Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Obscenity vision betrays a state of mind

The picture above is of a bronze statue that stands in front of the administrative building of the century-old, state-owned University of the Philippines at Diliman, Quezon City. It is named Oblation, which means offering. It depicts a nude male, standing with outstretched hands, as if to say "I have nothing to hide".

This nude figure has greeted students, faculty members and visitors at the entrance of the campus for more than 60 years. No one, male or female, has so far complained that it turns them on. Or that it arouses obscene thoughts in them. Even the conservative Catholic Church, which commands the loyalty of the bulk of the population of the Philippines, has not seen obscenity in it.

What prompts me to post the picture and write about it is the controversy in Kerala over the obscenity which some people have seen in the plant sculpture Sagara Kanya (Mermaid) in the Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) campus at Kochi, the cutting off of its breasts by the fast breeding tribe of self-appointed moral police and the reported finding of the pro-vice chancellor, Godfrey Louis, that Sagar Kanya is not an artistic work suited for an educational institution.

Apparently the last word on the subject has not been said yet. The university syndicate has reportedly set up a three-member committee to conduct a further enquiry.

Sagar Kanya was created by a gardener, Varghese, of Elamkunnapuzha, who, inspired by Kanayi Kunhiraman’s sculpture at Thiruvananthapuram, made out a female figure by growing and cropping plants. With the university gardeners tending it with care, it stood there for two decades without provoking any obscene thoughts in the students who passed through the portals of the institution during that period. Then, somehow, it started disturbing some employees and they complained to the registrar, N. Chandramohanakumar.

Cusat Express, a campus blog, quoted the registrar as saying "I received two complaints objecting to the nude figure of the mermaid at the Cusat garden. The complaints were forwarded by Women's Welfare Association of the Cusat and some Cusat employees."

A few days later Sagar Kanya’s breasts were cut off (See picture on left).

According to Cusat Express, Chandramohanakumar said he was against disfigurement of the work of art, “but as an administrator I was forced to act on it.” He claimed there was a Supreme Court order which discouraged educational institutions exhibiting such paintings and art works.

Cusat Express said university employees, including women, turned up wearing black badges in protest against disfigurement of Sagar Kanya.

Kanayi Kunhiraman recalled that some people had tried to assault him when he did his famous sculpture Yakshi at the Malampuzha dam site and said such people appeared to be still around. “Education at a campus that does not inculcate appreciation of art is purposeless,” he added.

Jose Joseph, New Delhi-based animator, painter and cartoonist, expressed his feelings in a cartoon published in his blog. It is reproduced below.

When the University of the Philippines celebrated its centenary in 2008, it had a distinguished woman, Dr Emerlinda R. Román, as its president. Another woman, Isabelita O. Ryes, was the editor of the centennial souvenir. And on the cover of the souvenir was a picture of Oblation.

Incidentally, as in Kerala, girl students outnumber boys in most departments in almost all universities of the Philippines.

Those who find the Cusat Sagar Kanya objectionable must be made to realize that the obscenity they see lies not in the clipped plants but in their own minds. Psychiatrists may be able to help there.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Congress in Kerala may be exulting too soon


A landslide victory in last month's local elections has heightened the United Democratic Front's (UDF) hopes of returning to power in Kerala in next year's assembly elections but the Congress, which heads the alliance, may be exulting too soon. Its position is not as rosy as it imagines.

The credit for the UDF victory belongs not so much to the Congress as to its allies who helped consolidate minority support behind the UDF after the Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the rival Left Democratic Front (LDF), antagonised Muslims and Christians.

Kerala had created history in 1957 by voting the undivided Communist Party to office. It created history again in 1959 by staging a 'liberation struggle', which provided the centre with the excuse to dismiss the Communist government while it enjoyed majority support in the assembly.

The local election vote was 'liberation' by other means. All the forces which had joined hands in 1959 to oust the Communists from power came together again to end their reign over local bodies. The only exception was the Nair Service Society, the forward Hindu community's organization, which now officially follows a policy of equidistance from the two fronts.

In the local elections of 2004, the LDF had secured control of all five city corporations, 12 of the 14 district panchayats, a large majority of the municipalities and block panchayats and two-thirds of the village panchayats. This year, for the first time, the UDF seized control of a majority of local bodies at all levels with the exception of city corporations, where the LDF was able to retain a slender 3-2 lead.

The LDF victory in the 2006 assembly poll came as a hat-trick after successive wins in the Lok Sabha and local elections. In the past three decades, people have voted the LDF and the UDF to power in the state alternately. After successive drubbings in Lok Sabha and local elections, the LDF now faces the possibility of a reverse hat-trick.

The local elections victory has boosted the image of the state Congress leadership, now firmly in the hands of Leader of Opposition Oommen Chandy and Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala.

For decades, the party had witnessed continuous infighting between an 'I' faction, named for Indira Gandhi, and an 'A' faction, named for A.K. Antony. Oommen Chandy inherited the 'A' faction when Antony moved to the centre. Ramesh Chennithala, a former protege of K. Karunakaran, gathered around him the remnants of the 'I' faction when the veteran walked out of the party, peeved with his neglect by the high command. With Sonia Gandhi backing them to the hilt, the Chandy-Chennithala 'jodi' established a condominium.

Karunakaran, 92, is back in the party but too old and weak to challenge the duo, whose clout is evident from the way they have delayed the return of his son and former state Congress president K. Muraleedharan. He had left the party with Karunakaran but did not return with him. When he finally expressed readiness to return Chandy and Chennithala reacted coolly and the high command did not want to go against their wishes.

While the Chandy-Chennithala combine is in an unassailable position within the Congress, the party's position in the UDF has weakened. The party's electoral performance under them pales into insignificance beside the strides made by its partners, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani).

The League is in a position to wield power on its own in many local bodies in its stronghold, the Muslim-majority Malappuram district, which happens to be the most populous one in the state. Unable to agree on the division of seats, the Congress and the League had opposed each other in some parts of the district. The League trounced the Congress in those areas. That puts the League in a commanding position.

In areas with a concentration of Christians, the Kerala Congress similarly outperformed the Congress. Its leader, K.M. Mani, had once described the party as one that "splits as it grows, and grows as it splits". He recently strengthened it by wooing back the breakaway factions led by P.J. Joseph and P.C. George, which were in the LDF during the last assembly elections and had helped it attract Christian votes.

Across the state, the UDF polled 15.65 lakh votes more than the LDF. Malappuram alone contributed a lead of more than four lakhs. Kottayam and Ernakulam districts, which have significant Christian populations, provided a lead of more than three lakhs.

The Church, which runs many schools and colleges, was annoyed with the LDF government's education policy. It reportedly played a role in the merger of the Kerala Congress factions. The CPI-M distanced itself from its former Muslim supporters since the Lok Sabha results showed that the association with some of them had cost it many votes. The bid to make up the loss of minority votes by appealing to majority sentiments did not succeed.

The change of government in the state every five years has been made possible by a swing of the pendulum in the southern districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Alappuzha. As the minority parties command little influence in the region, elections there are a direct trial of strength between the CPI-M and the Congress. The LDF's lead of about 80,000 votes over the UDF in these districts is something the Congress has to worry about.

Friday, October 22, 2010

കവി അയ്യപ്പന്റെ യാത്ര അവസാനിക്കുന്നു

കവി എ. അയ്യപ്പന്റെ യാത്ര അവസാനിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നു.

അയ്യപ്പൻ എപ്പോഴും യാത്രയിലായിരുന്നു. യാത്രയ്ക്കിടയിൽ ചില അവസരങ്ങളിൽ അദ്ദേഹത്തെ കണ്ടുമുട്ടിയിരുന്നു.

ചെന്നൈയിലെ ആശാൻ മെമ്മോറിയൽ അസോസിയേഷൻ അയ്യപ്പനെ ഇക്കൊല്ലത്തെ ആശാൻ സ്മാരക കവിതാ പുരസ്കാരത്തിന് തെരഞ്ഞെടുത്തതായും സമ്മാനദാനച്ചടങ്ങ് ഒൿടോബർ 23ന് നടത്താൻ തീരുമാനിച്ചതായും വായിച്ചപ്പോൾ ആ ദിവസം അവിടെയുണ്ടാകുമെന്നതുകൊണ്ട് വീണ്ടും കാണാൻ അവസരമുണ്ടാകുമെന്ന് കരുതി.

