivasi of his land.

The land reform essentially benefited the tenant-cultivators. It did not benefit Dalits because there were few tenants among them. Almost all of them were farm labourers. Consequently the reform did not improve their social or economic status.

At the time of Janu's 2001 agitation, Chandrabhan Prasad, the Dalit columnist, cited figures to show that Dalits and Adivasis in Kerala, the most socially advanced State, were actually worse off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, including Uttar Pradesh, admittedly one of the most backward States. He pointed out that while 53.79 per cent of the Scheduled Castes in Kerala were landless, the corresponding figure for UP was a mere 38.76 per cent. Even the all-India average was only 49.06 per cent. A whopping 55.47 per cent of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Kerala were landless as against only 32.99 per cent in the country as a whole. UP's ST population is a negligible 0.1 per cent of the total. Even among the other sections of the population, landlessness was higher in Kerala ( 20.78 per cent) than in UP (15.03 per cent) and the country as a whole (19.66 per cent).

The extreme Left, which has been actively involved in some of the land agitations, has taken the initiative to form a front to launch am intensified movement for comprehensive land reform. It wants land reform to cover plantations, which were exempted last time. The focus of some recent agitations has been on lands under plantations.

The scene of the Chengara agitation is land under the control of a large plantation company.
According to the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi, which leads the agitation, the company is holding on to the land even after expiry of the lease. Lands in Munnar and Ponmudi involved in some of the scandals that surfaced recently were part of big plantations.
The authorities remained silent spectators while the plantation owners sold leased lands to all and sundry.

The entry of the extreme Left raises the possibility of what has been a series of peaceful agitations evolving into a broad-based movement that can pose a threat to law and order. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 12, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Is tying up everybody a democratic activity?

A PEACEFUL MEETING was in progress at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab on Basant Panchami day of 1919 when Gen. Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to shoot. Many were killed. The event shocked the nation. Gandhi was perhaps the one who was shocked most. When he returned from South Africa four years earlier he had imagined the British would grant India Dominion status when the World War was over. He started thinking about how best the people could give expression to their strong feelings. An idea struck him as he was travelling by train to Calcutta from Madras. All Indians must stop work for a day! He found a name for this protest action from his own language: hartal. Har means all or everything. Tal means lock. Thus hartal means lock-all.

Gandhi prepared a statement on the subject and gave it to the press. Since good communication facilities did not exist, his appeal reached people in different parts of the country on different days. So the hartal occurred in different places on different days. But the country recognized the potential of the new form of agitation.

Gandhi’s concept of hartal did not include use of force. He wanted everyone to abstain from work voluntarily. Under the influence of other leaders and other movements, hartal later became something that was to be enforced.

In the turbulent 1970s, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) felt that hartal lacked vigour. Some young people were looking for more extreme alternatives to the CPI (M) as they thought it too lacked sufficient revolutionary fervour. The CPI (M) moved from hartal to bandh. It was ready to throw stones and block traffic to make bandh a success. From lock-all it moved to tying up everybody.

Bandh soon became the main mode of agitation in Kerala and West Bengal, where the CPI (M) is influential. The rank and file took to it, viewing it as part of the revolution. Leaders who manage without toil in the name of the toiling masses toiled hard for the success of bandhs. They made sure that nothing worked except those institutions which they exempted from the bandh call. Among the institutions that were exempted was the press. The people may be denied food but not newspapers. After all the people must know that the bandh was a great success.

Apart from nationwide and statewide bandhs, local action limited to a single industry or even a single office took place. Factory managers and government officials came to be locked up in their rooms. But, for some reason, no industrialist or minister underwent such experience. After the CPI (M) came to power in West Bengal and stayed on without a break, the incidence of bandh came down As Kerala became bandh’s own land, the people learnt to live with bandh. As people resigned themselves to bandhs, even a small party could paralyze life. An informal bandh code came into being. It required that when a party called a bandh for whatever reason, the others must let it succeed. Our bandh became theirs, and their bandh became ours.

