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.