പക്ഷെ അദ്ദേഹം പുരസ്കാരം വാങ്ങാതെ യാത്ര മതിയാക്കി.

അയ്യപ്പന് ആദരാഞ്ജലികൾ

Fishermen’s body flays state sponsorship of M. S. Swaminathan

The Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF), a leading organization of the fishing community, has criticized the State Government’s decision to recommend the name of Dr M.S. Swaminathan for Bharat Ratna.

Dr Swaminathan, well-known agricultural scientist, hails from a former landowning family of Kerala. The State government decided to recommend his name in recognition of the role he had played in the success of the Green Revolution.

C. Subramaniam, who, as Union Agriculture Minister, had promoted the Green Revolution, had been honoured with the award of Bharat Ratna earlier.

Alleging that Dr. Swaminathan’s work had harmed the traditional rights of the fishing community, KSMTF president T. Peter called for a proper and critical appraisal of his contribution to the agricultural and fisheries sectors.

As an agricultural scientist, Swaminathan might be the father of Green Revolution in India, but it must be remembered that “this very revolution has done great harm not only to agriculture in the country but also to fisheries,” he said. Its role in creating the situation that led to thousands of farmers committing suicide could not be denied. Agro-chemicals promoted by the Green Revolution had poisoned not only farmlands but also water resources. The grains and vegetables consumed by citizens of this country had been affected by toxic chemicals.

Peter added that Kuttanad, the main area of rice production in the state, had used maximum pesticides causing irreversible problems for fisheries. Large-scale destruction of fish had taken place in the region. Scientists had identified chemical pesticides as a causative factor in this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A real picture from a liquor shop in Kerala

Here is a picture I received from en e-mail group.

Gulf Today column

Beginning today, my weekly column in the Sharjah daily Gulf Today will not be confined to Kerala affairs.

In view of the change in the character of the column it will now be posted in the BHASKAR blog instead of here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

All talk and no action is key to happiness

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

At his coronation ceremony two years ago, King Jigme Khesar Wangchuk of Bhutan said, “While I am but king of a small Himalayan kingdom, I may in my time be able to do much to promote the greater wellbeing and happiness of all people in this world.”

Bhutan has been trying to spread cheer in Kerala from the time of his predecessor by holding forth before the people the opportunity to get rich quick through its lottery scheme. In the process, it has ruined many, but one man has reason to be happy: Tamil Nadu-based lottery king Santiago Martin.

Martin’s name has been familiar to Keralites since he donated Rs20 million to Deshabhimani, the official organ of the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Embarrassed by reports of the donation, the party removed EP Jayarajan, a central committee member and confidante of state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, from the post of general manager of the newspaper. He was quietly reinstated within a year.

Martin, who began life as a lottery retailer, started acquiring distributorship of state lotteries after winning a prize of Rs150,000 on an unsold ticket. By adopting a strategy of holding on to unsold tickets, instead of returning them, so as to collect any prizes they may win, he made more money.

Martin’s association with Bhutan lottery began when Sanjay Jayantilal, its promoter, made him sole distributor for Kerala. Three years ago he became its promoter by outbidding others. He is also the promoter of the Sikkim state lottery and sole distributor of several other state lotteries, including West Bengal’s.

Together the Bhutan and Sikkim lotteries siphon off an estimated Rs150 billion each year from Kerala, their biggest market. In 2006, Vigilance chief Siby Mathews, in a report to the state government, said the promoters of these lotteries were acting in gross violation of the provisions of the central lottery law.

Over the past few years Congress leaders have repeatedly pressed for action. Their main concern appears to be Martin’s proximity to the CPI-M leadership rather than his exploitation of the poor by promoting the gambling instinct.

Kerala pioneered state lotteries by launching the country’s first such lottery in 1967. Under private operators, the Bhutan and Sikkim lotteries started holding several draws in a day, providing an easy outlet for gamblers.

The Kerala High Court, while passing orders in a lottery case, recently directed that draws be limited to once a week. There are reports that the order is being flouted and that the official machinery is unable or unwilling to ensure compliance with it.

Martin runs his empire through a chain of companies. The contract with the Bhutan government is in the name of Monica Distributors. The operations in Kerala are under Megha Distributors, owned by his brother, John Kennedy. In West Bengal, he operates under the banners of Bayani Traders and Future Distributors. Almost all his outfits have attracted charges of irregular or illegal activity.

The Kerala sales tax department recently found that Megha Distributors printed Bhutan tickets at a Tamil Nadu facility, which is not a security press, in violation of the law. Other alleged irregularities included sale of fake or expired tickets and operation of single digit lotteries which are banned.

At one time 70 to 80 per cent of all Bhutan and Sikkim tickets were being sold in Tamil Nadu. To save the poor, the former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government banned all lotteries. The state police have registered several cases for alleged sale of tickets after the ban.

On raiding the Kolkata premises of Future Distributors, which had not been filing returns, Income-tax officials found evidence of large-scale evasion. They slapped a bill of Rs190 million, said to be the largest recovery from any tax evader.

It is natural that Martin has influential friends. A few days ago he embarrassed the state Congress by bringing Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the party’s national spokesman, to argue for him in the High Court. He is said to have financed a film scripted by Tamil Nadu’s DMK Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi. Last week a Bhutan newspaper quoted a Kolkata businessman as saying a lot of ‘big shots’ in West Bengal were behind him.

The public debate in Kerala centres on who must act against the lottery mafia. Congress leaders want the state government to take action. Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac insists it is for the Centre to act. The debate is all about scoring points. All talk and no action keeps everybody happy.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The political ball game has started

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Elections are here again. In the polling scheduled for October 23 and 25, Kerala’s voters will decide who should manage the affairs of the state’s local self-government institutions (LSGI) for the next five years.

LSGIs constitute the lowest levels of the administration. They have only limited powers. They cannot legislate. There is hardly any scope to raise revenues through taxation. But they have at their disposal grants allotted by the central and state governments.

The large number of posts at stake makes the LSGI elections the biggest undertaking of its kind. In the Lok Sabha elections, the state’s voters choose only 20 MPs. In the State Assembly elections they choose 140 MLAs. In this month’s LSGI elections they will choose more than 21,600 persons to run five city corporations, 59 municipalities, 14 district panchayats, 152 block panchayats and 978 gram panchayats.

A law enacted early this year raised the seats reserved for women in LSGIs from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. If the total number of seats in a body is an odd one, women will have one seat more than men. As a result, more than 11,200 seats will go to women. Since women can contest for general seats also, the number of women elected to LSGIs may exceed this number.

Half of all the LSGIs will have women at the helm. Where men are at the helm, there will be women in the No.2 slot. The top positions will be filled by drawing from the ranks of the elected members.

The entry of women in large numbers makes these elections quite unlike anything the state has witnessed so far. In recent years, fewer women have been elected to Parliament and the State Assembly than in the early years of Independence.

When 33 per cent reservation came into force, political parties experienced difficulty in finding candidates for the reserved seats since women have not been very active in the political sphere. They overcame the problem by drawing candidates from among family members of party leaders or members of affiliated women’s organisations.

This time the parties once again experienced difficulty as they had to find more women candidates than last time.

Unlike the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly, which are legislative bodies patterned after western parliamentary institutions, LSGIs are based on the Indian tradition of village panchayats (five-member councils). The system did not envisage separation of the elected representatives into treasury benches and opposition benches.

Respecting the essential difference between the western and indigenous models, for a long time the political parties stayed out of LSGI elections. Their members did contest LSGI elections but they did so without party labels.

During the past two decades, as the confrontation between the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the United Democratic Front led by the Congress, the main contenders for power in the state, became intense, both sides started putting up candidates on party basis in LSGI elections also.

The three-tier panchayat system now in vogue all over the country is the result of an initiative taken by the late Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister. He decided to strengthen the lower levels of administration after he found that middlemen gobbled up most of the funds earmarked for schemes meant for the weaker sections of the society.

In Kerala, the last LDF government took the concept of grassroots level democracy a step further by initiating steps for decentralisation of power and people’s participation in the planning and execution of development projects.

Since then people’s participation has fallen into bad days. Schemes are now drawn up by officials and executed by contractors. Corruption in the administration and favouritism in the distribution of benefits under welfare schemes are widespread.

A number of new players have entered the electoral arena this time and some of them pose a challenge to the ways of the established political forces. They include activist groups which have been pursuing various causes including protection of the environment.

