Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Engineer/Doctor – Is There Another Scenic Route?

“So do you want to be an engineer or is it a doctor?” - a compulsory question that is repeated in every social cross examination that you face from age 8 to 18 in God’s Own Country.

Parents in Kerala across socio-economic strata want the best for their kids…sometimes even to the extent of this being an obsession. So the logical conclusion is that they strongly believe engg/med is the best possible career option for their kids. So here is an attempt to demystify this… Starting with how this belief got so deep rooted into the Kerala mindset and more importantly why it is not so in other states….

Reason 1: Ignorance: Most students in Kerala cities, from a very young age itself are aware of the process of getting an admission into engg/med and the specializations on offer. By the time they reach high school, they would at least know about the companies that come for campus placements (if your interest is in engg) or the well renowned institutions that offer higher studies in various medical specialties. There are clearly defined action plans starting from which coaching classes to attend, what entrance books to read, infrastructure of various colleges and due dates of various exams.

However, when it comes to pure sciences or arts/commerce the usual modus operandi is to apply to several different courses in colleges close to your house and join whichever comes through. Before, during or after the 3 years of so called education no thought or effort is put in to frame a future game plan. By which time, you are branded as a failure which demotivates you even further.

We can change this situation if sufficient information is made available – not just in career guidance magazines which you lay your hands on when it is too late…but during school years itself, on specific career paths and steps needed to reach there. Come to think of it career options are much more wider if you are not an engg/doc !!!

Reason 2: Infrastructure : The second thing we need to get in place is good infrastructure – a good library and internet connectivity. We always seem to concentrate on good teachers and while I am not negating the positive results of good teachers, I never had any during my engineering years. We still managed fine because we had good alternate sources of knowledge. So, while improving the quality and dedication of teachers is a long term solution, more immediate answers could lie in alternate sources of self-study – about the subjects in your syllabus, guidelines on future course of actions and in general to expand your knowledge base. …which incidentally will also solve the age-old problem of ‘our intelligent students unable to clear competitive exams and interviews’

Reason 3: Feeling of Self Worth: We need to create a feeling of self-worth among students pursuing any stream of study. If you are keen on what you want to achieve in life, and have a clearly defined game plan for success, then you will not take to the streets to demonstrate your strength. And this is what we should provide in terms of getting achievers in various fields to speak in college forums, have discussion groups for various competitive exams and so on. If every college department has a fully functional career guidance and counseling centre then we can address this issue to a large extent. We need to give every student a vision of personal success.

Reason 4: Entry to Colleges: Most acclaimed institutes of study have a ‘statement of purpose’ essay as a key criterion for admission. We need to bring that into our undergrad system as well. This will help students get into courses for which they are passionate about and have an aptitude for. And, more importantly, writing down a statement of purpose will enable students themselves see clearly what they hope to gain by taking up that course. But for this to work, we first need teachers who are passionate about the subjects they teach and who have dedicated their lives for the growth of the subject. Otherwise even this process can get hijacked by people with vested interests.

Reason 5:Choices: The last thing I can think of is to increase the choices at every level - choice of subjects at the plus two level, choice of adequate research facilities, choice of different careers. This is a long term solution and will take at least ten years to implement, but let’s atleast know what we want.
We want passionate teachers, good research facilities, and entrepreneurs who will generate more jobs. Let’s work towards these.

P.S: Inputs to this article has been derived from my interactions with youngsters in Kerala and the comments for my previous post.

Read more!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Why I Don't Want to Come Back !!!

From childhood people around me identified me as a potential winner…Which in God’s Own Country translates to my professional ambitions being restricted to being a doctor or an engineer …no, there was no parental compulsion…I was free to choose…But I realized soon enough that the only respectable professions in our land was these two…

Ok Ok all you nay sayers out there…trust me you can’t escape the “oh you didn’t get admission into Science stream?” if you decide to do arts/commerce in your plus two…and if you choose arts/commerce after plus two or for that matter even pure sciences you are asked “Oh, you didn’t clear entrance?” followed by a friendly advice of “You should have tried once more”

Ofcourse there are exceptions…like my childhood friend…who despite being a state rank holder in SSLC was very clear on what she wanted in life and went onto realize her dreams of being an IAS officer…good for her…’cos had she faltered at any point people would have rushed up to say “ we told you so”….

Well, I went on to do my engineering…and again as is the norm I only dreamt of Bangalore…’cos Kerala just didn’t have any jobs to offer…and whatever was on offer was only for losers…u only applied for company’s in technopark if you didn’t get anything in B’lore or Chennai…atleast that was the perception ..not just mine …everyone around felt that way too…

Anyway after engineering I went on to do my B-school studies…Ofcourse every malayalee I met asked me “oh you didn’t get campus placement?” and every non-malayalee congratulated me on clearing CAT… (ok , some exaggeration here…but change ‘every’ to 90% and that’s truth).And after B-school I started working, got married and now that my hubby is in Kerala, I want to come back…it seems the logical choice…but still I am hesitant…’Cos Kerala is what it is..and I don’t know whether I want to be part of the system that is perceived as a land of losers…where you go back only if you don’t have any other choice.

