Monday, April 26, 2010

Malayalam cinema in self-destruct mode

Gulf Today

April may go down in the history of Malayalam cinema as the cruellest month. It saw the film industry, which has been in the doldrums for several years, moving into self-destruct mode.

The month began with thespian Thilakan, facing threat of banishment from films due to the hostility of a powerful section of the industry, declaring that the actor in him was committing suicide. He said he would return to the theatre, where he had begun his acting career.

Last week, Sreenath, a movie and television serial actor of about 30 years’ standing, was found dead at a film location. Police said he appeared to have committed suicide. His family alleged he was facing threat of denial of work.

These personal tragedies are pointers to the misfortunes dogging the multi-billion film industry. Sections of the industry are at war with one another. It looks as though they are in the grip of a death wish.

Thilakan, who had been summoned by the Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA) to answer charges of indiscipline, appeared before its executive committee, and was promptly expelled, saying his explanation was not satisfactory. The committee paid no heed to his complaint that producers were denying him work in films under pressure from certain quarters.

Soon AMMA was at the receiving end. The Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce asked the stars to reduce their remuneration to help bring down the high production cost which was rendering film making commercially unviable.

The Chamber also demanded that film artistes, including singers, and lead technicians stay away from reality shows and other television programmes which were luring viewers away from the theatre. It said those who continued to appear on TV shows after May 1 will invite severe action, including ban on release of their films.

Chamber spokesmen said this was not a new decision. As far back as 2002 AMMA had agreed in writing that its members would not participate in television shows other than those connected with the state government’s film awards ceremony.

Representatives of various organizations affiliated to the Chamber like the Kerala Film Producers Association (KFPA), the Film Exhibitors Association of Kerala (FEAK) and the Film Distributors Association of Kerala (FDAK) attended the meeting which took the crucial decisions.

The Chamber claimed such measures were necessary to save the Malayalam film industry. Other contemplated steps in this regard include placing restrictions on the exhibition of films in other languages.

FDAK president Siyad Kokker said Tamil and Hindi films should be shown in the state only two weeks after they were released elsewhere.

In an attempt to force all concerned to help cut production costs, KFPA announced suspension of film production from April 16. Producers can complete ongoing projects but cannot start work on any new film.

FDAK announced suspension of new releases to pressure the exhibitors into accepting its terms and conditions regarding screening of films.

While FEAK and FDAK are fully with the Chamber in the confrontation with AMMA, they are fighting their own separate battles too.

The distributors and the exhibitors share theatre collections under an agreed formula. This formula covers only the proceeds of the three regular shows. The distributors want the exhibitors to share the proceeds of the noon show too.

According to KFPA president G. Sureshkumar, about 70 films are produced each year and only three or four of them yield profits.

AMMA disputes the claim that the high remuneration of artistes and technicians is the reason why films fail commercially. It says lack of good stories and lack of planning are to blame for the industry’s ills.

While superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal have maintained discreet silence on the developments lesser luminaries have taken up position for and against the Chamber’s move to keep film personnel away from TV channels. The most vociferous critics are composers and singers who now earn more from reality shows than from films.

Industry insiders have identified some other factors such as domination of the industry by ageing superstars and by directors with limited range also for the decline of Malayalam films which had attracted national and international attention until a decade ago.

Actor-turned director Revathi wonders why Mammootty and Mohanlal are seeking young female leads when Sobhana will be a perfect match for them. Director Sibi Malayil says new directors, technicians and actors are needed. In Malayalam there are very few good artistes to choose from, he adds. In Tamil, Telugu or Hindi there are 10 to 20 to choose from. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 26, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

National Highway can be widened without dislocating large masses of people

A few hours before the all-party meeting called by the Kerala government to consider people’s opposition to the proposal to widen two national highways in the State on BOT (build, operate, transfer) basis, representatives of people engaged in movements against the proposal began a day-long dharna outside the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.

According to media reports, Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan decided to call today's all-party meeting after three ministers, G. Sudhakaran, C. Divakaran and N. K. Premachandran, drew his attention at a Cabinet meeting to the agitations at different places along the highways against the proposal.

These ministers represent constituencies through which the coastal highway runs. People started agitating against the proposal in these constituencies five years ago. As officials took up acquisition of land up to 45 meters in width in pursuance of the BOT proposal there was tension at many places. But it is only now that the ministers have taken note of the situation.