Also among the new entrants are organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Dalit Human Rights Forum, and CPI-M dissidents, some of whom are erstwhile supporters of Chief Minister VS Achuthananadan.

Both the LDF and the UDF are treating the LSGI elections as a dress rehearsal for the Assembly elections which are due next year. The CPI-M has said the election will be a referendum on the performance of the present LDF government. These are postures aimed at keeping the contests in the familiar matrix of alliance politics.
If the new entrants are able to upset the traditional equations in the LSGI elections, the political scenario may well undergo a change before the Assembly elections.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A celebration of poetry

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Literate Kerala took a short break from its daily preoccupation with political theatre during the weekend to celebrate Malayalam poet ONV Kurup winning the prestigious Jnanpith award.

There were good reasons to celebrate. ONV, as he is known, has been a doyen of Malayalam poetry for long. That explains why some writers and politicians described this award as something which was overdue.

Then, again, no Malayalam poet has won this honour since the late G Sankara Kurup was picked for the very first Jnanpith award 45 years ago. Three Malayalam writers won the award during this period. They were novelists and short story writers.

Further, the award comes as a kind of consolation to prize as votaries of Malayalam bemoan the Central government’s failure to grant it the status of classical language. The other major languages of the Dravidian group, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, have won such recognition.

Instituted in 1965 by the Bharatiya Jnanpith, a trust set up by Ms Rama Jain, of the Dalmia-Jain family, owners of the Times of India group of publications, the award is regarded as the country’s most important literary prize, surpassing even the awards given annually by Sahitya Akademi, the state-sponsored literary body.

While the Akademi gives separate prizes for each major language of the country, there is only one Jnanpith award in a year. The cash component of the prize, which was always significantly higher than that of the Akademi awards, now stands at Rs700,000.

Since even scholars have only limited knowledge of literary activity in languages other than their own, the task of the jury constituted to choose the winner, is extremely difficult, howsoever eminent its members maybe.

In the beginning, the award was given to a writer for a specific literary work. In 1982, the trust amended the scheme. Now the award is given to a writer in recognition of the writer’s entire contribution to literature.

In the early years, the award was announced regularly each year. For reasons that are not clear, it has fallen behind schedule since 2005. The awards for 2005 and 2006 were announced together in 2008.

On Friday, again, the trust announced the awards for two years together. ONV Kurup was chosen for the 2007 award and Urdu poet Akhlaq Khan Shahryar for the 2008 award.

At one time, Malayalam and Kannada were leading the Jnanpith tally with three awards each. Now Malayalam, with five awards, shares the third place in the roll of honour with Bangla. Kannada with seven awards and Hindi with six occupy the top spots.

The Jnanpith award comes as a fitting tribute to ONV’s seven decades of service to the Muse. While still a student he had caught the attention of not only scholars but all lovers of poetry. His early poems and the folksy songs he wrote for plays and movies earned popularity for him and helped the Communist movement by spreading the message of change.

While some of his contemporaries experimented with new forms of poetry, ONV made an unostentatious transition from revolutionary romanticism to classicism. In the process he raised himself above most of them.

ONV belongs to the small band of poets who played a major part in arousing environmental consciousness in the state at a time when powerful vested interests embarked upon a destructive course in the name of development.

Emerging as the foremost poet of his generation, he won all major literary prizes, an honorary doctorate and the Padma Shri award given by the president. Also, he endeared himself to generations of college students as a popular teacher and thrilled even more people with his oratory.

All that made ONV a natural choice for Jnanpith in the eyes of the Malayalees and when it came they celebrated it viewing it as an honour as much to themselves as to him and his work.

ONV was in Dubai with his wife to attend Onam celebrations organised by a Kerala group there when Education Minister MA Baby informed him on the telephone about the award. Baby was at the airport with Law Minister M Vijayakumar to receive the poet and escort him home on his return to Thiruvananthapuram.

Baby said the state government would request the Jnanpith authorities to hold the award presentation ceremony in Kerala.

Political and parochial considerations underlying such moves must not cloud the fact that ONV’s award reinforces the place of Malayalam in Indian literature and gives a boost to poetry at a time when misgivings about its future are widespread.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A poll that can spell a change in course

BRP Bhaskar

Gulf Today

The elections to the local self-government institutions, scheduled for late October, are seen by the ruling Left Democratic Party and the opposition United Democratic Front as a dress rehearsal for the State Assembly poll due next year.

The LDF, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, had approached the 2005 elections with great confidence, having bagged 18 of Kerala’s 20 Lok Sabha seats the previous year. The CPI-M’s own tally was a record 12 seats. The Congress, which usually fared better than the CPI-M in the national elections, did not get a single seat.

The CPI-M buttressed the LDF position by entering into a tactical alliance with others including the Democratic Indira Congress of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran and his son and former state Congress chief K Muraleedharan. In the event, the LDF won all the five city corporations, 34 of the 52 municipal councils and a large majority of the district, block and village panchayats.

The LDF also won the Assembly elections comfortably. With three wins in a row, the party was entitled to a grin. That grin was visible on Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s face in the advertisements the LDF government placed in newspapers to publicise its achievements before the announcement of the local elections schedule.

Public perception of the government’s performance appears to be at variance with the claims made by the government and the party. Last year’s Lok Sabha elections revealed erosion in the CPI-M’s base. The departure of two constituents, Janata Dal (S) and Kerala Congress (J), and an informal ally, the Indian National League, has weakened the LDF. Their rumps left in the LDF are of doubtful value.

The UDF thinks it is now its turn to grin. But it may be grinning too soon.

With no one to challenge its hegemony, the CPI-M could complete seat allocation in the LDF in most places without a hitch by last week. The Congress was yet to pacify the restive Kerala Congress leader KM Mani, Communist Marxist Party leader MV Raghavan and Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi leader KR Gowri Amma.

A close look at voting trends suggests that the popular belief the LDF’s loss is the UDF’s gain may be too simplistic.

In the parliamentary elections of 2004 the LDF’s vote share was eight percentage points above the UDF’s. Since the CPI-M and some other parties made tactical alliances cutting across the dividing line, it is not easy to determine the vote share of the two fronts in the local elections of 2005. In the 2006 Assembly elections, which the LDF won, its lead over the UDF was less than six percentage points.

In last year’s Lok Sabha poll, the UDF’s vote share was only three percentage points above the LDF’s. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which undertook a detailed study of the voting behaviour of different social and economic groups, reported a significant drop in LDF support among the Christians (15 percentage points), forward Nairs (14 percentage points) and Dalits (five percentage points).

The UDF’s gains among Christians (13 percentage points) and Nairs (four percentage points) fell short of the LDF’s losses. Both fronts lost Muslim votes: the LDF loss was three percentage points and the UDF loss two percentage points.

Neither front has understood the significance of this phenomenon. It points to the emergence of new players on the political arena besides the two state-level fronts and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

It also indicates that the conventional wisdom that one front’s loss is the other’s gain is no longer valid. Just as there are voters who switch sides from election to election, there are also voters who reject the theory propagated by the two fronts that there is no alternative before them except to rally behind one of them.

The collapse of the TINA (there is no alternative) theory has opened up the possibility of a change in the direction of electoral politics in the state. Small groups which attract voters who are disillusioned with the big parties and the fronts they lead may not be able to make a difference to the outcome of the elections at the national and state levels, but they may be able to do so in the local elections.

Yet another factor to be taken into account is the reservation of half the seats at all levels of local self-government for women. If the new forces are able to challenge the LDF and the UDF effectively in these seats the pace of change will quicken.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A heady cocktail of politics and graft

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Having lived through eight liquor disasters in 19 years, Kerala has developed the capacity to overcome the impact of such tragedies quickly and make them a part of the games that politicians play. It is, therefore, not surprising that the hooch deaths that cast a shadow over Malappuram during the Eid celebrations has become another topic to be talked out on television channels.

In terms of death toll, Malappuram ranks lower than Vypin where 78 persons died in 1982, Punalur where 34 died in 1981 and Kalluvathukkal where 33 died in 2000. But there are certain factors which set it apart from the earlier tragedies.

It shows that liquor disaster, until now a southern phenomenon, has moved northward. The killer potion was distributed not in just one place but in a few places in the Malappuram and Thrissur districts.

Liquor tragedies usually occur at festival time when the demand for intoxicants goes up. According to Excise Minister PK Gurudasan, taking into account the southern districts’ history, the authorities had taken adequate precautions there in advance of Eid and Onam.

