Monday, June 29, 2009

Centre and Kerala on collision course over education reform

Gulf Today

KERALA Education Minister MA Baby's immediate response to Union Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal's plan for educational reform, announced last week, points to the emergence of a new area of conflict between the Centre and the state.

The reform plan envisages making the 10th standard public examinations optional. These examinations are conducted by Central and state boards.

Sibal wants to make the examination optional in schools under the Central Bureau of Secondary Education (CBSE) from next year itself.

The 10th standard examination once enjoyed a high place as it marked the end of the school stage. On passing this examination, one became eligible for certain jobs and for admission to colleges. It lost its glory when the two-year higher secondary stage was introduced and a pass in the 12th standard examination became the minimum qualification for most jobs and for admission to colleges.

Sibal's programme also provides for replacement of marks with grades, creation of a single higher education authority for the country, introduction of semester and credit transfer systems, and legislation to punish those guilty of educational malpractices.

Education, originally in the State List of the Constitution, was put in the Concurrent List in the 1960s, giving the Centre also the power to legislate on the subject. Many states, including Kerala, have criticised the Centre for announcing the reform plan without consulting them.

Some items in Sibal's programme are in accord with the educational goals Kerala has been pursuing. For instance, it envisages a law to provide free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 age group. This is an area where the state has achieved success.

The state has already made the changeover from marks to grades. The process was initiated by the United Democratic Front government and completed by the present Left Democratic Front government.

Educational malpractices are a problem dogging the state since long. Though the Supreme Court ruled against capitation fees, the state has been unable act against institutions which take them. Baby had recently called for Central legislation on the subject.

The real problem is not lack of legislation but lack of will. Most educational institutions in the state -- 8,146 out of 12,646 secondary schools, 958 out of 1,703 higher secondary schools, 150 out of 189 arts and science colleges, 73 out of 84 engineering colleges and 25 out of 33 medical and dental colleges -- are under private managements. Christian missions control a large majority of them. As minority institutions, they enjoy special rights under India's constitution.

It was an attempt to check malpractices by school managements that prompted the Churches to launch the "liberation struggle" which resulted in the dismissal of the state's first Communist government 50 years ago.

Even though the Supreme Court said the provisions of the Education Bill which that government brought forward were valid, later Communist-led regimes made no attempt to enforce them, fearing the wrath of the Churches.

There is no reason why MA Baby, who has relentlessly pushed up the 10th standard success rate in the last three years, should treat the board examination as sacrosanct. His real worry is that if there is no weeding out at all the state will have to provide facilities for all students to go on up to the 12th standard.

This requires an investment of about Rs100 billion, which is beyond the state's means. Sibal's solution for the resources problem is induction of domestic and foreign private capital. Last year a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm estimated that India's education market offered scope for investment of up to US$40 billion.

Since, in the country as a whole, private schools constitute only seven per cent of the total, the Centre may be ready to welcome private investment. The Kerala government, however, has to bear in mind that private managements already dominate the state's educational sector.

Besides, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the government, is opposed to the entry of foreign capital on ideological grounds.

The CPI-M has another cause for worry, too. Last week the Yash Pal Committee, set up to advise on renovation and rejuvenation of higher education, recommended to the Centre that a National Commission for Higher Education and Research be established to undertake comprehensive reform on a continuing basis.

The new body is likely to limit the influence the party now wields on the universities through the syndicates and the senates.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stalling of two prestige projects causes concern

Gulf Today

TWO major projects which the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has been pursuing since it came to power three years ago have run into controversies, leading to delays and concern about their future.

One is the Smart City project, a 15-billion rupee joint venture with the promoters of the Dubai Internet City, which aims at setting up at Kochi a hub capable of attracting global information and communications technology players and creating about 100,000 jobs.

The other is the Vizhinjam port project, which envisages the development of a deepwater container transhipment terminal with a handling capacity of 4.1 million TEUs (short for Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) a year.

In the absence of a deepwater port, India now depends upon transhipment facilities of Colombo and Dubai ports.

The Colombo port annually handles 1.7 million TEUs, of which 40 per cent is Indian transhipment cargo.

Both these prestige projects originated before the LDF came to power in 2006.

The Smart City project was initiated by the last United Democratic Front (UDF) government. VS Achuthanandan, who was then leader of the opposition, objected to some terms of the agreement it had negotiated with the Dubai authorities.

