Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Proposal to reclaim land from sea invites opposition

Gulf Today

The Kerala government’s proposal to reclaim land from the sea for developing industrial sites has run into trouble with coastal residents whose main occupation is fishing voicing resolute opposition to it.

Trade union leaders belonging to the Communist Party of India, a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front, and the Latin Catholic community, to which belongs a large section of the fishing community, have already raised banners of protest.

If the government proceeds with the scheme, overlooking their opposition, it may well face a campaign of the kind which forced the state to abandon the Silent Valley hydro-electrical project a quarter-century ago and the coastal sand mining project more recently.

The prime movers behind the scheme are Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac and Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem. Since both are lieutenants of CPI-Marxist state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, it is safe to assume the scheme has the party’s backing.

After a meeting with officials of the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development last year, Thomas Isaac had revealed the state was seeking its assistance for projects which might come up on land reclaimed from the sea.

He said that the government had decided to reclaim land from the sea in view of the acute scarcity of land. “This is still in the conceptual stage,” he added. “We have not discussed what projects will come up on reclaimed land. Reclamation will be done only after looking into environment issues.”

NABARD was set up by the Government of India. Its mandate is to facilitate credit flow for agriculture and integrated rural development. There is no scope for it to get involved in reclamation of land from the sea.

Last month the Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (Kinfra), which is under Industries department, invited expressions of interest from parties willing to act as consultants for a project to reclaim 5,000 hectares of land from the sea off the Thiruvananthapuram coast.

The Kinfra notification identifies the coastal stretch from Veli to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre as the area where land is to be reclaimed. It says the reclaimed land will be used for expansion of the international airport and housing and commercial development along the waterfront with facilities for leisure, reclamation and entertainment.

V. Surendran Pillai of the Kerala Congress (Joseph), a constituent of the LDF, said in the Assembly last week that the fishermen community was concerned about the reclamation scheme, which might damage the environment and endanger their livelihood.

The Industries Minister told the member the government had not taken a final decision on the scheme. He also said the government would not do anything that would harm the interests of the fishermen.

However, he gave a clear indication of how his mind was working. He said countries like Dubai, Bahrain, Singapore, Korea, Japan and Britain had reclaimed land from the sea. In Kerala, too, land had been reclaimed from the sea in Kochi.

He said the notification inviting expressions of interest was issued on the basis of a preliminary report provided by the National Engineering and Environment Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which was asked to study the possibility of a project at Thiruvananthapuram.

T. Peter, president of the Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation, a representative organisation of fishermen, threatened to launch an agitation if the government wet ahead with the project.

He said the project was detrimental to the interests of fishermen who depended upon the sea for their livelihood. Reclamation of land in one area would lead to sea erosion in nearby areas. It would also affect the sea currents and result in depletion of marine wealth.

Kerala Latin Catholic Association president P. Stellas and general secretary Antony Albert said reclamation would disturb the fragile ecology of the coast and interfere with the breeding of fish. The NEERI report had not taken into account factors such as near-shore currents, sediment transport and marine environment, they said.

They also questioned the wisdom of taking up a project of this kind close to key scientific and defence installations like the VSSC and the BrahMos Aerospace.

Today (Monday, July 27) is the last date set by Kinfra for submission of expressions of interest. The pro-CPI All India Trade Union Congress has chosen this very day for a protest demonstration in the form of a human chain extending from the Martyrs Column to the State Secretariat. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 27, 2009.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kerala’s bid to attract investors to rural areas

Gulf Today

The government of Kerala is laying the red carpet for investors once again. This time it is looking for investors willing to set up big or small projects in the rural areas.

The world investor meet, scheduled for July 24 and 25, will showcase the opportunities that the state’s village panchayats, numbering about 1,000, offer. Road shows were held in several Gulf States to build up interest in the meet.

The initiative for the meet came from the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A study conducted by the chamber showed that there was scope for attracting investment to the villages in spite of the recessionary trends worldwide.

The chamber views the meet also as an opportunity to help rehabilitate non-resident Indians affected by the economic meltdown. Recent data shows that return migration now exceeds outmigration.

Rubber, spices, poultry and food processing are among the areas identified as suitable for the rural areas. The emphasis will be on small projects with a minimum investment of Rs.500,000, requiring not more than 1.50 acres of land. However, if there are takers the authorities are ready also to accommodate large investors with projects requiring 100 to 150 acres of land.