The liquor trade is the main source of revenue of the state government and subject to strict regulations and tight control. The government cannot, therefore, escape blame for liquor tragedies.

Arrack, which is locally distilled, having been banned by the United Democratic Front government in 1995, the law permits the sale of only two types of liquor: rum, whiskey and such other items labelled as ‘Indian-made foreign liquor’ (IMFL), and toddy, a sap drawn from coconut or other palms.

The Kerala State Beverages Corporation, a public sector undertaking, has monopoly over IMFL trade. Toddy shops operate under licences issued by the Excise department. To get a licence the applicant has to show he has access to at least 50 coconut palms and the services of at least five persons who are registered members of the Toddy Workers Welfare Board.

Official data indicates that there are more than 5,900 toddy shops in the state and more than 36,000 registered workers, including more than 16,000 toddy tappers.

The government earned Rs36.50 billion by way of taxes on liquor sales last year. The Beverages Corporation, whose sales have been growing steadily, has fixed a target of Rs53 billion for this year and the government expects excise revenue of Rs40 billion.

Inevitably, media debates on the Malappuram tragedy became spats between spokesmen of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Congress party. The Opposition demanded a judicial probe, and the government readily agreed.

There were judicial inquiries into almost all the liquor tragedies of the last two decades. The judges, after gathering evidence, explained how killer drinks came to be distributed and outlined measures to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies. The CPI-M and the Congress which take turns at the helm did not care to implement these measures.

Last week CPI-M state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan called for stern action against those involved in illicit liquor trade. Left Democratic Front convener Vaikom Viswan voiced suspicions about sabotage and demanded a probe into that aspect.

Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan insinuated that the liquor mafia had been trying to implicate senior police officers, who had been after it, in the custodial death of an accused in a murder case in Palakkad, which is now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

It is easy to see that the ruling party leaders are drawing red herrings across the trail. The victims of the tragedy had bought the drink from licensed toddy shops, not bootleggers.

The state police had investigated the custodial death for months before the High Court transferred the case to the CBI. There was no suggestion of the liquor mafia’s involvement. at that time.

Like earlier instances of this kind, the Malappuram tragedy is the result of a brew of which politics and graft are the main ingredients. The state does not produce enough toddy to meet the needs of the shops it has sanctioned. The shopkeepers supplement the supplies with toddy produced artificially using industrial spirits, some of which can be lethal.

Shops in several districts, including Malappuram, show Chittur in Palakkad as the source of toddy since there are not enough palms and tappers in their areas. Official records indicate that they get 225,000 litres from there but the actual production is only 75,000 litres. The gap between demand and supply is made up at the shop end. The shopkeepers buy the silent approval of officials to this activity with regular payments.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Playing with students’ fortune

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A week after the Supreme Court upheld the High Court order asking self-financing medical colleges to fill the management quota from the rank list prepared on the basis of the common entrance examination conducted by the state government the students are in the dark about the fees they have to pay.

It was eight years ago that Kerala allowed the setting up of private professional colleges on self-financing basis. Since then the government and the managements have been playing with the students’ fortune.

The term ‘self-financing’ is a misnomer. The finance comes from the students in the form of exorbitant fees.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have had such colleges since the 1980s and they were attracting students from Kerala in large numbers. AK Antony, who, as chief minister, sanctioned the earliest elf-financing colleges, envisaged admission to half the seats from the government’s rank list, leaving the managements free to admit students of their choice for the remaining seats.

Initially, students admitted under government and management quotas paid the same fees as were paid by students in the government colleges: Rs11,500 for the medical degree course and Rs6,600 for the engineering degree course.

However, students seeking seats under the management quota had to pay huge sums under the counter. The courts ruled such payments illegal. The managements then demanded higher fee structures. As the government failed to bind the managements down through legislation or agreement they could freely fleece the students.

Self-financing colleges now dominate the professional education sector. Seventy of the 84 engineering colleges and 12 of the 17 medical colleges in the state come under this category. The sanctioned intake of the engineering colleges is above 26,000 and that of the medical colleges is 1,100.

Belated attempts to control the managements through legislation have led to litigation. Over a period, problems in the field of engineering education have died down but those in the field of medical education, where scope for profiteering is vast, have persisted.

Every academic year now opens with the students or managements approaching the courts with petitions. The plethora of judgments that have emerged has not yielded a formula that can end the agony of students and guardians.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the Left Democratic Front, had vigorously opposed the UDF government’s stand on self-financing colleges. Its student affiliate’s campaign against the private colleges led to violence on several occasions.

After the change of government in 2006, it fell to the LDF, particularly the CPI-M, to manage the problem. Its record has been as dismal as that of the UDF.

Every year Education Minister MA Baby holds talks with the private managements only to surrender to them. This year, after signing an agreement on fee structure with the government, the managements filled the 450 seats in their quota on the basis of an entrance examination which they themselves conducted.

Early last month the High Court set aside these admissions and ordered fresh admissions from the government’s rank list. Since most of the students admitted on the basis of the test held by the managements had not taken the entrance examination conducted by the government, they have to go out.

While the Supreme Court upheld the High Court order with regard to admissions, it has still not disposed of the petitions. In offering seats to students in the government’s rank list, the managements have stated that the fees payable by them will depend upon the apex court’s final order expected on September 13.

Under the agreement the managements signed with the government this year, they are entitled to collect from each student admitted under the management quota an annual fee Rs550,000 and a caution deposit of Rs500,000. Now they are also demanding a bank guarantee to cover the fees payable for four years. This, they say, is necessary to prevent their being left in the lurch if a student drops out.

The managements’ demands are beyond the means of most of the students who took the government examination. They have very little time to raise the money as the Medical Council of India has fixed September 30 for the completion of admissions. To make things worse, the managements have threatened to raise the fees if they are not able to get enough students from the government list to fill the management quota.

Monday, August 30, 2010

UDF prepares for seat sharing talks

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As the Left Democratic Front, traditionally the front-runner in local elections in Kerala, enters the arena weakened by the departure of several allies, hope runs high in the rival United Democratic Front.

Most LDF deserters have found refuge in the UDF. Now it has to cope with the problem of finding seats for the newcomers.

The UDF was in a bad shape at the time of the last elections in 2005. The Congress had been weakened by the exit of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran and his son and former State Congress President K Muraleedharan. The LDF’s prospects improved as the Communist Party of India-Marxist having struck a deal with Karunakaran’s Democratic Indira Congress.

Factionalism in the Congress is under check. Karunakaran is back in the party. Muraleedharan has not been readmitted but he has publicly pledged support to the UDF.

MP Veerendrakumar’s Janata Dal, which has been rechristened Socialist Janata, is now a constituent of the UDF. The Congress has appealed to all allies to part with some seats for it. The appeal has not invoked any response.

With the merger of the Kerala Congress faction led by PJ Joseph, which was with the LDF for two decades, the Kerala Congress (Mani) has become the second largest UDF constituent, pushing the Indian Union Muslim League to third place. It has made known that it expects a larger share than in the last elections by virtue of its growth. The Congress party has asked it to accommodate the Joseph group in its quota.

The Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi of KR Gowri Amma and the Communist Marxist Party of MV Raghavan are also seeking more seats than last time. Gowri Amma recently hinted that she would explore alternatives if her party’s claims are ignored.

While the JSS remains in the UDF, Gowri Amma has been staying away from its meetings in protest against the Congress party’s failure to act against its members who had worked against her and her party colleagues in the last Assembly elections.

Gowri Amma and Raghavan floated their parties after being expelled from the CPI-M. Some CPI-M leaders, including Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, have resumed personal contacts with Gowri Amma in the recent past. The CPI has said its doors are open to her.

There is little chance of Gowri Amma returning to the CPI-M or the CPI, or the JSS becoming a constituent of the LDF. However, the possibility of a tactical alliance between the CPI-M and the JSS cannot be ruled out. The CPI-M has entered into such alliances with UDF partners in the past.

The Indian National League, a breakaway group of the Indian Union Muslim League, which worked closely with the LDF for many years, has moved over to the UDF camp. The Congress has already decided on an electoral understanding with it.

The delimitation of constituencies has resulted in an increase in the number of wards in various local bodies. However, this is not enough to satisfy the demands of all allies.

The UDF has said it will begin talks on seat allocation for the elections to the local self-government institutions on September 1.

