Monday, December 28, 2009

Life beneath an aged dam

Gulf Today

Long-running agitations are part of Kerala's everyday experience. Some agitations succeed, some fail and some linger on with no end in sight.

Among the success stories are the closure of the Birlas' rayon factory at Mavoor, near Kozhikode, and Coca Cola's plant at Plachimada, near Palakkad, which had by polluted air and water and sown death and destruction. These stories remain sources of inspiration for small and vulnerable groups fighting polluting businesses.

On Friday, villagers living under the shadow of the aged Mullaperiyar dam in the Idukki district marked the third anniversary of their agitation demanding decommissioning of the dam. It was on Christmas Day 2006 that the Mullaperiyar Samara Samithi, led by Fr Joy Nirappel and CP Roy, launched the agitation.

The Mullaperiyar dam, commissioned in 1895, was built in pursuance of an agreement of 1886 between the British-ruled Madras Presidency and the princely state of Travancore, for diversion of an agreed quantity of water from the Periyar to irrigate arid regions in Madurai and adjoining districts.

The dam was constructed by Madras on land given on long lease by Travancore. As successor governments, Tamil Nadu now controls the dam and Kerala has ownership of the land.

The estimated life-span of the lime-and-mortar dam was only 50 years. Since 1970 Kerala has maintained that in view of the age of the dam it is unsafe to store water in the reservoir up to a height of 46.3 metres, as originally envisaged, and that the level should not exceed 41.45 metres. It is pointed out that a dam burst could endanger up to four million lives in Kerala.

In 1979, the Central Water Commission (CWC), after inspecting the dam, directed Tamil Nadu to lower the water level to 41.45 metres as a cautionary measure and take steps to strengthen the structure. Tamil Nadu accepted the directive.

In the 1990s, there was a spate of petitions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala high courts on the Mullaperiyar issue. While Tamil Nadu petitioners asked for a higher water level, Kerala petitioners opposed it. In 1998 all the petitions were transferred to the Supreme Court.

At the court's instance, the Centre initiated talks with the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments but no solution emerged.

In 2001, a committee headed by the CWC chairman proposed that after taking steps to strengthen the dam the reservoir level might be raised first to 43.28 metres and then to the originally envisaged 46.6 metres.

The Kerala government opposed the proposal. It pointed out that the suggestion was based on a stress analysis study which covered only the baby dam, and not the main dam.

However, in February 2006, the Supreme Court directed Tamil Nadu to carry out the strengthening measures suggested by the CWC and asked Kerala not to obstruct the work.

These developments caused considerable anxiety in Kerala, especially in the context of a 2003 study by the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, which warned that an earthquake could cause tensile cracks in the main dam.

People also entered the battleground. In Kerala, those living under the shadow of a possible catastrophe demanded that their safety to ensured. In Tamil Nadu, workers of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stopped trucks carrying goods to Kerala, which depends on outside sources for most of its requirements.

The Kerala government responded by enlarging the scope of a law it had enacted in 2003 to create an authority charged with the task of ensuring the safety of all dams in the state. It vested in the authority the power to advise the government to suspend the function of a dam or even decommission it.

The amending measure statutorily determined 41.45 metres as the safe height of the Mullaperiyar dam.

The state also commissioned a survey as the first step towards the construction of a new dam.

The Tamil Nadu government approached the Supreme Court once again. The court constituted a constitution bench to decide the matter. Hearing is set to begin early in 2010.

To the court, the issue is one of dispensing justice. To the state governments, it is a power game.

But to large sections of people in the two states -- to Keralites living under the shadow of the aged dam and to Tamils who depend upon Mullaperiyar waters for agriculture -- the issue is one of life and death, which needs to be resolved in a spirit of goodwill. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 28, 2009.

Monday, December 21, 2009

History repeats itself -- with a small change

Gulf Today

History repeated itself last week -- with a small but significant change.

Eighteen years ago the Kerala police arrested People's Democratic Party chairman Abdul Naser Madani in connection with some allegedly incendiary speeches he had made years ago. He remained in a Coimbatore jail for nearly 10 years thereafter as an undertrial prisoner.

