Friday, January 29, 2010

Kerala is rich and beautiful but few jobs for locals

National Press Agency

There are few places more blessed with beauty, fertility and capacity to grow exotic spices, tea, coffee and coconuts. It is not without reason that the Kerala was described as God’s own country and flourished as a tourist destination as there are very few places which can match the beauty, color, fascination of backwaters and breath taking view of terraced gardens, exotic waterfalls and serene lakes, but life for its inhabitants remain hard forcing them to migrate in millions in search of jobs to other states in India and abroad.

One seriously wonders why a state so blessed with natural resources and people who work hard and are well qualified in terms of education and other skills have to leave their homes in search of jobs. What use is the full literacy and their ability for hard work as there are no avenues for employment within the State. The answer to these questions was provided by a veteran journalist now settled in Trivendrum after retirement. He said that some States progress because of bureaucrats with a missionary zeal or Politicians with a vision, but Kerala has been ill served by both. There is no IT hub or industry worth the name.

The result is that there is all-round corruption. The portfolios are divided on the basis of their ability to yield funds for running political parties. The situation has not changed even though the electorate throws out the coalition in power to be replaced by the other every five years, but it makes no difference to the ground situation. The State continues to thrive through migration, largest group over two millions in Gulf only who have built colorful houses in their old villages.

The bright hues, no colour being a taboo, provide the best advertisement for paint companies speaking about colorful homes and houses which continuing to shine despite rain and dust for years. The State can also boast of one industry which has been growing at a spectacular pace that is consumption of liquor. Alcohol sale is the largest money spinner for the State. Tourism is also a flourishing industry, but has suffered setbacks recently because of the world-wide recession. A number of charter flights has stopped, though Indian tourists who have discovered the beauty of this coastal State continue to visit in ever growing numbers.

This has also led to large scale illegal construction and encroachments in beauty spots like Munar which have not been demolished despite best efforts by State Chief Minister who is facing opposition from his own party men .No illegal structure comes up without the backing of a politician who are ready to do everything to protect them when threatened by the authorities. Why people accept this state of affairs is easy to explain as no viable alternative has emerged so far. Coalition politics makes for inefficient and corrupt administration and Kerala is no exception.

It, however, remains an ideal place for a holiday as state as a whole has high standard of hygiene. The roads are smooth and people are friendly. Its beautiful churches and historic temples are a delight. People gather in thousands and remain disciplined. There is no pushing or jostling. Eve teasing is unheard off. The sunset and sun rise have a beauty and charm which can not be compared with any sight in the world.

The State agencies, however leave much to be desired The most beautiful and unique wood palace in the country can charm anyone but visit to it is made difficult for one and all. Long distance has to be covered bare footed where sharp stones can easily injure the old and foreigners not used to walking without shoes. The lovely paintings are difficult to view or appreciate in the absence of lighting. The narrow staircase, lack of proper management make every visit a serious hazard. The State, however, has used the opportunity by posting large number of persons all-round who have little knowledge about history or the uniqueness of exhibits.

The boat trips in the lake in tiger sanctuary have been resumed after a break because of tragedy when a boat sank killing many because it was overloaded. There are, however, few animals to be seen few wild pigs and stags can be spotted during hour’s long journey. There is no denying that the state has unique attractions as a tourist destination an industry which can generate large number of jobs. This, however, will come when State gets around to improving its infrastructure and not rely only on ability of Ayurveda to revive and revitalize the tired bodies.

There is need to regulate markets selling spices and handlooms and stop the mushroom growth of Spas selling immediate cures and rejuvenation packages. Kerala hopes that setbacks in UAE and other destinations which provide hope to millions in Kerala will revive soon and continue to brighten its country-side with foreign remittances.

The author can be contacted at

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sectarian forces flexing muscles

Gulf Today

With elections to the panchayats and the State Assembly fast approaching, organisations of the Nair and Ezhava communities, which account for the bulk of Kerala's Hindu population, have started making noises.