Last week Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy and State Congress President Ramesh Chennithala did some tough talk apparently to set the tone for the negotiations which will be held at lower levels. The party also fielded two other leaders, former Speaker Vakkom Purushothaman and PT Thomas, MP, to counter the demands of the JSS and the Kerala Congress (M) respectively.

In theory, the two fronts divide the seats in proportion to the strength of the constituent parties. But who knows for certain the strength of the parties?

The LDF had won its big majority in the State Assembly in 2006 with only 48.63 per cent of the votes polled. The UDF did not get even half as many seats as the LDF but it had secured 42.98 per cent of the votes. A swing of the pendulum enabled the UDF to bag 16 of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats last year.

The CPI-M’s share of the votes polled in the Assembly elections was 30.45 per cent and the Congress party’s 24.09 per cent. These figures indicate that the parties which lead the two fronts together command only about 55 per cent of the votes. Both stand in desperate need of allies to win elections.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Light fare in heavy Onam packs

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Today is Onam, the most important day in the Keralite’s calendar. Bloated newspapers heralded the arrival of festive season days in advance with two-in-one editions. Television channels whipped up interest with announcements of celebrity chats and other special programmes.

The two-in-one newspaper idea was conceived by Malayala Manorama, which is the most widely circulated Malayalam daily and pulls in the most advertisements, a decade ago. Mathrubhumi followed suit.

The day’s edition has to be printed in two sections because of the limited capacity of the press. The masthead appears in the same size in both the sections, making it difficult to decide which one is the main section.

The front pages of both sections of Manorama carry a note saying: “Two Manoramas today.” Mathrubhumi plays no such trick. It simply says, “In two sections today.”

Traditionally the newspapers also bring out special Onam editions in magazine format with literary content. Since the special edition attracts lots advertisements, the two large newspapers have been bringing it out in two volumes for some years. This year Manorama had to go in for three volumes.

Onam, the traditional harvest festival, has been the main shopping season for as long as one can remember. To begin with, it was the time when people bought new clothes. Today it is the time when people acquire all manner of goods.

According to market watchers, 50 to 60 per cent of all consumer durables sales in Kerala take place during this season. Sales of expensive items like jewellery and automobiles also go up at this time. This year the makers of a well-known brand announced prizes worth more than Rs9.3 million in a bid to boost sales of their mobile handsets.

Manufacturers of consumer goods, automobiles and mobile handsets and jewellers resort to heavy advertising at this time. Although television probably has more clout than newspapers, the print media still gets the biggest share of the advertising pie.

A website devoted to media matters quoted spokesmen of Malayala Manorama and the Communist Party of India-Marxist daily Deshabhimani as saying they earn one-fifth of their annual advertisement revenue during the Onam season.

Manorama has been working hard for years to boost Onam advertisements. It began Onam brand building a decade ago. The success registered in the early years encouraged it to plan new activities to impress advertisers and advertising agencies.

This year, beginning July, in an innovative campaign, it staged Pulikali, the tiger dance which is associated with Onam celebrations, at the offices of big and small advertising agencies in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai. As the dancer performed to the accompaniment of drums, the newspaper’s marketing staff handed out to media planners pamphlets which said “The best way to reach Malayalees is through Manorama.”

The two Manoramas the subscribers received each day for a fortnight for the usual price and the three volumes of the special they got for Rs50 testify to the success of the paper’s efforts.

The media website’s reporter who spoke to marketing officials of Mathrubhumi and Deshabhimani said both were hoping to haul in twice as much as they did last year.

At the market place everybody is happy — producers and distributors because they have sold more, the media because they have earned more, and consumers because they have acquired new products.

However, not many consumers of the media — newspaper readers and television viewers — can share their same sense of exhilaration. For, the Onam fare which has come in heavy packages is rather light.

The newspaper can accommodate more advertisements by increasing the number of pages. But it cannot find enough new poets and writers to produce additional reading material to fill the extra pages.

Many editors fill the extra pages with material that can be generated with comparative ease like celebrity interviews and discussions. The superstars hogged much of the space in one Onam special. Another devoted 55 pages (inclusive of advertisements, of course) to a minor actor-politician and 23 more to a comedian.
Cartoonist EP Bunny, who lives outside the state, provided a rare insight into the local scene in an interview published by Madhyamam in its Onam special. “Although power has been decentarlised to the panchayat level, in daily life the Keralite has to go through a more hierarchical setup than before,” he said. “The people maintain their dignity playing snake and ladder everyday.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Discord mars goodwill season

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On the eve of the Onam festival, when people rejoice in memories of a just society characterised by equality and fraternity, Kerala is under a cloud of distrust generated and sustained by acts motivated by political and religious considerations.

A popular myth links Onam with annual homecoming by a benevolent ancient king, Mahabali, whom jealous gods had deposed. Ballads hail his reign as a time when all were equal and there was no falsehood or deceit.

Although the myth connects Onam tenuously with the Hindu religion, scholars are agreed that it is the traditional harvest festival of the region, and followers of all faiths join the celebrations enthusiastically, making it the most important goodwill season in the Keralite’s calendar. In recent years, the state government has developed it as the tourist season.

Onam, which falls next week, acquires added sanctity this year as it coincides with the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims, who form about 25 per cent of the population, constitute the state’s largest minority.

The people of the state have always prided themselves in the region’s long tradition of communal harmony. India’s oldest synagogue, church and mosque are all located in the state. They bear eloquent testimony to this hoary tradition.

Kerala, still under Buddhist-Jain influence, extended a warm welcome to Jews when they landed here centuries ago to escape persecution in Israel. The local Christian community believes St Thomas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, came here and preached the gospel. An Arab, Malik bin Deenar, reputedly built the Cheraman mosque at Kodungallur in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

In the early 1920s, violence erupted in Malabar in the course of the Khilafat movement launched by the Congress at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi. Although the event had communal overtones, scholars are of the opinion that it was primarily anti-British and anti-landlord in character. Thanks to the spirit of inclusiveness promoted by the social reform movements that had swept the region earlier, the trouble did not spread far.

The emergence of vote banks built around religious and caste identities promoted a degree of divisiveness after Independence. Sectarian groups gained political legitimacy as the Congress and Communist parties pampered them to win elections.

Communal sentiments grew in the 1990s in the wake of the Ayodhya temple controversy fanned by the Sangh Parivar. That was when Abdul Naser Mahdani appeared on the horizon. That was also when National Development Front, predecessor of the Popular Front of India, which is now under the scanner following a hand-chopping incident, took birth.

Both the Congress and the CPI-M vied for Mahdani’s favours but he eventually ended up as a pawn on the political chessboard. He spent more than nine years in a Tamil Nadu jail without bail or parole before being acquitted in a bomb blast case. As these lines are written, a police team from Karnataka is waiting to arrest him to face trial in a blast case in that state.

The murder of PK Mohammed Abdul Hassan Maulavi of Chekannur, whose reformist ideas infuriated orthodox elements, in 1993 and the communal riot that rocked the fishing hamlet of Marad in 2002 were rude reminders that fanaticism was on the rise. The warning signals evoked only a weak response.

The hand-chopping case shows how those who ought to act soberly are exacerbating the situation with short-sighted action.

In March, TJ Joseph, a college teacher in Thodupuzha, set a question paper in which students were asked to provide punctuation marks in a text, which was an imaginary dialogue between the Creator and a character named Muhammed. There was nothing in the text to suggest that the character was the Prophet (PBUH) but word spread that the teacher had denigrated the Prophet (PBUH). The college, the university, the government and the media implicitly endorsed the charge of denigration.

Religious leaders in Thodupuzha came together and brought communal sentiments under control quickly. However, elsewhere, some people were plotting revenge. On July 4 Joseph was waylaid near his home in Muvattupuzha while returning from church and his right hand chopped off. Six weeks later, he is back at home, the severed hand sewn up, but the social fabric remains torn.

The political parties have their eyes on the local self-government elections which are at hand and the Assembly elections which are not far away. The CPI-M, eager to live down the impact of its disastrous association with Mahdani in last year’s parliamentary elections, is taking a position close to that of the Bharatiya Janata Party on communally sensitive issues.