This investor meet is the latest in a series organised by the government in the last six years in collaboration with industrial and commercial interests. The government routinely claims success after every meet but so far there is little to show by way of results.

The promotional effort began in the wake of a 2002 study, conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the World Bank, which rated the state’s investment climate as poor. The same year the department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs (NoRKA) set up a field agency called NORKA-Roots. One of its stated objectives is to help NRKs identify investment opportunities in various sectors.

In 2007 NoRKA decided to float a company to facilitate structured investment by Non-Resident Keralites in the state. It was stated that the company would work as a subsidiary of NoRKA-Roots and ensure greater investment by Keralites working abroad in various upcoming projects. There is nothing to indicate that the proliferation of new agencies under NoRKa has resulted in increased investment.

Since 2003, the state government has organised several investor meets. After the first meet, it said it had received investment commitments of the order of Rs 260 billion. The figure was arrived at by totting up investments on Central government schemes like the Vallarpadam container terminal project and private projects like the Thiruvananthapuram International School which were already under way.

High hopes arose when the United Democratic Front ministry began negotiations with the Dubai Internet City authorities to set up Smart City in Kochi to attract global players. The Left Democratic Front ministry concluded the deal with the Dubai authorities in 2007 but a dispute over land rights has held up work on the project.

Two years ago the state government organised a road show at Bangalore as part of an effort to invite domestic investments in information technology and IT enabled services. An official spokesman said at the time the state had made a total investment of Rs. 30 billion in two parks, Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram and Infopark in Kochi and that it was seeking an investment of Rs. 60 billion to set up a new 507-acre Technocity in Thiruvananthapuram.

There was also talk of developing an IT corridor extending from Thiruvananthapuram to Kollam.

The changed global scenario has cast doubts on these plans. To make things worse, the first chief executive of Technopark has voiced fears about the future of that flagship IT park. In a magazine article, he said the government had raised funds for another park by mortgaging Technopark and the banks might take over the institution as the state was in default.

Last year Industry Minister Elamaram Kareem and Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan visited the US looking for investors interested in areas such as tourism, non-conventional energy, biotechnology and healthcare. An official said later that a New Jersey-based photovoltaic panels manufacturer was likely to invest about Rs. 40 billion in a manufacturing facility in the state. Nothing has been heard about it since then.

For more than three decades the state has benefited from remittances by Keralites working abroad, mostly in the Gulf States. The annual inflow grew from an estimated Rs. 3 billion in the late 1970s to about Rs.300 billion in the early part of this decade. Only a small portion of it went into productive channels.

Some who amassed money abroad have made investments. However, the vast potential of small and medium investors remains untapped.

A recent World Bank study has listed Kerala as one of India's most investor friendly states. The improved investment climate alone will not enthuse the large body of potential small and medium investors. Official agencies do not inspire much confidence in them. Credible, professionally managed institutions are a crying need. – Gulf Today, July 20, 2009.

Monday, July 13, 2009

CPI-M action to end sectarianism may not succeed

Gulf Today

THE die is cast. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has finally taken a major step to rid its Kerala unit of the canker of sectarianism which has spread through its vitals. Given the unilateral character of the action, it is unlikely to yield the desired results.

All of Kerala waited with bated breath during the weekend as the 85-member party central committee, called at short notice, deliberated on the course of action proposed by the 15-member politburo, which could not come to an agreed conclusion the previous weekend.

People sat glued before television sets as the news channels organised live discussions on the issue on Saturday and on Sunday on the basis of unsubstantiated reports that emerged from time to time about the course of the deliberations at the party headquarters in New Delhi.

Fax messages supporting one leader or the other flowed into the party office from all over Kerala and from the Gulf states while the meeting was in progress.

The party has been afflicted by sectarianism since long. Matters came to a head at the 2005 conference at Malappuram, where the factions led by state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan (who was leader of the opposition at the time) clashed, ignoring General Secretary Prakash Karat's plea to accept an agreed list of candidates for the state committee.

The hesitant steps the national leadership took during the past five years failed to check sectarianism. The party's disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha elections forced it to acknowledge that the malaise that originated at the top had spread to the lower limbs.

The official assessment was that Achuthanandan's public voicing of opinions different from those of the party on issues like the Lavalin case, in which Pinarayi Vijayan figures as an accused, and the electoral pact with Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party, had contributed to the poll debacle.

It was this perception that prompted the leadership to recommend to the central committee to remove Achuthanandan from the politburo.

Although some members wanted action to be taken against Vijayan also, the committee eventually accepted the recommendation without any change.