Word spread that Kerala was not a good place for investment. But statistics compiled by the Centre showed that the State’s lost few man-days due to work stoppages. The government cited statistics to prove that the State was investor-friendly. However, the image remained unchanged. The authorities did not realize that the real issue was not the number of agitations but their character.

Lately the number and intensity of labour disputes have come down. Employers have found that labour leaders can be tamed using new tactics. R. N. Saboo, who was Birlas’ representative in Kerala for many years, is regarded as the pioneer in this field.

As the incidence of bandh and other violent forms of agitation went down in industries, it went up in politics. When industrialists escaped the fury of bandh, ordinary people became its victims. As the media highlighted the hardship caused by bandh, there were small manifestations of anti-bandh sentiments. Participating in a discussion in Thiruvananthapuram, writer Zacharia said bandh was a violation of human rights. He was perhaps the first person to raise his voice against bandh in a public forum. Congress leader M. M. Hassan staged a 24-hour fast to register his personal opposition to bandh, The Left vigorously defended bandh.

Those who suffer most as a result of bandh are not office-goers but the working class. The bulk of Kerala’s working population is in the unorganized sector. Workers in this sector lack the protection and facilities available to their counterparts in the organized sector. For them bandh means starvation.

In 1997, a full bench of the Kerala High Court, acting on a writ petition, declared bandh illegal and unconstitutional. The Left Democratic Front government, which was in power, moved the Supreme Court. It claimed the High Court verdict denied the citizen the right to protest, which was a part of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The apex court rejected the argument and upheld the lower court decision.

To evade the judicial verdict, the CPI (M) gave up the practice of calling bandh, and called for hartal instead. Only the name changed. The character of the agitation remained unchanged. A traders’ organization challenged the constitutional validity of hartal in the High Court. The court ruled that calling for hartal was not illegal but enforcing it was illegal. It also said that if public property was destroyed the government or the Collector or other officials could recover the cost from those who called the hartal.

For some time thereafter the CPI (M) did not call hartals. Instead, it organized blockades. They too interfered with the rights and freedoms of other people. But no one went to court to ascertain their legal and constitutional validity.

In 2004, a petition seeking relief against hardships caused by hartals came up before the High Court. A full bench order on the petition directed the government to take appropriate steps to prevent hartal from paralyzing life. It should not declare a holiday and postpone examinations. Instead, it should offer the protection to those who do not want to strike. If the State is not in a position to do this, it can ask the Centre to deploy the army or paramilitary forces. It should not allow breakdown of the constitutional machinery or violation of fundamental rights. The district administration must be instructed to take steps in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 10 of the Criminal Procedure Code to maintain public services with the help of paramilitary services if law and order problems arise. If there was loss of property, the costs can be recovered from those responsible for it or those who called the hartal.

No government has shown the will to implement truthfully the court directives on bandh and hartal. Although the CPI (M) has been participating in the democratic process for six decades, it does not believe in parliamentary democracy. As such, the indifference of the governments under its leadership is understandable. But the situation is no different when the front led by the Congress, which believes in the parliamentary system, is in office. A class division is discernible in Kerala with parties that organize agitations on one side the people who suffer the consequences of agitations on the other.

Court verdicts cannot offer permanent solutions to problems like hartal. According to information provided by the government in response to an application under the Right to Information Act, Thrissur is the most hartal-prone city. Last year there was hartal there on 59 days, as against 19 days in Thiruvanathapuram and 11 in Kochi. Although hartals result in loss of property, the State government has not taken steps to recover the costs. Three years ago, the Bombay High Court set an example in this matter. Four persons had died in an explosion at Ghatkopar during a bandh jointly called by the BJP and the Shiv Sena in July 2003. The court ordered the two parties to pay Rs 2 million each in damages. Since the parties can make collections to pay the penalty, this cannot be taken as a good model.

Frequent hartals proclaim the failure of democracy. The problem has to be resolved by mobilizing public opinion. If political parties realize that there are strong feelings against agitations that impose hardship on the people, they are sure to give them up.
Based on an article in Malayalam which appeared in Madhyamam weekly dated November 19, 2007

Friday, November 16, 2007


I wish to draw your kind attention to a Kerala-based alternative media effort, which has been on for more than five years.