On Friday, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the century-old organisation of the backward Ezhava community, held a massive rally at Kochi and proclaimed a charter of demands, which seeks for the community proportional representation in the political, social, industrial and economic spheres.

Three weeks earlier, the Nair Service Society, which is still a few years short of its centenary, had adopted a resolution demanding reservation for the community in admissions to educational institutions and appointments to government service.

The present reservation policy, which was discriminatory and unscientific, had denied the Nair community equality of opportunity and relegated it to backwardness, the resolution said. To overcome the situation, it proposed that reservation in government employment and education, now restricted to the backward communities, be extended to Nairs too.

Both the Yogam and the NSS invoked the principle of social justice in support of their demands. The Constitution of India, as it now stands, allows special provisions like reservation only for "socially and educationally backward classes" of citizens. Among the beneficiaries of reservation are Ezhavas, Muslims and backward sections of Christians.

The Yogam, established in the time of Sree Narayana Guru, was the first of several social organisations whose combined efforts helped modernise Kerala's caste-ridden society. It was followed by the Sadhujana Paripalana Sangham, of Ayyankali, the earliest fighter for Dalit rights.

The Nair community had enjoyed high social status in the feudal period although it was never recognised as part of the three so-called upper castes, comprising Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas. As feudalism was crumbling, a band of young Nairs, led by Mannath Padmanabhan, realised that the community was on the decline. They founded the NSS to better its lot.

This was followed by the formation of the Yogakshema Sabha, which spearheaded the reform movement of the Namboodiri Brahmins.

As organisations working for social reform, they found areas where they could cooperate. Thus, when a satyagraha was on at Vaikom, under the auspices of the Congress, to assert the right of the so-called lower castes to use roads around a temple, Mannath Padmanabhan mobilised Nair support for the agitation.

However, there was a difference in the motivations of the different community organisations. While the victims of the old social order were fighting to secure equal rights, its beneficiaries were essentially seeking ways to retain their supremacy in the emerging new order.

CP Nair, a former chief secretary to the government, in a newspaper article upheld the NSS argument that the community had been relegated to backwardness. He said the land reform measure of the 1970s had dispossessed Nair landowners. With the decline of agriculture, the economic foundations of the community collapsed. Also, it did not benefit to any significant extent from the migration to the Gulf States and to Western countries.

While this assessment is substantially correct, it is not sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the Nairs have become socially and educationally backward. The community's problem is one of economic backwardness. The NSS resolution is part of a campaign to secure an amendment of the Constitution to extend reservation to cover economic backwardness as well.

The NSS's sabre-rattling brought immediate results. Leader of Opposition Oommen Chandy and Pradesh Congress President Ramesh Chennithala rushed to the NSS headquarters at Perunna, near Changanassery, suing for peace.

The NSS leadership was not mollified. It has been annoyed with the Congress since the induction of Shashi Tharoor, whom it has dubbed a 'Delhi Nair,' in the central ministry instead of a Nair MP acceptable to it. It became even more furious when the Congress nominated a Muslim to contest an Assembly seat which was earlier held by a Nair who was in its good books.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) extended support to the NSS resolution. The party has been backing reservation on the basis of economic criteria since the time of the late EMS Namboodiripad.

The NSS publicly expressed appreciation of the CPI-M's response.

The immediate objective of the NSS and the SNDP Yogam is limited. They are flexing muscles to pressure the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front into picking candidates acceptable to them from the two communities in the forthcoming elections, especially the Assembly poll due next year.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 25, 2010.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Nothing exceeds like media excess

Gulf Today

The Kerala media’s penchant for excessive, celebratory coverage of annual events was in evidence once again last week.

Going by standards established by the media, especially since the advent of private satellite television two decades ago, there was plenty to celebrate. The three-month-long Sabarimala pilgrimage season, which is said to attract 50 million people, a majority of them from outside the state, came to a climatic end on Thursday. The week-long annual School Kalolsavam (art festival), in which about 10,000 high school and higher secondary students vied for honours in a variety of events, ended on Friday.