Representatives of the agitating groups called on the leaders of all parties before the all-party meeting and reiterated their total opposition to the BOT proposal. They pointed out that acquisition of 45 meters was not necessary as four or even six lanes according to the specifications laid down by the government can be built in 30 meters. Except in a few places the government has already in its possession up to 30 meters of land.

The NH 17 Kerala State Action Council placed before them an alternative proposal which will make it possible to widen the highway without dislocating large masses of people. The following are the salient points made by them in a written memorandum:

1. Build four-lane path immediately in the 30 meter wide land already acquired.

2. Up to six lanes can be built in 30 meters. The move to acquire 45 meters is meant to satisfy the BOT partner, whose entry will mean privatization of the highway.

3. Now the cost of bus travel is Rs. 5 for every 10 kilometers. It will double if there is a BOT road.

4. Population density in the areas through which the highways pass in the State is between 2,000 and 3,000 per square kilometer. The highway expansion project report says widening of a one-kilometer stretch will affect 310 families, 1,076 people and 51 buildings. This means along the 840 kilometers of NH 47 and NH as many as 17 257,300 families, 903,840 people and 42,840 buildings will be affected. Actually twice as many families, people and buildings will be affected.

5. By an order dated 18.10.2007 the government has frozen building activity up to a width of 90 meters along the highways. The people cannot build houses or shops in this area. This will destroy the small businesses.

6. The government is to give 40 per cent of the construction cost to the BOT partner as grant. The contractor will be able to cook up figures and do the entire work with the money provided by the government with no investment from his side.

A sketch prepared by the action council shows how a six-lane path can be built in 30 meters. With 3.5 meters specified for a lane, the land required for six lanes is 21 meters. The median will take up 1.5 meters. That still leaves enough for a paved shoulder 1.5 meter wide and a footpath-cum-utility of 2.25 meters on either side.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A tale of two scandals

Gulf Today

Mark Twain prefaced one of his popular tales with these words: "It may have happened, it may not have happened but it could have happened." These words may be echoing in the minds of Keralites as the media bombards them with particulars of two scandals.

One of the scandals has embarrassed the Congress, which heads the government in New Delhi, and the other has caused discomfiture to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the Left Democratic Front that rules the state.

At the centre of the first scandal is Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor. The central character of the second one is Tomin J Thachankary, an inspector general of police who is reputedly close to the state CPI-M leadership.

Tharoor got into trouble following the disclosure that Dubai-based Sunanda Pushkar, whom he reportedly plans to marry, obtained sweat equity in Rendezvous consortium, which won the Indian Premier League's Kochi cricket team for US$333 million in an auction last month.

Tharoor admitted to mentoring the consortium. However, he said his sole interest was to get an IPL team for his state. He asserted he had no financial stake in the consortium.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition in Parliament, and the CPI-M charged Tharoor with misusing his office. The BJP stalled the proceedings of Parliament last week and vowed to keep up pressure until the Prime Minister made a statement.

Thachankary's troubles began when it came to light that after seeking leave to go to Sikkim on holiday he visited some Gulf States. Janata Dal (S) leader M P Veerendrakumar linked his travel with that of CPI-M State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, who is currently on a fund-raising tour of the Gulf region.

A former United Nations bureaucrat who failed in his bid for the post of Secretary General, Shashi Tharoor was nominated by the Congress to contest for the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram. A section of the party, viewing him as an outsider, took a hostile position, but the city's middle class voters, viewing him as a change from the conventional politician, plumped for him. Early in his ministerial career he encountered some tweeting troubles but the party leadership stood by him.

Thachankary, an Indian Police Service officer and a lyricist, is known to have helped the CPI-M in setting up the television channel it controls. He is facing some serious charges like illegal detention and torture and possession of wealth in excess of his known sources of income.

Did Tharoor misuse his position? Did Thachankary travel in aid of the party? The material on record is not enough to go beyond Mark Twain's words.

When Tharoor came under attack in Parliament, no colleague rose to defend him. However, the controversy has not affected his standing among the middle class. A survey by the New Indian Express showed that 57 per cent of the respondents considered Sunanda Pushkar his proxy but 58 per cent still regarded him as an honest man.

