Monday, July 30, 2007

Cultural partisans active in CPI (M) faction fight

THE sectarian conflict in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has set the world of literature ablaze. It has made a greater impact on creative writing in Malayalam than any other political development in recent memory.

For several months now, poets and short story writers have been churning out material with a direct bearing on the faction fight, enlivening the pages of the periodicals. While many of them are critical of the party's official leadership, some are very supportive of it.

A poem by KC Umeshbabu, who poured scorn on the party leadership, brought forth immediate retribution. The CPI (M) fraction to which he belonged expelled him from its membership and the Kannur district unit of the Purogamana Kala Sahithya Sangham, of which he was the secretary, removed him from the post.

The Sangham, a common platform of writers and artists who are party members or fellow-travellers, was led until recently by MN Vijayan, a well-known litterateur.
Though not a party member, he was the editor of the party journal, Deshabhimani weekly, and recognised as the party's spokesman on literary issues.

Vijayan became persona non grata to the party when he became editor of Padham, a short-lived publication that charged the official leadership with diluting Marxist principles. Now he is out of the Sangham and is a vehement critic of the official leadership's reformist agenda.

At its recent conference, the Sangham reconstituted its executive committee, dropping its Secretary, Karivelloor Murali, and a few others. Observers saw it as an attempt to tighten the party's control over the organization. However, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, who has not been with the party leadership fully, was retained as President.

Umashbabu had published his controversial poem in Janshakthi, a weekly launched by a group which is aligned with Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. Disciplinary action did not diminish his enthusiasm for political criticism. Within weeks, he wrote another stinging piece, this time in the Mathrubhumi weekly.

Others who have aimed darts at the party leadership include N Satchitanandan and KG Sankara Pillai, both of them leading poets of the present generation.

Several prominent short story writers, too, have joined the political battle.

P Surendran, in a story Che, published in Janashakthi, made a trenchant expose of the changing lifestyle of the party's top brass. He also wrote another critical story Aa pasuvinte maranam (Death of that cow) in Mathrubhumi.

The official leadership has its backers too. M Mukundan's story Dinosaurukalude kaalam (The age of the dinosaurs), which appeared in Mathrubhumi, was a strong indictment of Chief Minister Achuthanandan's demolition campaign in Munnar.

Mukundan, a native of Mahe and long-time resident of Delhi , moved to Kerala recently and was picked by Culture Minister MA Baby, who belongs to the official faction, for the post of Chairman of the State Sahitya Akademi. This circumstance has prompted some to make the uncharitable comment that the story was a return favour.

It is not at the level of creative writing alone that factional loyalties are manifesting themselves.

A few days ago, 58 self-styled cultural activists, issued a sharply worded press statement in aid of the beleaguered party leadership. It was ostensibly a plea to the media to act in a mature manner. Its purpose, however, was to defend the State party leaders who have attracted unfavourable attention in the context of irregular financial deals. At best, it can be described as a command performance by party loyalists at worst, as a hatchet job.

It lambasted former judges and columnists for masquerading as experts and casting aspersions on leaders who had been in public life for decades. It alleged that their activities were destroying Kerala's leftwing secular mind.

P Govinda Pillai, the eminent Marxist litterateur, headed the signatories. Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan was not among them but office-bearers of the Purogamana Kala Sahithya Sangham and KEN Kunhammamed, on whom MN Vijayan's mantle has fallen, were.

A few persons from outside the party ranks, like poet Balachandran Chullikkad, also subsctibed to the press statement. However, the bilk of the signatories were minor film activists and staff members of the CPI (M)'s television channels and newspapers.

A group of pro-United Democratic Front writers responded with a counter-statement.
They charged the CPI (M) with attempting to silence the media.

Malayalam cinema has made its own distinct contribution with a movie, Arabikkatha (Arabian Story). Its central character, Mukundan, is a communist of the classical variety, who lands in a Gulf State after being tricked into indebtedness by a new-generation party leader.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 30, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007

Traditional ways in Kerala obstruct urban development

INNATE reluctance to change, not an unusual feature of a society bearing the weight of tradition, is a problem that dogs Kerala as it seeks to transform itself into a modern community.

Acute shortage of land and consequent high price are forcing urban Kerala to consider the high-rise option.

In posh areas of Thiruvananthapuram, land price has shot up from around Rs 2,000 a cent (1/400 th of a hectare) in the 1970s to Rs 500,000 or more.

A number of apartment buildings have come up in the State capital in the last two decades.

However, many flats remain unoccupied as the owners are non-resident Keralites.

Old city residents prefer to live in independent houses.

Those who opt for flats are persons who have returned after living in Indian or foreign cities. They generally consider apartments more secure than individual houses.

With many young people finding well-paid jobs in the Information Technology sector, builders expect the demand for flats to grow.

Sensing new opportunity, a few big builders from outside the State have begun operations.

Significantly, they have announced apartment projects in the vicinity of IT parks at Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.

The proliferation of apartment complexes has made residents of crowded localities of the capital apprehensive.

They fear that a sudden influx of people will put considerable strain on the limited urban infrastructure in such areas as power and water supply. Vehicular traffic will increase, imposing a burden on the narrow roads.

Residents of Palkulangara, a crowded locality of the city, recently launched an agitation to prevent the construction of an apartment complex in the area.

Women came out in large numbers and blocked the streets, vowing not to allow the construction of the high-rise building, for which Corporation has given permission.

A federation of residents' associations of the capital extended active support to the Palkulangara residents' campaign. Its attitude betrays a desire to freeze the city's traditional mores.

Residents ensconced in cosy houses are reluctant to accept the fact that the city's vertical growth has become inevitable.