The Sabarimala season, spread over two sessions, begins in November and ends in January. No one knows for sure how long the temple, nestling in the western mountains, has been attracting devotees. The Hindu religious establishment ties up its history with that of the erstwhile royal families of Travancore and Pandalam both of which rose and fell in the modern period.

A clue to its antiquity lies in the principle of absolute equality that is part of the Sabarimala tradition. The temple is open to all, irrespective of caste and religion. The devotees wear the same simple clothes and address one another as “Swami” or “Ayyappa”, both terms used to refer to the deity himself. A visit to the shrine of Vavar, a Muslim saint, located on the way to the temple, is an indispensable part of the pilgrimage.

It is unimaginable that such egalitarian practices could have originated after the Vedic establishment gained control of Kerala society and enforced the caste system, probably around 8th century AD.

The government’s Devaswom department has under its control more than 1,000 temples, big and small, in the Travancore region. Sabarimala is the biggest money-spinner. Preliminary estimates put the earnings of the just concluded season at a whopping Rs1.2 billion.

The hereditary Thantri of the temple, the authority on rituals, is said to receive each year a few million rupees by way of gifts and offerings. The senior and junior priests, who are selected each year by draw of lots, also take home substantial sums.

The government collects payments from the Devaswom authorities for various services rendered by its agencies for the pilgrims. Haindava Keralam, a Hindutva website, describes the levies as loot.

Most Malayalam channels made elaborate arrangements for coverage of the main activities at Sabarimala during the season. These included several live transmissions, accompanied by drab descriptions by hapless commentators who have to keep talking even when they have nothing new to say.

The School Kalolsavam was a one-day affair when it began in 1956. The participants numbered about 200. There were no television cameras around.

The Kalolsavam grew in size year after year. With the addition of new events the prizes to be won grew too. It became a major event in the school children’s calendar when a festival title became a veritable passport for a film career.

That induced parents to make heavy investments to provide special coaching for the children in various items. Losers often appealed against the festival judges’ decisions. There have been occasions when the courts decided the winners, overthrowing the judges’ findings.

Somewhere along the way TV cameras arrived and started carrying the festival proceedings into homes. This year several channels established temporary studios at the festival venues. From there they kept up a continuous flow of sound and pictures.

Some channel stories dwelt on the vulgarisation of the festival due to the excessive parental interest in the proceedings. The reports glossed over the fact that excessive media coverage is also contributing to the process of vulgarisation.

On the last day, rival TV crews were involved in a melee. As they fought for the privilege of being the first to put the winning Kozhikode team and its trophy on the screen, the duplicate trophy which was in its possession broke.

The coverage of the assault on writer and social critic Zacharia by activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, youth wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, at Payyanur, was quite modest. According to informed sources, party managers worked overtime behind the scenes to contain the fallout of the incident, which even many devoted party followers were obliged to deplore.

Commercial sponsors are the driving force behind all excessive media coverage. No improvement in the situation can be expected so long as there are advertisers to back up such vulgarisation.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 18, 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Environment still has low priority in Kerala

Gulf Today

A slight rise in global temperature levels can force coastal residents to seek shelter in the interior as climate refugees, a scientist said at the Indian Science Congress, held in the state capital last week.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan was among the state dignitaries who attended the Congress. In a prepared speech, the chief minister even made a sensible point when he deplored the tendency among the youth to neglect basic sciences and give weightage to information technology related subjects.

But the sound warning about the need to protect the state’s environment has not made any impact on the official establishment, which has been promoting ecologically disastrous schemes in the name of development.

The state comprises three distinct geographical regions, all of which are in an extremely fragile condition. The long coastline is subject to erosion by the sea at many places. Much of the tropical evergreen forests has been depleted over the past half century as a result of encroachments by settlers who enjoyed political patronage. The plains in the middle have suffered heavy soil erosion.