The Tamil Nadu police alleged that he was a party to the conspiracy that resulted in a series of blasts in Coimbatore shortly before the Bharatiya Janata Party leader and then Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani arrived there. Since the charge was one of terrorism he was denied bail and parole.

The wanton denial of Madani's human rights generated a certain measure of sympathy for him in all those who did not put narrow political interests above basic human values. At one point the State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution voicing sympathy for him.

The main political formations sent their emissaries to jail to seek his support in the elections. It was the Left Democratic Front government headed by EK Nayanar which arrested Madani and handed him over to Tamil Nadu to stand trial in the bomb blast.

Initially, therefore, he asked his supporters to back the United Democratic Front in the elections. Later he felt that the UDF was not doing enough for him and he switched his support to the LDF.

On his return from jail the LDF gave him a hero's welcome. To ensure his support in the last Lok Sabha elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) accepted his suggestion to give the Ponnani seat to an independent candidate. He appeared on the dais with CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

After the elections, the CPI-M central leadership concluded that the camaraderie with the PDP had not done the party any good. However, the state party leadership continued to maintain good relationship with Madani and his party.

Last week the LDF government arrested Madani's wife Soofia in connection with the burning of a Tamil Nadu bus near Kochi when Madani was still in jail. The bus was burnt ostensibly to press the demand for his release.

The case had been under investigation for many years. At the time of the Lok Sabha elections, the media carried many reports implicating Soofia Madani in the case based on statements given to the police by some persons arrested in the case.

After the elections were over, the police questioned Soofia Madani. However, there was no further action. The state government became active following the arrest of Thadiyantavida Naseer of Kannur, whom the intelligence agencies describe as Pakistan-based Laksar-e-Taiba's commander in south India, in Bangladesh.

As Karnataka police obtained his custody for questioning in connection with a terror case in Bangalore, the state police deputed Inspector General of Police (Northern Range) Tomin J Thachankari to Bangalore to join in the interrogation.

Thachankari is said to be close to the CPI-M leadership. UDF leaders alleged that he had been sent to Bangalore to protect the interests of the party. As Karnataka police arrived in the state with Naseer to gather evidence, there was an abrupt change in the official attitude.

Apprehending arrest, Soofia Madani approached the high court for anticipatory bail, which was refused. She was taken into custody immediately.

After Madani's arrest, the Nayanar government had listed it as one of its achievements. After Soofia's arrest Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan claimed it had improved the image of the government.

Will Soofia Madani get a fair trial? Some citizens' groups have voiced concern over the matter. The concern is based on two factors. One is the politicisation of the case. The other is the malicious media coverage based on selective leak by the police. Newspapers have been full of reports about telephone calls Soofia made or received before and after the burning of the bus. Undeterred by the fact that the contents of the conversations are unknown they have been conveying the impression that they are clinching evidence of her complicity in the bus burning conspiracy.

To begin with, Madani had said the PDP would face the matter legally. Now he is said to be planning a fast unto death with his children demanding justice for his wife. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 21, 2009.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dalit Solidarity team on tour of Thiruvananthapuram district

A team of the Dali Solidarity Group is now touring Thiruvananthapuram district to apprise the people of the situation in Varkala and educate them about the conspiracy behind the branding of Dalit Human Rights Movement as a terrorist organization by the local police.

On September 23 police had said DHRM was responsible for the murder of Sivaprasad, an innocent stroller, on that day. Nearly three months later police have still not filed a charge-sheet in court although ot is holding many DHRM in custody

The campaign, which began from Vengannur, birthplace of 20th century Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali, on Thursday, will end at Varkala on Sunday afternoon.

Former Gujarat Director General of Police R.B.Sreekumar IPS (Retd), who played a key role in exposing the role of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the anti-Muslim pogrom in the state, has accepted the group’s invitation to attend the concluding function.

Various human rights organizations and movements are represented in the Solidarity Group, of which I am the chairman.

