Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A small extension of service to government employees

Gulf Today

The government of Kerala has surreptitiously offered a small extension of service to its employees by pushing the date of retirement to the last day of the financial year in which they attain the age of superannuation.

Kerala has the highest life expectancy in the country. Ironically, it also has the lowest retirement age.

At the time of independence, the retirement age of government employees was 55 years throughout the country. That was enough to assure them a reasonably long working period since life expectancy at that time was only 32 years.

Thanks to the success of various governmental and non-governmental programmes, over the last six decades infant mortality rate in the state dropped dramatically and public health improved significantly.

Today, life expectancy in the state is higher than in the rest of the country.

At the time of the 2001 census, life expectancy at birth in Kerala was at 71.7 years for males and 75.0 years for females as against 64.1 years for males and 65.4 years for females in the country as a whole.

In 1966, when Kerala was under President's rule, the state government, taking note of the rising longevity, raised the age of retirement of government employees to 58 years.

A coalition government, headed by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which came to power the following year, reduced it to 55 years again. This was done to create immediate vacancies in the government and facilitate fresh recruitment.

Quite naturally youths welcomed the step. Since then the governments at the Centre and in the other states have raised the retirement age to 58 or even 60 years.

Nowhere is it below 58 years. Central government employees now retire at 60. In Assam and Uttar Pradesh, too, the retirement age is 60 years.

School teachers in Kerala, like government employees, retire at 55. The retirement age of teachers in Madhya Pradesh is 62 years, which is higher than that of government employees.

No government in Kerala has had the courage to increase the retirement age since the move will be unpopular with young jobseekers. The state suffers a double loss on this account.

On the one hand, the state incurs a huge expenditure by way of pension payments to employees for long periods. On the other, it loses the services of persons who have work experience and are physically and mentally fit to work for several years more.

Even government doctors retire at 55 in Kerala. This has proved beneficial to the private medical colleges and hospitals that have sprung up in the state in recent years.

These institutions are able to find their requirement of doctors and teachers from among the recently retired. Pension and salary payments account for about 75% of the Kerala government's non-plan expenditure.

In the past 10 years, government employees' salary payments have risen from Rs22.16 billion to Rs80.55 billion a year and pension payments from Rs7.53 billion to Rs40.54 billion a year.

Early this year, a government-appointed public expenditure review committee proposed that the retirement age of government employees and teachers be raised from 55 to 58 years immediately and to 60 years later on.

It said this would release a significant part of the government revenue for productive use. It pointed out that often the government paid pension to retiring employees for 25 to 30 years. It was not good for healthy persons to receive payment without doing any work.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan immediately shot down the proposal. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said, "No political party has come forward to support the demand for a higher retirement age."

Some organisations of government employees have called for upward revision of the retirement age. However, no political party backs the demand.

The Democratic Youth Federation of India, the CPI-M's youth wing, opposes the demand on the ground that it will restrict employment opportunities.

There are 4.26 million jobseekers on the live registers of the employment exchanges in the state. Of them, 2.31 million are women. The government's annual intake of 18,000 can make little difference to joblessness of this magnitude.

The move to shift the retirement date of employees from their dates of birth to the last day of the financial year was announced by Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac in this year's budget speech. To mollify the youth, he has said some 12,000 government jobs will still be on offer this year.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kerala awaits outcome of CPI-M's poll gamble

Indo-Asian News Service

One question nags political parties and pundits alike after the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala: Will the Communist Party of India-Marxist's gamble pay off or will the communal chickens come home to roost?

All 20 constituencies of the state went to the polls on April 16. Since counting of votes will take place only on May 16, there is an agonizing wait of a month before the voting machines yield their secret.

Elections in the state are essentially trials of strength between the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. In the assembly elections, the people vote the two fronts to power alternately.

While in the panchayat polls, the LDF has an edge over the UDF, in the Lok Sabha elections, the UDF generally fared better than the LDF until 2004, when the LDF bagged 18 of the 20 seats. The Indian Federal Democratic Party, a partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, got one seat. The lone UDF seat went to the Indian Union Muslim League. For the first time, the Congress drew a blank.

The popular explanation for the LDF landslide of 2004 is that the people turned away from the UDF, disgusted by the prolonged group war in the Congress and the cynical poll-eve patch-up. The pendulum swung so widely that the UDF was almost wiped out.

Several Muslim groups, unhappy over the League's soft response to the demolition of Babri Masjid, backed the LDF in 2004 and in the assembly elections of 2006. The lesson the CPI-M drew from these elections was that Muslim support can make a difference to its fortune.