I would really like to change that image of our land..a land where you can’t have a successful career…a successful life..So in my next posts I shall analyse why these perceptions exist…why only “engineer/doctor”…why only “b’lore/chennai” ….why we find fault with others but never accept our own faults…why “here ‘cos I am not acceptable anywhere else” …and hopefully we can collectively think what can be done to change it… so that atleast the next generation says “ I am in Kerala ‘cos this is the best place for me to be in –personally and professionally and in every other respect”

Read more!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Exporting suicides

It is a sad fact that Kerala has the highest suicide rate in India. A friend of mine once speculated that the Malayalee is a unique creature prone to caving into peer pressure which forces people to resort to extreme measures in desperate times. Any doubts surrounding that idea should have been repudiated by Lee Ban Seen, a Malaysian contractor, who committed suicide this past November and attributed his death to delays in the Kerala State Transport Project (KSTP) in a note he left behind.

Ever since Lee Seen's suicide, the state machinery has shifted into a blame game. It began with the CM, Achuthanandan, blaming the previous UDF government for leaving "scope for corruption through a clause on payment of Rs. one lakh compensation per day for delay if the required land for the work is not handed over."[i] Following him, Finance Minister Isaac Thomas claimed that the state government was not responsible for the project delay, so there was no veracity to the allegations that Lee Ban Seen had "committed suicide due to a delay in the payments". He also singled out the PWD Minister M K Muneer from the previous UDF regime alleging that "Muneer cannot absolve himself of the charges as serious financial irregularities have taken place during his tenure like awarding tender at a much higher rate and realisation of liquidated damages",[ii] to which Muneer retorted that the project and procurement procedures was signed by the prior LDF government headed by E.K. Nayanar and accused Isaac of raking up the issue to create a distraction. Isaac then shifted his ire on the contractors "attribute[ing] the problem to "cash crunch" and "poor" management of the Malaysia-based Pati Bel Company that was given the contract for the work."[iii] In a reaction fit for Shakespearean irony, two of the three major contractors terminated their contracts three weeks after Lee Seen's suicide.[iv] Isaac now estimates that the project originally estimated to cost the exchequer $81 million or Rs. 388 crores, would now cost the exchequer more than 500% as much at $417 million or Rs. 2,000 crores. On the surface, it's hard to tell whom to blame and where the fault lies. Our collective experience with both contractors and politicians has taught us to trust neither. Yet, that is not the case here. A variety of direct and indirect sources point the finger quite clearly at long-standing flaws in the system and more directly at both the LDF and UDF governments.

The KSTP project was conceived in 2002 in the midst of a fiscal and infrastructure crisis in Kerala. Motor vehicle traffic on Kerala's roads had been rising annually by 13% since 1990. However, 70% of the State Highway roads remained single-lane (3.8 meters wide) roads and the rest were merely dual-lane roads (7.0m) with limited shoulder space. By itself, the limited space at worst contributes to traffic jams and inconvenience residents and businesses. To make things worse though, less than 70% of Kerala road network's annual maintenance needs, which are estimated at $50 million, are met by the PWD's slim budget. This gap contributed to a substantial backlog of at least $100 million in overdue maintenance expenditure. As a result, Kerala is also infamous for one of the highest accident rates of any state in India at 2,500 deaths annually. Loss of life and property cause an estimated loss of $100-200 million per year, or the equivalent of 1-2% of Kerala's annual GDP.[v] Ordinarily, such infrastructure needs would have remained unfunded. But, after years of unmanaged government expenditure and economic stagnation, Kerala's fiscal crisis forced it to look outward to make up for the gap in funding, lest it grew larger as the PWD's budget grew smaller.

When the World Bank was brought in, it was keenly aware of Kerala's fiscal crisis. For the past decade or so, Kerala's government expenditure had outstripped its revenue both in absolute size and growth. While total revenue grew annually during 1993 -2002 at 11%, total expenditure grew by 13%, taking Kerala's fiscal deficit from 1.4% of GDP in 1993 to 4.5% of GDP in 2002. Faced with an over-stretched revenue base, the government took on additional debt to finance this deficit. But, at a debt/GDSP ratio of 32%, Kerala's debt burden was considerably higher than all of the southern states (AP, TN and K) as well as the Indian average of 24%. On a per capita basis, Kerala carried Rs. 7,414 of debt, placing it in significantly more danger than the next worst southern state, AP, at Rs. 4,724 and the Indian average at Rs. 4,996.[vi] Needless to say, the WB was particularly concerned about the Kerala government's ability to pay its dues, which it termed "Fiscal Strain", and went so far as giving the government a prescient rating of "Substantial Risk".[vii] The only other risk that WB rated as worse was GOK's ability to pay them on time. The WB's answer to all these risks was to place its funds in a separate account "outside the treasury system", which were to be "available to the project in advance, on a quarterly basis from the State budget, on the basis of cash forecasts."[viii] In hindsight, the WB is probably kicking itself in the shin for not doing more.

