Monday, September 28, 2009

Kerala's dubious plan to become shopping destination

Gulf Today

THE Grand Kerala Shopping Festival (GKSF), which began on a quiet note three years ago, has become a major official effort to boost local consumer spending under cover of making the state an international shopping destination.

The inspiration behind GKSF, billed flamboyantly as Asia's biggest shopping extravaganza, is the Dubai Shipping Festival (DSF). Its seeds were sown when DSF organised its first show in India at Kochi in 2006.

The Malabar Shopping Festival, held at Kozhikode the same year, helped the state to fetch additional sales tax revenue of Rs50 million. That convinced the government that consumerism is in its interest.

DSF came to Kochi after its organisers found that families of many Keralites working in Dubai visited the Emirates for shopping at festival time.

They reckoned that the Kochi show would help them reach out to about five million Keralites who had direct association with Dubai through family members working there.

DSF did not come to Kerala a second time. But since 2007 the state has been organising GKSF with the co-operation of various commercial interests who benefit directly from it.

GKSF coincides with the worldwide shopping season covering the Christmas and New Year holidays. The entire state is supposed to become one huge shopping mall during the 46-day festival period -- from Dec.1 to Jan.15.

Kerala has three shopping seasons. The main one coincides with Onam, when Keralites traditionally acquire new clothes. In recent years, manufacturers have been aggressively promoting the sale of a wide variety of products including automobiles and home appliances during this period.

With Muslims constituting 25 per cent of the state's population, Eid time is also a major shopping season. Thanks to the extensive use of the European calendar, the popularity of the Christmas-New Year period as a shopping season extends beyond the 19 per cent Christian population.

There is no reliable data to ascertain the extent to which GKSF, now in the third year, has contributed to the growth of the Christmas-New Year shopping season.

The government had made a budgetary allocation of Rs150 million for the first GKSF in 2007 and commissioned a Dubai-based advertising group to promote it abroad. About 8,000 foreign business houses reportedly showed interest in it but only about 2,100 participated and most of them were local enterprises.

Initially, taking the cue from DSF's Kochi experiment, the state government targetted non-resident Keralites and their families.It sought to convey to the NRKs the message that they could come home and make purchases for the family here.

Since that message did not yield expected results, in the second year the government shifted the emphasis from NRKs to tourists.

Domestic arrivals had grown by 40 per cent and foreign arrivals by 25 per cent in the previous year, raising the turnover of the state's hospitality industry to Rs100 billion.

It also decided to turn GKSF into an occasion to showcase Kerala's traditional items like handicrafts, handloom fabric, marine products, coir, jewellery, cashew and spices. Spice fairs were held in Idukki and Wayanad, a cashew fair was held at Kollam, a coir fair at Alappuzha and a handloom fair at Kannur.

The budgetary allocation was hiked to Rs200 million that year. An outfit of the Malayala Manorama group was brought on board as media partner. With the help of commercial houses, the newspaper organised promotions and contests.

Jewellers joined the GKSF campaign in a big way. They added 40 kilograms of gold to the prizes on offer through devices such as lucky draws and scratch-and-win cards.

Annual gold sales in India are estimated at 800 tonnes. About 45 per cent of all gold transactions take place in Kerala, although the state accounts for only 3.5 per cent of the population.

As part of the bid to attract domestic tourists, a road show was held at Chandigarh, with an eye on Punjab, the state which is ahead of Kerala in both per capita income and expenditure. There is no precise information on Punjab's response to the marketing effort.

Although there is talk of making Kerala an international shopping destination, the government's real objective is to boost local consumer spending. Principal industries secretary

T. Balakrishnan, one of the prime movers behind GKSF, let the cat out of the bag when he said recently in a newspaper interview that the aim was to raise the Keralite's shopping bill, now estimated at a mere five per cent, to 30 per cent.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Indus motif found at Edakkal throws a little light on Kerala’s past

The Mathrubhumi, in its editions dated September 22, reported that signs and characters which point to links with the Indus Valley Civilization have been found in the Edakkal Cave in the Wayanad district.

The reporter, Vimal Kottakkal, said they were found during excavations by the Kerala government’s department of archaeology. Similar signs had been found in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka earlier, but this was the first time they had been found in Kerala.

He also said Dr. M. R. Raghava Varier, who had studied the Edakkal find, had confirmed the presence of Indus motif

Evidently the find is important because it throws a little light on our past, which has been obliterated with cock-and-bull stories built around mythological characters like Parasurama and Vamana. But it does not seem to have evoked much interest in the State.

The Hindu followed up the Mathrubhumi story. “Sign akin to Indus Valley found in Kerala”, said a Malappuram report in the paper yesterday. To day it carried a report from T.S. Subramaniam in Chenna under the headline “Edakkal engraving a unique find”.