On becoming chief minister, he negotiated a new agreement which was more favourable to the state than the one the UDF government had finalised.

The agreement was signed in 2007 during the first anniversary celebrations of the LDF government. More than two years later, the project still remains on the ground.

In the words of State Minister S. Sharma, who is a member of the Smart City board of directors, not one brick has been laid so far.

A statement by Achuthanandan that the Dubai authorities appeared to be going slow because of the global meltdown brought an immediate rebuttal from Smart City CEO Fareed Abdulrahman. He said the company would start work as soon as land was registered in its name. Sharma said later that difficulties had arisen because of the company's demand for freehold rights on 12 per cent of the project land.

He did not dispute the company's right to make the demand.

The agreement actually provides for it. The snag is that it says freehold rights will be given after the master plan is ready.

In an apparent bid to pressure the state government into responding to the company's demand, Abdulrahman announced withdrawal of the contract given to a British firm to prepare the master plan.

Public statements coming from Dubai and Thiruvananthapuram suggest that some terms of the agreement are sticky and need to be reworked. Although neither side is forthcoming, there is reason to suspect that intransigence on the part of local political and bureaucratic interests is making forward movement difficult. A faint hope of early resolution of the dispute has arisen following the government's decision to authorise the chief secretary to talk to the Dubai authorities and settle the matter.

On the initiative of the UDF government the Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL) was incorporated in December 2004 to take up the deepwater terminal project.

The chief minister is the company's chairman, and its board of directors consists of four other ministers and two senior officials.

In 2005, after global tendering, the UDF government had selected a consortium led by Zoom Developers of Mumbai to implement the project on BOOT (build, own, operate, transfer) basis.

The Centre refused permission as the consortium included a Chinese company, which did not have security clearance.

The LDF government invited fresh tenders and picked another consortium headed by Lanco Kondapalli Power Limited of Hyderabad.

However, it could not proceed with the project as Zoom Developers went to court, alleging that a fresh bid submitted by it excluding the Chinese firm had not been considered. The high court asked the government to consider its bid too.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the high court order.

During the Lok Sabha election campaign, State Congress president Ramesh Chennithala claimed Zoom Developers' financial bid was Rs3.32 billion less than that of Lanco Kondapalli Power and alleged the project was getting mired in corruption.

Last week a committee of officials rejected the technical bid by Zoom Developers saying it did not secure the minimum qualifying points on evaluation.

The company has said it will move the high court again. If it does, the project is certain to suffer further delay.

Monday, June 15, 2009

CPI-M sectarian drama set to move to politburo

Gulf Today

THERE were two conspicuous absentees when leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in Kerala assembled at Perinthalmanna for the EMS Namboodiripad birth centenary celebrations, with general secretary Prakash Karat in attendance.

Conceived as an occasion to pay formal tribute to Namboodiripad, the tallest leader of his time, the centenary function assumed special significance as it provided Karat an opportunity to set the tone for the crucial state committee meeting at Thiruvananthapuram and central committee and politburo meetings to follow in New Delhi later in the week.

As it happened, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, protagonists in the long-playing sectarian drama in the state party, were not present.

Achuthanandan is the CPI-M's senior most leader in the state -- he is the only survivor among the central committee members who had walked out of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) to found the party -- and, arguably, the most popular one too. He was not at Perinthalmanna because the state party leadership did not want him. It had assigned him no task there.

Pinarayi Vijayan is the party's most powerful leader in the state. He had demonstrated his hold over the party machinery in the organisational elections held in advance of last year's party congress.

He was not at Perinthalmanna because he had to rush home, cancelling all public engagements, to attend the funeral of his elder brother. In his absence, Karat performed the tasks assigned to him.

Significantly, Achuthanandan's exclusion from the function came in the wake of strident demands in the party's state secretariat by Vijayan's supporters that the politburo should take action against him for flouting party discipline.

There were reports that ministers loyal to Vijayan had informed the state leadership that they could no longer work with the chief minister. The ministers quickly denied them to obviate possible criticism that the principle of collective responsibility of the council of ministers had been violated.

Achuthanandan's most recent act that angered the state leadership was his refusal to endorse its stand that Governor RS Gavai had acted unconstitutionally in granting permission to the Central Bureau of Investigation to prosecute Vijayan in the Lavalin case.

In an interaction with the media, Achuthanandan not only refused to endorse the party's criticism of the governor but justified his action by pointing out that the Supreme Court has ruled that governors can use discretion in such matters and other state governors, too, have acted in like manner.