Organisations like the pro-CPI-M Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Indian Union Muslim League, the BJP and Jamaat-e-Islami have drawn up separate programmes to repair the damage to the social fabric. The partisan approach reflected in these efforts offers little room for hope.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The grand lottery loot

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Kerala now has the highest per capita income as well as expenditure in India. High-rise buildings and bustling shopping centres strewn all over the state are visible symbols of its prosperity

Official figures never reflected the state’s financial health fully and correctly. Academics were able to inject a measure of realism in statistics relating to income. However, there is no proper understanding of where the money goes.

After a long period of hand-to-mouth existence, the state’s fortunes turned as jobseekers started migrating in droves to the Gulf States in the wake of the oil boom of the 1970s. The savings they sent home boosted the state’s economy.

Since money flowing into banks from abroad did not figure in the government’s books, the state remained below the national average in income tables. Scholars at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, helped correct the picture by working Gulf remittances into the tables.

In the net state domestic product (NSDP) table Kerala is still at the ninth place among 22 states. In the per capita table, it ranks higher — at the sixth place. The NSDP includes income of non-profit institutions too. The Consumer Pyramid constructed by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which presents a realistic picture of family income, placed the state first with a per capita household income of Rs63,000 in 2009, way ahead of Delhi (Rs55,000) and Punjab (Rs42,000), the other big earners.

Gulf remittances, which were around Rs3 billion a year in the late 1970s, have now grown to about Rs300 billion a year. Banking statistics indicate that domestic savings add up to almost as high a figure as non-resident deposits.

How much of the money that flows in from outside and is generated locally goes into construction and conspicuous consumption? There is no ready answer to this question.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which conducted a survey a few years ago to find out how Kerala lives, estimated that each year the people of the state spent about Rs68 billion on marriages and Rs28 billion on medical treatment. The figures it rolled out leave a wide gap between income and expenditure.

There is no reliable estimate of consumer spending in the state. Each year the government conducts a Grand Kerala Shopping Festival with the active cooperation of commercial interests. It claims the festival is a great success but does not divulge any sales figures.

Jewellers are among the government’s major partners in the shopping festival. India, with a sales turnover of 900 tonnes, is the biggest consumer of gold in the world. Kerala, which accounts for less than four per cent of the country’s population, accounts for 25 per cent of the gold sales.

The huge turnover of the jewellers, unofficially estimated at hundreds of billions of rupees, is not reflected in the sales tax figures. Last year the government managed to push up sales tax revenue from Rs1.5 billion to Rs1.8 billion.

Kerala tops in per capita liquor consumption. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation, which has a monopoly over sale of Indian-made foreign liquor, reported a record turnover of Rs55.39 billion in 2009-10. This was 20% more than the previous year’s figure.

The biggest beneficiary of the spurt in liquor sales was the state government. The KSBC contributed Rs42.60 billion to the exchequer by way of sales tax, excise duties, licence fees and other levies last year.

Kerala also tops in the consumption of tobacco. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, per capita monthly expenditure on tobacco products in the state was Rs.14.50 in the villages and Rs18.50 in the urban areas. The national average for both urban and rural areas was only Rs9.90.

The expenditure story will not be complete until we look at the loot by the lotteries.

Kerala pioneered the system of state lotteries. In 1967, the first year of operation, the state Lotteries department sold tickets worth Rs2 million and made a profit of Rs1.4 million. Over the past four decades, sales have risen to Rs4.84 billion and profit to Rs1.04 billion.

The state Lottery department has now been put in the shade by lotteries operated by private agencies under licences issued by the Sikkim state and the neighbouring country of Bhutan. They take away much more money than the state government.

Based on data relating to tickets printed and sold in the state by private lottery agencies, Mathrubhumi, a leading newspaper, reported last week that they are siphoning off about Rs157 billion from the state each year.

Apparently a large number of poor people in the state today pin their hopes for a better future not on the state government but on the governments of Sikkim and Bhutan whose agents have lured them with schemes that provide for several draws each day.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Controversy over judges’ remarks

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Talkative judges, testy politicians and sensational media can make a deadly combination. As the cacophony that reverberated through Kerala last weekend showed.

It all started with Justice S Siri Jagan castigating the government for failing to comply with a high court directive to act against illegal quarrying in the Malayattoor and Neeleswaram areas.

He had before him two writ petitions, including one filed by a citizens’ group named Grama Samrakshana Samithi, seeking action against those carrying on quarrying in land allotted by the government for agricultural purposes.

When the matter came up earlier the court had ordered cancellation of the patta (title) of land where quarrying was on. It also asked the government to recover from the land owners the cost of the granite that had been quarried and to ascertain whether the Mining and Geology department had quarrying licences unlawfully.

The government informed the court that the pattas had been cancelled but sought time to submit a report on the loss to the state and the role of Mining and Geology officials.

Giving expression to the court’s displeasure at the government’s tardy response to the court’s directive, the judge wondered whether it was working for the benefit of politicians and mafia gangs. In a pointed reference to the inaction of the police, he pointed out that the court could issue a directive to call in the army if the government was unable to maintain law and order.

Those were harsh words but, then, it is not unusual for judges to express displeasure in strong terms. The government was, however, upset as it had been subjected to such criticism often in recent times.

In a measured response to Justice Siri Jagan’s remarks, Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said judges should introspect on the propriety of such comments. His party colleague MV Jayarajan, who is already under the scanner for attacks on the courts, let loose another harangue.

In an unprecedented action, Advocate General Sudhakar Prasad called on Chief Justice J Chelameswar to convey to him the government’s displeasure over repeated adverse comments by judges.

The Supreme Court had recently expunged similar remarks made by two other judges of the Kerala high court.

While hearing bail applications of the accused in a case of attempted murder last year, Justice V Ramkumar had observed that law and order in the state was in a shambles and that many criminals came from the Home Minister’s constituency. On an appeal by the state government, the Supreme Court ruled last month that the comments were unnecessary, ill-timed and uncalled for.

Last week the Supreme Court removed from an order of Justice K Padmanabhan Nair an observation that the sandalwood mafia’s influence appeared to extend to the office of the Forest Minister.

The decision came on a petition by KP Viswanathan, Forest Minister in the then United Democratic Front government, who had resigned in the wake of the court’s stricture. The apex upheld his contention that the high court should not have made such an observation without hearing him.

While in the former case expunction came in just one year, in the other the process took more than five years. As Viswanathan has pointed out, had the decision come sooner he could have returned to the Cabinet.

Political parties generally take a narrow view of judges’ remarks which are incidental and not binding. The opposition sees them as a stick with which to beat the government.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which is crying hoarse over Justice Siri Jagan’s comments, had hailed Justice Padmanabhan Nair’s remarks against Viswanathan.

Such remarks by judges, referred to as obiter dicta, receive undue public attention in Kerala as the media, aware of their sensational worth, play them up. Many mainstream newspapers displayed Justice Siri Jagan’s comments under eight-column headlines at the top of the front page.

There is a case for introspection, as suggested by Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, but not by judges alone. The judges must certainly ask themselves whether the impact of obiter dicta was not diminishing as a result of overuse. The politicians must ask themselves whether they are not overreacting to them. Above all, the media must ask themselves whether they are serving the best interests of the society by dwelling too much on casual comments which have only ephemeral value. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 2, 2010.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gearing up for a decisive poll

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Besides the long-established political parties, a host of smaller entities, many of them with no political affiliation, are preparing to contest the local self-government institutions (LSGIs) in Kerala, which is likely to be held towards the end of September.

LSGIs constitute the lowest levels of administration. They are bodies elected to exercise authority at the district, block and town and village levels.

As in the elections to Parliament and the State Assembly, the main contenders for power in LSGIs are the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. Traditionally, the LDF has had an edge over the UDF, thanks to the well-oiled election machinery of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the alliance.

In the last elections, held in 2005, the CPI-M got control of all five city corporations, all but one of 14 district panchayats, a majority of the municipal councils and block panchayats and nearly 700 out of about 1,000 village panchayats.

A series of reverses suffered by the CPI-M in by-elections to local bodies held during the past year point to erosion of its mass base. With a disastrous Lok Sabha poll behind it and new Assembly elections less than a year away, it has much at stake in the LSGI elections.

This is one reason why the CPI-M, which limited the role of small LDF constituents four years ago, is now willing to placate even the smallest splinter group. It recently decided to retain the breakaway P C Thomas faction of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) in the alliance and welcomed back the National Congress Party which had been shown the door earlier.

Originally, the panchayat system did not envisage division along party lines. However, lately local bodies too have become an arena of partisan warfare.

