Sunday, June 24, 2007

Kerala This Week, Vol 3, June 2007

We are back at work after a short break due to some personal reasons. During the break we received so many comments and compliments from readers we never knew existed. One fan requires special mention here for his undying support to this initiative. He was sweet enough to wish "may this blog blow up into oblivion". Please rest assured that we are trying hard.

Talking about blowing up, destruction and such things, "demolition" has been the word thats been reverberating across Kerala the last few weeks. First it was huts, then resorts, followed by boundary walls, shops and then a few houses. As the demolition got nearer to the bigger and real thugs in the business, aka the politicians and the political parties, the much hyped and advertised "clean-up" drive of our dear CM gathered enough moss. So much so that he issued a grand order to exempt political parties who have encroached land to be exempt from action. He went on to declare that some of the documents of land owners where his own rampaging Special Task Force invaded, may have been legal and they may have made a mistake.

Tearing down property worth crores now seems more ridiculous than ever, and the whole motive of the demolition drive now seems shady. How can political parties be exempted? How can there be different sets of rules for different groups? Is this all just a part of a grand plan to fool the people? Or was it just an extension of the Pinarayi versus Achuthanandan tussle? Anyway, apart from the joy the sights of the now infamous "JCB" at work brought to the gossippy unemployed malayali crowds, the only outcome of the drive so far has been tonnes of rubble lying across Kerala. Literate Kerala making progress?

The one good thing that happened as a result of the "attempt" to retrieve the land encroached by the CPI was that Keralites got to see our own "hep" MP from Trivandrum, who had disappeared to Delhi some time last year, back in action. An outraged Mr Tvm MP, with gelled slick hairstyle, surfaced at an undisclosed location in Kerala and screamed on TV that the party buildings are made from the blood of the party workers and "nobody dare touch 'em". Nobody messes with him. Not even the STF. And there ended the great demolition drive.

Monsoon finally arrived in Kerala. And as usual, it was much later than what the Met department predicted. At last count, over 20 people were killed. While the Government is busy preparing to welcome tourists in the name of 'Monsoon Tourism', which is a very good thing, it would have been great if they could spend some money to ensure that people and property can be better protected from heavy rains.

I guess rain is a problem that political parties cant blame eachother for. Imagine a leftie minister saying "Chandy is responsible for this heavy rain that has resulted in so many deaths" or "the previous UDF government is responsible for this loss". But I guess thats also possible since we have heard worse.

Another round of the dreadful "pakarcha pani" (fever that spreads) has hit Kerala, creating tremors and faults across the much acclaimed and textbook-worthy healthcare system of Kerala. As usual a central team visited Kerala to assess the situation when the numbers crossed beyond what the state government could handle. After getting back safely to Delhi the team declared that it was not Chikungunya. Meanwhile, the ministry pulled off a good one by saying the "Chikungunya-related deaths were worse during the UDF regime". May the departed rest in peace.

Not wanting to be left behind, Home Ministry played their part and lifted a ban on smoking in jails in Kerala, which was imposed in 2003 following a high court order. They failed to provide any rationale for this act, possibly because there was none, but media cited it was a case of "buckling under political pressure". This comes in a year during which the WHO celebrated "smoke free environment" as their theme and declared passive smoke as a great threat to healthy living. Yet another case of literate Kerala making progress.

Helmets were once again made compulsory in Kerala. This is after the high court reprimanded the authorities for not enforcing the rule despite its orders a few years ago. The home ministry issued strict orders to the police to "not harrass the public in the name of helmets". There are other ways to do it surely. Or we have plenty of goons in our state to do that.

All the frenzy about development projects like the Smart City and Vizhinjam Port finally seem to have died down. Nothing more is heard. People are just happy listening to trash news and seem ready to enjoy the "bliss" for the next few years. The media is also happy filling their front pages and headlines with stories of the government-management negotiations on the professional seat sharing, how the party youth (leaders tomorrow) went on a rampage destroying property against the management and ridiculous other stuff. The other hot topic is the "who-can-enter-the-temple" saga. Some chap named Easwar sporting the Dhoni hairstyle (now a hit among Keralite youth) made most of the situation, attempted some puja in front of the Government Secretariat and got himself arrested. Next thing you know, he will be contesting elections. Oh yes, literate Kerala making more progress. But when will it be forward progress?
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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Should Non-Hindus Enter Temples?

