Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The poor find Kerala's educational system wanting

While Kerala’s educational system appears to meet the needs of the mainstream, there is grave deficiency, in both quantitative and qualitative terms, in the facilities available to the poor.

This was the conclusion of the three-member panel which heard the testimony of five persons – four children and one parent – belonging to the marginalized sections, including Adivasis, Dalits and the fishing community.

The panel was appalled to note that Dalit students were being subjected to discrimination.

The panel endorsed three demands of CRY:

1. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, should be amended to cover children aged below six years and in the age group 15-18 years.
2. There must be a school with adequate facilities and qualified teachers within s kilometer of any habitation.
3. The Government of India must allot 10 per cent of the GDP to education.

The panel consisted of Mr. Justice P.K.Shamsuddin, Ms. Rekha Raj and myself.

The public hearing was held at the initiative of CRY (Child Rights and You), a non-profit organization, which is marking its 30th anniversary with a nationwide campaign to spread the message “Do What Is Right—Equal Rights for Every Child.”

One element of the programme is collection of signatures on a charter of demands on Right to Education. The charter will be submitted to decision-makers at the Centre and in the States.

The hearing, held at Jawahar Bal Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram, was intended to create and spread public awareness about the right of every child for equal education.

The testimony

Suresh, 12-year-old Kurumba boy of Thazhethudikki village in Attapadi block of Palakkad district, was studying at the model Residential School in Munnar. He said he had dropped out because the family could not afford the travel expenses. Adivasi children have to hire a jeep, which charges Rs. 3,000 for the trip to Munnar.

Chandran, 32, of Agali, who belongs to the Muduka tribe, said two of his children, studying in Standard 4 and Standard 1 are attending a school five km from the hamlet. They are in the hostel. The nearest anganvadi where he can put his youngest child, Kannan, aged 4, is more than a kilometer away. He wants an anganvadi in the hamlet. Of the 32 families there, at least 10 have children of anganvadi age, he said.

Teresa, who belongs to the fishing community, is studying in Standard 7 in a Government school at Valiyathura. She complained of lack of drinking water, poor sanitation, inadequacy of teachers and corporal punishment.

Haritha, studying in Standard 8 at a school in tsunami-hit Alappad area of Alappuzha district, said while Rs 50 lakhs was needed to rebuild the school the authorities had spent only Rs 5 lakhs. On the second anniversary of the tsunami the Chief Minister said the local UP school would be upgraded to high school but the necessary infrastructure or teachers were not there.

Albin, 13, a Dalit belonging to Sooranad in Kollam district, who is attending an aided school, said Dalit students were asked to clean the school toilets.

CRY website:
CRY on Facebook:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Varkala: Reception outside Secretariat for Dalits released on bail

Ten young men from different Dalit colonies of Varkala, who were released from the Poojappura jail today, following grant of bail by a court, were given a rousing reception by the Dalit Aikyadardya Samiti outside the Secretariat.

They were arrested when the police swooped on the colonies in the wake of the murder of Sivaprasad, a morning walker, on September 23.

Police have alleged that the murder was committed by members of the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) to demonstrate the organization’s strength.

The youths, who came out of prison today, are not among the accused in the murder case. However, the police have registered cases against them for some petty crimes.

Speakers at the reception said the police had falsely implicated the youths, who are DHRM activists, to break up the organization.

A number of Dalits, mostly women, whp came to the city from Varkala, waited outside the Secretariat since morning to greet the released youths. It was only in the afternoon that they could come out of the prison after completing all formalities.

The young men said they were subjected to torture while in custody.
From the Secretariat they went to the Government General Hospital seeking medical attention.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kerala fails to deliver


For the third successive year, Kerala is falling behind in Plan spending and the state government is seeking to cover up its failure with specious arguments.

The state has had a poor record in financial discipline for a long time. Officials generally waste the early part of the financial year and go on a spending spree at the fag end to use up as much of the sanctioned money as possible.

After the state government devolved powers on local self-government institutions, the situation deteriorated. These institutions have to spend 40 per cent of the annual budget. They have not measured up to the task.

One reason for the hectic last-minute activity has been the panchayats' inability to begin work on schemes early in the year because of delay in obtaining governmental sanctions.

