Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kerala seeks fresh investments amid global slowdown

Even as the recession exported by the United States is slowing down economies around the world and capital is becoming increasingly scarce, Kerala is seeking fresh private investment in various sectors.

Last week the state government placed before an invited gathering of Non-Resident Keralites 60 tourism schemes requiring investment ranging from Rs. 10 million to Rs. 4 billion. Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said later that investment of the order of Rs 10 billion was expected.

He added that the government would encourage NRKs to form companies and use their resources to develop tourist facilities in their own places.

Also last week the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry released a study report which indicates that, apart from tourism, there are a dozen sectors which offer scope for profitable investment. These include processing of spices, products based on coconut, engineering, education, Ayurveda and, of course, information technology.
The Chamber commissioned the study in advance of the global investor meet, which it plans to hold in April, to promote capital flow to the state.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the government, has put behind it the controversy over the role of private capital. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who was considered an opponent of foreign capital, said the other day that it can be accepted if it is in the state’s interests.

Achuthanandan’s clarification came after party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan’s chief lieutenants, Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac and Industry Minister Elamaram Kareem, emphatically argued that the state needs to attract private investment.
Thomas Isaac has indicated that in the next state budget he will go all out to encourage the inflow of private capital. According to him, that is the only way to overcome the effects of the global economic slowdown.

He has set two primary budgetary goals for the next financial year. One is strengthening of social security measures in the context of the economic crisis. The other is raising of capital investment from the current level of Rs 300 billion to Rs 500 billion. This, he says, can only be done by attracting private capital on a large scale.

Thomas Isaac has evolved a strategy to overcome the restrictions on borrowing by the state government. He proposes to encourage local bodies and public undertakings to go in for maximum loans. The state government will provide guarantee for their loans.

The report of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, which was asked by the government to study the likely impact of the global meltdown on the state’s economy, also lays emphasis on the need to attract private capital.
According to the CDS, credit availability is likely to decline in spite of the measures taken by the Central government. It points out that the global crisis has had a perceptible impact on the state’s traditional exports already. There may also be a drop in tourist arrivals.

While the state government may not be able to adopt pro-active strategies with regard to provision of credit, the CDS says it may consider using the cooperative banking network to help small and medium enterprises and exporters of products like cashew.

The government cannot do much to boost the demand for the state’s traditional exports. However, it can take steps to raise the ability of commercial crop growers and workers to withstand the effect of a decline in the prices of export products.
The CDS report says, “The crisis should not lead to panic reactions like suicides by the affected people. However knee-jerk reactions like writing off credits at the time of such crises are not sustainable.”

Although there may not be any immediate fall in foreign remittances, the mainstay of the state’s economy, the report cautions that the West Asian countries may reduce investment activity in the light of the fall in oil prices.

It estimates that the global crisis may reduce the growth rate of the state’s economy by two to three percent and lead to an increase the government’s revenue deficit.

The 98-page report goes beyond the immediate problem of mitigating the effects of the economic crisis and discusses such matters as raising the state’s capacity to face crises, strengthening social security, stimulating the economy and improving governance.

Pointing out that institutional rigidities are preventing optimal use of Kerala’s resources, including human capital, the report urges the government to use the window of opportunity provided by the global crisis to usher in reforms. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 29, 2008.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Political appointees fight to put the lid on job scandals


POLITICAL party nominees on the Kerala University and the State Public Service Commission have gone to court in a desperate bid to put the lid on job scandals that have surfaced in the two institutions.

The State government has helped the members of the University Syndicate and the Public Service Commission to fight their political battle at the taxpayers' expense by remaining a silent spectator instead of taking timely action.

The university matter relates to alleged irregularities in the appointment of grade II assistants.

The appointments were made on the basis of a rank list prepared after a written examination and interviews.

A Syndicate constituted during the previous United Democratic Front regime was in office when the university conducted the written examination.

It entrusted an external agency with the task of evaluating the answer papers.

The interviews were conducted by the present Syndicate formed after the Left Democratic Front came to power in 2006.

