Monday, September 24, 2007

Biography of K. C. Mammen Mappilai

“Maayaaththa Mudra: K. C. Mammen Mappilayude Pathraadhipajeevitham” by G. Priyadarsanan, is a “journalistic biography” of K. C. Mammen Mappilai (1873-1954), Editor of Malayala Manorama, leading newspaper of Kerala.

Manorama was founded by Kandathil Varghese Mappilai in 1888 at Kottayam in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. Mammen Mappilai, his nephew, was associated with its working from the outset, although he was only a schoolboy at the time. After graduation he became a teacher but continued his association with the newspaper. On Varghese Mappilai’s death in 1904, he assumed stewardship of the newspaper.

Under Mammen Mappilai, Manorama became a powerful instrument of change. He actively supported the various social reform movements which coalesced to form what is today referred to as the Kerala renaissance. He not only pleaded for economic development but also initiated schemes for the purpose. The Travanacore National and Quilon Bank, of which he was one of the promoters, became the largest private banking institution. As the movement for freedom and democracy shaped up, he became one of its enthusiastic backers.

In 1938, the Dewan of Travancore, C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar, resorted to repression to crush the freedom movement. Malayala Manorama was banned, the Travancore National and Quilon Bank liquidated and Mammen Mappilai jailed. After the country gained independence and Travancore merged in the Indian Union, the newspaper reappeared in 1948.

When the first newspapers in Malayalam appeared, Kerala society was deeply divided on caste and religious lines. Most newspapers began with narrow social bases. Manorama’s growth from a circulation of about 30,000 copies at the time of Mammen Mappilai’s death to 1.5 million today testifies to its remarkable success in cutting across narrow boundaries and reaching out to all sections of the people, irrespective of not only social divisions but also political affiliation. Kerala has a large number of newspapers, but only one other newspaper has been able to make a similar transition. The others, by and large, still remain confined to caste, religious and/or political constituencies.

The newspaper boom in Kerala is attributable to a variety of factors such as near-total literacy, widespread reading habit, high purchasing power and new technology. Manorama has been able to benefit from these factors to a greater extent than the rest because of the traditions set during Mammen Mappilai’s long stewardship. Priyadarsanan’s account of his journalistic life can serve as a useful textbook to a young journalist.

“Maayaaththa Mudra” has been published by the Publication division of the Manorama group. Price: Rs. 85.

Poverty eradication programme falls behind schedule

THE last Left Democratic Front government launched the Kudumbashree programme in 1998 with the proclaimed objective of eradicating absolute poverty in 10 years. While the State Poverty Eradication Mission, which is in charge of the programme, has many achievements to its credit, it appears unlikely to achieve the target.

Kudumbashree now covers 3.77 million families. It has spawned many schemes in different fields. Its biggest achievement is perhaps in the area of micro-enterprises.

Kerala already had one of the lowest poverty rates when the programme was launched.
A World Bank-supported study showed that among the states it had recorded the highest decline in poverty between 1957-58 and 1993-94. Rural poverty in the State fell from 69 per cent in 1970-71 to 19 per cent in 1993-94.

The World Bank attributed the net gains to the poor since the early 1970s mainly to economic growth since there was little change in the distribution pattern during this period. It saw this as supportive of the view that a stable macro-policy environment, combined with micro-policy reforms conducive to economic growth, can help greatly in reducing absolute poverty.

In theory, the Kudumbashree programme aims at eradicating poverty through concerted community action under the leadership of local self-government institutions "by facilitating organisation of the poor for combining self-help with demand-led convergence of available services and resources." However, for all practical purposes, it is a network of self-help groups of women below the poverty line.

To begin with, the programme was confined to the rural areas. It now extends to the whole State.

According to National Sample Survey Organisation data, in 1999-2000, a year after the programme got under way poverty in Kerala was 12.72 per cent as against the all-India average of 26.30 per cent. While in the other States poverty was more in evidence in villages than in towns, Kerala presented a different picture. Here, while rural poverty was only 9.35 per cent urban poverty was 20.27 per cent.

In 2005, when the United Democratic Front was in power, the State Planning Board called for re-focusing attention on the poverty issue. Board vice-chairman CV Padmarajan said 12 million people, mainly farm labour, fishermen, workers in the traditional industries and casual workers in urban areas were struggling under the burden of poverty.

In May this year, the ninth anniversary of the Kudumbashree programme was celebrated with fanfare. At that time NSSO was conducting this year's socio-economic survey, which has since been completed. Its findings suggest that in the past nine years rural poverty has gone up from 12.72 per cent to 13.28 per cent while urban poverty has gone down from 26.30 per cent to 20.2 per cent .

