COMMUNIST Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan's public denunciation of extortionist and corrupt practices of trade unions can be seen as part of a conscious bid to turn a new leaf and put Kerala firmly on the right path.
Speaking at a seminar to mark the golden jubilee of the State Assembly on Friday, Vijayan made a pointed reference to what is generally known as nokkukooli (which literally means "wages for looking on)." Without mincing words, he said collecting wages without working was robbery. Only those who worked were entitled to wages, he added.
Like bandh (forced work stoppage) and gherao (blockade), nokkukooli came into vogue as the CPI (M)-led Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) resorted to strong-arm tactics in the 1970s.
Head-load workers, organised under CITU unions, asserted that they alone had the right to carry loads and they should get wages even if an employer engaged others for loading and unloading work. Today the practice of paying nokkukooli is prevalent in many commercial centres.
Besides CITU members, workers belonging to unions affiliated to other parties, like the Indian National Trade Union Congress and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, also collect unearned wages where they are able to do so.
Even as Pinarayi Vijayan was speaking against nokkukooli in Thiruvananthapuram, CITU and BMS workers at Thrissur were holding up road repair work because a contractor had refused to pay nokkukooli.
So long as nokkukooli was confined to industries and marketplaces, the general public was not very concerned about it. When the unions extended it to cover even ordinary citizens who took help for loading and unloading public opinion rose against it, but the people could do little.
During the Emergency, K Karunakaran, as the Home Minister, kept the militant trade unions under check using the police. When anti-Emergency sentiments swept the Congress out of power in most States, Karunakaran was able to lead it to power in Kerala in 1977. Many people attributed his electoral victory to middle class citizens' appreciation of the government's role in keeping the extortionist practices of workers in check.
The last United Democratic Front government had brought forward legislation to regulate the work of head-load workers with a view to saving ordinary citizens from exploitation. The CPI (M) vehemently opposed the measure.
In his speech, Pinarayi Vijayan also referred to the need for the Left Democratic Front and UDF to adopt a constructive approach to developmental problems. "The impression that if Oommen Chandy says something, Pinarayi Vijayan has to oppose it must go," he said.
UDF leaders' immediate response to Pinarayi Vijayan's speech was along familiar lines. Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy described it as a case of delayed wisdom. If the CPI (M) had taken this position ten years ago the State would have attracted much investment by now, he remarked.
LDF Convener Vaikom Viswan and Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac quickly joined issue with them. Oommen Chandy's thinking was a century behind, Viswan quipped.
The exchanges showed that the traditional rivals would not find it easy to change their ways. After all, habits die hard.
Pinarayi Vijayan took up another issue, too, in his speech on Friday: the problems faced by ordinary citizens in government offices. He said it reflected poorly on the administration that even a small thing would not get done unless there was high-level recommendation.
People who approach government offices for certificates of any kind often have to pay bribes. However, Pinarayi Vijayan did not make any direct reference to such corruption.
The CPI (M) is the party which commands the widest following among both the working class and government employees. A determined effort by it to fight unhealthy trends can, therefore, go a long way in putting an end to evil practices.
Pinarayi Vijayan, who convincingly demonstrated his grip over the party machinery at the recent State conference, is in a position to bring about beneficial changes in the working of the State party as well as the mass organisations under its control.
Following Pinarayi Vijayan's speech, CITU State chief KN Ravindranath said the organisation was opposed to nokkukooli. He added that it would act firmly to put an end to it. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 28, 2008.