The state committee, in a statement, diluted its criticism of the governor's action, apparently to stay within the bounds set by the politburo, which only said it was "unfortunate." It also dropped the oft-repeated declaration that the party would fight the Lavalin case politically. Now that the matter was going to the court, the party would fight it legally, the statement said.

The softer tone signified a tactical move. The party continued with demonstrations against the governor. Addressing one such demonstration, Left Democratic Front (LDF) convener Vaikom Viswan, who is a central committee member, said that anyone who remained impassive on the Lavalin issue was an enemy of the party.

Although no names were mentioned, the attack appeared to be directed against Achuthanandan, who has refused to toe the party line, and the LDF constituents, who have kept away from the public campaign against the governor.

The state committees of the CPI and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the only other leftist parties in the LDF, while criticising the governor for rejecting the ministry's advice on the prosecution issue, dissociated themselves from the CPI-M stand that the Lavalin case was politically motivated.

The demand for Achuthanandan's removal from chief minister's post is expected to be raised by Vijayan's supporters at the state committee meeting which Karat is due to attend.

The next act of the sectarian drama will be enacted in the politburo, of which both Achuthanandan and Vijayan are members. At its meeting, scheduled for Friday, the majority faction's demand that Achuthanandan must step down as chief minister or be removed is sure to come up. Achuthanandan is expected to demand that Vijayan, who is facing a corruption charge, must step down from the post of party secretary or be removed.

Karat has said the party will move forward, making "corrections" in the government and the organisation in the light of the electoral defeat. The crucial question is whether the party can sacrifice either or both of the feuding leaders.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Manufacturing controversies in the era of television

Gulf Today

THE media in Kerala has always revelled in controversies. Good-humored exchanges between eminent literary personalities, sometimes in verse, enlivened life in the early days of print journalism. Political controversies are, however, a recent phenomenon.

Since the pace of life was slow, an occasional controversy was all that was needed in the early days to keep the newspapers happy and the readers amused.

When competition intensified, the demand for controversy increased. As the print media was trying to cope with the situation, television arrived and quickened the pace. The 24x7 news channels raised the people's appetite for controversy.

The format adopted by the first news channel, and accepted as the standard by later arrivals, demands two or three topics for discussion each night. Since Kerala does not generate enough controversies in the natural course, the media finds it necessary to promote their growth.

A close relationship exists between the media and cinema, and the media looks to cinema not only for the entertainment component but also for controversies. Pride and prejudice are as much in evidence in the world of cinema as glitz and glamour, and the annual state film awards usually yield juicy controversies.

Last week, soon after Cultural Affairs Minister MA Baby announced this year's awards, TV Chandran, director, ridiculed the choice of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as the best director and his film Randu pennungalum oraanum (Two women and a man) as the best film. The prize has gone to a TV serial, not a film, he said.

Chandran was alluding to the fact that the prize-winning film is a by-product of serials based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's short stories, which Adoor Gopalakrishnan had done for Doordarshan. Responding to Chandran's criticism, Adoor said it arose out of inability to distinguish between serial and film.

It was the differing approaches of two juries that offered room for Chandran to raise the criticism. Last year's jury, headed by noted Assamese director Janu Barua, had overlooked Adoor's film Naalu pennungal (Four women), also based on Thakazhi's stories, viewing it as a compilation of serials. This year's jury, headed by Kannada director, Girish Kasaravalli, saw no reason to make a distinction between a film based on a single story and one based on several short stories.

Adoor is not the first to do a film by clubbing together short stories. Satyajit Ray's 1961 film Teen Kanya (Three daughters) was based on three short stories of Rabindranath Tagore.

Chandran's was not entirely disinterested criticism. Two of his films, Bhoomimalayalam and Vilapakangalkkappuram, were in this year's competition. If the Adoor film had been disqualified on technical grounds, Bhoomimalayalam, which was adjudged the second best, would have been the best film.

The clash between the celebrated film makers was eclipsed by a public spat between Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and eminent litterateur Sukumar Azhikode, which developed into the mother of all controversies.

Azhikode was among the social critics who had spoken up for Achuthanandan when the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) sought to deny him the chief minister's post. He claims an article he wrote in a Malayalam daily played a part in the politburo's decision to allow Achuthanandan to contest the assembly election, reversing an earlier decision.