These figures indicate that the Kudumbashree programme will not be able to achieve the aim of wiping out absolute poverty by next year, as originally envisaged.

Significantly, the skewed pattern of more poverty in urban areas than in rural areas persists. Prabhat Patnaik, who is now vice-chairman of the Planning Board, attributes this to migration of the rural unemployed to urban areas.

Patnaik's explanation raises several questions. Migration from villages to towns in search of employment is a trend discernible all over the country. Why is it that in Kerala alone it has upset the rural-urban balance? Also, does the higher decline in urban poverty indicate a slowing down of migration from rural areas?

Patnaik's refutation of the general impression that acute poverty does not exist in Kerala merits serious notice. He points out that when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme was extended to Palakkad and Wayanad districts, many thought it would have no takers. Yet 200,000 people had registered under it.

NREGP was conceived to help poor unemployed households to rise above the poverty line. The responsibility for its implementation rests mainly with local self-government institutions. Its fate in the State offers a clue to understand why such schemes fall behind schedule.

The Centre, which is required to provide 90 per cent of the funds under the programme, released Rs113.42 million in 2005-06 and Rs217.95 million in the first half of 2006-07. The State, which is required to contribute 10 per cent, did not provide a single rupee during this period.

Actual expenditure under NREGP in the first year was nil. In the second year a sum of Rs 18.88 million was spent. This was just six per cent of the funds allocated by the Centre. At that time the authorities had still not drawn up a perspective plan for the two districts. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 24, 2007.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Last chance to save Achuthanandan government

Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan has charged a section of the Kerala media with trying to destroy his party. Recently he said an attempt was also being made to create the impression that the earlier leaders were great and the present ones are bad. The self-esteem discernible in his suggestion that the party still has a sparkling row of leaders is admirable. However, leadership quality is not something that can be validated through self-certification.

It is well known that has been a decline in the society as a whole. People in different walks of life, who make truthful evaluations, have acknowledged that this decline is evident in their fields of activity too. Among them are politicians. There is no reason to believe that CPI (M) ranks and the general public share the view that the party is an exception. The party had admitted that many long-time members and candidates for membership have deserted it in recent years. This is indicative of dissatisfaction in its ranks about its present course.

Jawaharlal Nehru once explained how the generation of freedom-fighters acquired greatness. They were all ordinary people, he said, but they worked for a noble cause, and that made them great. The greatness of the early Communist leaders can also be explained in this manner. The society saw them as persons working for the noble cause of building a just order.

What political parties do today, directly and through their affiliates, cannot be seen as contributions to any noble cause. All their activities are aimed at seizing or retaining power. In the normal course, such activities do not produce great leaders.

Some time ago, while evaluating the changes that came about in Kerala in the years of coalition politics, I noticed that every successive government was worse than the previous one. The United Democratic Front was in power when I recorded this observation. That government went out after a performance that was worse than its predecessor’s. Now a question arises in my mind: can the Left Democratic Front government break the jinx?

For two or three decades the two fronts have been voted to power alternately. But the last change of government was not a routine one. V. S. Achuthanandan’s identification with many popular causes as Leader of the Opposition for five years had led many people to believe that he could provide a different kind of administration. That was why when an attempt was made to deny him the chief ministership some people belonging to the party and possibly many more who do not belong to the party came out to demonstrate their support for him. Although Pinarayi Vijayan said demonstrations could not influence party decision, the central leadership showed readiness to take into account the popular sentiments.

The people’s hopes about the administration dimmed in the first year. The party leadership’s main agenda during this period was to circumscribe the official leadership, which it had to accept against its wishes. The struggle between the two factions hurt the administration’s image. But, at the time of the first anniversary, there was dramatic shift in the situation. The bold initiative to remove the Munnar encroachments and the conclusion of the Smart City agreement came to the government’s rescue for the time being.

Concerted action by the leaderships of the two Communist parties has aborted the Munnar demolitions. Since the task of setting up Smart City now rests primarily on the Dubai authorities, it will presumably go through. But that is not enough to save this government. Within a year, two ministers belonging to a small constituent of the LDF had to quit under a cloud. Now the Opposition has turned against ministers belonging to the major constituents. The parties are engaged in efforts to save their ministers.

This government cannot be saved by saving the ministers concerned. So far no member of this administration has been able to gain recognition as a good minister. At the same time, the parties say they are satisfied with the ministers’ performance. Apparently, although the ministers have not been successful in addressing the people’s problems, they are meeting the party’s needs.