After a thorough analysis of these and other factors, WB agreed to lend GOK a loan of $255 million with the tacit, and for some reason, inexplicit understanding that GOK would contribute around $81 million on its own. Interestingly, while the loan agreement expresses scope for GOK to put up its own money to the extent that it is "required" to complete KSTP, it never binds GOK to a specific amount. Although GOK presented a plan to put up additional funding to support the WB initiative, it never committed to this amount legally. So, in theory, the total project funding came out to $336 million while in reality, the actual funding could have been as low as $255 million. Moreover although the project was secured by the WB, in practice, the project was managed by the PWD. Understanding this gap between financing and management is the first part of understanding the KSTP fiasco.

The second part of disentangling this mess lies in understanding why the costs of the project ran up. Signs that the projects was running into delays were evident as early as November of 2005, when Muneer publicly admitted costs increases in the project of around Rs. 500 crore, bringing the state's share of the project to approximately Rs. 888 crore, or $185 million.[ix] However, he also stated that the project's costs overruns would not exceed Rs. 2,000 crores as rumoured. Five months later, however, Isaac announced that the project would end up costing the state "roughly" Rs. 3,000 crores to complete.[x] This proved to be an overestimate as he revised that down to Rs. 2,000 crores more recently. While Isaac claimed that the cost overruns were not due to the lack of payments, his views appeared not to be shared even within his own government when the PWD Minister T.U. Kuruvilla admitted a few days later that there had been delays in land acquisition. That the Kerala government's record on acquiring land is notorious is nothing new. However, no one foresaw that its ineptitude in this matter would drive the project to a halt. Upon examining his allegations, one is forced to conclude that Isaac was simply dodging the blame.

Isaac's first claim was that "irregularities" in the procurement procedure had resulted in expensive bids and contributed to the cost overruns. Even if we grant Isaac that logic, the fact is that the bids were no more or less expensive than typical road projects. As the table below shows, on a per kilometer basis the winning bids for KSTP were by no mean exorbitant or unusual, unlike what Isaac claims:

Isaac's second claim, that cost overruns were the result of PATI, the Malaysian contractor that hired Lee Seen, experiencing financial difficulties due to internal mismanagement is just as ludicrous. While PATI's public financial records show that its corporate parent, UEM Builders, incurred a loss of $76 million in 2005 in its Construction & Engineering division, the PATI-BEL is involved in at least one other project in India currently, which is reportedly proceeding without any delays. And if that is not enough to repudiate Isaac's allegation, it should also be noted that Road Builder, a financially-healthy contractor, also pulled out of the project citing lack of payments. So Isaac's claim that the cost overruns are due to financial mismanagement on the contractors' parts is not only incoherent, but also incorrect.

In the end, one still has to ask what compelled Lee See Been to the extreme measures he took? Some have speculated that it was the debt that Lee Been took out from domestic banks to pay his workers' monthly salaries when proceeds from the government were not forthcoming. But, I find this hard to believe because no reasonable manager takes out personal loans. In all likelihood, the loans were made out in the company's name. At worst, Lee Been could have lost his job for misplacing his trust in the government's financial solvency and desire to pay his firm. However, considering Lee Been’s flawless reputation at his workplace, that was also an unlikely possibility. So, if you rule out the financial reason, what remains?

I believe what drove Lee Been to the end of his wits was the political element, which is the third and final key to understanding the KSTP fiasco. A lot of evidence points to the fact that Lee Been was driven to the end of his wits by the political apathy and constant bureaucracy he had to face. But, it was Gouridasan Nair's piece in The Hindu that gave me the final clue. In his article, Nair concludes that the Finance Department, which was compelled to pay expenses owed by the PWD, "will be able to do so only if it is able to keep the PWD on its side, particularly given compulsions of coalition governance."[xi] Coalition governance - it's a word with different shades of meaning. In recent years, India has witnessed a massive change in its electoral dynamics from single-party governments to coalition-based fronts. So, most people are used to hearing about coalition politics, fractured policies and delayed implementation. It's the price one pays for participating in as diverse a democracy as consensus in a coalition government is fleeting and temperamental. However, there is a considerable difference in governance theory between day-to-day management and policy setting. The former is the business of running the state machinery and that includes infrastructure maintenance. The latter is the business of charting out its future and foreign policy. Maintaining roads requires no vision. It is a mundane job, best handled by technocrats and not politicians. So although we are used to hearing law bills and policy initiatives being delayed on account of politics, we remain optimistic that the daily affairs of governance remain untouched. And that's where reality bids goodbye and Kerala begins.