To overcome this problem, the government permitted spillover of a part of the sanctioned expenditure into the next financial year. This encouraged officials to remain lax.

Last year the finance minister decided to prevent bunching of Plan expenditure at the close of the year as it affected the quality of spending and created difficulties to the government by raising the demand for funds in the last months.

Accordingly the government directed all departments and local self-government institutions to spend at least 10 per cent of the Plan funds in the first quarter (April to June) and to raise the expenditure progressively to 30 per cent by the end of the second quarter (July-September) and 60 per cent by the end of the third quarter (October-December), leaving 40 per cent to be spent in the last quarter (January-March). .

The administrative departments and their heads were requested to prepare action plans sufficiently in advance, specifying various activities such as formulation of schemes, issue of sanctions and monitoring of output, so as to achieve these expenditure targets.

The strategy did not succeed. At the end of the year, only about half of the Plan allocation of Rs77 billion had been spent.

The government thought of salvaging the situation by resorting to the old practice of allowing carry-over of 40 per cent of the unspent money to the next financial year. Before it could pass the necessary orders, the Election Commission announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha poll. The model code of conduct came in the way of the contemplated action.

In June this year, the Finance Department reissued the circular, modifying the spending schedule slightly. While retaining the expenditure target of 10 per cent for the first quarter, it fixed a uniform target of 30 per cent for each of the remaining quarters.

Last week Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan revealed that Plan expenditure till the end of September this year was only a little over 20 per cent, as against the target of 40 per cent. He attributed the shortfall in expenditure to the restrictions on account of the three Assembly by-elections.

The argument that elections come in the way of Plan spending is disingenuous. It is being advanced to cover up the government's failure to prepare action plans in time.

The model code of conduct, which comes into force as soon as the Election Commission announces the poll schedule, only forbids start of work on a scheme. Work which has started can go on. The model code is in operation for only about two months. In the case of the Lok Sabha elections, it came into force only in the last month of the financial year. In the case of the Assembly by-elections, the restrictions were in force only for five weeks.

An efficient administration can easily make up the loss by speeding up work when the electoral process is over. No other state has pleaded inability to fulfil Plan targets because of elections.

Panchayat, Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the state now fall in different years. If elections are a major hindrance it will be impossible to achieve the targets in three out of the five years of the Plan period.

For a state experiencing paucity of funds, Kerala's laxity in financial matters is appalling. According to media reports, the state has so far spent only about Rs7 billion out of Rs14.33 billion sanctioned by the Centre under the tsunami relief programme and about Rs3.7 billion out of Rs 7.7 billion granted to provide relief to farmers in distress. –Gulf Today, November 23, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Investigative journalist re-visits Varkala – this time to protest

Tehelka’s Editor-at-Large Ajit Sahi was the first – and so far the only -- media person to visit Varkala and provide a first-hand account of the activities of the Dalit Human Rights Movement, which the local police has accused of complicity in a murder.

While the entire Kerala media, including local editions of The Hindu and New Indian Express of Chennai, have been lapping up police handouts about DHRM’s alleged links with terrorism, Ajit Sahi had made a quick visit to the state in October and gathered information at first hand and presented it to his readers. (His report, which appeared in Tehelka’s edition dated October 24, 2009, can be read here: “Ambedkar’s Lost Boys? A Dalit organization is accused of terrorist links.”)

Sahi, who has been crisscrossing the country and bringing to light material which the mainstream media suppresses, was back in Varkala on Tuesday, this time to raise his voice against the atrocities against Dalits there.
He came at the invitation of the Solidarity Youth Front and delivered the keynote address at the protest meeting organized by it.

Sahi mentioned how a brief report, which he saw on the Internet, had persuaded him to fly from New Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram to investigate police allegations about the terrorist links of Dalit Human Rights Movement.

Drawing from his experience as an investigative journalist, he spoke of the gross human rights violations taking place in different parts of the country in the name of suppressing terrorism. He pointed out that the victims of such atrocities were minorities and marginalized sections like Dalits and Adivasis.

With my knowledge of the working of the Malayalam media, I am not at all surprised that they are not interested in going beyond what the police has to say on the Varkala developments. The two fronts which alternate in power in the state appear to have reached a consensus that DHRM, which has been asking Dalits to stop being chattel of the mainline political parties, deserves no mercy.