Lately, however, Azhikode has given the impression of tilting towards party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan in his feud with Achuthanandan. Echoing the line taken by the party newspaper, Deshabhimani, he accused Achuthanandan of rejoicing over his party's electoral debacle. Azhikode elaborated the point in an interview, published by Mathrubhumi weekly.

The interviewer quoted him as saying, "This man's laughter will only weaken the party further in the eyes of the world. That one should not pollute one's own cage is a great saying which everyone must understand."

When media persons drew his attention to the interview, Achuthanandan said Azhikode had referred to him as a dog which polluted its own cage, adding his culture did not allow him to respond in like manner. Azhikode retaliated by saying the chief minister did not understand figure of speech and was behaving like a ferocious animal.

By the weekend, the controversy became extremely messy with Azhikode at the receiving end of a vicious campaign, involving effigy-burning, poster publicity and a murder threat.

His attempt to close the controversy on the basis of a telephone call, which he believed was from Achuthanandan, collapsed when the latter denied he had called.

Police is now trying to trace the mimic who made the call. This is not an easy task. The number of persons who can mimic Achuthanandan and Azhikode is legion.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Poll debacle brings CPI-M infighting to the fore

Indo Asian News Service

The national leadership of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) will soon be called upon to adjudicate on the sectarianism in the party's Kerala unit, which has been laid bare by the electoral debacle.

The ruling Left Democratic Front led by the CPI-M, which held 19 of the state's 20 seats in the last Lok Sabha, has only four members in the new house. The CPI-M can derive comfort from the fact that all four are its nominees.

In an attempt to maximise the front's tally, CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had gifted the Muslim-majority Ponnani constituency to an independent candidate of People's Democratic Party (PDP) chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani's choice in return for his support in the remaining constituencies.

The Ponnani gamble failed but Mahdani claims credit for the CPI-M's four wins. The party's own assessment, disclosed after a series of state-level meetings, is that the deal with Mahdani did not yield the expected benefits. It reckons that the propaganda unleashed by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and hostile media on the PDP link and the Lavalin scandal confused party sympathisers.

The party's association with the PDP may not have precipitated a Hindu backlash against it, but it appears to have helped the UDF by bringing about a consolidation of other Muslim groups behind it.

An accused in the Coimbatore serial bomb blast case, Mahdani was in a Tamil Nadu jail without bail or parole for nearly 10 years. After acquittal in 2007, he returned home a hero and resumed his self-appointed mission of weaning Muslims away from the Muslim League, a long-time UDF constituent.

Many viewed Mahdani's activity with suspicion as his campaign in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid had aroused communal passions in the state in the 1990s. CPI-M leaders sought to dispel their fears by asserting he was a changed man.

To the party's embarrassment, the media carried a series of reports based on leaked contents of statements made to police by some terror suspects about contacts with Mahdani or his wife. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the reports were based on old material.

The statements were indeed old, but the police had failed to follow them up. It was only after the elections that the police questioned Mahdani and his wife in the light of these statements. Apparently the police had deliberately delayed the follow-up action.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and the state assembly elections of 2006, the LDF could take the PDP's support without provoking any controversy. It became a matter of debate this time because it was seen as a prelude to the PDP's entry into the LDF.

The CPI-M has only itself to blame for the adverse impact of the Lavalin case. Pinarayi Vijayan was power minister when the state government gave the Canadian company, SNC Lavalin, a contract for modernisation of hydel projects. When the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) named him an accused, the party said the action was politically motivated. The party's state committee directed the chief minister to advise the governor against sanctioning prosecution by the CBI.

The governor, who can take a decision in the matter independent of the cabinet's advice, has not so far accepted or rejected the CBI's request. The length to which the party has gone to avoid Vijayan's arraignment in court has led to a suspicion that it has something to hide.

While identifying disunity in the LDF and the party as a factor that contributed to the electoral drubbing, the CPI-M has glossed over the causes of the disunity. It has also overlooked the role played by party rebels in its rout.

The CPI-M could pacify the Communist Party of India (CPI), which was angered by the allotment of its Ponnani seat to Mahdani's nominee, by offering Wayanad instead. However, the relationship between the two parties at the grassroots level remained strained, affecting the front's campaign.

The state leadership of the Janata Dal-Secular, which was infuriated by the CPI-M's takeover of its Kozhikode seat, openly backed UDF candidates in many places.