Kerala is famous for its communal amity. People belonging to each caste and religion live a life of their own, making sure that they do not interfere with the activities of the others. But, of late, there are some attempts from some ‘political’ corners to bring in a divide among the communities. I would not say that this is done with some vested interests, but the person concerned might want to be known as a ‘revolutionary’ reformer.

The case in question is entry to Guruvayur.

The issue of Devaswom Minister Sri. G Sudhakaran writing to the Guruvayur Devaswom probing the possibility of admitting Yesudas into the temple is likely to grow into alarming proportions. Thanks to the tolerance of the Hindus and the accommodating mentality of Yesudas, it may after all, fizzle out with no consequences.

The most ludicrous thing about the issue is that neither Yesudas, nor any person belonging to his or any other religion did express a desire to enter the temple. The concept is purely a mental child of the Minister, in his eagerness to promote himself as a social reformer.

The first question here is whether the Devaswom Minister has any right to order such a step. In fact, it is not an order, but only a suggestion made in good spirit. What the Minister did not realize is that it is not under his purview to even suggest such a thing.

Temples are not public properties. Each one is, or was, owned by certain families or groups of people and is promoted by the devotees. If the devotees have faith in the particular God in the temple, it will grow in wealth and fame, as it happened in the case of Guruvayur. On the other side, there are hundreds of temples left uncared for by anybody and have no means to subsist. Nobody makes any claim over the right to enter such temples or donate anything to maintain them. The Government is vested only with the supervisory power to oversee the administration of the temples; it doesn’t have the right to make drastic changes in the traditions, conventions and rituals of the temples.

Guruvayur, as it happens, is one of the richest temples because there are thousands of devotees bent upon donating in cash and kind to its already overflowing coffers. But, it is wrong to conceive any singer as a true and faithful devotee. The songs are written by someone and tuned by some others; what a singer does is only render it in the sweet sound that he or she is blessed with, during a run for money and fame. The singer cannot claim to have sung in praise of the Lord only because of devotion, since the motive perhaps also included making money. True, the merchants of Bhakti might have also made the best use of his cassettes in their eagerness to promote the God, but that does not enable any singer to be labeled as a true devotee. That is not enough reason to justify an entry into the precincts of the temple.

Well, for a person like Yesudas, a mere entry inside the four-walls of the temple may not be a great achievement to reckon. There are two reasons for this: One, as a singer, he has realized the ultimate God through music; secondly, the temple itself is not ‘pure enough’ for a person of his stature to enter.

The second statement requires further explanation. God does not need any protection. He is not to be contained within the four walls of the temple. It is the people, the administrators and the priests surrounding Guruvayurappan who require the walls. The rituals of the temple are meant to protect the rights of certain groups of people, and on many occasions, they cross over propriety. When devout worshippers are forced to stand in long queues for hours together to have a darshan of the God, the VIPs and VVIPs, mostly politicians and relatives of Board Members, get a free and quick entry. The regular misappropriation of the offerings and temple funds certainly need the cover of the four walls. If such things are done outside the walls, they might be termed as theft. Another ritual in question is the act of conducting ‘Punyaha’, when a non-hindu is caught red-handed, entering the temple. Who can make sure that no non-hindu enter the temple ‘incognito’ or without revealing the identity? The God is not concerned about it perhaps, but His ‘protectors’ are keen to catch such ‘culprits’ to make some money out of it. A non-hindu may not enter the temple, but if he makes a sumptuous donation, it is welcome and glorified.

Places of worship are now becoming social institutions to allow a certain group of people to make a living. Some of them have nothing to do with faith in the omnipresent God. They are institutionalized in the names of certain idols bearing some name of god. The difference between the two is like that between H2O and water in a pond. The latter is oft-used and perhaps dirty; still, those who use it know its use. Others may not want to enter it or use it at all.