The last LDF government had initiated a programme of democratic decentralisation and people’s participation in the planning process. It generated a lot of enthusiasm, which evaporated fast. People’s interest in local bodies waned as parties which controlled them resorted to favouritism.

The coming elections are the first since women’s reservation in LSGIs was raised from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. When women’s reservation was introduced, the political parties drafted wives and daughters of their leaders as candidates. The CPI-M picked candidates from the ranks of its student and women’s affiliates too.

When elected, these candidates generally acted as proxies for male party functionaries. Those who refused to do so were reined in. As a result, women’s empowerment, the proclaimed objective of reservation, remains unrealised.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Democratic Party of Abdul Naser Mahdani, which fought LSGI elections in the past and are holding the balance between the LDF and the UDF in some local bodies, are hoping to improve their position this time.

Several new players are also preparing to enter the arena. They include the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Social Democratic Party of India, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Dalit Human Rights Movement.

The BSP, a recognised national party which is in power in Uttar Pradesh, has only a small presence in Kerala. The SDPI is the political wing of the Popular Front of India, which is under a cloud following the arrest of several of its members in connection with the chopping of the hand of a college teacher at Muvattupuzha, allegedly as punishment for denigration of the Prophet (PBUH).

The Jamaat and the SDPI have done considerable groundwork in areas where they have influence. Both the groups are planning to field Muslim women in constituencies where the community has substantial presence.

A large number of civic groups involved in agitations over environmental and developmental issues are also likely to contest the elections. They want to challenge the stranglehold of the LDF and the UDF on state politics. CPI-M dissidents may also enter the fray.

All this invests the LSGI elections with unusual significance. The outcome of the election may well decide whether the present two-front system can survive for survive.
With many forces vying with one another, multi-cornered contests are inevitable. The resulting splintering of votes will work to the advantage of the two fronts. Realising this, the small entities are exploring the possibility of coming together on a common platform. All of them agree on the need to eliminate corruption and favouritism which are rampant in LSGIs today.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Of the party, by the party, for the party

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Forget Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy. Kerala has rewritten it to read ‘government of the front, by the front, for the front.’ Since Left Democratic Front constituents other than the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) are midgets, under LDF rule democracy gets reduced to ‘government of the party, by the party, for the party.’

Last week, George Mercier, a member of the opposition United Democratic Front, asked in the State Assembly how many cases of attacks on women had been registered and how many women had been killed since the present government took office.

Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan replied that police had registered 33,148 cases of attacks on women and 243 women had been killed during the past four years.

There is nothing to suggest that attacks on women have increased under LDF rule. Since the question was about cases reported after the LDF came to power, there was no occasion for the minister to provide comparable figures of the UDF period.

In limiting the inquiry to the period of LDF rule Mercier was following a pattern set by others before him. Members often use the question hour to ferret out material which may show the other side in a bad light.

How much has been spent by ministers of this government on entertainment, on telephone calls, on air travel? Such questions come up regularly in the Assembly.

The information the government provides may not be enough to decide whether the spending was justified but it will be enough to plant a suspicion in people’s minds that ministers are spendthrifts.

The change of government in 2006 may not have led to a growth in the crime rate or rise in ministerial extravagance, but there is reason to believe the tendency to misuse authority is increasing. Since many officials are aligned with the CPI-M through service organisations, it is easy for the party to help those whom it favours.

One of the earliest scandals of the present government relates to irregularities in the appointment of assistants in Kerala University. The Upa-Lokayuta, who inquired into the matter, concluded that there had been political interference. The beneficiaries were members of the CPI-M’s youth and student affiliates. The issue is now before the high court.

During the Upa-Lokayukta’s inquiry it came to light that the answer papers of 40,000-odd candidates who took the examination held for filling the post had disappeared. The external agency which evaluated the papers said it had returned them to the university but the university denied having received them. The university bodies are packed with nominees of political parties who are ready to do their bidding.

While revising the voters list of the Kannur constituency before the by-election to the Assembly last year, 9,357 new names were added. Many new voters were shown as staying in buildings under the CPI-M’s control. The Congress alleged that the party had fudged the list with the help of officials.

The Election Commission directed the district authorities to register a case and investigate. While they complied with the directive, the chances of effective prosecution of the guilty officials are thin.

Punishing deserters is as much a part of the scheme as rewarding the faithful. After the Janata Dal quit the LDF and joined the UDF, its president, MP Veerendrakumar, and his son, MV Shreyamskumar, MLA, have come under attack as land grabbers.

The CPI-M Wayanad district secretary CK Saseendran led a group of tribal people under the banner of the Adivasi Kshema Samithi and occupied an estate belonging to Shreyamskumar. The court ordered that they be removed. In a stage-managed show, the police evicted the squatters only to return after the cops left.

High court judges who watched a video of the eviction drama noted that legislators had tried to obstruct the police and asked the Advocate General to advise those concerned to respect the law.

The CPI-M justifies the encroachment on Shreyamskumar’s property saying he is in illegal possession of land that belongs to the Adivasis. The land was in his possession all through the two decades during which the Janata Dal was an LDF constituent. The party or its governments did nothing to reclaim it for the Adivasis during that period.

The most worrying aspect of political infiltration of the service is the reported formation of CPI-M fractions in the police. It was in the 1990s that the presence of party members in the police first came to light. Recently the media reported that policemen had been called to party offices in some places for meetings. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 19, 2010.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Degeneration of decentralised planning

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Kerala has a proud record as a pioneer of decentralised planning in India, having launched a programme for preparing development plans with people’s participation soon after the Indian constitution was amended to facilitate devolution of power to local self-government (LSG) institutions at the district, block and village levels.

While the state’s performance in this regard has won acclaim nationally, those who have been associated with the programme at one stage or another during the past 15 years are agreed that it is plagued by problems that defeat its very purpose.

The people’s plan programme was launched with fanfare by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government headed by EK Nayanar. The formation of a committee headed by EMS Nambooripad, the tallest leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), to propagate the programme testified to the importance attached to it by the party which heads the LDF.

The Nayanar government, while transferring control over institutions under several departments to LSGs, announced that one-third of the state’s annual budget outlay will be earmarked for them.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front government, which came to power in 2001, retained the decentralised set-up but rechristened the programme as Kerala development plan, presumably because the original name was associated in the popular mind with the LDF government. When the LDF returned to power four years ago, many people expected it to re-launch the people’s plan but it did not.

An expert team, headed by MA Oommen, a noted economist, appointed by the present government, said in a report presented last year that the programme had failed to achieve its primary objective of boosting agricultural production. Farm output which was growing at 3.42 per cent a year declined at 0.29 per cent a year after the introduction of decentralised planning.

It found that there had been a decline in people’s participation in the planning effort. Development seminars, which were conceived as a means of preparing people to participate in the planning process, had been reduced to a ritual. Plans were being prepared by officials. It cited the case of a junior clerk who prepared 120 projects for LSGs in just one month.

Dr S Mohanakumar, KM Shajahan and N Niyathi, who were involved in the programme in the early period, presented their assessment of its working at a seminar organised by the Kerala Vikasana Samithi in Thiruvananthapuram recently.

Mohanakumar, who is attached to the Institute of Development Sudies, Jaipur, is a CPI-M member. Shajahan, who was on the personal staff of VS Achuthanandan when he was Leader of the Opposition, was expelled from the party for alleged anti-party activities. Niyathi has no political affiliation. All three agreed that the expectations raised by people’s planning remain unfulfilled.

Mohanakumar laid the blame for the failure of the programme at the doors of the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad, a non-governmental organisation, whose activists were involved in the preparatory efforts. He also said a section of the CPI-M was opposed to the programme.

He pointed out both LDF and UDF started distributing benefits under various schemes administered through LSGs to their members and supporters disregarding all parameters. As people’s participation declined, everything came under the control of the bureaucracy.

He alleged that only 35 to 70 per cent of the fund allotted for a scheme was spent. The rest of the money was shared by officials, contractors and politicians under an agreed formula.

Shajahan observed that decentralised planning had turned into decentralised corruption. The Comptroller and Auditor General had pointed out that several LSGs had failed to submit their accounts to the Local Fund Audit department for scrutiny.

Of the more than 18,000 LSG members about 12,000 belonged to the CPI-M members and many of them also held party posts, he said. They were handling the money allotted to LSGs. There were discrepancies in the statistics provided by the government about LSG spending. The mechanism created to scrutinise the accounts was failing. All this pointed to large-scale corruption under cover of decentralisation.