The Kerala party, which has to alternate in power with the Congress-led alliance, envies the record of the West Bengal party, which has been in office continuously for three decades. For some years, it has been looking out for new partners who can help it achieve the dream of unbroken run of power.

When former chief minister K. Karunakaran walked out of the Congress with his followers, state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was ready to welcome him into the LDF. Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan set his face against it. As the national leadership sided with him, Vijayan's plan fell through.

Before the Lok Sabha elections, Pinarayi Vijayan identified People's Democratic Party (PDP) chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani as a partner who can help boost the LDF's prospects. A fiery orator, Mahdani shot into prominence in the 1990s with a virulent campaign on the Babri Masjid issue. He was arrested in connection with a series of bomb blasts in Coimbatore shortly before a visit by BJP leader L.K. Advani in 1998, and remained in jail without bail or parole for more than nine years. On acquittal in 2007, he emerged with a martyr's halo.

Vijayan struck a deal with Mahdani under which the PDP extended support to the LDF in 19 constituencies in exchange for its adopting a candidate of his choice in Ponnani. Achuthanandan set his face against this deal, too, but this time the national leadership sided with Vijayan.

General secretary Prakash Karat apparently endorsed Pinarayi Vijayan's electoral scheme with a view to maximizing the number of seats the party can win in Kerala.

Of the party's 43 seats in the outgoing Lok Sabha, 40 came from its strongholds of West Bengal (26 out of a total of 42), Kerala (12 out of 20) and Tripura (2 out of 2). Local tie-ups brought in three seats -- two from Tamil Nadu and one from Andhra Pradesh.

Since Singur and Nandigram were sure to hurt the party's prospects in West Bengal, it wanted to retain the gains of 2004 in Kerala at all costs. Playing on Muslim sentiments a la Abdul Naser Mahdani appeared to offer the best chance in this regard. To maintain secular balance, the party brought on to its platform Janapaksham, a BJP splinter group, also.

The PDP deal ran counter to the CPI-M's proclaimed policy of not having any truck with communal parties, which was never pursued strictly anyway. A breakaway faction of the predominantly Christian outfit, the Kerala Congress, is a constituent of the LDF. The Indian National League, a splinter of the Muslim League, enjoys the benefits of LDF membership without being a constituent.

Muslims constitute 25 percent of Kerala's population and Christians 19 percent. The common perception that Communists are anti-religion has limited the party's appeal among both groups. The piggy-back ride may have helped the LDF to gain Muslim votes but it may have come with a high price tag.

The CPI-M took away two seats of its alliance partners to put through its electoral strategy. The CPI, which resented the gifting of its Ponnani seat to Mahdani's nominee, was pacified by offering it Wayanad instead. The Janata Dal-Secular, which was left with no seat after the CPI-M set up its own candidate in Kozhikode, vent its anger by working against the LDF.

Analysts are certain to scrutinize the poll results closely to see how the Hindu majority, from which the CPI-M draws the bulk of its support, has responded to the party's pampering of the PDP.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Governmental machinery comes alive after poll break

Gulf Today

THE administrative machinery, which came to a grinding halt as election fever gripped Kerala, has started moving again. However, an air of uncertainty prevails in the state as the election results remain unknown.

The state went to the polls on Thursday, along with more than 100 other constituencies in different parts of the country. Counting of votes will take place only on May 16 after the completion of all five phases of polling.

The state secretariat wore a deserted look during the past few weeks as election work kept ministers and officials busy. Most ministers were out of the capital, overseeing the campaigns of their parties in the various districts. They were so preoccupied that even the garrulous among them, who habitually hog attention with controversial remarks, were out of the media for several days.

Several thousand government officials had been drafted for election duty. This resulted in dislocation of normal activity in many offices.

Statements recorded by the police in the course of investigation of suspected terrorist links found their way into the media during the campaigm. The names of People's Democratic Party (PDP) president Abdul Naser Ma'dani, and his wife Sufia figured in several of them.

Sufia Ma'dani's name came up also in the statements of persons whom the police had interrogated in connection with the burning of a Tamil Nadu bus at Kalamassery, near Kochi, when Ma'dani was a Coimbatore jail.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) accused the state police of ignoring these statements because of the camaraderie between the PDP and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).

As Advocate-General CP Sudhakar Prasad delayed legal advice on the Central Bureau of Investigation's request for permission to prosecute CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, there was no forward movement in the Lavalin case.