Changes in human behavior cannot be brought about in a day or by an individual. The culture of Hinduism is so strong and all-inclusive that irrational traditions will make way for rational ones in the long run. The true spirit of Hinduism enfolds everyone, to whatever caste, creed or religion one might belong. Those with vested interests may try to withhold changes for some time, but not for ever. There will be a time when the boundaries of human segregation will fade out and all will bask in the Glory of that Single God. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we are certain to move towards it in future.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Securing Kerala

In recent weeks, Kerala Chief Minister Achuthanthan has caught the state by surprise by sending earthmovers and bulldozers to Munnar to remove illegal encroachments, including properties owned by politicians of all hues. In the process, his actions have won the hearts of some of his staunchest critics among the public. Around the same time that Achuthanthan decided to move against what has come to be known as the "land mafia", he also announced plans to reverse paddy reclamation projects throughout the state. As rice has fallen out of favour with Kerala farmers, paddy fields have given way to other crops and commercial enterprises. Expressing concern for the state's food security, Achuthanthan has proposed actions against real estate firms who buy paddy fields and convert them for alternative purposes. Unfortunately, what he does not realize that this latter plan is going to backfire and threaten his very efforts to curb illegal encroachments.

Illegal encroachments are consequences of an economy with increasing disposable income but comparatively few investment opportunties. And whether we're talking about non-resident Keralites sending home more and more remittances every year or real estate firms reacting to economic opportunities in Kerala, the reality is that Kerala has to proactively react to the demands of an increasingly wealthy population. And this is where it is falling behind today.

First, let us give Achuthanthan credit where he is due. Forest lands are government property for the very reason that free markets are imperfect. Forest lands have enormous positive externalities, because they are an important link in the biological cycle. Some of the Munnar forests contain the most pristine vegetation in Kerala. They are habitats to wild animals that form an important part of the food chain. They potentially harbor plants whose medicinal value are inadequately documented. Forests also act as carbon dioxide reservoirs, playing increasingly significant roles as the world searches for solutions to air pollution. They hold more benefits to society than can be accounted for, and thus do not compensate private holders as they should. In private hands, they would not be conserved as they mean more to society as a whole than to private individuals. Their viability are best left to a public authority appointed by society. However, forest departments and land revenue departments can be lax when there are not enough incentives in place to maintain healthy forests. Let us not forget that it is the political class which is responsible for many instances of illegal encroachments, so change should begin at the top. So, let us hope that our Chief Minister also turns his attention to the systemic flaws that lead to the misuse of public lands.

In contrast, the Chief Minister's plans for paddy fields, have very little to do with the reality of a growing Kerala and owes more to his fixation on food security. This unhealthy obssession is partly rooted in Kerala’s history. In particular, the political class in Kerala still suffers a hangover from the food crisis in 1964, when the existing Communist government was booted out and the state was placed under Central rule. The four states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala were then consolidated into a single food trading zone. Instead of letting food prices prevail at market rates and intervening for the most marginalized consumers, the Central government placed price ceilings on the stocks it purchased in the name of rationing. So while wealthier consumers in Kerala were able to pay the rates that Andhra suppliers demanded, ration ships ran out of stock as the State government refused to budge on prices. Kerala tided over the crisis temporarily with imports from countries including the U.S. and Pakistan and over time developed a more efficient distribution system. So, Achuthanthan's concern for rice’s dwindling prospects in Kerala almost seem justified. Almost.

It is difficult to justify a labor-intensive crop like rice in a state that has near 100% literacy and is better off by putting its human resources in more productive industries. Kerala's achievements in educating its people are precisely why paddy fields are dwindling from their peak in the 1970s. The mass spread of education, pre- and post-Independence, opened up alternative sources of employment for millions of Keralites within the short span of two or three generations. Workers from communities that historically depended on agriculture suddenly found more lucrative opportunities in retail, education, civil service, construction, tourism etc. It's the classic textbook case of economic diversification within an increasingly skilled workforce. Meanwhile, rice's viability as a crop has diminished significantly with rising labor costs.