In Kerala, all journalistic curiosity ends when the two fronts are on the same side. From the Silent Valley campaign to the ISRO espionage case, there are many issues on which the local media became a willing accomplice of the Establishment. Now the local editions of the Chennai newspapers also have joined this consortium. (I am deliberately avoiding the much abused term ‘syndicate’).

Thirty years ago, when I was working in Chennai as regional manager of United News of India, a massive police hunt was in North Arcot and Salem districts of Tamil Nadu where Naxalites were active. The police regularly reported killing of Naxalites in encounters, and information reaching Chennai indicated that some of them were probably fake encounters. The Chennai newspapers which have wide network of correspondents were silent on the subject.

Three of us, S. Rajappa of The Statesman, V.G.Prasada Rao of the Times of India and I, decided to go to the spot. Information we gathered confirmed that there had been fake encounters. On our return to Chennai, we filed reports to that effect.

The next day almost the entire country knew of the fake encounters—readers of The Statesman and the Times of India from the reports of their special correspondents and readers of other newspapers from the UNI report. I said “almost” because one big newspaper had no report on the subject. That newspaper was The Hindu. It did not carry the UNI report presumably because it was not willing to trust a news agency on a sensitive subject like fake encounters. However, two weeks later it made up by carrying long reports from its own correspondents in Salem and Vellore, which said there had been fake encounters.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ruling front under the shadow of poll defeats

Gulf Today

The ruling Left Democratic Front's defeat in the three Assembly by-elections in Kerala was not entirely unexpected but the failure of the zealous bid by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to snatch at least one seat has left the rank and file demoralised.

The by-elections were necessitated by the resignation of three Congress legislators following their election to the Lok Sabha this year.

The CPI-M attached great importance to the by-elections. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who was demoted from the Politburo as a disciplinary measure, was made the chief campaigner to benefit from the popular support which he still enjoys.

Both Achuthanandan and party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan declared that the by-election results would be a verdict on the LDF government. It was an act of political daredevilry, considering that the seats were held by the Congress.

Kannur district is a CPI-M fortress. As the home district of Pinarayi Vijayan and his chief lieutenants it now has greater clout than before. However, Kannur city has been out of its hands since long. The Congress flung a direct challenge to the CPI-M by fielding AP Abdullakutty, whom it had expelled, there.

The CPI-M has backed several Congress defectors in the past but this was the first time an ex-Marxist was fighting an election on the Congress ticket. It deputed MV Jayarajan, a close aide of Pinarayi Vijayan, to take on Abdullakutty.

Determined to snatch Kannur at any cost, the CPI-M enrolled a large number of its supporters from neighbouring areas as voters in that constituency in advance of the by-election. Some of them gave buildings under the party's control as place of residence. Some others used non-existent addresses.

A quick review of the electoral rolls ordered by the Election Commission, at the instance of the Congress, resulted in the removal of a few thousand fake voters.

Taking note of the partisanship of sections of state government employees, the Commission drafted a large number of Central government officials and Central police personnel for election duty in the state.

CPI-M leaders raised a ruckus alleging the Election Commission had sent the army at the behest of the Congress. The chief minister drew loud applause by declaring at public meetings that the state government would confine the troops to the barracks. However, the Commission saw to it that Central police personnel were deployed inside polling stations.

Apparently the CPI-M strategy was to enroll enough new voters in Kannur to neutralise the Congress's winning margin of 8,613 in 2006. But the Congress won the seat by an increased margin of 12,043 votes.

At Ernakulam, the CPI-M candidate, PN Sinulal, was defeated by Dominic Presentation of the Congress by a margin of 8,620 votes. In 2006 the Congress had won by a margin of only 5,800 votes.

The only LDF candidate to buck the trend was G Krishna Prasad of the CPI, who, while losing to AA Shukoor at Alappuzha, reduced the Congress party's winning margin from 16,933 in 2006 to 4,745 this time.

The CPI's performance is noteworthy as it did not have the support of Abdul Naser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party, which had backed the CPI-M at Kannur and Ernakulam.

As soon as the results became known, the CPI-M said it had fared better than in 2006. The claim was based on a small increase in the number of votes polled by its candidates in Kannur and Ernakulam.

It was a ludicrous claim. The small increase has to be seen in the context of the growth of the electorate and the increased polling percentage. Actually the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party had made greater gains than the CPI-M.