The central committee's decision, undoubtedly, is a victory for Vijayan, since the state committee, which is under his control, was seeking action against Achuthanandan for breach of discipline.

But the Vijayan faction's sense of triumph is tinged by disappointment over the national leadership's refusal to concede its demand for Achuthanandan's removal from the post of chief minister. The state committee reportedly made the demand in two resolutions sent to the Politburo.

Demotion from politburo to central committee is a setback that Achuthanandan, who has invited disciplinary action in the past too, can take in his stride. For him, the greater blow is the national leadership's rejection of his contention that there was corruption in the Lavalin deal. It rejected his demand that Pinarayi Vijayan, as an accused in a corruption case, must be told to step down from the post of state secretary.

The politburo gave Pinarayi Vijayan a clean chit. It reiterated the earlier decision that the Lavalin case was politically motivated and that Vijayan was not guilty of corruption.

On earlier occasions the national leadership had taken care to convey the impression that it was holding the scales even between the two faction leaders. This approach was particularly evident when both Achuthanandan and Vijayan were suspended from the politburo for several months for indulging in a public spat.

On a superficial view, the national leadership may appear to maintain parity even now inasmuch as Achuthanandan and Vijayan have been allowed to remain chief minister and party secretary respectively.

However, considering the bureaucratic character of the communist machinery, demotion within the party further limits Achuthanandan's functional autonomy as chief minister, which was already severely circumscribed by the state party.

Since Achuthanandan values his image as a crusader against corruption, built up over the years, and Pinarayi Vijayan is unlikely to lessen the control he exercises over the government through his acolytes in the cabinet, the national leadership's fond hope that the two factions will work together is unlikely to materialise.

The spontaneous demonstrations at a few places and the opinions voiced by people in straw polls conducted by television channels are indicative of a surge in support for Achuthanandan in the wake of the disciplinary action against him.

This does not augur well for the CPI-M which has to face panchayats elections next year and Assembly elections the year after.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Wooden-headed approach to Kerala's transport problems

Gulf Today

THE Kerala government's response to the railway budget, presented in the Lok Sabha last week, testifies to its wooden-headed approach to the state's transport problems.

Besides providing for speeding up work on doubling of tracks, construction of over bridges and electrification, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee offered Kerala eight new trains and two new railway lines.

No previous rail budget had offered the state as much. But the state minister handling railway matters, M. Vijayakumar, was not pleased. He criticised the Centre for not conceding the demand for a railway zone with headquarters in Kerala, which was high up in the state government's wish list.

The railway is an important factor in Keralites' lives. They use it to travel to distant places in search of jobs since the state lacks employment opportunities. A good proportion of people who work within the state also use the railway to reach places of work.

All of Banerjee's proposals are welcome from the people's point of view since they will ease the difficulties experienced by both local commuters and long-distance travellers.

The state government's justification for according high priority to the establishment of a zone is that the Railway Ministry allots funds on zone basis. It argues that more funds will become available for railway development in the state if there is a zone with headquarters here.

The argument is not well-founded. The Ministry of Railways does not create zones on state basis. If the Peninsular Railway, which the state government is batting for, materialises, it will include rail divisions falling in other states as well. These states will also, therefore, be entitled to a share in the funds allotted to that zone.

Kerala's transport problems have steadily deteriorated in the past few years because of the state government's unrealistic approach. It has failed to take note of the unique nature of the state's problems and bring to bear an integrated approach to solve them.

Unlike other states, where cities and villages stand apart, Kerala has been a rural urban continuum since long. In recent years, as a result of large-scale construction activity, areas lying on either side of the north-south arterial roads have acquired the character of a ribbon-like urban continuum.

This is a development with no parallel anywhere else in the country or even abroad. Nearly two-thirds of the state's population live in these areas. Their transport needs deserve the highest priority.

The emerging situation demands that the authorities look at Kerala as one organic unit and evolve an integrated approach, identifying and defining clearly the role of rail and road transport in meeting the state's needs. However, they are pursuing various schemes that have been in the pipeline since long in an unimaginative manner.

Schemes for widening of the coastal highway and the inland Main Central Road, taken up years ago, are running behind schedule.

By the time they are completed, the number of vehicles on the road will have risen so high as to render the expanded roads short of actual requirements.

For at least one decade, politicians and bureaucrats have been pushing hard a hill highway project, which environmentalists have opposed as it can disrupt the state's fragile ecology.