Depletion of underground water sources have been reported from all regions. The hills, the lakes and the backwaters are the mainstay of the tourism industry, which has lately emerged as a major element in the fast growing service sector. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that further damage the environment may well spell death.

Environmentalists saw the writing on the wall 25 years ago and raised a hue and cry against the Silent Valley hydro-electrical project which posed a serious threat to the surviving rainforests. The political parties, bureaucrats, engineers and the media forged a united front against them. The small band of environmentalists could prevail over this formidable combination because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s recognised the justness of their cause.

Since then political parties have paid lip service to environmental protection but while in power attempted to take up projects without regard for ecological consequences. One project successive governments have relentlessly pursued is the Athirappalli project, which has been projected as a substitute for the Silent Valley project.

Environmentalists and tribal residents of the forest areas that will be submerged campaigned vigorously against the project. At one point the central government gave environmental clearance to the project, overlooking all objections.

But the people continued the campaign. Last week the centre issued a notice to the state government to show cause why the environmental clearance cannot be cancelled.

Electricity minister AK Balan rushed to New Delhi to plead against the contemplated action. He claimed that clearance was given after studying the likely environmental impact.

Union minister Jairam Ramesh told Balan he had personally looked into the matter and was convinced the project would adversely affect the forest and the lives of the tribal communities living there.

Balan returned to the state fuming there was a conspiracy against the state. Apparently the political leadership has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. The state of the environment and the fate of the poor continue to be matters of low priority to the state administration.

Public resentment over the government’s indifferent attitude towards people’s protests against environmental pollution erupted into violence in the Mampad area of Nilambur last week.

Last Tuesday villagers protesting outside a polluting latex factory were fired upon by a security guard. Media reports indicate that the factory management had engaged the man, who hails from a northern state, as guard because he possessed a licensed gun. One villager received bullet injury and another suffered knife injury.

Angry villagers retaliated by setting the factory on fire. The next day a few other polluting factories were also set on fire.

The official establishment has reacted coolly to the bizarre events. No minister has considered it worthwhile to even visit the place. To the government it appears to be simply a matter for the police to handle. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 11, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Call To Struggle….for Water….for Life

The following is a communication from the Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham and the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee:

Plachimada reels under water shortage. Chittur taluk, where Plachimada is located, was declared a ‘notified area’ on 19 November 2005 under the Kerala Ground Water Act. The area was classified “over exploited.” This followed the poisoning and depletion of ground water by Coca Cola. In 2004, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Waste ordered Coca Cola to provide piped water to the affected families in Plachimada. Coca Cola never carried out this order. Instead of taking action against Coca Cola, the government declared the Rs.4 crores Plachimada Water Project a year back much to the relief of the people of Plachimada. Coca Cola too must have rejoiced.

A year went by after the government announced the Plachimada Water Project. But the project is not even conceived. If there were no funds available for the project, why was the project announced? To cheat the people? To appease Coca Cola? Once again the government betrays the people.

Till date the government has not taken any step to prosecute Coca Cola for any of their numerous violations of numerous laws. Coca Cola has been allowed to pillage and pollute ground water making huge profits. It destroyed lives, livelihood and ecology. The government allowed the criminal Cola to romp free. Its victims continue to be victimized. Our struggle for water, a source of life, continues….

We, the Plachimada Struggle Solidarity Committee demand:

 Plachimada Water Project must be completed in a time-bound manner to urgently remedy the water-shortage;
 Take immediate measures to prosecute Coca-Cola for environment contamination and pollution, and water-pilferage;
 Recover the compensation due from Coca-Cola company for destruction of water, lives, livelihood and destruction of ecology.

Mayilamma, the legendary pillar of Plachimada Struggle, left us to carry the mantle of the struggle on 6 January. We carry forward her legacy… for the right to water and right to live with dignity.