The final report of the fact-finding team which visited Varkala under the auspices of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties is now in the press. It will be released shortly. The team, during its visit to Varkala, had unearthed a lot of information which the media had willfully suppressed.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Commission proposes, government disposes

Gulf Today

The fate of a set of proposals sent to the Kerala government by the State Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission illustrates how the political establishment scuttles efforts to address the problems of the weaker sections.

The commission, headed by PK Sivanandan, a former IAS officer, received on Oct.6 a complaint from VV Selvaraj, chairman of Dalit Human Rights Movement, alleging police atrocities against the organisation's supporters in Varkala. It also received a petition signed by 536 Dalit women containing the same allegation.

The commission forwarded the complaints to the Chief Secretary, the Director General of Police and the Secretaries to the Home and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare departments. It received no response from any of them.

Varkala was the scene of a dastardly murder on Sept.23. The victim was a person named Sivaprasad with no known affiliation. Within hours of the murder, the police said DHRM members had killed him to proclaim the organisation's strength.

Police swooped on Dalit colonies and arrested many DHRM workers. However, it has still not filed a charge-sheet in the murder case.

On Oct.21, the commission visited Varkala and gathered evidence directly from all concerned. It went to the Dalit colonies and spoke to both supporters and opponents of DHRM. It found the police version of events suspect and the testimony of DHRM supporters credible.

In the report, approved on Oct.29, the commission specially drew attention to the evidence of two women. One of them was a pregnant woman, who said police had taken her in a jeep and abandoned her on the roadside. The other was the mother of Das, DHRM organising secretary. She said the deputy superintended of police (DySP), Attingal, had taken her son to the police station and tortured him after a magistrate had remanded him to judicial custody.

The commission referred to the high-handed action of the circle inspector in locking the house of an arrested person and walking away with the key, denying his mother and sister access to their dwelling.

The key was returned to the family a day before the commission's visit after the chairman took up the case with the superintendent of police.

During the visit to the Thoduve colony, noting the prevailing tension, the commission's chairman directed the police superintendent to set up a picket there to prevent anti-social elements from taking advantage of the situation.

The report pointed out that if the police had taken adequate security measures, the clash on Oct.27 in which several women were injured could have been averted.

To put an end to the continuing strife, the commission suggested a visit to the colony by a high-powered government team, preferably under the leadership of the Chief Minister. It also proposed the formation of a committee comprising officials and elected representatives at the local level to maintain constant vigil.

The commission asked the government to order an impartial inquiry into the charges against the police, keeping the DySP and the Circle Inspector and Sub-Inspector of Varkala away.

The commission noted that many residents of Thoduve were living in tenements put up on government land. It proposed that they be given preferential treatment under the EMS housing scheme and rehabilitated.

Seven weeks have passed since the report was sent to AK Balan, Minister for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare, with copies to the Chief Minister, the Home Minister and a host of officials. So far there has been no action on the basis of its recommendations.

Inquiries have revealed that Balan, who is himself a Dalit, turned down the proposal for a visit to Thoduve by a team headed by the chief minister, saying it was impractical. He termed the proposal for rehabilitation of the colony residents also as impractical. He effectively killed the proposal for an impartial inquiry into the police conduct by referred it to the DGP.

The government's inaction reflects the ruling establishment's callous attitude towards the problems of the Dalits, who have been victims of discrimination for centuries. Since DHRM has been propagating the view that all established parties have betrayed the Dalits, it has invited the enmity of the entire political spectrum.

A campaign waged by DHRM has weaned away a large number of Dalits away from liquor and drugs. It has endeared the organisation to Dalit women but earned it the wrath of the drug mafia and those in its pay.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 14, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Politicking amid price rise

Gulf Today

Prices of food grains and other essential items have risen sharply in Kerala in recent weeks, imposing a heavy burden on the people. Vegetable prices have gone up by about 30 per cent in six months.

Kerala depends on other states for most of its requirements. Tamil Nadu is the main source of supply of vegetables. Trade sources attribute the spurt in vegetable prices to the damage to crops by rain in that state.