Subramaniam, who talked to Iravatham Mahadevan, a scholar on the Indus seals and the ancient Tamil Brahmi script, said he had congratulated Dr. Varier and his colleagues on this ‘major discovery’.

The Edakkal Cave has been attracting tourists in recent years. A write-up in the Bloggerbase website says the cave was discovered by Fred Fawcett, a police superintendent, who was a pre-history enthusiast.

According to Vimal Kottakkal, Faucett studied the cave drawings in 1901. With all his enthusiasm for pre-history, he could not have linked them to the Indus Valley Civilization, for that glorious chapter of the subcontinent’s past was unknown at the time. Englishmen, recreating India’s past with the help of followers of the Vedic tradition, had decided that there was nothing worthwhile outside the Rig Veda.

Since the middle of the 19th century Englishmen had been pulling down ancient structures to find material for laying rail tracks without bothering about history or archaeology. A British army officer, Alexander Cunningham, who was interested in archaeology, found a Harappan seal. He assessed rightly that it belonged to an ancient period but presumed wrongly that it was Brahmi writing. The discovery of more Harappan seals in the early part of the 20th century led the authorities to undertake extensive excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. It was not until 1930 that John Marshall unveiled the picture of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Fawcett suggested the Edakkal carvings might be the handiwork of the Kurumbar tribe of Wayanad. He wrote, "The curious reluctance of the Kurumbars to approach the Cave, combined with the simultaneous want of reverence for it both on the part of the Paniyas and the local Hindus, who are very small in numbers and not long resident in the Wayanad, might tempt one to hazard the theory as to the carvings being the handiwork of Kurumbars of a bygone day".

Some of the tribes of Kerala are among the oldest inhabitants of the subcontinent. The Paniyas find mention in the Rig Veda as one of the prosperous communities whose cows the Vedic tribes coveted. The Hindu establishment, dominated by followers of the Vedic tradition, is now trying to convince us that the hostile tribes quietly surrendered to the Vedic community and voluntarily accepted bondage.

Genome studies going on in India and abroad are yielding valuable information about the movement of people from the African continent to the far corners of the world over tens of thousands of years. They may not reveal much about the ancient tribes of Kerala, who appear to be part of a chain extending from Africa to Australia and the Pacific Islands because they do not figure much in them. The studies appear to cover only one tribe, the Kurichiyars.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Political rivals point to each other’s links with goons

Gulf Today

How many goons are there in Kerala? This was a question which Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was to answer in the State Assembly last week. He evaded it with a written reply saying information was being collected.

The day the question came up in the house the minister was in New Delhi to receive an award from a media company which had adjudged Kerala as the state with the best record in the maintenance of law and order.

As he was receiving the award, the Opposition was flaying the government alleging collapse of law and order in the state.

According to information provided by the government in the Assembly on another occasion, there are 374 goons in the state and 43 of them are in jails. Citing these figures in a newspaper article, Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy asked: are the remaining 331 goons the ones who were terrorising Kerala?

Oommen Chandy was the chief minister when the state promulgated an anti-goon ordinance for the first time in 2006. According to him, there were 817 persons from Thiruvananthapuram district, 433 from Kollam district and 428 from Kochi in the list of goons prepared at that time.

Joining issue with Oommen Chandy, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan asked why the United Democratic Front government had not arrested even one goon during the five years it was in power.

The exchanges between the two leaders made it clear that the difference between the UDF and the LDF was limited to the estimated number of goons. When it comes to action, both are equally unenthusiastic.

The UDF government, which enacted the anti-goon law at the fag end of its term, did not take action against any one under it. The LDF scrapped the law as soon as it came to power and brought in another.

According to Oommen Chandy, the law was changed to get supporters of the Communist Party of India-Marxist out of its ambit.

A redeeming feature of the LDF law is that it has limited the scope for misuse. Only the district magistrate is empowered to order detention under it. Under the UDF law, apart from the district magistrate, police officers authorised by the government for the purpose could also order detention.

The LDF law altered the definition of the goon. The term now applies only to persons found guilty by a court or by the police in three different cases based on private complaints. Since members of the public do not ordinarily have the courage to lodge complaints against criminals who enjoy political patronage most of the persons in the list of 2006 ceased to be goons.

In the newspaper article, Oommen Chandy accused the LDF of throwing the door open for political interference in the administration of the law. Under the UDF law, the detention orders were to be reviewed by a committee comprising three high court judges.

The LDF law provides for political nominees in the review committee. The committee constituted by the present government includes two persons who had contested the local bodies elections as CPI-M candidates.

In his response to Oommen Chandy’s charges, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan referred to the alleged links between some Congress leaders and the goons who were convicted in the sensational Kanichukulangara murder case.