You see, regardless of GOK's financial duress, the KSTP was doomed from the start because it was handled by the PWD, an ill-equipped and poorly managed institution. Even the WB noted "problems with the [PWD’s] organization structure, administration, delegation of administration and financial powers, overstaffing, development and staff training." Although it's political blasphemy to compare a state department to a corporation, the reality is that infrastructure maintenance is a job that requires expertise in financial and management skills. And just as you let the inventory and capital expenditure guys in a company manage maintenance expenditures, so should the job of maintaining Kerala's roads be left to the experts. Which brings us to the question of what is the PWD if they are not experts at managing roads?

As part of its appraisal report, the WB conducted an evaluation of the PWD and came up with an alarming assessment. As it states, "a preliminary institutional audit of PWD highlighted gaps and deficiencies in several areas, including road development and maintenance planning, road safety, quality control, financial management planning (including delays in payments to contractors) and transport coordination." Need we a better indication of where the KSTP experiment would have ended? A department whose leadership structure changes with each outgoing political party cannot be trusted to act independently or accountably.

But as the WB saw it, there were several promising mitigations to the inherent risks. First, GOK had drawn up a Road policy to "rehabilitate roads…in a phased and timely manner". Second, GOK had created a State Road Fund that would "seek to generate user charges through road tolls and dedicated fuel levies." The third promising development was the establishment of a Road and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala, "to raise funds through loans, shares and borrowings" in order to maintained selected parts of the road and railway network. Lastly, the PWD was drawing up an Institutional Strengthening Action Plan (ISAP) to develop its technical, managerial and financial capabilities with the help of an Australian engineering consultancy, SMEC. Were these measures enough to breed success?

Well, hindsight is always 20-20, but I believe too many concerns were swept under the rug by the WB in the beginning itself.

What the KSTP saga demonstrates is that Kerala currently does not have the management skills, capacities and efficiencies to handle large infrastructure projects. Therefore, financial institutions including the WB, who are best placed to effect change, must insist on reform prior to loan disbursement. As the events of the last year and more have shown, the Kerala PWD department is in dire and quick need of organizational reform to make it autonomous and independent of the political regime. Infrastructure maintenance after all is a public need, not a policy option.

In this regard, the WB could take a leaf out of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) book. In 2001, the ADB loaned $250 million to the Maharashtra government exclusively to pursue reform in its public sector undertakings including the state PWD. Among the initiatives to reform the PWD were several key elements aimed at enhancing the agency’s independence and efficacy: 1) separation of regulatory and operational functions 2) empowerment of implementing agencies and 3) social security net including VRS scheme for redundant PWD workers.[xii]

In the movie Sandesham, Satyan Anthikad has Thilakan tell his wayward children, "First fix your house, then fix society." It's advice that could have served the World Bank and the State Government well. Sooner or later though, there won't be any Lee Seens left around to pay for their mistakes. By then, no one will trust either organization in Kerala.

In the interest of simplifying conversion rates, I used the USD-INR exchange rate of Rs. 48 per $1 used to assess the project cost in 2002, throughout this article.

[i] “Kerala Govt not to withdraw corruption cases:CM”. News. November 22, 2006.
[ii] “Road project controversy; Kerala FM blames former PWD Minister.” The Hindu, November 28, 2006.
[iii] “Minister joins issue with opposition on KSTP issue”. PTI. November 23, 2006.
[iv] “Road Builder terminates RM112m Kerala project”. The Edge Financial Daily, November 24, 2006.
[v] World Bank appraisal report.
[vi] Kerala Economic Review 2003.
[vii] The appraisal report rates risk on a scale of High, Substantial, Modest and Negligible in order of declining risk.
[viii] World Bank appraisal report.
[ix] “Kerala: second phase of State transport project from January”. The Hindu. November 11, 2005.
[x] “Kerala's financial position grim, says Minister”. The Hindu Business Line. May 23, 2006.
[xi] “Finance Department's intervention a crucial turning point for KSTP”. The Hindu. November 25, 2006.
[xii] Technical Assistance to India for Preparing the Madhya Pradesh Road Sector Development Project. Asian Development Bank, October 2001.
Read more!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Kerala Economy: Is development sustainable?

The state of Kerala in the southern tip of India has always been lauded for its developments in social infrastructure like hospitals, schools, etc, which in turn develop social capital. Though Kerala has been able to achieve the standards of developed countries in relation to human development, the physical infrastructure and the manufacturing sector is more or less stagnant. This calls for effective and timely government intervention so as to increase infrastructure which will in turn promote investments in the state.

This article tries to bring to the fore a few of the issues the state of Kerala encounters.

On Education
According to the Sixth All India Educational Survey conducted by the NCERT in 1993-1994, in Kerala 90 per cent of the population had a lower primary school, 67.5 per cent an upper-primary school and 62 per cent a secondary school within 1 km. Public spending on education in Kerala has been one of the highest among the states both as a share of state budget and NSDP. School education accounts for more than 80 per cent of education expenditure in Kerala as compared to just around 65 per cent for the country. [Kerala Public Expenditure Review Committee, May 2006]

Education is one of the areas where Kerala deserves praise, though there is a long way to go. College education and higher education is extremely scanty in the state. There are a number of engineering colleges in the state, which lack quality infrastructure. This results in majority of students seeking higher education in other states; they tend to seek employment in other states too.