They do not seem to realise that they can best safeguard their legitimate interests by prevailing upon the authorities to expand the infrastructure to meet tomorrow's needs, instead of attempting to resist the emergence of apartment complexes.

Kochi, where apartment living has met with a greater measure of acceptance than in Thiruvananthapuram, which until recently was essentially a bureaucrats' city, faces problem of another kind.

The city authorities have been unable to make satisfactory arrangements for garbage disposal.

Under pressure from the High Court, which, incidentally, is located in that city, they started removing garbage, which had been piling up, creating a severe pollution problem, and started dumping it at Brahmapuram.

Nine years ago the Kochi Corporation had acquired land at Brahmapuram to set up a garbage treatment plant. Work on the plant has still not started.

Residents of the area naturally came out in protest against the dumping of untreated garbage in the open, exposing them to health hazards.

In a desperate attempt to work out alternative arrangements, the Corporation engaged a contractor from Tamil Nadu to remove the garbage to a village in that State.

Residents of some villages of Palakkad district complained that the contractor, instead o taking the garbage out of the State, was dumping it on the roadside at the dead of night.

They organised night vigil and detained and damaged several trucks laden with garbage.

Until recently the Corporation was dumping garbage at a place in the Navy's possession. The Navy's refusal to allow continued dumping, forced it to look for an alternative site.

Since even villages in Kerala are heavily populated, it is not easy to find dumping grounds for city refuse.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, the State government stepped in.

A high-level meeting called by the Chief Minister asked the Collector of Ernakulam to find an alternative dumping ground which might be used until the Brahmapuram plant was ready.

Since an order of the High Court is in force, it has to approve of the alternative arrangement.

The troubles in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram are manifestations of a lingering struggle between the forces of change and the forces of tradition.

The need for change is widely appreciated but both at the official level and at the wider level of the public there is reluctant to give up old ways. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 23, 2007.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Reckless government spending pushes up public debt

The following appeared in Gulf Today, Sharjah, on July 16, 2007:
Kerala's public debt has risen above Rs550 billion. This represents a fivefold increase in 12 years. Developments of the last two decades show that a change of government makes no difference to the reckless spending.

The State government has been cash-strapped for many years. There have been occasions when cheques issued by government departments bounced.

There have also been occasions when the State treasury remained closed to avoid creditors. But the spending spree continues.

Deficit financing has been an accepted practice since 1950s when the Central and State governments embarked upon planned development. However, public borrowing by the State was on a modest scale until the 1990s.

On March 31, 1996 Kerala's public debt was only Rs101.14 billion. In the next 10 years, it grew more than four times to reach a staggering Rs418.78 billion. The heavy borrowing led to a steep rise in the interest burden too.

It shot up from Rs9.24 billion in 1995-96 to Rs26.13 billion in 2004-05. When the United Democratic Front was in power the Left Democratic Front criticised it severely for pushing up the public debt. But under LDF rule, heavy borrowing and spending continued.

Whichever front was in power invariably defended continued borrowing on the ground that the loans were used to finance developmental projects. This argument is no longer valid.

The previous UDF government acknowledged as much in the last annual Economic Review that it presented to the Assembly in 2005. The document, prepared by the State Planning Board, said that, although in the past a significant component of the debt burden went towards financing development plans, in recent times a significant portion was being used to bridge the gap in revenue receipts and non-plan revenue expenditure.

It also noted that there had been a substantial increase in internal debt over the years, mainly on account of mobilisation of high-cost market loans. Internal debt constituted about 52 per cent of the total debt at the end of 2004-05.

Central loans accounted for only 13 per cent. The Economic Review of 2006, presented to the Assembly last March, put the total debt as at the end of that year at a whopping Rs553.20 billion. Central loans amounted to Rs64.26 billion, a mere 11.62 per cent. Internal debt stood at Rs314.59 billion, or 56.87 per cent.

The Planning Board said, "The major portion of the debt liabilities was created by high cost borrowings made for meeting recurring revenue expenditure."

Ironically, the Keralite who has a higher average income than his neighbours also bears a higher debt burden than them.

Figures cited by the Planning Board show that per capita debt of Kerala, which was Rs6,285 in 2000, increased to Rs10,922 by 2004.

The corresponding figures for Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were Rs7,382, Rs7,290 and Rs6,587 respectively.

Tamil Nadu's debt was only 28 per cent of the gross state domestic product. Kerala's was 40 per cent of its GSDP, way above the all-State average of 32 per cent.

The Planning Board, which is now headed by Jawaharlal Nehru University economist Prabhat Patnaik, said the current rate of growth of debt was "a matter of serious concern." However, it made no proposal to reduce the deficit.

Patnaik, a Marxist, does not share current apprehensions about deficit financing, voiced by other economists.

In a paper, titled The Illusion of Finance, published two years ago, he said that in India an increase in government investment financed by a fiscal deficit would scarcely increase the net indebtedness of the state.

He cited two factors in support of his conclusion. One is that India has a large public sector specialising in the production of capital goods with substantial unutilised capacity owing to demands constraint. The other is the food security provided by the substantial unsold stocks of grain in the possession of the Food Corporation of India.

Both these factors, he contended, would work to prevent an increase in the net interest payment obligation as also an increase in wealth inequalities in society.

Howsoever valid Patnaik's argument may be in the wider national context, its validity in the conditions obtaining in Kerala is questionable.

Interest payments already eat up a quarter of the State's revenue. An extensive socio-economic survey conducted by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad has thrown up evidence of growing inequality. This, of course, is the result of uneven flow of money from abroad, not of any governmental measure.