Friday, December 14, 2007

Celebrating a debt trap

The Left Democratic Front government can claim credit for discovering something new to celebrate. The nationalized banks discovered that distribution of loans is a good occasion to organize a mela. This government discovered that distribution of arrears is also good for the purpose. A minister of the government has been running around organizing arrears distribution melas.

Arrears form part of the experience of those who do contract jobs from the government of Kerala. The long wait does not end even when they get the arrears cheque. To present the cheque for collection, they have to wait until there is money in the treasury. When they finally get the money, no one even knows about it. The Minister for Cooperation has given up the worn-out practice and made payment of arrears an occasion to celebrate. What he distributes at the melas is not the Cooperative Department’s arrears, but the arrears of one of several thousand cooperative societies in the State. Even the money he distributes is not the department’s. It comes from the cooperative banks. How does it come into his hands? Thereby hangs a tale.

Some 60 years some 12 writers, including luminaries like M. P. Paul, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and P. Kesava Dev, set upthe Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, a cooperative, to save writers from exploitation by publishers. In a short while it grew into the biggest publishing house in Malayalam. It attracted attention in the country and abroad as the organization that pays writers the highest royalty.

When the society succeeded, there began a struggle for its leadership. Politicians also set their eyes on it. Literary workers like Kodiyeri Balakrishnan came forward to cooperate. Under Poochali rule (the term is derived from the name of a party nominee who ruled it at one time), the society went deep into debt. The last LDF government allotted Rs. 10 million of taxpayers’ money to rescue it.

It could not be rescued. By the time the LDF returned to power after five years in exile, it became necessary to do something again to rescue it. Since the government is left with virtually nothing after paying staff salaries and pensions, the new Minister of Cooperation had to look elsewhere for money. He did not have to look too far. There was money in the cooperative sector and the cooperative banks were ready to do his bidding.

The writers’ cooperative in a mess because of mismanagement. Those who reached its helm published worthless books which remained in the storehouses for want of buyers. Its income was not sufficient even to pay the wages of the army of employees whom they recruited. The society, which was paying writers royalty of 30 to 40 per cent, when publishers worldwide paid only 10 to 15 per cent, was obliged to cut it to five per cent or even less. It could not pay even that in time. It is the arrears that accumulated in this manner that the minister is trying to clear with the banks’ money.

The minister has asked each cooperative bank to start a library. The society will give them books against the money they are now advancing. The minister’s scheme thrilled the writers. Many of them went to the melas to receive arrears from his highness. The minister went to the houses of some writers who did not care to attend the melas and personally handed over the arrears cheque. It is not clear who is footing the mela bills and paying for the minister’s travels. Whether it is the government or the banks, it is wasteful spending. If the cheque is put in an envelope, a postage stamp worth Rs. 5 is all that is needed to have it delivered to the writer.

The writers’ cooperative was set up to end exploitation of writers. The minister who has come to its rescue is an accomplice to their exploitation. Some writers have said they have been asked to return half of the arrears amount paid to them by way of donation.

The taxpayer has no obligation to rescue a cooperative society which was ruined by politicians. Yet the previous LDF government’s grant to it may be justified as an effort to save an institution that has rendered yeomen service to literature. However, its motive becomes suspect in the light of its failure to take any steps to put an end to maladministration. When the government gave the society Rs 10 million, its debt stood at Rs. 20 million but it had assets worth about Rs. 100 million. Its condition is worse now. Obviously mismanagement continues.

There is reason to doubt if the new scheme will succeed. A library attached to a bank is a good idea. But how many cooperative banks have the space and other facilities needed to run a library efficiently? When 12,000 libraries which enriched Kerala’s cultural life in the past are languishing for want of readers, what is the basis for assuming that the banks’ libraries will succeed? Books which were lying in the society’s storehouses for want of buyers will now be seen lying in the banks’ storehouses, christened as libraries, for want of readers.

The writers’ cooperative in a sorry state because its control has passed from writers to vested political interests. So long as their misrule continues, no amount of money from whatever quarter can save the society. Many new publishing houses have come up in the State recently. Some of them have developed new strategies and registered some success. But writers are facing exploitation as they did six decades ago. The minister’s scheme makes the society a partner in their exploitation. It will not save the society. It may endanger the banks. What the writers’ cooperative needs is not the patronage of the minister but the support of readers.
Based on Nerkkazhcha column which appeared in Kerala Kaumudi dated December 13, 2007

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