To help the people tide over the situation, the government decided last week to distribute vegetables through the state-owned Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation (Supplyco) in the urban centres.

In the five cities, Supplyco will make available kits with two and a half kilograms of vegetables for Rs25. This will involve a state subsidy of Rs7.50 per kit as the cost of procuring the vegetables is estimated at Rs32.50.

In the municipal towns, vegetables will be distributed through fair price shops at 15 to 30 per cent below the market rates. Mobile shops will also be commissioned to sell vegetables.

Will the plan work? Doubts prevail in view of the failure of the scheme the state government launched three months ago to set up a chain of far price hotels.

The scheme envisaged setting up of 140 hotels, 10 each in the 14 districts. They were to supply tea and snacks for Rs3 and meals for Rs12.

Only about 50 persons came forward to run hotels under the scheme. And only18 of them actually opened hotels. Five of the hotels have already closed down.

The scheme failed because the authorities did not do the necessary homework before taking it up. Supplyco could not provide grains to the hotels at low rates, as promised.

The ruling Left Democratic Front and the opposition United Democratic Front are trying to derive political mileage out of the price rise by laying the blame at the doors of different governments.

The UDF has announced plans to stage protests outside state government offices. The Kerala Congress (Mani), a constituent of the UDF, has already held some demonstrations on its own.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan said that if the opposition is sincere it should stage protests outside the offices of the central government, which was responsible for the price rise.

He also claimed that Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had commended the state government's efforts to hold the price line and held it out as a model for others. UDF spokesmen questioned the claim.

Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy put the ball back in the chief minister's court. He asked the state government to make good the LDF promise to commit Rs400 million to hold the price line with the help of 40,000 cooperatives.

Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac used the opportunity to press the LDF government's long-standing demand for restoration of universal coverage under the public distribution system. The UDF countered the demand by pointing out that the state had failed to lift 20,000 tonnes of rice allotted by the centre.

As a state with chronic food shortage, Kerala developed decades ago a public distribution system capable of serving the entire population. After the centre decided to limit subsidy to persons below the poverty line, those above the poverty line stopped using the PDS outlets as they can get good quality rice in the open market at comparable prices.

Many ration shops started diverting unsold grain stocks to rice mills. The state government turned a blind eye to this clandestine trade.

The centre, taking note of the decline in the requirements of the public distribution system, slashed the state's grains quota. The LDF routinely cites this as proof of discrimination against the state.

As the people reel under the impact of the price rise, the state government is promoting crass consumerism under the banner of the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival.

About 5,000 shops spread all over the state are participating in the 45-day shopping festival, which was formally inaugurated on December 1.

According to the government, the festival aims at linking trade and tourism. It claims that the festival will help find markets for the state's traditional products like spices, handlooms, cashew, coir, handmade mirror and bamboo items.

However, the government's partners in the venture are commercial houses with no interest in traditional products. They include a jewellery, a private sector bank, a super bazaar, a home appliance manufacturer, an automobile firm and a soap manufacturer. The bank and the jewellery are the only institutions from the state. -- Gulf Today, December 7, 2009.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A felicitation volume

The Law Department of the University of Kerala has brought out a souvenir to felicitate its former head, Dr. N. K. Jayakumar, who is now Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.

I released this publication at a function held at the Press Club of Thiruvananthapuram this evening by handing over the first copy to Dr. G. Rajasekharan Nair, Principal, Government Law College.

The Souvenir contains three research articles -- one by Dr. T. R. Subramanya, Dean and Chairman, Department of Post-graduate Studies in Law, College of Law, Bangalore University, another by Dr. A. David Ambrose, Professor, Department of Legal Studies, University of Madras, and the third by C. Sobha Jacob, Lecturer, State Council for Educational Research and Training, Government of Kerala and Dr. K. C. Sunny, Head of the Department of Law, University of Kerala.

It also contains a number of articles on each of the following subjects:
Object and curriculum changes for legal education reforms.
Reforms in teaching methods and examinations.
Objects and methods of PG studies and research in law.
Restructuring management and control of legal education.