However, on poll eve, the Lavalin scandal cast its shadow in an unexpected manner. Acting on an application filed by an advocate, a judicial magistrate directed the police to register a case against Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Pinarayi Vijayan in connection with the reported disappearance of an official file relating to the Lavalin deal.

As soon as polling was over, the police initiated action on the sensitive matters which it had soft-pedalled so far. A team headed by the police commissioner of Kochi began investigation of the allegations against Sufia Ma'dani. It is also expected to re-investigate the Kalamassery bus burning case.

At Thiruvananthapuram, the police registered a case in connection with the disappearance of the Lavalin file. Among the accused are Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Pinarayi Vijayan. The charges against them include theft, destruction of evidence and conspiracy.

Pinarayi Vijayan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan figure in the case by virtue of the positions they held when the State Electricity Board signed the Lavalin deal. Vijayan was Power Minister at the time and Balakrishnan was a member of the Electricity Board.

There is room to doubt if the state police can be relied upon to conduct a credible investigation when the Home Minister himself is an accused. It is likely that at some stage the court will be called be examine this matter.

The state is now witnessing some political fall-out of the elections. Offices of the Janata Dal (Secular) have been attacked at several places.

A constituent of the LDF, the Janata Dal (S) had withdrawn its nominee from the cabinet in protest after the CPI-M took away its Kozhikode seat. It also asked its cadres to work for the defeat of LDF candidates.

Observers believe the attacks on the party's offices were in retaliation for the hostility it showed during the elections. At least two of the five JD (S) legislators had broken with the state leadership and stood by the LDF.

Pinarayi Vijayan has indicated that one of them may be rewarded with a minister's post. This may be part of a strategy to wean away JD (S) legislators who are willing to desert state party president MP Veerendrakumar.

There is speculation that Congress (S) leader Ramachandran Kadannapalli may also be inducted into the cabinet. The party, which has only one member in the Assembly, was not given representation when the LDF ministry was constituted. Re-thinking on the subject is indicative of a desire to salvage the LDF which came under severe strain during the elections.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Caught between parties, poverty, Chengara Dalits can't go out to vote

Indian Express

Barely a hundred kilometres from where K R Narayanan began his journey to become the country's first Dalit President, Dalits - even in thousands - can't easily step out and vote on April 16. The exit from their 21-month-long settlement in Harrison Malayalam's plantation is routinely blockaded by the rubber estate's union activists, mainly of CITU. If they have to get out through the adjoining forest land, they will have to brave surprise encounters with patrolling gangs. Their big fear is that if they leave for polling en bloc, their meagre possessions could vanish. Worse, they may be stopped forever from returning to their newfound homeland - over which, to begin with, they have no legal rights.

Nearly 5,000 mobilised Dalit families from all over the state marched into the Chengara estate in August 2007 not to stay put. According to their leader Laha Gopalan, it was primarily to assert Dalit rights over suitable land anywhere in the state. In the first flush of the Achuthanandan-led Left Government, the famously crusading Chief Minister was expected to do a good turn. Instead, he chose to endorse his party that led a trade union assault on the encroachers. With the Congress eventually warming up to the anti-Left plank and the BJP eyeing first-time votes, their unions backed out (at least, officially) leaving the Left to take on the Dalits. There is a court order for eviction but "without bloodshed". So both camps are waiting for a bloodless coup.

All this is common knowledge in the state. The problem starts when you try to actually go in and find out more. Across the estate road five women workers are sitting on plastic chairs to block your way. A man on a bike appears to do the tough talking.

"No way you can go in and do your one-sided sob story!"

"What's your side of the story?"


He is equally tight-lipped about his identity. It is not difficult to identify his bike though. It is registered in the name of the plantation.

Finally, after a half-hour trek through the thin forest when you reach the squatters, you see a touristy Kerala turned upside down. The scenic slopes are dotted with shacks - bare earth for floors, plastic sheets for roofs and shaky rubber wood for support. An uncluttered expanse of slums that has begun to function like countryside homesteads.
Some sneak out to do odd jobs in the neighbourhood; some stay back, grow vegetables, rear livestock, slaughter the near-dead rubber trees and sell the sap to buyers that include more than willing CITU men. The squatters are turning into settlers, a few armed with mobile phones to beat the siege.