Upa-Lokayukta N. Krishnan Nair looked into the matter on a petition by Sujith S. Kurup, a Congress student leader and former university senate member, alleging that there had been nepotism and corruption.

The university could not produce the answer books of the written examination before him.

The Upa-Lokayukta found that liberal award of interview marks had enabled several candidates to push behind those who had obtained high marks in the written examination.

The main beneficiaries were relatives of Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M) leaders or members of the party's youth and student affiliates.

He recommended cancellation of all appointments and scrapping of the rank list. Holding that former Vice-Chancellor MK Ramachandran Nair, Pro-Vice-Chancellor V. Jayaprakash and Syndicate members BS Rajeev, AA Rasheed, MP Russel and KA Andrew had displayed favouritism, nepotism and political patronage, he asked that legal action be taken against them. Education Minister MA Baby, who is Pro-Chancellor of the university, told the media the government would act after studying the Upa-Lokayukta's order.

However, there was no action of any kind.

The CPI-M dominated Syndicate decided to move the High Court against the Upa-Lokayukta's finding.

The university, which was not cited as a party in the proceedings, is bearing the legal expenses of the indicted officers and Syndicate members.

The Public Service Commission matter relates to reservation.

Some unsuccessful backward class candidates, in a petition filed in the High Court, questioned the reservation formula applied by the Commission.

Upholding their contention that the formula worked to the disadvantage of backward class candidates, the court asked that the practice of making appointments in blocks of 20 be done away with.

All vacancies must be divided into merit and reservation seats on 50:50 basis and filled, it said.

The 20-point roster system, introduced on the basis of rules framed by the State government 50 years ago, has apparently helped forward class candidates by restricting the number of backward class candidates who qualify for appointment on merit basis.

However, until now it had not invited any serious objection.

As the rule-making authority, it was for the State government to take action in the light of the High Court verdict.

It could have amended the rules to comply with the court's directive or appealed to the Supreme Court against it.

However, it took no action. Meanwhile the Public Service Commission decided to file an appeal.

The Commission has 18 members, all nominees of different political parties. The ruling front usually divides the membership among its constituents.

A few years ago there were media reports that aspirants were offering money for party nomination.

The Commission's decision to approach the court is questionable since its role is limited to giving effect to the government's decisions in the matter.

If an appeal was called for, it was for the government, which is the rule making authority, to move the court.

The Nair Service Society, which has consistently taken up cudgels on behalf of the forward classes, has also approached the Supreme Court.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam and some Muslim bodies have decided to intervene to protect backward class interests.

The government's initial inaction is generally attributed to its reluctance to displease the forward classes.

After backward class organisations staged a rally outside the Public Service Commission's office to protest against its taking up the forward classes' cause, the government dissociated itself from the Commission's move.

It looks like a case of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 22, 2008.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kerala CPI-M factions appear set for fight to finish


SECTARIANISM in the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which subsided after secretary Pinarayi Vijayan tightened his grip over its state unit this year, is in full cry again.

This time, the leadership appears to be ready for a fight to the finish.

The state party has been faction-ridden for years.

At one stage, in a bid to check sectarianism, the central leadership suspended both Vijayan and VS Achuthanandan from the Politburo.

The suspension was withdrawn before the Assembly elections.

The sectarian strife is essentially a power struggle.

Before the poll there was a build-up in Vijayan's favour. He led a march from Kasergode to Thiruvananthapuram, and all along the route, party units organised breakfast meetings for him to interact with social and business leaders.

Some interest groups presented to him memoranda outlining what they expected the CPI-M-led government to do for them.

Simultaneously there was a move to keep Achuthanandan away from the election scene.

Pinarayi loyalists branded him as "anti-development" and argued that the party would lose if he led the election campaign.

The Politburo's decision that both Achuthanandan and Vijayan should stay out of contests dashed the former's chief ministerial hopes and left the door open for Vijayan or his nominee to head the government after the elections.

Achuthanandan's supporters revolted, forcing the Politburo to allow him to contest.