Niyathi pointed out that the commitment to transfer one-third of the state budget to LSGs was not being honoured. While the Nayanar government gave 29.6 per cent and the UDF government 28.8 per cent, the present LDF government had given them only 21.6 per cent. In the absence of effective coordination among various official agencies, projects often suffered. He cited the examples of hospital buildings remaining unused as there was no water or power or staff. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 12, 2010.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vehicle Rally by Hartal Opponents in Kochi

Say No to Hartal campaigners on the road in Kochi on Monday

On Monday, about 25 citizens opposed to the hartal called by the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party took out a Vahana Jatha (Vehicle Rally) in Kochi under the auspices of the Say No to Hartal campaign

The following is a message from Facebook friend Raju P. Nair who took the initiative in organizing the campaign:

Thank you for the support extended.

As informed, Say NO to Hartal held a Vahana Jatha to protest against the hartals. I am happy that almost 25 cars and some eminent personalities took part in the Jatha held today. Hon’ble Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer inaugurated the Jatha by handing over the flag to the Jatha Captain.

Rotary International, Chamber of Commerce and Travel Operators Association of Kerala extended their support.

Ms. Deepthi Mary Varghese, Fr. Roby Kannancheril, Director, Chavara Cultural Center and Mr. Mansour of the Chamber of Commerce led the Jatha.

Say No to Hartal campaigners offering transportation to stranded passengers at Ernakulam Jn railway station

The vehicles which took part in the Jatha proceeded to the Ernakulam Jn railway station and offered free transfers to stranded passengers.

The media extended great support to this movement.

Request your support to this campaign in the future. Please kick off a debate in the media about the bill presented by Hon'ble Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer against the bandhs and harthals.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ruling party’s tirade against judges

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads Kerala’s ruling coalition, has launched an orchestrated campaign against high court judges, prompting Chief Justice J Chelameswar to observe that “attacking judges personally does not augur well for democracy.”

What drew the party’s ire was the court’s June 23 judgement directing the state government not to grant permission to hold meetings on public roads and road margins. It also asked that if any meeting was held the police must remove all installations and people and prevent it.

A division bench comprising Justice CN Ramachandran Nair and Justice PS Gopinathan had passed the orders on a petition by a resident of Aluva challenging the authorities’ action in permitting a public meeting on the road in front of the local railway station. The Executive Engineer, Public Works Department, Roads, and the Superintendent of Police, Ernakulam Rural district, were cited as respondents.

The judges who perused a set of photographs presented by the petitioner were convinced that the meeting had blocked traffic on the busy road and that such meetings resulted in suffering for the travelling public.

Even though the petitioner drew the court’s attention only to the instance of a road in Aluva, the judges decided to extend the benefit of the decision to road users all over the state. They did not visualise any objection to such extension from any corner, including government agencies, “because the act sought to be prevented is illegal.”

It soon became evident that the assumption that there would be no objection was not correct. All national parties, including the Congress, the CPI-M and the Bharatiya Janata Party criticised the ban on roadside meetings, which have been a feature of public life since the days of the freedom struggle. They dubbed it as a denial of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of association and assembly.

The charge of denial of rights is far-fetched as the court has not imposed a blanket ban on meetings. It only wants to prevent meetings hindering traffic. “In our view,” the judges said, “all meetings should be permitted only in stadiums, public grounds outside road margins and grounds of educational institutions on holidays.”

Three days after the court order, addressing a roadside meeting held on a thoroughfare to protest against the Centre’s decision to hike fuel prices, CPI-M state committee member MV Jayarajan, a close lieutenant of party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, reviled the judges who had delivered the judgement.

After seeing television and newspaper reports of the speech, a lawyer approached the high court with a plea to initiate contempt proceedings against Jayarajan. A bench headed by Chief Justice decided to hear the Advocate General on the issue.

Meanwhile party central committee member EP Jayarajan carried the campaign against the judges further with an equally vituperative speech in which he declared no one could take action against MV Jayarajan.

Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan also joined the campaign but they spoke with a certain degree of restraint. Vijayan said they were only criticising a wrong judgement, not attacking judges. Achuthanandan pointed out that the court had a duty to hear the state’s views before pronouncing a judgement of this kind.

But the vile campaign continued at another level. The Democratic Youth Federation of India and the Students Federation of India organised protest marches to courts at different places in the state and their leaders made virulent attacks on judges. “If necessary we will hold meetings outside judges’ houses,” said a young hothead.

MV Jayarajan’s speech could have been dismissed as the work of a rabble-rouser but for the calibrated performances that followed. The DYFI and SFI are CPI-M affiliates. In the party’s politburo and state committee there are members charged with the task of overseeing the activities of these organisations.

This is not the first time that the CPI-M has come out against court judgements adverse to its interests or those of the government that it heads. However, the current campaign marks a new low in its public conduct. There was no vicious campaign of this kind even when the late EMS Namboodiripad, the tallest party leader of the time, was found guilty of contempt of court in the 1960s for a speech in which he alluded to the class character of judges. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 5, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

Declining appeal of mother tongue

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Who is the father of Malayalam language, music composer Sarat asked noted playback singer KS Chithra recently during a television musical reality show in which both are judges.

“I don’t know the father but I know the mother of Malayalam,” Chithra quipped. “Who’s that?” asked Sarat. “Ranjini,” she replied, pointing to the ebullient presenter of the popular programme.

The judges and the studio audience broke into laughter. The viewers, too, enjoyed Chithra’s banter. It is possible to espy a prophetic element in it. For, Ranjini is one of the young television presenters who use an admixture of Malayalam and English, which may well be the language the next generation of Malayalis speaks.

In the last century, spoken Malayalam had undergone change, helped by the spread of education and appearance of mass communication media like newspapers and films. The print media influenced the spoken language most. Television having emerged as the most popular medium, it now has greater ability than the press to shape the spoken language.

It is natural for a living language to undergo changes. It will be unrealistic to try to freeze it in a particular form in the name of maintaining its purity. However, those who love the language have a duty to watch on the trends and do what they can to ensure that the language evolves in a manner suited to the needs of the society and does not move away from the traditions of the native speakers. That does not seem to be happening.

Leading writers regularly express concern at current trends and voice anxiety over the future of Malayalam. However, they have not put forward, singly or collectively, any proposals to arrest the undesirable trends.

The proposals being canvassed by the literary and political establishments are directed more at establishing the glory of Malayalam than at promoting its healthy evolution. The demands for grant of classical status to the language and setting up of a Malayalam university are examples.

The Central government having recognised Tamil, Telugu and Kannada as classical languages, Kerala is the only southern state whose official language does not enjoy that status. Also, Malayalam is the only major Dravidian language without a university to foster its growth.

One reason why Malayalam’s claim for classical status has received short shrift is that it is of comparatively recent origin. Until a few years ago, it was projected as a modern language by playing down its ancient association with Tamil and playing up its more recent link with Sanskrit.

Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, the putative father of Malayalam language, composed his masterpiece “Adhyathma Ramayanam” as recently as the 16th century. The late Dr K Ayyappa Paniker, while hailing “Ramacharitham,” believed to have been written by Sree Veera Rama Varma, who ruled Travancore in the closing years of the 12th century, as the oldest extant classic in Malayalam, had conceded that it was in an early form of the language “which appears to be almost indistinguishable from Tamil, except perhaps for a linguist”.

Neither classical status nor a university bearing its name can save Malayalam if it is not able to meet the needs of the people. Television channels’ increasing resort to English even for names of programmes is but one manifestation of the widespread feeling about its inadequacy.

The state government is committed to the use of Malayalam for all official purposes, but it still transacts much of its business in English. Malayalam has a low rating as a medium for acquisition of knowledge. Since English is seen as the key to upward mobility, more and more parents are putting their children in schools where that language is the teaching medium, sometimes paying fees that are beyond their means.

This year enrolment in schools under the state system was 115,000 less than last year. The fall is attributable in part to the drop in the number of children in the school-going age group as a result of the decline in the growth of population. But it is also due in part to children shifting to other systems.

From 2003-04 to 2009-10, enrolment fell from 1.6 million to 1.3 million in government schools and from 3.0 million to 2.8 million in aided schools. During the same period, enrolment in expensive unaided schools imparting education in the English medium rose from 270,000 to 365,000. It is for the government and scholars to devise measures to enhance the appeal of the mother tongue. –Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 28, 2010