Barring the odd drunken outburst, it is a composed lot that makes easy conversation in a variety of Malayalam dialects that reveals the demographic spread. This all-Dalit mini-Kerala clearly prefers an uncertain community slum life to the random distress of low-skill job hunts from their scattered three-cent households, allotted by the Government decades ago. This, says C P John, an early Chengara activist from the Congress-led front and an erstwhile CPI(M) man, is a basic flaw in Kerala's land reforms. Homelessness was addressed, not landlessness. Will Oommen Chandy do what Achuthanandan refuses to? Unlikely, feels B R P Bhaskar, the media veteran who lent his voice to this Dalit cause. He finds Kerala's coalition fronts that mirror each other far too assured of alternating stints at power to think out of the box.

Dalit leader Laha Gopalan, however, is far from resigned. He is out to get the state's 10 per cent Dalits to block-vote against the Left and for the Congress front. His local target is Ananta Gopan, the CPI(M) candidate in Pathanamthitta to which Chengara belongs. But why settle for Congressman Anto Antony when Mayawati has fielded a candidate here? Gopalan dismisses BSP's K K Nair as an upper-caste white elephant incapable of garnering a thousand votes.

Meanwhile, the sole saving grace from the Left Government is an ambulance stationed outside the estate. The colony has lost nine lives and a 10th man is lying seriously ill in a local hospital. However, he won't go unattended unlike in Nandigram. (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

A cartooning professional since 1977, E P Unny has worked with the Hindu, Sunday Mail, the Economic times and is now the chief Political Cartoonist with the Indian Express Group. Between Cartoons, he travels and sketches. He has drawn and writing graphic novels in Malayalam and is now working on one in English.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lavalin scandal in the poll campaign and beyond

Gulf Today

The Lavalin scandal did not figure prominently in the United Democratic Front's (UDF) election campaign, which is drawing to a close. That, however, does not mean the Left Democratic Front (LDF) can breathe easy.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan's remark that the Lavalin issue has petered out is indicative of the party's satisfaction over the apparent success of party's bid to limit its electoral impact.

The case relates to a deal which Vijayan, as Electricity Minister in the last LDF government, had negotiated with the Canadian company, SNC Lavalin, for modernisation of some power stations.

The moment the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated the scandal, decided to arraign Vijayan, who is a member of the CPI-M politburo, as an accused in the corruption case, the party launched a propaganda offensive alleging the Congress-led government at the Centre was implicating him with a political motive.

Initially, the CPI-M had tried to pin the blame for the deal on the previous UDF regime, which had first signed a contract with Lavalin.

What the UDF government signed was a consultancy agreement, worth only Rs260 million.
Vijayan's negotiations resulted in a supply contract worth Rs 3.75 billion.

Loopholes in the new contract enabled the company to get away without fulfilling its contractual obligations.

The bid to discredit the CBI investigation as politically motivated was part of a calculated strategy to contain the fallout from the scandal. Another part of the strategy was to delay the government's response to the agency's request for permission to prosecute Vijayan and the former bureaucrats who figure in the list of accused.

The government could have acted quickly on the request after consulting the Law Department. But, acting at the party's instance, it decided to seek the opinion of the Advocate General.

A non-government organisation petitioned the high court in an attempt to speed up the process. The court allowed the government three months' time to take a decision. It also left the door open for the government to seek more time if necessary.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who is in a minority in the council of ministers, while talking to newspersons, made no effort to hide his displeasure over these developments.

By delaying a decision on the CBI's request for permission to prosecute Vijayan, the party was able to avert the possibility of his arrest before the election.

Half way through the campaign the UDF realised that the Lavalin issue had been pushed back by the controversy over the CPI-M's ties with Abdul Naser Ma'dani's People's Democratic Party (PDP), which hogged the most attention.

Although the alliance decided to push the issue to the top, its big guns did not highlight it in campaign speeches even afterwards. This was what prompted Pinarayi Vijayan to state that the issue had petered way.

The PDP issue also did much damage to the CPI-M. When it found that the camaraderie with Ma'dani was doing more harm than good, the party leaders stopped sharing the dais with him. They advised Ma'dani to campaign separately.

It will be wrong to presume that Lavalin became a non-issue in the election. It remained before the public throughout as lower level leaders of the UDF and the media harped on it all the time.

In retrospect, the CPI-M strategy appears to have misfired. The attempts to question the credibility of the investigative agency and delay the prosecution conveyed the impression that party had something to hide.

Whatever the opinion the Advocate General gives, the CBI will be able to go ahead with the prosecution of all accused, including Pinarayi Vijayan. On several occasions, the Supreme Court has stated that the CBI can go ahead with a corruption case even if government sanction is not forthcoming.