This is how the organization, which went online on March 27, 2002, describes itself:

"'Countercurrents' is a non-profit organization and the site is financed by our personal income and the small contributions received from the readers.

" is an alternative news site. We bring out what the mainstream media fails to tell you, or hides from you. These are the things that really matter. The things which may determine the fate of planet earth! The future of our children! In a word, the survival of the species!

" stands for peace and justice. Our sympathies are with all those who are engaged in struggles for economic, political, social, cultural, gender, environmental ….. justice. Our aim is to strengthen all these movements. Our conviction is that the driving force of social change is these small counter movements and struggles!"

Contact address:,
PB No. 5,
Kumaranalloor PO,
PIN 686 016

Satya Sagar, writing in, makes an interesting comparison between Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. It can be seen at

Monday, November 12, 2007

Karunakaran awaiting Sonia Gandhi's nod to return

WHEN VETERAN CONGRESSMAN K. Karunakaran led his breakaway faction into the National Congress Party a year ago it was seen as a masterly stroke. Since the NCP was a coalition partner of the United Progressive Alliance ruling at the Centre and the Left Democratic Front in power in Kerala, it looked as though he had a win-win strategy.

When Karunakaran, four-time chief minister, and his son, former Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president, K. Muraleedharan, left the Congress and floated the Democratic Indira Congress (DIC), they were hoping to join the LDF, which was expected to win the approaching assembly elections. CPI-M State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was ready to accommodate them but the party's Politburo put its foot down.

As DIC president, Muraleedharan repeatedly declared that the party would contest all 140 assembly seats. However, on the eve of the elections, it hurried back into the UDF. It lost all but one of the seats the UDF allotted to it.

Sharad Pawar, NCP's founder-president, who was looking for ways to extend his party's beyond the borders of Maharashtra, thought a Congress leader of Karunakaran's vintage would be an asset. He arranged for DIC's merger in the NCP and made Muraleedharan president of the party's State unit.

The LDF was not pleased with the back-door entry of Karunakaran and his followers into the alliance. It told the state NCP that it was no longer welcome as its composition had undergone a major change.

Critics have accused Karunakaran of seeking to establish his children in politics.
Muraleedharan, who is his only son, became PCC president under a deal he had struck with the rival faction in Congress. On the eve of the Lok Sabha poll, Muraleedharan was inducted into the State Cabinet. Unfortunately for him, he lost the assembly by-election and had to bow out of office.

Karunakaran's only daughter, Padmaja Venugopal, was Chairperson of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation when the UDF was in power. She did not follow her father out of the Congress but that did not make her acceptable to the rival faction.

During the past few months, Karunakaran made a couple of well-publicised visits to Delhi, leading to much speculation in the media. Some thought he was aspiring for a role in national politics. It was presumed that as a senior Congressman he was in position to bring together all those who had left the party in recent years. Some others thought he was trying to find a place in national politics for Muraleedharan. They presumed he was hoping to send Muraleedharan to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra with Pawar's help.

Karunakaran is 89, going on 90. For him one year in the political wilderness is too long a period.
In an interview telecast last week, he indicated that he would like to return to the Congress.
Congress leaders' immediate response to his statement showed a sharp division in the party.
AK Antony and several others belonging to his erstwhile faction, like VM Sudheeran and Mullappally Ramachandran, favoured his readmission to the party. However, leader of the opposition Oommen Chandy and PCC president Ramesh Chennithala, who fad inherited the leadership of the Antony faction, indicated that they did not want him back.

Mohsina Kidwai, who was on her first visit to the State as All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Kerala, said it was for Congress President Sonia Gandhi to decide on the issue of Karunakaran's return.

Karunakaran had made some uncharitable remarks about Sonia Gandhi when he left the party.
However, there is reason to believe that she might be inclined to welcome him back. Although she was not pleased with his activities, she had intervened to prevent his leaving the party on the eve of the last Lok Sabha elections. She had again intervened to accommodate his DIC in the UDF on the eve of the Assembly elections. With the next Lok Sabha elections fast approaching, she may want him back in the party.