But despite the diminishing contribution of rice to the local economy, Achuthanthan believes that Kerala should spend valuable taxpayers' money on increasing the cultivation of rice in the name of food security. If we define food security as a state where people are capable of feeding themselves, Kerala is not facing a food crisis by any measure. If anything, most Keralites are employed in those jobs where they are most productive and can earn enough to feed themselves. The only need for an intervention would be for those marginalized consumers, or "non-consumers", for whom the price of rice puts it effectively out of their reach. It is conceivable that these non-consumers have grown in number in recent times as food prices have risen. Yet, is forcing farmers and industrialists to switch to paddy the most effective way to feed these marginalized people?

If Achuthananthan's true goal is food security, he has two options:
1) procure food at market rates and subsidize them for the marginalized consumers or
2) grow food locally and provide it to the needy.

The latter is far more disruptive because it ignores the merits of a competitive market and creates a deadweight loss to the state. With option 1, he can obtain rice at the cheapest rates possible from other sources. With option 2, he forces farmers to grow rice in the place of more valuable and less-labor intensive crops and thus reduces their incomes. But, even if he were to subsidize those farmers and prevent any loss of income to them, Kerala would be paying for a relatively expensive crop, creating an even greater bill for taxpayers. So, one has to assume that Achuthanthan believes that there is some intangible benefit the balances the cost of encouraging paddy growth. Therein lies the unspoken, irrational fears that "food security" have come to represent.

Food security as an argument belies many of the irrational fears that politicians hold about free trade and farming constituencies. Achuthanthan’s paddy project is inherently about his staunch belief that Kerala should produce its own food and his insecurity with free markets. According to our leaders, we should support rice farmers even if we have to pay more for their rice and create fields when there is no need for more. This irrational argument ignores the very basic fact that Kerala consumers are not restricted to Kerala’s products and should be able to choose from the larger Indian and world markets. The hype around "food security" also ignores Kerala’s ability to focus on more productive sectors of the economy so that it can create more wealth and its people can eat more than a daily plate of gruel. In a nutshell, paddy reclamation is a wasteful exercise for a state with better things to do.

Yet, there is no dearth for meaningful reforms if Achuthanthan seriously wishes to pursue greater food security for Kerala. For example, he can begin by reforming one of the most antiquated laws in Kerala agriculture, the Kerala Land Utilisation Order of 1967. The 1967 legislation was passed with the express intention to lock up agricultural land in Kerala, including paddy fields, within agriculture. Passed in the hindsight of the ’64 crisis, the Order introduced tremendous restrictions in converting fallow paddy fields to commercial usage. However, as rice prices have fallen and labor costs risen since the Act was passed, huge swathes of paddy fields have been converted surreptiously or left barren in the absence of government permission. In the process, environmental activists have lost considerably in their fight to reforest paddy fields and restore pre-agriculture ecosystems as needed. Owners of smaller landholdings have been unable to take advantage of much needed capital investment and consolidation. And illegal encroachments have proliferated as scrupulous dealers have turned their eyes to less well protected public lands in the absence of commercially zoned real estate. The ’67 Order is increasingly endangering the delicate relationship between public and private lands. Ironically, it has even failed to play any substantial role in increasing food security. Because in a market like India, where people are free to trade across state borders, food security has little to do with local crops and more to do with economic security.

Kerala's food crisis in 1964 was only superficially the result of inadequate agricultural output. The 1964 crisis was in part driven by Kerala’s impoverishment and lack of economic diversification. A community’s dependence on agriculture leaves it exposed to a considerable amount of risk, for e.g. the risk that a bad drought will bring a poor harvest. Kerala's lack of value-added products and a largely unskilled workforce in the 1970s left a large section of society exposed to the highly variable price of a commoditized product. So in the past, local food insecurity has always fed economic insecurity and vice versa – i.e. a fall in food production often led to a loss in income for a large portion of Keralites, thus reducing the ability to buy food and so on. Today, the situation is very different with Kerala having diversified significantly into the services sector and a large proportion of skilled and unskilled workforce having migrated overseas. The debilitating link between food production and economic insecurity has weakened considerably. Most Keralites no longer rely on the comparatively cheaper and inferior rice from public distribution system as they are generally wealthier than their predecessors and can afford to buy better quality rice at prevailing rates. Ultimately, Achuthanthan's paddy reclamation initiative is not only a solution to a non-existant problem; it also does little to improve Kerala's economic security, which as history shown, is the best driver of food security.

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