After the Left Democratic Front's sweeping victory, the party could not deny Achuthanandan the chief minister's post.

The state party leadership, therefore, tried to clip his wings.

It expelled KM Shahjehan, who, as additional private secretary to the leader of the opposition, was believed to have helped him to build a populist image.

It denied Achuthanandan elbow room by packing the cabinet with Pinarayi followers.

However, strife continued. Each side resorted to covert methods to defeat the other's moves. Thus, when the chief minister stood in the way of a loan agreement with the Asian Development Bank, in which the party leadership was interested, the Local Self-government minister sent an official to New Delhi without his knowledge to sign the deal.

The chief minister and the party secretary found themselves on opposite sides when the state government began eviction of encroachers in the hill resort of Munnar.

The infighting was so intense that many believed Achuthanandan would be forced out after the state party conference.

Although Pinarayi Vijayan emerged stronger from the party conference, the central leadership made it clear that it wanted Achuthanandan to continue as chief minister.

For a while, it looked as though factionalism had ended.

Last week's developments suggest that the two sides have begun an open clash which can only end with the loser's unceremonious ouster in typical Communist fashion.

The opening shots were fired by the chief minister's private secretary, S. Rajendran, and political secretary, KN Balagopal, who reportedly told the state committee that Achuthanandan was acting on the advice of a clique of outsiders.

They identified K. Suresh Kumar, an IAS officer, whom the chief minister had handpicked to head the Munnar operations, as a member of the clique.

Suresh Kumar, who was attached to the chief minister's office at one time, hit back with an accusation that Rajendran and Balagopal had blocked action on some important files, including that relating to the Kiliroor sex scandal in which Achuthanandan had taken keen interest as opposition leader.

The party immediately demanded action against Suresh Kumar for violating conduct rules of government officials.

At the chief minister's instance, the chief secretary called for an explanation from him.

Later the cabinet decided to suspend him without waiting for his explanation. There is more in the renewed outbreak of sectarianism than meets the eye.

There was a veneer of ideological differences in the exchanges between the two sides on issues like the ADB loan.

Personal elements vitiate the latest exchanges.

There have been insinuations that the sons of two ministers belonging to the Pinarayi faction are involved in the Kiliroor case, to which Suresh Kumar alluded CPI-M legislature party secretary P. Jayarajan accused Suresh Kumar of visiting New Delhi to contact officers investigating the Lavalin case.

One issue involved in the case, which the High Court has entrusted to the Central Bureau of Investigation, is Pinarayi Vijayan's role in the award of a contract to the Canadian firm SNC Lavalin when he was electricity minister.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 15, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Kochi steadily becoming ungovernable city


OVER the years, the Kerala High Court has been flooded with petitions complaining of steady deterioration of conditions in Kochi, the state's largest city.

In exasperation, the court recently warned the City Corporation that it could be thrown out if it did not perform.

At the time of the 2001 census, the Kochi urban agglomeration had a population of 1.14 million. Out of this, only 564,000 lived in the Corporation area.

In the recent past, the city proper has witnessed massive construction activity and shown signs of evolving into a metropolis.

With some major projects like Smart City and the Vallarpadam container terminal on the way, the city is now set to grow at an accelerated rate.

One issue that came up before the High Court through a writ petition was the mosquito menace, which has dogged the city for as long as one can remember.

This, of course, is not a problem that can be solved through a judicial pronouncement. While the court made heroic efforts to press the authorities to act, the problem persists.

The Corporation's failure is most evident in the area of garbage clearance. The city, which generates about 250 tonnes of garbage daily, did not have a waste treatment plant until last year.

For years, the Corporation used the Willingdon Island as the dumping ground.

The Navy, which has establishments on the island, objected.

The Corporation then started dumping garbage at Brahmapuram, which it had picked for location of its waste treatment plant.

When residents of Brahmapuram protested, with no place to dump the waste, the civic body suspended garbage removal altogether, and the city began to stink.

The High Court then stepped in and directed the district collector to make the city free of garbage within five days.