On this day, 6 January 2010, we march and hold a dharna before the Palakkad District Collectorate at 11 A.M, remembering her.

We request the participation of all in this peoples struggle to survive with dignity.

Monday, January 4, 2010

When governance is reduced to charity

Gulf Today

Over the past four decades, successive governments in Kerala established more than 40 welfare schemes as a safety net for vulnerable sections. They now cover about 3.7 million people or about 11 per cent of the population.

The benefits available under these schemes include pension, ex-gratia death benefit, retirement benefits, maternity benefits, marriage assistance, educational assistance and funeral expenses.

The oldest of the schemes, the Kerala Toddy Workers Welfare Fund Scheme, was launched in December 1969. Although about 42,000 persons are eligible for membership, only about 37,000 have joined it. There is also a separate welfare fund for about 2,000 abkari workers.

There was a proliferation of welfare schemes in the next three decades. Those brought under the safety net during this period included widows, the physically and mentally challenged, leprosy and cancer patients, sportsmen, journalists, agricultural workers, tree climbers, fishermen, motor workers, tailors, artisans and ration dealers.

No government has explained how it identified the groups that needed protection. Often the political establishment was guided by electoral considerations.

After the turn of the century, more welfare schemes were instituted. One, established in 2001, provided for a monthly pension of Rs110 to an unmarried woman above 50 years. The amount was raised to Rs120 in 2007 and to Rs200 in 2008.

Other sections covered by welfare funds in recent years include bamboo and pandas leaf workers and dairy farmers.

When the first welfare fund was created, Kerala was one of the poor states of the country, its per capita income being below the national average. Today it is one of the richest, thanks to the steady inflow of remittances from Keralites working abroad since the 1970s and the significant growth of the service sector.

Since the state's social development indices compare favourably with those of the advanced countries of the world, it is time for the government to think of a comprehensive social security system covering the entire population. What stands in the way is the feudal mindset that prevails in the ruling circles, which has turned governance into an exercise in charity.

Another possible reason for the authorities' preference for piecemeal welfare measures is that it provides them the opportunity to exercise patronage. Politicians play a key role in identifying the beneficiaries of the schemes.

The setting up of separate welfare funds to cater to the needs of different categories of people offers scope for creating sinecures for politicians and bureaucrats in the form of chairmen and chief executives.

Official documents indicate that an annual administrative expenditure of Rs335 million is involved in the disbursal of welfare payments of Rs2.10 billion. In some cases, the administrative expenses are inordinately high. For instance, the annual administrative expenditure of the Tailoring Workers Welfare Scheme, which disburses benefits to the tune of Rs35 million, is a whopping Rs10 million.

The Planning Board states in latest Economic Review that the administrative expenditure of some bodies like the lottery workers' welfare fund board and the motor transport workers' welfare board is not available.

The latest and most ambitious of the welfare schemes is the Pravasi Welfare Fund floated last year to take care of the needs of non-resident Keralites. Over two million Keralites working abroad and one million working in different parts of India are entitled to join the scheme.

Although 11 months have passed since the scheme came into force, there is no official word on the number of NRKs who have joined it.

Last week, a committee appointed by the government suggested a reduction in the number of welfare fund boards through a process of mergers. Hopefully, this will lead to a saving in administrative costs.

A national old age pension scheme, instituted by the government of India, has been in force since 1995. Under the scheme, a person aged above 65 years is entitled to a monthly pension of Rs250, with the Centre contributing Rs200 and the state putting in Rs50.

According to the 2001 Census 6.6 per cent of the state's population of more than 31 million was above 65 years. Yet only 156,871 came forward to claim benefits under this scheme in 2008. Apparently the people are looking for genuine social security, not charity.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 4, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010

Terror probe is an indictment of ruling Left Front


Thiruvanathapuram, Dec 29 : Kerala's Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan is angry. Why is the National Investigating Agency (NIA), which has not taken over cases registered in connection with the bombings in Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Surat, showing special interest in Kerala cases, he asked after the NIA announced plans to take over further investigation of the Kalamassery bus burning case and the Kashmir terror recruitment case.