Karunakaran did not attend a meeting of NCP leaders held recently. He sent word that he was not in a position to take an active part in the party's activities. Apparently, father and son have parted ways on the issue of return to the Congress. Muraleedharan has stated that even if Karunakaran goes back to the Congress he will not. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 12, 2007.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Parties find their way around court ban on strike

Photo on the right, published by The Hindu,
shows two CPI (M) ministers, Kodiyeri
Balakrishnan and A. K. Balan, walking
to the party office on a hartal day in 2006.
Photo: S. Gopakumar
WHEN the courts held 'bandh' and 'hartal' illegal and declared that those who organised such work stoppages could be held to account, there arose a faint hope that such protest action might become a thing of the past. That hope did not materialise. Work stoppages are on the rise again.

Hartal and bandh are terms that signify shutdown. The first gained currency after Gandhi called for a day's gnereal strike in 1919 to protest against the shooting down of unarmed people on the orders of a British officer at Jalianwala Bagh in Punjab. The second was popularised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 1970s. Gandhi envisaged hartal as peaceful and voluntary abstention from work. The Left developed bandh as forcible closure.

In the 1990s, signs of opposition to strikes that disrupted normal life appeared in Kerala. While reporting bandhs, some newspapers highlighted the hardship they caused to the public. They played up stories of the sick dying because they could not reach the hospital in time. At a discussion organised by Kerala Watch, a civil society organisation, writer Paul Zacharia said bandh involved violation of human rights. Congress leader MM Hassan observed a 24-hour fast demanding an end to bandh.

The Kerala High Court, which heard a petition on the subject, declared bandh unconstitutional on the ground that it curtailed the citizens' fundamental rights. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) approached the Supreme Court, claiming bandh was a legitimate form of protest. The apex court rejected the CPI-M argument and upheld the High Court verdict. Since its decisions become part of the law of the land, bandh became illegal.

Thereafter political parties started calling for hartal, instead of bandh. The High Court, holding that hartal, like bandh, involved use of force or threat of force, banned it too. After that the political parties observed restraint for some time. The CPI-M, instead of calling for bandh or hartal, organised 'uparodham' (blockade), which also caused hardship to the people.

Lately, the parties have abandoned the restraint of the past few years and started calling for hartal again. Last week there was one State-wide hartal and there were several at regional or district level. In some areas, three working days were lost during the week.

The State hartal on Thursday was called by the Bharatiya Janata Party to coincide with the inauguration of a railway division with headquarters at Salem in Tamil Nadu. Brushing aside Kerala's protests, the Railway Board had transferred to the new division more than half the rail network under the Palakkad division. The BJP turned down appeals by Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and poet ONV Kurup to drop or defer the hartal as the State was celebrating its 51st anniversary on that day and President Pratibha Patil was to be in the State capital on an official visit. The President's visit went off smoothly despite the hartal, thanks to the arrangements made by the State government to ensure attendance at her functions, which included a public reception.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) organised a hartal in the Malabar region to protest against the alleged neglect of Kozhikode airport, which caters to the needs of a large section of Keralites working in the Gulf States. The airport is under the Centre and IUML leader E. Ahmed is a minister in the Central government.

Palakkad and Kottayam districts witnessed local hartals, called by various parties including the CPI-M, the BJP and the Congress to protest against some violent incidents.

The Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industries said on Friday that the spate of strikes and hartals was adversely affecting the State's economy. It estimated that the daily production loss due to work stoppages at Rs 6.50 to 7 billion.

The judicial verdicts have been of little avail because the machinery which should enforce them remains in the hands of the political parties. When the BJP called for hartal, the High Court asked the government what it proposed to do. By way of reply, the government furnished a copy of a circular the Director General of Police had sent to his force.

The only remedy open to a citizens who have suffered as a result of bandh or hartal is to initiate contempt of court proceedings against the party which called such a protest.
Considering the high cost and cumbersome nature of legal action, this will mean inviting more hardship on oneself. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 5, 2007