The decisions which annoyed the two LDF constituents were not taken in the normal course. They were taken unilaterally by the CPI-M leadership and imposed on the partners. Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan dropped broad hints about his differences with the party decision on both the seats.

Pinarayi Vijayan, while explaining the party's assessment of the electoral debacle, made an ominous reference to "breach of Leninist principles of party organisation". Although he did not mention Achuthanandan by name, he was clearly alluding to the latter's distancing himself from the party's stand on the PDP and Lavalin issues.

In the party forum Vijayan's supporters reportedly demanded Achuthanandan's resignation. One of them alleged that three years ago Achuthanandan had discussed with his aides a plan to float an alternative party.

The state leadership is likely to place these matters before the politburo, which alone is authorised to deal with charges against Achuthanandan as he is a member of that body. The politburo has to walk a tightrope, knowing that while Vijayan has complete hold on the organisation Achuthanandan commands popular support beyond the party.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Kerala places high hopes on its six ministers in Delhi

Gulf Today

THERE is euphoria in Kerala following the induction of two cabinet ministers and four ministers of state in the new Central government.

The state certainly has reason to celebrate. Never before did it receive such large representation at the Centre. What's more, those who have found places in the council of ministers are men with considerable political and administrative experience.

The two cabinet ministers, AK Antony (Defence) and Vayalar Ravi (Overseas Indian Affairs), held the same portfolios in the first Manmohan Singh government too. As they are Rajya Sabha members, they did not contest the Lok Sabha elections.

The four ministers of state have been drawn from among the 16 elected to the Lok Sabha -- three on the Congress ticket and one on that of the Indian Union Muslim League, a major constituent of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

UDF supporters celebrated their assumption of office by distributing sweets and bursting crackers. Setting aside political reservations, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan hoped the large contingent from the state would be able to put an end to complaints of Central neglect.

E. Ahamed, who is national president of the Muslim League, was minister of state for external affairs in the previous government. Now he is in the railway ministry.

Mullapally Ramachandran (Home Affairs), KV Thomas (Agriculture) and Shashi Tharoor (External Affairs) are the other ministers of state.

Ramachandran, who was minister of state for agriculture in PV Narasimha Rao's ministry, returns to the union government after a gap of 13 years. Thomas is a former state minister of tourism and fisheries.

Shashi Tharoor has entered the Lok Sabha with no experience in domestic politics, but his international experience as a United Nations official is sure to stand him in good stead in the discharge of his duties.

The new ministers have to contend with the high expectations that have arisen in the state as a result of the large representation it has received at the Centre.
One question they encountered repeatedly during the campaign was what they would do for the constituency or for the state if elected to the Lok Sabha. Under relentless questioning they had promised to pursue issues of concern to their constituents.

Shashi Tharoor, for instance, committed himself to work for early realisation of Thiruvananthapuram citizens' desire to have a high court bench in the capital and a deep-water port at Vizhinjam.

Talking to the media after taking over as minister, Tharoor said he would wait to be briefed before he made any new commitments. However, he added he would like to concentrate on the Gulf region because a large number of Malayalees work there.

When the late ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury was minister for railways, it was said all railroads led to Malda in West Bengal, which was his constituency. As minister of state in the first Manmohan Singh government, R. Velu of the Pattali Makkaal Katchi enlarged the Salem railway division in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Palakkad division.

With Ahamed in the railway ministry, the people of Kerala are hoping their demand for increased travel facilities will be met. Within hours of assumption of office he talked to Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee and arranged special trains to clear the summer rush to the state.

Work on railway overbridges in the state has been behind schedule because of delay in land acquisition. Ahamed has said he will call an early meeting of officials to sort out the problem. He has also offered to give priority to extension of rail facilities in the hilly Wayanad district and to the ongoing track doubling programme.

Thomas's charge includes food and public distribution, besides agriculture. The last government had drastically cut rice allocation to the state.
Apparently the poor takeoff from ration shops and the sharp variance between the central and state estimates of the below-poverty-line population had influenced the decision.

Thomas has said he will take all possible steps to restore the rice quota. So strong is the pressure on the ministers to live up to their constituents' expectations that they have to be on guard against being reduced to the level of small-town politicians whose interests do not extend beyond the immediate vicinity.

Although national parties have the upper hand in the state, for all practical purposes Kerala has been a political backyard so far.

The elevation of a number of MPs to a higher platform provides it with an opportunity to become part of the national mainstream.