The CPI (M), which heads the LDF, has to take the initiative to save the government. The party’s branch-level conferences, which are now taking place, provide the members with the last opportunity to impress upon the leadership the need to act. When the next conferences come, three years hence, it will be too late.

Adapted from column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi of September 20, 2007.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Lack of effective internal communication in the administration

The Merchiston estate scandal has exposed the lack of effective communication within the administration. Ministers often appear to be unaware of what officials working under them are doing.

The Council of Ministers headed by VS Achuthanandan, which took office last year, was notable for the inexperience of its members. The chief minister and 16 of his 19 colleagues were first-time ministers. However, they all had considerable political experience and the expectation was that they would quickly grasp the essentials of administration.

The most experienced minister, PJ Joseph, of the Kerala Congress (J), had to bow out of the government within a few months following an allegation of sexual harassment of a woman passenger on a flight from Kochi to Chennai.

Some members of the cabinet like Devaswom and Co-operation Minister G. Sudhakaran and Education Minister MA Baby ran into problems with senior officials of their departments quite early. They sought to extricate themselves by throwing the blame on officials.

When officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service encounter problems in the State they generally seek deputation to the Centre. The first to take this route after the present government came to power was Devaswom Secretary EK Bharat Bhushan. Later some other officials, too, migrated to the Centre.

When the Merchiston scandal broke, the State government found it difficult to provide a satisfactory explanation. Although it had supposedly taken over the estate, declaring it an ecologically fragile area, the Birlas were able to sell it to Xavi Mano Mathew, a local businessman. He, in turn, negotiated a sale agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation, which was looking for a suitable site to locate the Space Institute.

The chief minister claimed that ISRO had not approached the State government for land. This was not true. It had written to Revenue Minister KP Rajendran seeking land, and he had forwarded the letter to the Collector of Thiruvananthapuram.
Apparently no one told the chief minister about it.

The district collector asked his deputy to attend to the matter. The deputy collector wrote to ISRO saying no suitable land was available. The revenue minister did not come to know of this until much later.

Forest Minister Benoy Viswom was present at a meeting where a decision was taken to ask Xavi Mano Mathew to file a formal application to regularise his title to the estate. He was the first to blame officials for the scandal.

The blame game peaked when the chief minister told the media that Chief Secretary Lizzie Jacob had erred in not informing him about the construction of a helipad at the estate for the use of the prime minister.

Lizzie Jacob had convened an inter-departmental meeting and issued orders for the construction of the helipad after the General Administration department, which is directly under the chief minister, received a communication from the Centre indicating that the prime minister will lay the foundation stone for the Space Institute.

According to Babu Paul, a retired IAS officer, the Chief Secretary had only taken such action as she was required to take under the protocol governing prime ministerial visits.

Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac has stated that the chief secretary had obtained his department's clearance before sanctioning Rs10 million for the construction of the helipad.

Feeling offended by the chief minister's public disapproval of her conduct, Lizzie Jacob, who had five more months of service left, sought voluntary retirement. She also went on leave immediately.

The Opposition raised the issue of the chief secretary's resignation in the State Assembly. It alleged that the morale of the civil servants was now very low.

In a gracious gesture, Achuthanandan told the Assembly that Lizzie Jacob was a good officer and the government was satisfied with her. He also personally appealed to her to reconsider the decision to seek voluntary retirement.

However, she did not change her mind. Lizzie Jacob is the first IAS officer of the State who has opted to quit rather than serve under unacceptable conditions.

In doing so, she has drawn public attention to the lack of internal communication that is hampering the smooth working of the government.

S. Krishnakumar and KJ Alphons Kannanthanam, two senior IAS officers who had taken voluntary retirement previously, did so to enter politics. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 17, 2007.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On being a leftist in Kerala

Harold Laski (1893-1950), Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, made a big contribution to popularization of socialist ideas in the last century. He was associated with the British Labour Party for many years and served as its Chairman for a term. Once, while addressing a meeting in London, he was repeatedly heckled by a Communist. In exasperation, Laski told him, “My dear friend, why are you interrupting me? We are both Marxists. You in your own way, and I -- in Marx’s.” This anecdote, which I had read somewhere years ago, came to mind when I saw C. Bhaskaran’s response to an article I recently wrote.

Bhaskaran, who was the first President of the Students federation of India, is now a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It is not my intention to suggest that he and I are both Marxists, he in his own way and I in Marx’s. To be a Marxist in Kerala, one has to be member of a particular political party. If Marx has the good fortune to live in the State today, I doubt if he would care to claim the honour of being a Marxist by taking out membership in that party.

