Thursday, August 21, 2014

Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?

On the face of it, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s decision to push for prohibition, beginning April 1, 2015, appears to be a case of surrender before PCC President V.M. Sudheeran who vigorously resisted the government’s attempt to permit reopening of 418 bars which were closed as they were working in unhygienic conditions. However, the circumstances in which the government revised its position suggest that the Chief Minister may have stooped to conquer.

Sudheeran’s resolute stand on the issue of the closed bars generated considerable popular support in the state. For long the Congress party has been claiming its policy is one of stage-by-stage introduction of prohibition but while in power it has been reluctant to take any meaningful step towards its implementation. 

The Congress party was deeply divided on the issue of reopening of closed bars. When its main allies in the ruling United Democratic Front, the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (M), rallied behind Sudheeran, Oommen Chandy’s options were closed.

By going beyond the issue of reopening of closed bars, and announcing a slew of measures to carry forward the long-neglected liquor policy, the Chief Minister may be hoping to take the wind out of the sails of Sudheeran, whom the Congress high command installed as PCC chief before the Lok Sabha elections dismissing his objections.

Kerala, which has a population of 33.4 million and boasts of the highest per capita income and expenditure in the country, also tops in liquor consumption. Per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the state is above eight litres a year. In the last financial year for which figures are available, the state-owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation, which has a monopoly over sale of Indian-made foreign liquor, registered a turnover of Rs88.41 billion. It contributes nearly a quarter of the state’s tax revenue.

The steps announced by the Chief Minister today include limiting grant of licenses to five-star hotels only. It will not only desist from opening the closed bars in hotels with lower star rating but also not renew the bar licenses of 312 such hotels which will expire on March 31, 2015. The Beverages Corporation will reduce its outlets by 10 per cent each year.

Partial prohibition was in force in the state since the early days of Independence. It was rolled back by the seven-party coalition government led by CPI(M) leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad which came to power in 1967. Arrack sale was banned by UDF government headed by A.K. Antony in 1996.

Until a few days ago Oommen Chandy had publicly stated that on liquor the government has to take practical decisions and cannot go by ideals. Has there been a sudden change of heart? 

There are cynics who believe that the new policy has been formulated with the fond hope that the high court will strike it down and pave the way for going back to the previous position.
The high court, which is considering petitions by owners of several closed bars, asked the state government several times to outline its liquor policy. The government could not do so because of the sharp differences within the Congress party. The court’s own position on prohibition has not always been consistent.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

 The Victory Pillar at Colachel in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu which commemorates the victory of the Travancore forces over the Dutch in 1741, said to be the only Asian victory over Europeans in a naval encounter

Was the Battle of Colachel, in which forces of the Maharaja of Travancore defeated the Dutch in 1741, a naval engagement, as is claimed? If so, the question arises how the Maharaja, who did not have a navy, take on the Dutch at sea?
The Indian Army's Madras Regiment is due to celebrate the 273rd anniversary of the battle, said to be the only naval encounter in which an Asian force defeated a European force, with a function at Colachel tomorrow..

 The Travancore state had erected a Victory Column at Colachel to mark its historic triumph. Engraved on it are these words: “In remembrance of all the brave men of Travancore Army who laid down their lives in defeating the superior Dutch forces during the Battle of Colachel in July 1741”.

In the History of Travancore, which was taught in schools in that princely state, the Battle of Colachel figured prominently.  It said the Dutch captain, Eustachius De Lannoy, who was taken prisoner, later served the Maharaja loyally and helped modernize the state forces. He, his wife and son died in Travancore and were buried in the Udayagiri Fort at Thackala.

                                                     The Conch, emblem of the Travancore State, atop the Victory Pillar

Maharaja Marthanda Varma (1706-1758) was fighting his northern neighbours to expand his kingdom when the Dutch forces under De Lannoy, after landing at Colachel, marched to Padmanabhapuram, then capital of the state. He came back to take them on, and they retreated to Colachel, where the decisive battle took place.

Colachel, Thuckala and Padmanabhapuram became part of Tamil Nadu when States were reorganized on linguistic basis in 1956.

 The cemetery  in the Udayagiri Fort at Thackala on
  the Thiruvananthapuram-Kanyakumari road where
  DeLannoy, his wife and son were buried

Colachel was then, and still is, a fishing village. Unrecorded in the history textbooks and the Victory Column is the part played by the local fishing community who responded to the King’s call and joined the fight against the foreigners. However, it is on record that when the Dutch threatened to attack his state, Marthanda Varma retorted that he and his people could seek the safety of forests (which he had done earlier when he was engaged in a succession battle with his cousins who had the backing of some feudal chieftains) and that he would plan an invasion of Europe with the help of fishermen.

