Monday, November 9, 2009

Projects ignore people's wish

Gulf Today

With only one and a half years left to complete its term, Kerala's Left Democratic Front government is under pressure to go ahead with controversial projects with a view to improving its image.

Non-governmental organisations which have objected to certain projects on the ground that they will disturb the state's delicate ecological balance are concerned over the government's attempt to implement them without even fulfilling statutory obligations.

Recently the state committee of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the government, directed the government to grant speedy clearance to projects which have been awaiting sanction since long.

The directive was intended to overcome the resistance of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who has frustrated Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem's plans to sanction the controversial projects.

The Smart City at Kochi and the Vizhinjam deep-sea port near Thiruvananthapuram, two prestigious projects which were on the anvil when the LDF took office are still to take off.

On the eve of its first anniversary the LDF government signed an agreement with the Dubai Internet City authorities for setting up Smart City. Its terms were more favourable than those negotiated by the previous United Democratic Front government.

Work on the project has been held up by a dispute between the state government and the Dubai authorities over registration of land allotted for it. The delay has resulted in dissipation of the enormous amount of goodwill that had accrued to the LDF as a result of the Smart City agreement.

Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan indicated recently that the government is willing to go in for a new partner. This has cast doubts on the future of the project.

The global tender launched for the Vizhinjam project led to protracted legal proceedings. Since no collaborator is in sight at present, the LDF government may not be able to carry the project forward in the limited time at its disposal.

Among the projects caught up in the tussle within the CPI-M between Achuthanandan and state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan is one promoted by Sobha Developers, a real estate group with interests outside Kerala.

In August 2007 the company had informed stock exchanges that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the state government to set up Sobha Hitech City on 400 acres of land with an investment of Rs50 billion.

The project envisages the construction of a township with 38 million square feet of accommodation in the form of commercial space with hospitality, amusement and entertainment facilities and residential complexes. It will include a knowledge park spread over seven million sq ft and a marina of international standards.

Also caught up in controversy is the real estate group Salarpuria's proposal to set up another knowledge city.

Achuthanandan's opposition to these projects stems from his assessment that these are real estate projects, and not industrial projects. After the CPI-M leadership neutralised his opposition, Revenue Minister KP Rajendran and Forest Minister Benoy Viswam, both of the CPI, have come forward with objections.

Like the CPI-M leadership, the state CPI leadership has thrown its weight behind these projects. Following this, Rajendran and Benoy Viswam have sought the intervention of the party's national leadership.

The site identified by Sobha and Salarpuria for their projects are the small islands of Valanthakad and Thanthonnithuruth. These islands are ecologically important as they have a rich treasure of mangroves.

The promoters have already acquired much of the land in the islands either directly or through agents. They probably reckoned that since only a few families live there it may not be difficult to obtain vacant possession. However, when they started destroying the mangroves, people came forward to protest.

Critics have alleged that the industries minister is trying to give clearance to the controversial projects through the single-window system, short-circuiting the process of obtaining sanction under various laws.

The single-window law, as it now stands, applies only to manufacturing industries. The industries minister wants to amend it to cover the service sector also.

Another step the government has taken under party pressure to help real estate interests relates to grant of permission to take sand from river beds, relaxing the rules which were framed in the wake of study reports which pointed to the damage caused by unregulated sand mining.

Builders have been complaining that the high price of sand, resulting from shortage, was hampering construction activity. The CPI-M set the stage for relaxation of rules by organising a series of demonstrations under the auspices of trade unions. One of the demonstrations was inaugurated by the party state secretary himself.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 9, 2009

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