Against this background, the High Court's warning to the Corporation, which has proved itself a colossal failure, comes as no surprise. Two questions arise in this context.

Is the problem one of inefficiency of the civic administration? Or is the city becoming ungovernable? Both the questions need to be answered in the affirmative.

The concept of governance is virtually unknown to the political parties, which gain control of the administration through elections.

To them, power is primarily a means to provide patronage and dispense favours. Narrow political considerations prevail in the selection of candidates for civic posts.

The choice of Mercy Williams to head the Kochi Corporation is a case in point. Under the system of reservation, it was the turn of a woman to be the Mayor. There was no record of public service or administrative experience to commend Mercy Williams, a former college teacher, for the post. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) picked her because she belongs to a religious group which it was keen to cultivate.

The time has come for all parties, particularly the CPI-M, which controls most of the city corporations, municipal councils and village panchayats, to recognise that local administration means much more than selection of beneficiaries for welfare measures.

Improving Kochi's administration deserves urgent attention since failure to take timely action to develop infrastructure has already made the city somewhat ungovernable. A study, conducted by the Indian Institute of Architects some time ago, showed that unplanned urbanisation has resulted in water shortage, poor storm water management, inadequate waste disposal, destruction of natural heritage, etc.

To get a full measure of the problems of governance of the city, one has to take into account also matters like growth of the goonda menace and shrinkage of housing facilities for the poor, which do not fall within the sphere of the civic body.

Two private projects, a hi-tech city and a knowledge park, are expected to come up before the State government for approval this week. The promoters claim that they will create 100,000 jobs. Such big projects will accelerate the city's growth, making it even more ungovernable.

A metro rail project conceived as the answer to the city's traffic snarls is yet to get off the ground.

The Planning Commission wants it to be a public private participation project, but the State government is keen to keep the private sector out.

While the metro rail may ease inner-city traffic problems, it is likely to add to the city's woes by leading to further population concentration.

A more sensible approach may be to promote long-distance commuting which will help disperse the city's working population over a wider area. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 8, 2008.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Police prevents S.A.R. Geelani from speaking at Kochi

Delhi University lecturer S.A.R. Geelani, who was on a three-day visit to Kerala at the invitation of different Muslim organizations, was prevented by the police from addressing a public meeting at Kochi on Sunday.

Geelani, who was an accused in the Parliament attack case, was acquitted by the Supreme Court. However, the Sangh Parivar organizations have been carrying on a vicious campaign against him. Recently a leader of a Parivar youth organization had spat on him when he was attending a seminar in the university campus.

Geelani was to have addressed a public meeting at Alappuzha on Friday under the auspices of the Kerala Jamaat Council. Before the meeting began, the police withdrew the permission granted earlier and also cancelled the permit for use of mike. This forced the organizers to abandon the plan for a public meeting and hold a meeting in a hall.

On Saturday, Geelani was the chief guest at a human rights conference convened by the Jamaat Council at the Press Club hall. The conference, which I inaugurated, went off peacefully.

On Sunday, Geelani reached Kochi to speak at a function organised by the Minority Rights Watch. The police did not allow him to go to the venue of the meeting. He was also not allowed to go to Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer’s house to meet him.

It is reasonable to assume that the police action followed a political decision by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the State government.

In a statement, Geelani said, “Under the pressure of some lumpen elements and from Sangh Parivar fascists, may be 20-25 people were protesting, police instead of allowing us to exercise our democratic right of gathering peacefully and discussing, the police seems to be encouraging the fascist elements and endangering the democratic space in India and the future of democracy

“I condemn this illegal and undemocratic attitude of police and the government of the state act against those police officers who are responsible for denying the people their democratic right and encouraging the fascists in the state.

“This lumpenism has become the culture of sangh parivar they have demonstrated it while killing Prof. Sabarwal at Ujjain and recent massacre Of Christians at Orissa, Kandhmal, raping nuns and the recent incidents at Karnataka as well.