He sought to contrast the LDF government’s record with that of the LDF government, which had arrested Santosh Madhavan on charges of rape and Omprakash and Rajesh on charges of concealment of evidence in the Paul M. George murder case.

He, of course, glossed over the fact that these dubious characters were arrested in the wake of a barrage of media reports alleging they were under the protection of political leaders.

The arguments and counter-arguments of the Home Minister and the Opposition leader over the law and order situation are devoid of merit as the state has received awards for good performance in this area under both LDF rule and UDF rule.

Kerala was first chosen for the law-and-order award early in this decade. When the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative organised an interaction between police personnel and human rights defenders at Thiruvananthapuram in 2003 an officer proudly cited this award as a testimonial for the state police.

CM Radhakrishnan Nair, an Indian Police Service officer who had served as Additional Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, told him that the award only meant that Kerala was better off than Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 21, 2009.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Religious columns of newspapers

A journalism student, working on a paper on religious columns in Malayalam newspapers, recently sought my answers to a questionnaire. Below are the answers I gave.

The appearance of religious columns in the daily newspapers is a recent phenomenon. The Malayalam media appear to have borrowed the concept from elsewhere. The Hindu has been a pioneer in this respect in India. Reports based on Hindu religious discourses started appearing regularly in that newspaper more than 50 years ago. The daily feature was introduced at the instance of Kasturi Gopalan, who was its Publisher in the 1950s and his brother, Kasturi Srinivasan, its Editor. Later on the newspaper started publishing write-ups relating to Islam and Christianity to coincide with festivals observed by followers of these religions.

Many Malayalam newspapers have now a set pattern of religious coverage. The Ramayana figures prominently in the mass circulation papers during the Malayalam month of Karkkadakam and discourses on Islam appear during the month of Ramadan. They also take note of the birth and death anniversaries of persons revered by large caste groups.

It cannot be said that the newspapers are devoting space to religions at the expense of hard news. Now some television channels have also started taking interest in religious material. They also run serials based on Hindu and Christian religious themes. Prohibition of representation of the Prophets appears to stand in the way of Islamic serials. Some years ago Doordarshan was forced to abandon a serial based on Biblical stories since an Islamic group objected to the portrayal of Jewish and Christian prophets who are Islam’s prophets too.

I suspect that, while the columns may be popular with devout people belonging to the religions concerned, not many readers may be taking an interest in writings about other religions. The television serials are probably able to transcend the religious lines. The media’s interest in religion must be seen as a part of its marketing strategy.

The columns convey ethical messages but there is nothing to suggest that they make a beneficial impact on the public.

The religious columns do not pose any threat to communal harmony. However, they seem to weaken the secular fabric to the extent that they strengthen fundamentalist ideas. Some studies have pointed to a clear link between Doordarshan’s Hindi serials based on the Hindu epics and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the north. The problem lies not in the themes that the media picks up from the religious texts and traditions but in the way it treats them. Instead of interpreting the stories in a manner suitable to the present times the media unthinkingly revives and reinforces antediluvian ideas.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A motivated bid to boost the number of poor people

Gulf Today

INDIA's first Social Development Report, published in 2006, the year in which the present Left Democratic Front (LDF) government took office in Kerala, estimated that 12.72 per cent of the state's population was poor. A survey ordered by the state government, the result of which is due to be released next month, may indicate a threefold increase in the number of the poor.

The anticipated growth of poverty is not the result of deterioration in the condition of the people under LDF rule. It is the result of a motivated attempt to boost the number of persons below the poverty line (BPL).

The state government wants to increase the number of BPL families so that more people can benefit from programmes meant for such families. It expects the step to yield a dividend to the ruling coalition at election time.
For long, the Centre's estimate of poverty has been at variance with that of the state. The estimates differ widely because the two governments use different yardsticks to measure poverty.

Early in this decade the Centre pegged the number of BPL families in the state at 1.2 million. The state government conducted its own survey with the help of members of the Kudumbasree self-help mission and came up with a list which contained an additional one million families.

In 2006 the Centre pruned the BPL list. It said only about 900,000 families in the state were eligible for inclusion in the list. But the state government said there were 2.5 million BPL families.

The Centre identifies BPL families using 13 socio-economic parameters such as operational landholding, housing, clothing, food security, sanitation, ownership of consumer durables like TV sets, literacy, means of livelihood, number of children, type of indebtedness etc. A good showing on one or two of these parameters will result in exclusion from BPL category.

The norms adopted by Kerala permit exclusion from the BPL list only if the families have members who are regular employees of public, private or co-operative institutions or have concrete houses with plinth area of 100 square feet or more or one acre of land or a four-wheel vehicle for private use or an NRI member.

Last year Central and state officials undertook a joint review of poverty norms. While the Central officials conceded that the Kerala formula was progressive and sensitive and took into account poverty in its totality, no agreed norms emerged.