On health
The achievements of Kerala in health sector are even more spectacular than in education. Health indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality in the state are comparable to those in developed countries. These are the outcomes of investment in health infrastructure in all sectors, public, private and co-operative, along with people’s awareness of their health needs. While the public sector offers accessibility and choice, it is not highly rated in terms of perceived quality. As a result the private sector has established parallel institutions to take advantage of the potential demand for quality health care. [Ibid]

Though Kerala has a rich middle class who have enormous purchasing power with them, there survives those who cannot afford expensive health care. This prevents them from going to private hospitals which is analogous quality health centers. Thus they are deprived of quality health care.

Though the rhetoric of competition is that it will bring down the prices in Kerala, they fail to deliver low cost services to the poor. This is where the government needs to step in; government hospitals needs revamping and restructuring.

On Fiscal Deficit
Kerala was asked to reduce its fiscal deficit by a directive of the 12th finance commission. Further, the post-TFC target for the fiscal deficit at 3 percent of GSDP is actually more lenient than the 2 percent of GSDP prescribed under the Kerala Act, and here again there is a permissible extension of the eventual target year to 2008-09. [Ibid] This poses further burden on the State economy, as its financial resources are further constrained. This directive has been issued so as to reduce the deficit the Centre is facing.

The reason for including ‘fiscal deficit’ in this article is to state that, as the government tries to bring down the deficit without carrying out alternative processes to tap resources, the government expenditure on Education and Health will deteriorate.

On Trade Unionism
The reason prospective investors give for not investing in Kerala is the high incidence of ‘Labour Unions’ or ‘Trade Unions’. Trade unions are said to reduce the inequalities of income and wealth. Whether there exists a strong correlation between high trade unionism and low inequality is a moot point.

Labour laws need to witness a drastic structural change in order to promote investment.

The government of Kerala ought to improve the quality of health centers and also revamp the labour laws which make it difficult for investors to start new ventures.

Grants for setting up educational institutes on excellence in various disciplines need to be provided along with an agreeable pay scale for lecturers and teachers.

Ensuring rural connectivity is crucial for development. People should be able to migrate easily from rural to urban areas. The government needs to provide a conducive atmosphere for private enterprises to take roots in rural areas.

HDI improvements with low GDP is almost as unfit as high GDP with low HDI. The latter is evident is the case of India.
Read more!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Welfare and banana leaf thalis - a foreign student’s take on Kerala, Part 2

…continued from Part 1.

Challenges for the future

Of course, none of all the positives I talked about in the first part means that Kerala is now on an arrow-straight path to prosperity. The state, just like the rest of India (or any developing country) is still facing some major challenges for the future. Some of them are common to the whole of the country – like combating poverty, or the rate of farmers' suicides – while others are more specific to Kerala, of which reducing the unemployment rate is the most pressing. The problem is actually more or less confined to the educated part of the population, with the educated unemployment rate being something like 21%. This has led to, as many of you have pointed out in the comments to my last post, a clear paradox in that workers are imported from as far away as Bihar and West Bengal to do menial jobs that the highly educated consider beneath them. There are no easy solutions to the unemployment crisis, but private investment in knowledge based industries, and public investment in infrastructure (more below) is probably most crucial.

Another challenge is the so-called 'second generation' of problems now facing the welfare sector, those of quality over quantity. For example, Kerala has already established universal schooling, but now the need is to improve the quality of the education by revising curriculums, raising teachers’ salaries, and more spending on higher education (80% of the state education budget today goes to school education). In terms of health care there is not only the need to improve the existing services, but also a future problem of old age care, since Kerala’s high levels of life expectancy means that the state will soon have a large older population. This also goes for infrastructure – while Kerala has the highest road density in India, there is a need to improve the quality of those roads (take the bus from Bangalore to Trivandrum and you’ll see what I mean, the ride gets bumpier as soon as you leave Karnataka), as well as to improve electricity supply, build new ports, and so on. The need to strengthen infrastructure is also directly linked to generating more employment – the poor availability of electric power, etc., is preventing larger industrial enterprises from happening in Kerala.

While in Kerala I heard much talk about the state’s reputation of being ‘investment-unfriendly’, with trade unions too strong for their own good blocking new technology or development from happening, loaders flat out refusing to work, or state-wide bandhs being a favourite pastime for some parts of the workforce (Chandy for instance talked about an ‘almost anti-work mentality’ in some places). These problems have undoubtedly harmed Kerala’s development, but there does seem to be a genuine effort to change this image from both politicians and workers. Most people I talked to said that the situation had improved considerably just over the past decade, something that places like Technopark and the new Smart City project are proof of. V.J. Jayakumar, the CEO of Technopark, told me that in the IT-park’s early days there was some initial apprehension from companies about moving to Kerala because of the state’s reputation, but that those doubts had significantly lessened now.