Communist parties have come to power in many countries during the past 100 years. They still wield power in some. Marx may find it difficult to believe that what these parties implemented were his ideas. Lenin took over the Tsar’s empire and maintained it under the cloak of Communism. Stalin enlarged the empire. After seven decades of existence it came under the weight of internal contradictions. As Gorbachev initiated political reforms in a bid to solve its problems, the Soviet Union disappeared.

Mao conquered the whole of the old Chinese empire and brought it under the red flag. Deng tried economic reforms, instead of political reforms, to solve its internal problems. Today, the country is making big strides in the global economy. Under the Communist Party’s leadership, China is growing into the world’s largest capitalist country --- yes, capitalist, not communist country. Thrilled by this sight, Bhaskaran proclaims that China’s strength and influence are growing. Those who wonder how under Communist-rule a country can turn capitalist may note the finding of the US magazine Forbes, which keeps track of the world’s richest persons, that China now has 15 billionaires. Mao’s China did not have even millionaires.

The likes of Wal-Mart, which Bhaskaran’s party has vowed to keep out of India, have free run in China. Wal-Mart’s imports from and exports to China are so large that if it were a separate country it would rank sixth among China’s trading partners. Marx will find this incomprehensible. For it does not accord with his concept of Communism.

Bhaskaran and his party want the right to determine not only who is a Marxist but also who is a leftist. He has detected the anti-leftist whom I have been hiding deep inside me! Just as you have to be a member of the Marxist party to be a Marxist, you presumably have to be a member or at least fellow-traveller of a constituent of the Left Democratic Front to gain recognition as a leftist.

In the first parliament convened after the French Revolution, the conservatives were seated on the Speaker’s right and those seeking radical measures were on his left. So the progressive elements came to be identified as the Left. In democratic countries like India and Britain, ruling party members sit on the right side and opposition members on the left side. In Kerala, where the Left Democratic Front alternates in power with the Congress-led United Democratic Front, if the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is on the left in one Assembly it will be on the right in the next. If we are to decide Right and Left in keeping with the French tradition, who is it that wants radical changes in Kerala? It is difficult to view running a hospital with kickbacks from an electricity deal, starting a new edition of the party newspaper with loans from a lottery racketeer and holding football tournaments with gifts from a land racketeer as radical measures.
Adapted from column “Nerkkazhcha” which appeared in Kerala Kaumudi edition dated September 13, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Land racketeers thrive under political and official patronage

GOING by estimates provided by Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence) Jacob Punnoose in a press interview some time ago, mafia operations worth several hundred billion rupees are taking place in Kerala every year. Some dubious land deals that came to light recently indicate that mafia operations in real estate business are on the rise.

Public Works Minister TU Kuruvila had to quit as the government decided to order a judicial inquiry into a land deal between his son Eldo and a Kuwait-based businessman. Now the government is embroiled in a fresh controversy following reports of a suspicious transaction between a local businessman and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

ISRO had written to the State Revenue Minister seeking 100 acres of land in Thiruvananthapuram district to set up a Space Institute. A Deputy Collector informed it that no suitable land was available. However, in response to a newspaper advertisement, ISRO received 17 offers of land from different individuals. From these, it accepted the offer of Xavi Mano Mathew, who expressed readiness to sell his Merchiston estate, near the Ponmudi hill resort.

This tea estate was part of a tract of 280 hectares, which the government had notified as an ecologically fragile land in 2001. Following the notification, the land vested in the State. However, the government failed to take follow-up measures.
At the time of the notification, the Birlas were running the estate. In 2005 they sold it to Mathew. After striking the deal with ISRO, he filed an application with the government for cancellation of the notification.

In the next few weeks, Mathew was able to cut through red tape and obtain all documents needed to establish his title to the land, which was already government property when he acquired it. At one stage, on Mathew's request, Labour Minister PK Gurudasan called a meeting, which was attended also by Forest Minister and senior officials of his department, ostensibly to settle a labour dispute in the estate. However, official minutes show that a decision was taken at this meeting to regularise Mathew's ownership of the notified land.

Pharis Abubaker, who was in the news recently as the man who made the biggest donation to the EK Nayanar memorial football committee, headed by Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, is also said to be engaged in real estate business.

On a superficial view, Eldo Kuruvila, Xavi Mano Mathew and Pharis Abubaker are smart businessmen making tidy profits by buying land cheap and selling it at a higher price. However, the secret of their success appears to lie not in their business acumen but in their political and official contacts. The ease with which real estate operators are able to secure titles in their names for government lands, including forests, is indicative of the level of corruption in the government departments concerned.