“This is sheer fascism and terrorism which should not be tolerated and since sangh parivar claims that it represents the Indian culture, democratic loving people of India are duty bound to come out and condemn this fascism in unequivocal terms.

“Q) CPM who claims to be the champions of minority rights are leading the government in Kerala, what is your comment about today’s incidents in this particular situation of Kerala?

“Innocent Muslims in North India, Maharashtra, Gujarath are being victimised in the name of terrorism, so far this was not happening in Kerala. Unfortunately recent arrests of innocent Muslim youths makes it clear and exposes the claim of Government in Kerala of their being democratic and secular, I hope that good sense prevails and the people at the helm of affairs will take stock of the situation and refrain from victimising innocent Muslim youths.”

Establishment on wrong side in sexual harassment cases


FOR a state which boasts of remarkable social advancement, Kerala suffers from some serious problems.

The surest indication of this is the rising number of cases of sexual harassment. Almost invariably the Establishment finds itself on the wrong side in such cases.

The Supreme Court, while disposing of a case from Rajasthan in 1997, felt that the absence of specific legal provisions to deal with instances of sexual harassment at the workplace was a lacuna that needed to be remedied.

It laid down detailed guidelines to deal with such complaints.

The apex court directed that committees headed by women be set up in all offices to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.

It specifically stated that the committees must include representatives of non-government organisations.

Both the governments and the private employers were slow in responding to the directive.

When they set up committees they were often ineffective.

A study by the People's Union for Civil Liberties, a leading national human rights organisation, a few years later showed that the committees were not functioning the way the court expected.

Writing in the PUCL Bulletin, D. Nagasaila and V. Suresh said, committee members including NGO representatives sometimes embarrassed the complainants with questions and statements such as "Why do you prefer these complaints? As a woman you must learn to adjust and not complain. No other woman around you is complaining, so why are you doing it? You are overreacting and being hypersensitive. It is better for your career to withdraw this complaint."

One would have thought things would be different in Kerala with its unique social record. But from time to time evidence surfaces which shows that on gender issues the State is no better than the rest.

The latest instance comes from the Kerala State Public Services Commission, which has let off a senior official, who had attracted sexual harassment charge, with a mere censure.

He was due to retire from service this month and a severe punishment may have meant his having to quit in disgrace.

The charge against the official, Abu Saly, was that he had made an obscene remark to a woman employee. Geedha, another employee, objected to it and encouraged her colleague to file a complaint.

The employees' organisation rushed to the official's aid and Geedha was subjected to harassment and threats. The organisation arranged a formal send-off for Saly at the PSC office on Saturday, his last working day.

Human rights activists joined Geedha in a protest outside the office, which took the form of a symbolic "public trial."

Maithree Prasad, of the Forum against Harassment of Women and Workplace, said it was deplorable that the PSC should attempt to protect an official the charge against whom had been proved.

She pointed out that Geedha had been subjected to intimidation in the office since she raised the issue of sexual harassment in 2005.

A formal decision on the complaint was delayed until a few days before the official's retirement with a view to helping him to escape just punishment. She criticised the employees' organisation for the scant regard it showed to the dignity of woman employees.

Geedha's case parallels that of PE Usha, an employee of the Calicut University, who had lodged a complaint with the police alleging that she had been subjected to sexual harassment by a fellow-passenger while travelling by bus. The police did not move until strong public demand forced it to act.

The offender was subsequently convicted by a magistrate and sentenced to two years' rigorous imprisonment.

The CPI-M-led university employees' organisation used the occasion to settle scores with Usha, who was associated with a rival organisation.

It carried on a vilification campaign against her inside the campus, making it difficult for her to work there. She later took up another assignment on deputation.

Often, there is marked sympathy among the authorities for the offender in sexual harassment cases. This can be explained in terms of the male domination in the Establishment.

The Left movement, too, is not free from gender prejudices.

What is more, unions under its control are willing to go to any lengths to denigrate women who toe an independent line.

Both Usha and Geedha have been associated with movements which the CPI-M considers inimical to its interests.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 1, 2008.