Last month, Public Works Minister Mons Joseph said the government had asked National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (Natpac) to work out the alignment of the hill highway.

The project was initiated by PJ Joseph as public works minister in the last Left Democratic Front government. He, too, had requisitioned Natpac's services to work out the alignment.

MK Muneer, who was Public Works Minister in the United Democratic Front, also pursued the project.

Already there are two arterial roads through the southern part of Kerala, where the maximum distance between the sea and the mountain is only 100 kilometres. Successive governments have been promoting the idea of a third road close to the hills without undertaking a study of its impact on the environment.

The Kochi metro rail project is another long-pending idea which merits review in the light of the rapid urbanisation along the coastal belt. When the track doubling and electrification programmes, which are now in the final stages are completed, the railways will be able to speed up commuter movement by running fast local trains in the northern and southern directions.

This will help disperse the population along two corridors and reduce the congestion which is already choking the city. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 6, 2009.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CPI-M is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't


The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) politburo meets July 5-6 to grapple with the worrying problem of sectarianism in its Kerala unit. Few political observers believe it is in a position to act decisively.

Ranged on either side of the divide are two politburo members - party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, 65, who has the organizational machinery in his grip, and Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, 85, the only living party man from the state who was among the 32 members who walked out of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India in 1964 to found the breakaway party.

Achuthanandan, who was state secretary from 1980 to 1992, played a big role in Vijayan's elevation to that post in 1998. But they quickly parted ways.

Early on, it looked as though Vijayan was trying to modernize the party to bring it in tune with the times and Achuthanandan was trying to hold it back in the Stalinist path. Soon, however, their public images changed.

When the Congress-led United Democratic Front was in power, Achuthanandan, as Leader of the Opposition, travelled to the remotest corners of the state and identified himself with popular causes, earning in the process the image of a man of the masses. Vijayan, who tightened his hold on the party and mobilized resources for the party's media and entertainment enterprises by tapping rich men of dubious background, came to be identified with the wrong kind of change.

The party's national leadership has been seized of the sectarian problem since 2005 when the two sides went in for a showdown, rejecting General Secretary Prakash Karat's plea to approve an agreed list of state committee members. The measures it has taken to put down sectarianism have not yielded results, mainly because it has been treating the symptoms, not the malady.

The state party leadership did not want Achuthanandan to contest the assembly elections but the politburo, responding to public demonstrations of support to him, allowed him to contest and become chief minister. The state party then effectively reined him in by packing the cabinet with Vijayan loyalists. With the politburo's help, it ensured that the chief minister did not keep the sensitive portfolios of home affairs and vigilance.

The national leadership has been at pains to give the impression that it holds the scales even between the feuding leaders. As they indulged in a public spat, it suspended both from the powerful politburo but allowed them to stay in their respective posts. The suspensions were withdrawn after a few months.

As the situation deteriorated, the national leadership adopted a policy of procrastination. There was no action on Achuthanandan's repeated requests for a politburo meeting to discuss state party affairs. Complaints from the two factions levelling charges against each other piled up at the party's headquarters.

After the party's disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha elections the national leadership could no longer look the other way. However, its election review was marked by self-righteousness rather than self-criticism. The Central Committee refused to acknowledge the damage caused by the party's brazen attempt of shield Vijayan from prosecution in the Lavalin case and by the alliance with Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party, which is widely seen as a communal outfit. It attributed the electoral debacle simplistically to the confusion caused in the public mind on these issues by the opposition, hostile media and a section within the party.

The politburo has before it two demands - one from the Vijayan faction seeking Achuthanandan's ouster from the chief minister's post and the other from the Achuthanandan faction for Vijayan's removal from the state secretary's post pending his clearance by the judiciary in the corruption case. Theoretically, it can accept either or both of these demands.

The national leadership is in the unenviable position of being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. In taking a decision, it has to consider how its action will affect the Kerala party, which is its largest unit. If Achuthanandan is ousted, it will not be able to find a chief minister with comparable popular appeal. If Pinarayi is removed, it will be hard put to find an equally competent successor.

Party documents have revealed that about 10 percent of the full members and close to 25 percent of the candidate members in the state have been dropping out each year. Large-scale desertions, even when the party is in power, suggests deep disillusionment among the rank and file.

Despite a high dropout rate, the party continued to grow until 2006 thanks to the onrush of new entrants. However, in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, there was a net drop in membership. It fell from 341,006 in the previous year to 336,644.