Encouraged by the success of the campaign against Kuruvila, the opposition has called for Benoy Viswom's resignation, pending an inquiry into the Merchiston land scandal. The ruling Left Democratic Front counters the demand with the claim that it was the former United Democratic Front government that enacted legislation to permit transfer of forest land to individuals.

The fact is that those engaged in nefarious deals have friends in both the UDF and the LDF. They are able to have their way, whichever Front is in power. The CPI (Marxist) State Committee's directive to the government to inquire into the role of officials in the deal suggests that it does not want the ministers' conduct to be scrutinised.

The State government has now initiated action for takeover of the Merchiston estate. It has assured workers that their jobs will be protected. It has also offered ISRO alternative land free of cost to ensure that the State does not lose the Space Institute.

On Independence Day, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had asked the people to unite against the land mafia. Three months earlier Congress leader VM Sudheeran had called for a joint movement by all those who are opposed to the land mafia. However, a combined assault on the mafia is not likely as both the LDF and the UDF are guided by political considerations rather than popular interests.

Since February a Kerala-specific website ( has been dispensing advice to non-residents on how to protect their property from the land mafia. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 10, 2007.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Ambivalent attitude towards big business entry into retail trade

THE Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the ruling Left Democratic Front and is an integral part of the power structure in Kerala, is often caught in contradictions on the issue of globalisation.

It was an LDF government that allowed Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola to set up plants in the State. When the tribal population built up a powerful movement against exploitation of their water resources by the multinationals, the CPI (M) found it necessary to modify its position.

The party now finds itself in a similar situation on the issue of entry of Big Business into retail trade.

Wal-Mart, the American retail giant, having established itself firmly in China, has been eyeing the Indian market for some time. While the Government of India is agreeable to foreign direct investment in retail trade, it has not created a framework acceptable to multinationals.

Wal-Mart, therefore, decided to enter the market as a partner of a local business group. Even before it could piggy-ride into the Indian market, domestic companies like Reliance and Birlas began setting up retail chains in different parts of the country.

These retail chains are able to operate without hindrance in most States, including Left-ruled West Bengal. The Samajwadi Party government of Uttar Pradesh allowed them to operate but Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati, who became Chief Minister after the recent Assembly elections, has asked the Reliance group to close down its stores.
Mayawati's directive followed violent protests in Lucknow against the opening of a new Reliance outlet.

It is quite possible that the close links between Reliance boss Anil Ambani and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav influenced her decision. Yadav is her bete noir.

The CPI (M) raised no objections when Reliance made preparations to open retail stores in Kerala. In fact, two local leaders of the party accepted the invitation to open its outlets in Kochi. Later some party members pointed out that the entry of retail giants is part of the globalisation process, to which the party is opposed. The State leadership then distanced itself from the two leaders, forcing them to acknowledge that they had erred in attending the Reliance function.

The CPI (M)-controlled Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation is now obstructing Reliance's plan to open a huge store in the capital. The company's efforts to get a licence to run the shop have not succeeded so far.

Apparently the Reliance plan calls for the establishment of a supermarket sprawling over 10,000 square feet. The civic body has a valid reason for denying licence: adequate parking facilities are not available in the vicinity.

The chances are that Reliance will approach the courts if officials and politicians stand in its way. Since the company is already operating stores in Kochi and Kollam, there is no justification for trying to keep it out of Thiruvananthapuram.

The fact is that supermarkets already exist in the State in the private sector as well as in the public and cooperative sectors. In the circumstances, the civic body may find it difficult to refute the charge that the Thiruvananthapuram corporation is discriminating against it.

Retail trade is the means of livelihood of hundreds of thousands of small traders in the State. They fear that the entry of the big corporations with predatory instincts will endanger their existence. The consumer's interest is a factor which the government and the judiciary cannot ignore. But it is not easy to determine what is the interest of the consumer.

Critics of corporatisation of retail trade argue that big companies with immense resources, will drive the small shopkeepers out by offering lower prices. Supporters of corporatisation claim that big companies can offer lower prices as they make bulk purchases directly from the producers. They point out that Wal-Mart has not been displace retailers in America or China. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the changing character of the consumer.

Kerala is now a vast consumer society. The Malayalee middle class has had national and international exposure and is familiar with the concept of supermarkets. The growing popularity of the existing retail chains is indicative of a craving in a section of the middle class for modern shopping facilities. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 3, 2007.