One place that struck me as the perfect symbol of how Kerala’s future could be a fusion of a developed welfare system and a progressive economy was actually Technopark. Fully owned by the government and taking advantage of Kerala’s huge pool of highly educated workers, it’s home to companies like Tata and American Software, and with 10,000 employees, 90% of whom are Keralites, it is also the single largest source of employment in the state.


It’s very easy for me to draw up a list of things I like about Kerala – the ‘Backwaters’, the incredibly friendly and welcoming people, or just those awesome banana leaf thalis. But what has always struck me the most is how present politics is everywhere in Kerala, and how tangible it is in the daily lives of people all across the state. There’s hardly a street that’s not covered in orange or red flags and posters; newspaper readership is the highest in India; and I found I could ask pretty much anybody I met about any given issue that was on the news agenda and I’d get an well-informed reply (one of the most surreal experiences I had was when a rickshaw driver started giving me a socio-political lecture – in flawless English - after I had asked him about some street protest we went by).

While this intense politicisation might have brought some negatives with it (like contributing to the ‘investment-unfriendly’ reputation, for instance), I also think it’s important to remember that there is another side to it, a sort of spirit of social justice and egalitarianism that runs throughout Kerala. The ‘Kerala Model’ was after all never really a ‘Model’ imposed from above by any government, it was more a natural response to the demands of the people. Kerala has been a centre for progressive politics in India since long before Independence, and ever since 1956 political parties have had little chance of getting elected if welfare and social policies have not been top of their agenda. As Dr Vijayamohan Pillai from the Centre for Development Studies told me: “The people in Kerala are far ahead of the politicians. They are the ones who make sure that health care and education are provided.” Where this particular Keralite spirit comes from is probably a topic for a whole new project, but it is what attracted me so much to the state in the first place, and has been the most direct explanation for Kerala's achievement over the past 50 years.

And those achievements are truly remarkable – you have used democracy and relatively meagre natural and financial resources to build up a society that is unlike anything else in India or the developing world, and that has made the lives of millions of people better in a very concrete way. The ‘Kerala Model’ has also arguably disproved the notion that a developed welfare system has to be preceded by economic growth – which in practice often means a long period of inequality between rich and poor while the economy is ‘developing’, before money can be spent on things like health care and education. If you look at India on a national level today, there is actually little evidence that the money derived from the last fifteen years’ economic boom is reaching the least privileged in society, and in this sense Kerala can really serve as a role model for the rest of the country.

At the moment I’m doing a masters degree in contemporary Indian politics and history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (also part of the University of London), and it has been really interesting to see how the phrase ‘with the exception of Kerala’ runs almost like a mantra through most of my textbooks, whether they are talking about India’s rural poverty, high levels of illiteracy, or the rise of Hindu nationalist politics. Kerala has the potential to become one India’s biggest success stories, and with the economy picking up, I’d say that the future of God’s Own Country is looking very hopeful.
Read more!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Welfare and banana leaf thalis – a foreign student’s take on Kerala, Part 1

My name is Olof Blomqvist, and I’m originally from Sweden but have spent the last three years at the University of London, where I’ve just graduated from a BA in Journalism and Contemporary History. This August I visited Kerala on a scholarship from my university to carry out a project about what the future of the state might look like, and I especially wanted see if the ‘Kerala Model’ could lead to economic growth, something it in a lot of people’s opinion has failed to do. While researching the project I came across this blog, and after mailing back and forth with Mind Curry for a while, he asked me if I wanted to post something about my experiences, which I was more than happy to do. So, here it is – I’ve tried to sum up my project and my conclusions briefly, and also write something about my personal experiences in Kerala (apologies for all the numbers and stats in this part, but I need them to prove my point - the next part will be more about my personal experiences and opinions).

I arrived in Trivandrum in early August and stayed for about two weeks, and then moved north through Kollam, Kochi, and Calicut, until I flew home from Mumbai. I had done most of my research in advance, so while on site I spent my time doing interviews with everyone from politicians like Oommen Chandy, to V.J. Jayakumar, the CEO of Technopark, to academics, or just everyday Keralites; and visiting key places, like government institutions, the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, or the Malayala Manorama’s headquarters. I had an excellent time in Kerala, both because it's very hard to not like God's Own Country (how can you not love a place where you can have a beer by the Arabian Sea?), and because I was able to reach the conclusions I had hoped to, which I will try to present below. If you have any comments or criticism I'd love to hear it - it would be great to get some feedback from actual Keralites!