The agency approached the government for permission because it is charging the accused with criminal conspiracy, besides corruption. Even if the cabinet decides against granting permission to prosecute Vijayan, the governor can accord sanction.

There is also the possibility of some public interest group challenging the government's decision to refuse sanction for prosecution. It will then be for the court to take a final decision.

There is one scenario in which the CPI-M can stave off Pinarayi Vijayan's prosecution.
That hinges on the possibility of the emergence of a new central government, which is dependent upon on the party's support for survival and therefore willing to take a politically motivated decision to get him off the hook.

Monday, April 6, 2009

High-profile candidate comes under fierce attack

Gulf Today

Of the 217 candidates seeking the 20 Lok Sabha seats from Kerala, there is one with a name that may be recognised beyond the Malayali diaspora: Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations.

Tharoor, who quit the UN bureaucracy after losing to Ban Ki Moon in the election for the Secretary General's post in 2006, is the Congress candidate in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.

His website describes him as an author, peace-keeper, refugee worker and human rights activist and the recipient of several awards, including a Commonwealth Writers Award and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, the highest honour for Overseas Indians.

In 1998, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, named him a "global leader of tomorrow" As it happens, Tharoor is also the one who has attracted the most vicious attack.

His detractors include, apart from the Left Democratic Front, various Islamic groups and anti-Coca Cola agitators.

Born in London of non-resident Keralite parents, he has spent all his life outside the state.

After higher education in the US, he joined the UN service in 1978, at the age of 22, and went on to become its youngest Under Secretary General.

Tharoor was India's official nominee for the Secretary General's post.

Many considered the government's decision to sponsor him impolitic.

The post has never gone to a person from a big country and the decision to seek the post for an Indian was inconsistent with the country's known desire for a place in an expanded Security Council.

Since leaving the UN, Tharoor has been spending time in New York, Dubai and Kerala.

Afras Ventures, a Dubai firm, of which he is the chairman, has taken up educational activity in Kerala with a view to helping migrant jobseekers to upgrade their skills.

Tharoor publicly expressed his desire to enter parliament last year. The Congress party in the state offered little encouragement. However, the national leadership picked him for the prestigious Thiruvananthapuram seat.

Shashi Tharoor is a candidate who will appeal to large sections of the educated middle class voters of Thiruvananthapuram, especially those who loathe the common variety of politicians.

This constituency had warmly welcomed the late VK Krishna Menon, who, like Tharoor, had spent most of his life outside the state, after being rejected by Mumbai.

Some young bloggers are among the non-party voters who have come forward to support Tharoor. They met the candidate and came away impressed with his vision for the city and the state.

But a candidate cannot limit his appeal to any one section. So, Tharoor, donning traditional Kerala costumes, has been sweating it out in the open, wooing the likes of slum-dwellers and fisher folks.

Thiruvananthapuram is a constituency which one cannot take for granted. Former chief minister Pattom Thanu Pillai (PSP), former Communist Party of India (CPI) state secretary MN Govindan Nair and poet ONV Kurup are among those whom the city's voters have rejected in the past.

The seat, which has changed hands several times, has been with the CPI since 2004. The party's district secretary, P. Ramachandran Nair, is the candidate this time.

The main thrust of the Left Democratic Front's attack on Tharoor is that he is pro-American and pro-Israel.

Being pro-American is a cardinal sin in the eyes of Left supporters and being pro-Israel is an equally cardinal sin in the eyes of Muslims. Tharoor has sought to rebut the charge of being pro-American by pointing out that it was the US which had blocked his election as the UN chief executive.

To counter the charge of being pro-Israel, he is distributing an article he had written declaring that a sovereign Palestine state was his dream and circulating photographs he had taken with Yasser Arafat.

As a candidate handpicked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor is seen as a likely central minister in the event of the party heading the next government.

This gives him a natural advantage over his rivals, who include two former state ministers, A. Neelalohithadasan Nadar (Bahujan Samaj Party) and MP Gangadharan (Nationalist Congress Party). Who would not like his representative to be a minister?
That Tharoor may become a minister is what worries those who have been agitating against the Coca Cola plant at Plachimada in Palakkad district. He is a member of an advisery committee of a foundation set up by the Coca Cola company for charitable activities.

While defending his association with the company's charitable work, he also publicly endorsed its position on its disputes with the Plachimada agitators.