The Thachankary affair revived the sectarianism in the CPI-M which had subsided after VS Achuthanandan's demotion from the Politburo to the Central Committee in July last year. Asserting his authority as Chief Minister, he ordered the officer's suspension even as Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was seeking to close the matter with his transfer from the post of Inspector General, Kannur range.

Four years ago the anti-piracy cell of the state police had raided a recording studio owned by Thachankary's wife in connection with piracy allegations. The officer conducting the raid was recalled before he could complete the mission. Achuthanandan intervened on his behalf but the party thwarted him.

Lately the state party leadership had been ensuring Achuthanandan's compliance with its wishes on controversial issues by issuing directives to him ahead of Cabinet meetings. By acting against Thachankary while Pinarayi Vijayan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan were away from the capital, he has presented them with a fait accompli.

While Achuthanandan has primacy in the government, as Politburo members, Vijayan and Balakrishnan now rank above him in the party.

The final episodes of the Tharoor and Thachankary serials are still awaited as these lines are being written. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who heard Tharoor's explanation and discussed the matter with Congress President Sonia Gandhi and senior party colleagues, will take a decision on whether or not to retain him in the council of ministers. The state CPI-M is expected to look into the Thachankary affair after Pinarayi Vijayan returns next week.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 19, 2010.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Clouds over Kerala's education scene

Gulf Today

Kerala's lead in social developments has put it at a disadvantage as the government of India pushes through a scheme to provide free and compulsory education to all children up to 14 years.

The Centre launched the scheme on April 1 in pursuance of the constitutional amendment of 2002, which made elementary education a fundamental right, and the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, which provides for free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 years age group.

The Constitution, promulgated in 1950, envisaged free and compulsory education up to the age of 14 but until now there was no scheme to give effect to it all over the country.

In Kerala, the first step in that direction was taken when the Maharaja's regime made primary education free and compulsory in the erstwhile Travancore state in 1946. After Independence, the governments of Travancore-Cochin and Kerala carried the reform forward, making education free till the school leaving stage.

The Centre will bear the bulk of the cost of the new scheme, which calls for an estimated investment of Rs1,710 billion over the next five years. Last week Education Minister MA Baby said Kerala had forged ahead early by making huge investments in education.

The new law became necessary because the other states neglected this area. He wanted the Centre to compensate the state considering that it had put into education money which could have gone into industry and agriculture.

Baby, who had earlier characterised the new law as an encroachment on the states' authority, modified his position slightly. He said the law was a welcome measure but it must be implemented keeping in view the federal spirit of the Constitution.

Baby did not take into account the state's educational situation in its entirety. While ahead of the rest of the country in the spread of education at the lower levels, it lags in higher education. The quality of education at all levels is low. The state is now paying the price for neglect in this area.

Improvement of quality of education is an important element of the new Central initiative. Kerala thus have the opportunity to benefit from the planned Central investment. However, there is room to doubt its ability to make proper use of the opportunity.

Years ago, at the Centre's instance, the University Grants Commission had drawn up a scheme to revise wage scales, tying them up with improvement of academic standards.

The teachers' unions wanted the new scales but not the academic part of the package. The state government succumbed to their pressure.

The new law provides for setting up of committees with representatives of the local community to introduce a measure of social control over school managements. It also requires the expensive elite schools, which do not receive grants from the state, to set apart 25 per cent of the seats for poor students.

These provisions have invited opposition from managements, especially those belonging to religious minorities, who argue that they infringe upon their constitutional right to establish and administer their own institutions.

Private managements dominate Kerala's education sector at all levels. Of the state's 12,649 primary and secondary schools 8,148 are under private managements. While 7,284 of them receive aid from the state government for their upkeep, 864 are unaided.

There are 1,703 higher secondary schools. Of these 968 are privately managed: 529 are aided and 439 unaided. The state has 189 arts and science colleges, of which 150 are under private managements. There are 84 engineering colleges, of which three are aided and 70 unaided.

Christian missions did pioneering work in the education sector. They account for the bulk of the private institutions. The fierce opposition of the private school managements, especially the Christian missions, to an education reform measure, which was by no means very radical was one of the underlying causes of the so-called 'liberation struggle' which resulted in the Centre's dismissal of the state's first communist government in 1959.