While the state government's norms may be in order, its BPL list has attracted widespread criticism on two grounds. One is that many poor families have been excluded. The other is that many ineligible families have been included.

The Kudumbasree mission, which conducted the survey for the state government, is the local version of the network of women's self-help groups (SHGs) set up by all states in furtherance of a Central scheme. Many Kudumbasree units are under the control of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the LDF. This has prompted the Congress, which heads the opposition United Democratic Front, to establish an SHG network of its own, named Janasree.

In view of the leanings of Kudumbasree units, there is room to suspect that political considerations played a role in the exclusion of eligible families and inclusion of ineligible ones.

In this year's budgets, both the Centre and the state announced plans to supply rice to BPL families with higher subsidies. Only those in the Centre's BPL list will get the benefits it has announced. The state will have to find its own resources to help those who are not in the Central list.

Eager to raise the number of families eligible for subsidised supplies, the state government ordered a fresh BPL survey. This time it requisitioned the services of teachers to undertake the field work. They began the massive exercise of gathering data from an estimated 8.6 million families in May.

While teachers have better credentials than Kudumbasree members to undertake the survey, the possibility of political bias still remains as many teachers too have strong political bias.

Local Self-government Minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty told the State Assembly recently that the new BPL list, which would exclude ineligible families and include eligible ones, would be published in October.

There is speculation that no fewer than 35 million families will be in the new list. That means 40 per cent of the population will be officially certified poor. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 14, 2009

Monday, September 7, 2009

Kerala's high-speed rail corridor plan is on wrong track


EVEN as the Smart City project and the Vizhinjam deep-water port project, the major items of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government's developmental agenda, are in the doldrums, it has come up with a new dream project: a high-speed rail corridor.

Well before the last Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), confident of an LDF win, had identified a few projects to be pursued when it comes to power.

Elamaram Kareem, whom party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan handpicked for the industry minister's post, was to see them though. They were mostly real estate projects. The rail corridor project was not among them.

Two weeks ago, while addressing the Thiruvananthapuram Management Association, Kareem unveiled the rail project, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. He said the north-south corridor would make it possible to cover the 550 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasergode in five hours.

He indicated that the state government plans to register a company to take up the project and that the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation will be associated with it. This means the project will be under his department's control.
There is clearly a need to speed up north-south movement in the state. With this end in view, the national highway running along the coast is being widened. This, however, may not mean an end to road bottlenecks.

In these circumstances, some experts have suggested the laying of additional railway lines to facilitate movement of local trains to meet the needs of commuters spread across the entire length of the state.

The Centre is working on a plan to connect the country's big cities through high-speed rail corridors. Kerala does not have a strong claim for a place in that network. A state initiative to set up a rail corridor, therefore, makes sense.

However, the state government does not appear to be on the right track. Neither the Industries Department nor the KSIDC has the capacity to implement a project of this kind.

A state-promoted company with private participation in its share capital has been seen as the solution to Kerala's problem of paucity of resources since the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), set up by the government when K. Karunakaran was the chief minister, constructed the Kochi airport at Nedumbassery.

Originally the government had set up a registered society to raise funds for the airport project. The society appealed to Keralites working abroad, who will benefit directly from the project, and various institutions for loans and donations. The response was poor.

The state government then incorporated a company and invited the members of the public and various institutions to buy its shares. It was able to mobilise enough funds to build the airport.

Although the CIAL is often cited as a model of public-private participation, the fact is that it was not an unqualified success.

As against the target of Rs2 billion, the company could raise only Rs 40 million through sale of shares. In spite of the shortfall, the project could be completed because of the support extended by several central undertakings.

The limitations of the CIAL model have been brought out by the inability of the company formed to set up the Vizhinjam container port to take the project forward.
Kareem has not revealed how he proposes to raise money for the rail project.

According to some published reports, he has already held talks with some Gulf-based businessmen and received offers of support. The promoters of an Islamic bank, which is to be set up in the state and function in keeping with the Sharia injunction against interest, have reportedly agreed to give a large interest-free loan.

The Konkan Railway Corporation Limited appears to offer a better model than the CIAL for the rail corridor project. Set up when George Fernandes was the railway minister, it is a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.

Hopefully, E. Sreedharan, who heads the Delhi Metro Rail, should be able to convince the state government about the merits of this model. Sreedharan, a former member of the Railway Board, was the chief architect of the Konkan Railway. The state government has been consulting him on the Kochi metro project.

If the rail corridor project materialises the proposed expressway will become redundant. However, the state government is trying to pursue it under a new name.
It must abandon the idea of a north-south road corridor and draw up plans to make it possible for people living in the interior to access the rail corridor easily. – Gulf Today, September 6, 2009.