God’s Own Country rising – remittances, welfare and economic growth

Basically, the standard narrative about Kerala’s development process over the past decade and a half has been that even if the ‘Kerala Model’ has made some remarkable achievements in terms of human development, it is ultimately ‘unsustainable’ since it has not been able to stimulate enough economic growth. This has been dubbed as Kerala’s ‘lopsided development’, and has its roots in the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s, and the barren years in the 1970s-‘80s, and even into the ‘90s, when Kerala’s economy had stagnated and the state’s growth rate significantly lagged behind the rest of India’s. The first thing I realised when I started talking to people in Kerala was that this narrative had to be turned on its head – Kerala’s economy has since the mid-1990s not only caught up with the average growth rate in India, but even surpassed it, with the growth rate of 2005 being as high as 9.2 per cent. I’m sure this won’t come as news to any of you, you probably heard it repeated an endless number of times during the election campaign last May, but what was interesting to discover was what the actual causes for Kerala’s growth spurt had been.

While political leaders from both the LDF and the UDF have been quick to take credit – Chandy certainly did so when I interviewed him, claiming that the UDF’s pro-investment policies were to thank – the fact is that Kerala’s turnaround dates back much further than whatever short-term agenda any state government has been able to push through. As one of the people I talked to, Dr K.P. Kannan from the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, has shown in this EPW article, the upswing actually started as far back as 1987, even if it has mainly made itself felt from the mid-1990s. Some of it can be explained by the economic reforms Rajiv Gandhi pushed through over the whole of India, but in a state with an industrial sector as weak as Kerala’s this does not tell the full story. Instead, what new research points to is that what for years was thought to hold Kerala back – the peculiar economic model of ‘lopsided development’ – has actually been the spark for Kerala’s growth spurt. Kerala’s economy is growing because of – not in spite – the money that for decades has been spent building up India’s best welfare system. As Dr Kannan told me: “Kerala’s high levels of human development have become the state’s greatest asset. The old song about high levels of human development but no economic growth needs to change.”

How has this happened? A large part of the answer lies in how remittances have affected Kerala. The great exodus of Keralites to the Gulf Countries during the 1970s oil boom was to a large extent possible because of the benefits these workers had gained from growing up in Kerala (better health and education, and more awareness of opportunities beyond their state). The money they send back today makes up 25% of the state budget, and one third of all remittances to India. It has not only helped to stimulate consumption levels in Kerala, which are among the highest in country, but it has also kick-started the boom in the tertiary (or service) sector of industry –IT, tourism, banking, private health care, etc. – that has been the driving force behind Kerala’s economic growth spurt. While neither the manufacturing industry nor agriculture has experienced any significant growth over the past decade, the service sector now makes up something like 65% of the state economy, and has since 1986 until today gone from a growth rate of 3.25% to 7.5%. The remittances also probably served to underestimate Kerala’s economy throughout the financial dark ages, since they do not count directly towards the GDP.

There are also other, more indirect ways that the welfare system has contributed to the turnaround. There are many studies that show a direct link between a developed welfare system and economic growth – well-educated and healthy people are able to work harder, are more creative, and generally more productive members of society. Especially in an economy as dependent on the modern service sector of industry as Kerala’s is, well educated workers are indispensable. The ‘Kerala Model’ has also provided an excellent base for the future, with low birth rates, increasing per capita incomes, and easy access to health care and education meaning that the new generation of Keralites growing up now will be of better quality than any before. Thanks to the low rate of population growth, there has also been a demographic shift that has bumped up the working population’s (15 to 59 years) share of the population to 60% - meaning that Kerala has an abundance of human resources in terms of educated workers. In short, Kerala has entered into what in development economics is called a ‘virtuous circle’, where the earlier investments in welfare is leading to economic growth, which in its turn is leading to more money spent on human development, and so on. (If you’re interested in more details about how the welfare system has led to economic growth, I really recommend the 2005 Kerala Human Development Report, which outlines the state’s whole development experience, or this article by Achin Chakraborty).

I’ll post the second part (on the challenges Kerala faces in the future, and some of my personal experiences/thoughts) during the week, thanks for reading this far!
Read more!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The "Save Kerala" Initiative - SitRep

Its been over 2 years since this initiative was created, and over 1 year since this blog took the shape of its current form and design. The first one year, almost, there was only one author, and we posted only one article. And we had just one comment from a teenage girl from some corner of Kerala (I think) about how difficult she finds being a girl in Kerala, and how she whole-heartedly supported the intiative. In 2005, we revamped the site and began posting articles more regularly and the readership grew ever since.

As some really energetic, enthusiastic and focussed Keralite bloggers have now joined hands, and we have set about discussing how we can really make this initiative a success, I thought it might be wise to bring out some of our observations as a post..

As always, first things first: The kind of support (and the resistance!) has been tremendous over the last few months.. We are so happy to see the kind of support we have received from the blogging community, and to some extend from the media and even officials in Kerala. Presently, wonderful ideas are being discussed, and some great minds are applying thoughts, on how we can fastforward our initiatives..on how we can make the general population understand that we have an objective, and we are not just passing our time with this blog.