There is a distinct possibility of the aggrieved managements challenging some aspects of the Centre's proposals in the court.

The views articulated by the state governments and spokesmen of private managements suggest that the communists and the private managements could well be on the same side in the event of a new confrontation over education reform. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 12, 2010.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cherthala-Imphal march postponed

The Cherthala-Imphal March in Support of Irom Sharmila, which was scheduled to begin on April 14, has been postponed to May. The new date for its start will be announced later.

The March, from Defence Minister A. K. Antony’s home town of Cherthala to the Imphal jail where Sharmila is incarcerated, is being organized by social activists of Kerala.

Sara Joseph and Dr P. Geetha, activists and writers, are to lead the March.

Civic Chandran, Coordinator of the March, said it was being postponed as travel arrangements were yet to be completed.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking for jobs that are not there

Gulf Today

The Congress-led United Democratic Front, which came to power in 2001, had promised employment to 1.5 million youths but could not provide jobs for even 50 persons, Leader of Opposition VS Achuthanandan had said as he campaigned in the 2006 elections, which was to put him in the Chief Minister's seat.

As his Left Democratic Front government enters the last leg of its five-year term, unemployed youths are still looking for jobs that are not there.

The Smart City project, which the state government was to set up with the help of TECOM Investments of Dubai, was expected to create at least 100,000 jobs, mostly in the information technology sector.

It remains stalled by a dispute between the Dubai firm and the government over the status of a small part of the land earmarked for it.

On Saturday Achuthanandan held aloft another carrot before jobseekers. 110,000 IT-related jobs will be created with the help of a global consultancy firm, he said.

Official statistics indicate that there has been only a small increase in employment in the entire organised sector since the LDF came to power. In March 2006, the public and private sectors together provided employment to 1.10 million people in the state.

The corresponding figure for December 2008 was 1.13 million -- a modest gain of 30,000 jobs. In the public sector, the state's biggest employer, there was actually loss of jobs, with employment falling from 616,000 in 2006 to 607,000 in 2008. Employment in the private sector, however, went up from 485,000 to 524,000.

The state government accounted for 43.85 per cent of the public sector employment, the central government for 10.41 per cent, quasi-government institutions for 41.38 per cent and local bodies for 4.36 per cent.

Job loss in the public sector is a continuing phenomenon. In 2001, more than 645,000 people were employed in this sector. More than 4.5 million people are seeking jobs through the employment exchanges.

In 2000, the exchanges provided government jobs to more than 23,000 persons. In the following years the number declined, touching an all-time low of 8,711 in 2004. More than 10,000 were given jobs in 2005 but the number dropped to four digits again in 2006.

On March 31, more than 20,000 state government employees retired, raising a flicker of hope in the minds of jobseekers. Most of the vacancies that have arisen are to be filled by promotion. Once that process is completed, the government will notify the vacancies at direct entry level, which may number just a few thousands.

The en masse retirement was the result of the government's decision to shift the retirement date of all employees who reached the age of superannuation during the financial year to the last day of the year.

Life expectancy at birth in Kerala is 75 years, the highest in the country. Retirement age of state government employees is 55 years, the lowest in the country. Decades ago the retirement age was raised to 58 years but it was lowered again to increase employment opportunities.

Successive governments have turned a blind eye to the colossal waste of human resources involved in early retirement of employees for fear of offending the vast army of unemployed youths. The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the LDF, is more wary than other parties as the Democratic Youth Federation of India, which it controls, has more than 4.6 million members in the state, many of them jobless.

By pushing the retirement age to the last day of the financial year the cash-strapped government could delay pension payments and earn a brief respite. It is estimated the measure helped it to save Rs15 billion during the year. The chicken will come home to roost in the financial year which has just begun.

60 per cent of the jobseekers on the register of the employment exchanges have only passed the school leaving certificate examination. The government has dashed their hopes by raising the educational qualification for recruitment to some posts, including that of police constable, to pre-degree.

The jobseekers' best hope lies in migration, and the Gulf region remains the most favoured destination. The number of Keralites employed in the Gulf States rose from 1.36 million in 1998 to 2.19 million in 2008, the last year for which figures are available. That makes for 29 migrants for every 100 households.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 5, 2010.