One lesson the Maharaja could have learnt from the Colachel battle was that the best way to ensure the safety of the land was to involve the ordinary people in its defence. He could not do so because the Dharma he was committed to uphold was based on division of the people and their subjugation.

The New Indian Express report says tomorrow’s ceremony at Colachel will be attended by Brigadier Samir Salunke, Station Commander, Pangode Military Station, civil authorities, police officials, retired officers and local officials. Evidently, there will be none to represent the fishing community, who made the Travancore victory possible.

The Madras Regiment’s role as organizers of the function stems from the fact that after Travancore acceded to India in 1947 the state forces were merged in it.

The Madras Regiment, incidentally, has a history of at least 310 years. In 2004, its 9th Battalion had celebrated the tercentenary (300th anniversary) of its raising. That makes it a successor of the mercenary army put together by the English East India Company.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Supreme Court accepts idea of new Mullaperiyar tunnel

In 2012, C.P. Roy, who was ousted from the chairmanship of Mullaperiyar Samara Samithi, because he did not favour the idea of a new dam, met Justice K. T. Thomas, Kerala’s representative on the Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court, and submitted a memorandum outlining his proposal for a new tunnel at 50 feet as a solution to the dispute with Tamil Nadu.

Today, when the Kerala Assembly took up the Mullaperiyar issue for discussion in the light of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the State government’s plea, Roy staged a demonstration outside the Legislature Complex with a few friends to draw attention to the Supreme Court’s endorsement of his proposal, which meets Kerala’s twin slogan “Water for Tamil Nadu, Safety for Kerala”.

Roy distributed an extract from Page 151 of the Supreme Court judgment, which reads as follows:

3.  In the existing MPD (Mullaperiyar Dam) project, as noted in Chapter II(b) (supra), a tunnel had been designed with a D-Section 12 feet wide and 7.5 feet high with provision of the sluice head gate having sill at El 106.5 ft for diversion of water from Periyar reservoir to Vaigai basin in the SoTN (State of Tamil Nadu). This tunnel was modernized by widening and lining in the year in the year 1958. The tunnel can allow reservoir draw-down to 106.5 ft as per criteria laid down in (i). Storage lower than El 106.5 ft to an identified elevation based on assessment of likely distress cannot be drawn-down through the present arrangement of drawal of water for the SoTN through the existing tunnel.

4. Further, digging of a New Tunnel at say at El 50 ft, of course, after conducting surveys, designs, and techno-economic feasibility studies, with requisite sluice gates for evacuation of reservoir water from El 106.5 ft to say 50 ft. These studies will have to be undertaken within a specified time frame. It goes without saying that the water flow from the New Tunnel can be used for power generation or for any other purpose by making changes in its existing infrastructure. Depending upon a decision about the elevation of the New Tunnel outlet, evacuation of the MPD reservoir will be possible in corresponding time period.

a) The new tunnel will need to be constructed by the SoTN since the ownership of the existing dam vests in it. The total expenditure for construction of the new tunnel should be borne by the SiTN. The costs may be small as compared to the cost of the replacement of the new dam. The SoTN should accomplish surveys and feasibility studies for the proposal of having a new tunnel within a year.

b) The New Runnel say at El 50 ft will enable the SoTN to use additional water available in storage between El 106.5 ft to 50 ft. At present these waters are remaining unused.

c) More importantly, if this alternative is implemented in an agreed period of time, the fear perception in the minds of people of the SoK (State of Kerala) will be set at rest. They can then appreciate that the New Tunnel is going to help evacuation of storage faster and better, in case the dam develops any distress. As a gravity dam seldom gives in suddenly, such evacuation will reduce Dam Break flood (DBF) magnitude significantly.

d) Though the demand of the SoK for 1.1 TMC of water for Environmental Flow is not substantiated, yet a legitimate need which is yet to be assessed can be met with after the FRL is raised to 142 ft. A small pipe outlet of a suitable diameter through right bank hillock can be dug to release….  

The government and the opposition, who are being led by some vested interests, have paid no attention to the Roy proposal which offers a cheaper alternative to the Kerala proposal for a new dam. Instead of wasting more time on litigation, the government should seek talks with Tamil Nadu to give effect to the idea of new tunnel, which has already met with the court’s approval.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Campaign to save a 125-year-old school and its tree wealth

                            A view of Attakulangara Central School, Thiruvananthapuram

Here’s the recent history of a 125-year-old government school in Kerala.  
1,700 students in 1988
1,200 students in 1998
200 students in 2008
48 students in 2014
The school: Attakulangara Central School, Thiruvananthapuram. 

It is located close to the Sree Padmanabhaswami temple in the East Fort area which has been declared as heritage site.

The school’s list of former teachers includes celebrated Malayalam poet Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer (1877-1947), former Chief Minister Pattom A. Thanu Pillai (1885-1970) and well-known social reformer K. Ayyappan (1889-1968).