Two cases registered in connection with bomb blasts in Kozhikode had been taken over by the agency earlier.

Balakrishnan's discomfiture is understandable. The NIA decision is a virtual indictment of the state police's handling of terror cases under Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule. Balakrishnan is the only Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) politburo member in the state cabinet. As such, in the party hierarchy, he now ranks higher than even Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, who was dropped from that high-ranking body as a disciplinary measure.

When the LDF came to power in 2006, state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had picked Balakrishnan for the home minister's post. As a result, Achuthanandan became the first chief minister in a long time who did not hold the home portfolio. He tried to keep with him the Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, which usually goes with the home ministry, defying the state party leadership's wishes.

According to reports published at the time, Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem had told the state committee they would all go to jail if Achuthanandan retained the vigilance department. The central leadership asked Achuthanandan to hand vigilance to Balakrishnan as well.

Balakrishnan was nominated to the party politburo at the height of the sectarian war between Achuthanandan and Vijayan. Observers saw it as a move by the national leadership to keep him in line as a likely successor in case it became necessary to replace either the chief minister or the state secretary.

Under Balakrishnan's stewardship, Kerala police has had a dubious record in the investigation of major crimes. Four Keralites were among those killed in encounters in the Kupwara area of Kashmir Valley in 2008. Initially the state police sought to dismiss it as a case of false identity. After the Kashmir police established the Kerala origin of the youths, the state police took up investigation but the trail vanished somewhere along the way. This is one of the two cases the NIA has now decided to take over.

The other case relates to the burning of a Tamil Nadu-registered bus at Kalamassery, near Kochi, on Sep 9, 2005 to press the demand for release of People's Democratic Party chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani, who was then in a Coimbatore jail as an accused in the Coimbatore blast case. The police made some arrests immediately but the investigation went on for years, first under the Congress-led United Democratic Front government and then under the present LDF government.

Mahdani, who emerged from jail in 2007 after being acquitted in the bomb blast case, campaigned vigorously for the CPI-M in the Lok Sabha elections. The party central committee, after reviewing the poll debacle, concluded that the association with Mahdani was a mistake.

At election time the local media carried a plethora of reports, based on leaked testimony of men held in connection with the bus burning case, alleging Mahdani's wife, Soofiya, was involved in the conspiracy. Balakrishnan dismissed the reports, saying they contained nothing new. After the elections, the police questioned Soofiya. There was, however, no further action.

Mahdani and his wife suddenly came within the ambit of terror investigations with the arrest of two Keralites -- Thadiyantavide Naseer, said to be the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba's commander in south India, and his associate Shafas, on the Bangladesh border early in November. Both are said to have been associated with Mahdani's outfit.

The Karnataka police, which had been looking for Naseer in connection with the serial blasts in Bangalore, obtained his custody from a Meghalaya court. Kerala rushed an officer to Bangalore to join in the investigation and seek Naseer's custody in connection with the cases against him in the state. The opposition alleged that the officer had been sent to protect the party's interests.

Police officials from Karnataka took Naseer to several places in Kerala as part of the investigation into the Bangalore case. There is no indication when it will be through with Naseer and Kerala can get him for its own investigations.

As the Karnataka police investigations were proceeding, the Kerala police found it necessary to make wholesale changes in the list of accused in the Kalamassery bus burning case. It dropped the first three of the nine accused, saying they were not involved in the crime. Thadiyantavide Naseer became the new first accused. Soofiya Mahdani was named the tenth accused and arrested.

The opposition has demanded that Balakrishnan give up the home portfolio. Fifty years ago, E.M.S. Namboodiripad had faced a similar demand while heading the state's first Communist government. Responding to the demand, he handed over home to V.R. Krishna Iyer, one of the three non-party members of his cabinet. Today no one expects a similar response.