Subsequently the party modified the claim slightly. It said the voting figures showed the party still retained the popular support it had when it was swept to power in 2006.

The CPI-M had made inroads in Kannur and Ernakulam in the past by fielding candidates belonging to minority communities. It tried a new tack this time, presumably in the light of the experience of the Lok Sabha elections. But it does not seem to have helped.

Some observers believe the CPI's improved performance in Alappuzha was the result of a pro-LDF swing by the Nair Service Society, which has been critical of the Congress for allegedly neglecting the Nair community's interests.--Gulf Today, November 16, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Projects ignore people's wish

Gulf Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

‘Love Jihad’ reports point to polarisation in society


An allegation that a campaign is on to lure young women into romance with a view to converting them to Islam has brought various Hindu and Christian organisations in Kerala on a common platform.

The first to take up cudgels against the campaign, dubbed Love Jihad by the media, was Vellappalli Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharmaparipalana Yogam, an organisation of the Ezhava community.

On Saturday PK Narayana Panicker, general secretary of the Nair Service Society, said it was the government’s duty to check Love Jihad. If it failed to act, the people would take up the task, he added.

The NSS, which champions the cause of the ‘forward’ Nair community, and the Yogam, which speaks in the name of the ‘backward’ Ezhava community, are Kerala’s largest caste formations.

Some Christian organisations have also come out against Love Jihad. The powerful Catholic Church has alerted parents and teachers against attempts to convert young faithful through marriage.

What could have been dismissed as media sensation acquired a serious dimension when the Kerala high court asked the state police chief to file an affidavit stating whether an outfit called Love Jihad was trying to entrap and convert young women.

The allegation about conversion through romance originated a year ago. The first to talk about it was the Maharashtra-based Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), which claims to be a global platform of Hindus. The HJS was promoted in 2002 by the Sanatan Sansta, founded 12 years earlier.

Some members of Sanatan Sansta are now in custody in connection with the blasts that occurred in Goa on Diwali eve this year.

In a report from Sambhajinagar, Maharashtra, HJS said in December 2008 that an arrested Muslim youth had told the police that there was an “ordinance” asking young men to charm Hindu girls and convert them to Islam. Each person volunteering for such service was paid Rs 200 a day, it added.

The HJS quoted an unnamed Marathwada daily as saying similar “ordinances” had been issued in Parbhani, Nanded, Beed and Latur as well.

In the report, posted at the organisation’s website, the editor made two interpolations reeking with communal venom. In one of them he asks Hindus to decide whether or not “to keep contact with Muslims any more”.

The term Love Jihad probably appeared in print for the first time when a Malayalam daily reported that an organisation by that name was trapping non-Muslim girls in a web of love and converting them.

It claimed Jihadi Romeos had converted more than 4,000 women in six months. It raised their compensation package from a daily wage of Rs 200 to a lump sum grant of Rs 100,000.

The Haindava Keralam website picked up the story. It pointed out that Kerala Kaumudi, which published the report, is a secular daily.

Love Jihad caught headlines nationally when the Kerala and Karnataka high courts, while hearing two cases, referred to it. The Kerala court asked the Central and state governments to investigate all reported Love Jihad marriages of the past three years. .

Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose’s affidavit in response to the high court’s directive did not help clarify the situation. He said there was no evidence of an organisation called Love Jihad but there were unconfirmed reports about some groups actively working among youths encouraging conversions feigning love.

The Bharatiya Janata Party quickly joined the campaign against Love Jihad. The Viswa Hindu Parishad expressed readiness to join hands with the Church in the fight against it. ,

Initially the state’s major parties said nothing on the subject for fear of offending one religious group or another. The silence of the secular forces, especially the Left, invited taunts.

Last week the Congress and the Democratic Youth Federation of India, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, publicly rejected the Love Jihad theory for the first time.

Young people in Kerala generally find partners from their own castes and religions through marriages arranged by the family. Matrimonial advertisements appearing in newspapers bear this out.

When individuals break with this tradition, usually there is opposition from their families and sometimes the bride’s parents seek the intervention of the police or the courts. Elevation of such complaints from the level of individual or family disputes to that of caste and religious disputes points to growing polarisation in the society.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 2, 2009.