The school compound is known for its rich flora. Tree Walk, Thiruvananthapuram, which made a survey last March found about 60 varieties of plants there. A study by Warblers and Waders, Thiruvananthapuram, in April revealed the presence of 31 kinds of birds, including migratory ones, there.

I have drawn the above information from an article by S. Anitha in the latest issue of the Malayalam weekly Mathrubhumi (dated June 8, 2014). She is an active member of Tree Walk, which is spearheading a campaign to save the school and the trees around it which serve as a lung of the city.   

The school’s experience is symptomatic of that of many government institutions which have declined continuously over the last quarter century under successive governments. Now the authorities are looking upon the property of dying schools as real estate to be used for urban development projects.

Last year the Kerala government’s Revenue department issued an order directing the Education department, which is in possession of the school land, to hand it over to the Thiruvananthapuram Development Authority (TRIDA) to build a bus bay and shopping complex for the Transport department.

Tree Walk submitted to the government a document titled Green is Gold stressing the need to preserve the rich natural wealth of the school compound. It also suggested an alternative site for the bus bay and shopping complex. However, the government insists on appropriating the two-acre school compound.
The Tree Walk campaign is focused on the following points:
1. Maintain the historical, cultural and ecological space that the school is.
2. Find alternative spaces for development projects.
3. Evolve a holistic approach to development of the East Fort area which is a heritage zone and a public hub.
4. Factor in green lungs, open spaces, safe walkways, children's parks and de-stress zones into City development 
5. Form a panel to analyze the reasons for government schools becoming uneconomical and to improve the quality of education and increase enrolment, instead of closing them down and handing over the land for commercial purposes. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Meet Aam Admi Party's prospective candidate for Thiruvananthapuram

Ajit Joy, a former IPS officer, seeking Aam Admi Party ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, was among the prospective candidates who appeared before a screening committee set up by the party, according to a local newspaper report.

Thiruvananthapuram is now represented by Union Minister of State Shashi Tharoor (Congress). Under the LDF seat sharing formula, this is a CPI constituency and former General Secretary A B Bardhan has said the party is considering fielding a non-party man. The BJP is said to be planning to renominate former Union Minister of State O Rajagopal, who was among the unsuccessful candidates in the 2009 election.

After graduating in Law from Kerala University, Ajit Joy took the civil service examination and joined the Indian Police service in 1992. He was in the Bihar cadre. While serving as Superintendent of Police, he took leave and studied for LLM at the Harvard Law School in the US. Overruling the Bihar government’s objections, the Election Commission had ordered him to be posted as SP at Chapra when Lalu Prasad Yadav sought election from there.  In 2004, he took leave to set up practice as Supreme Court lawyer. 

Later, he resigned from the service without waiting to complete 20 years of service and qualify for retirement benefits.

In 2005 Ajit Joy joined the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for South Asia (UNODC ROSA) as Project Coordinator, Human Trafficking.

When Mahendra Singh, a three-time CPI (ML) MLA from Bagodar, was killed by hired assassins, Ajit Joy wrote an article paying a personal tribute to him, describing him in these words: “For the police, a nightmare; for the establishment, a terror; but for the people, a messiah”. He said, as SP of Giridih, he had shared a love-hate relation with him. He added, “In a land where most MLAs were corrupt, he was known to be a man of integrity. I respected him for that. However, for revolutionaries like him, opposing the entrenched interests and arrogance of the state was a mission. The police, the most visible agency of government, often became the target of his struggles. He was certainly a pain in the side for us. Which SP would like to see a national highway that connects Delhi and Kolkata blocked or his police station picketed? Singh was sure to do all this, to correct some wrong, highlight some injustice. No assembly session passed by without some uncomfortable questions from him on the police.”

On his return to Kerala, after eight years with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Ajit Joy, 45, began quietly involving himself in activities dear to him. With a friend, Riju Stephen, a US-returned geologist, he undertook a ten-day 130-kilometre trek along the Pampa, to study the condition of the polluted river and assess the progress of the efforts to save it.  A newspaper report quoted him as saying later, “A good sewage treatment plant has still not been commissioned at Sabarimala, which sees an inflow of pilgrims equivalent to the entire population of Kerala.” His copiously illustrated account of the Pampa walk can be seen at WalkforPampa.

On return from the Pampa walk, Joy writes, “Riju Stephen and I joined a new kind of revolution sweeping the country today. The revolution of the Aam Admi Party. This is the revolution that guarantees respect for humans, for environment, for justice, for dignity of the common man and a clean and decent society.”

“Be original” was the advice he gave students while an IPS officer. After Lalu Prasad was convicted and hailed in a fodder scam case, he wrote, “The real icing will only come when the loss to the state, that is the Rs 37.7 crores in question, is realized from the convicted….The corrupt should not under any cost enjoy the fruits of their corruption.”