The very idea of putting together this blog was to have a common platform where likeminded people could join hands towards the common goal of a developed and better Kerala. Where we could develop a base to reassure people that collectively we will be able to make good changes..Where we could create awareness..Where we could break-away from the mentality that has kept Kerala in the dark and has brought in stagnation.

Over the last couple of months, one important feedback I got is the level of fear shared by a lot of the people from the government and public..There was a general sense of fear to come out in support of such an initiative in public..especially since this process would at some point entail going against politicians, parties, govt babus and even individuals who shared different views. After all we are not a political party ourselves with goons and thugs on board to greet violence with violence or abuse with abuse. (perhaps having such a team is an idea to consider!). I realized that this is a very genuine concern, especially when I looked back and recollected the amount of abusive and threatening emails I get already from "anonymous" readers - which I never respond to or bother about.

But when you think of including more people, this becomes a stark reality - that we have to figure out how to deal with. A blog is safe for most of the readers as they can comment in a pen-name or as an anonymous person... if we plan to make a more proactive platform, how far can we manage to include people without them "fearing" the untoward? After all, some of the malayalis have a tendency to protest violently against what they dont like. Or simply put: Will an IAS officer support any initiative, however progressive or people centric it is, if it was against the interests of the ruling party?

Another important observation: ultimately we will have to include the people IN kerala..otherwise we are risking ourselves of getting branded as a whimsical or fancy idea of a few people "sitting in some comfortable location" "out of kerala" and "yapping about development without doing anything concrete".. I have put these in quotes based on the general feedback from people within kerala. ofcourse, in most of our cases we are living our lives in kerala, but what I mean to convey is the cunning way some people are already discounting our efforts..making statements like these will harbour doubt in the minds of the masses as to how much we may be able to achieve..and this concern along with the fear-factor I mentioned above will ensure not too many people JOIN us..but will continue to be apathetic and silent spectators.

This is also brought out by the fact that for each new article, we have currently about 5k-10k "viewers", but at the maximum only 10-50 people comment..and even out of the 50, most are anonymous.

So as much as there is an excitement in me seeing the collective efforts and the enthusiasm from fellow bloggers..i can also see the amount of resistance, and practical difficulties in making the initiative more INCLUSIVE...thats the challenge we will face..whether by including the people living outside kerala and only the others who share the same sense of progress within Kerala, will we succeed? or do we need the masses within kerala also to join hands? If its the latter, we will have to wait until the urge to change sweeps into the local minds..which at the state of current affairs, will take a long while. Especially given the fact that polarization into a political mindset begins right at the school-level in Kerala. (we can see most of the entrances to schools and colleges covered with banners of political parties and their youth outfits)

So after all this while, we have not still received those three-lakh supporting emails we mentioned in our vision statement, but with the current level of enthusiasm we are sure we are not far away. For some, this post may have a sense of victory..But no, this is not a give-up post..not at all..but just putting across some of the challenges we see as we begin to move we poise ourselves to take this initiative to the next level.

(This is the modified version of an email written to some of the other authors of this blog as part of our discussions)
Read more!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kerala This Week, Vol 3, 2006

First things first.. Happy Kerala Day!

Kerala celebrates its 50th year of formation. And I guess most Keralites, like me, hope it will also be an year of transformation. I can already sense some kind of effort, atleast mental, gaining momentum among the new generation, an effort stemming from years of political slavery and unfavorable social circumstances. I hope the efforts collectively translate into something worthwhile, so we dont have to wait another 50 years.

P.M. Manmohan Singh has arrived in Kerala to join the rest of us in the celebrations. As always, the people expect some "sops" and "announcements" from the PM, and this time in terms of clearance for Vizhinjam Port, more financial assistance for the farmers (wonder who "ate" the previous assistances), the much-debated IIT in Kerala (time to restart the Kochi versus Trivandrum bout!!), upgradation of Trivandrum International Airport ( a plan thats been planned since 1990's, meanwhile there have been demands to have airports at Kottayam, Tiruvalla, Kannur, Wayanad and almost one in every other district! Also I hear that the design currently approved for the airport will not be enough to handle the traffic and volume by the time the airport is finally completed!) and more PSUs in the state (so we can have more unions and strikes), among other declarations.

In return, the people of Kerala (actually just one gentleman did the honor) offered an email threat to the P.M.. The gentleman also remembered President Kalam just in case he also decided to pop by at the party. Later the cops found out that the threat was actually all for the sake of his love lost, and in return he found that all is not fair in love and war.

But security continued to be at an unprecendented level, mainly to ensure that the P.M and other dignitaries dont get bitten by mosquitoes. After all we are still not sure why people in Kerala are dying : Chikungunya? Dengue? Viral disease? Malaria? Liver cirrhossis? Endosulfan? Coke? Pepsi? Possibilities are too many!

The honorable PM is joined in celebration, which apparently is going to be a month-long event, by none other than the newly appointed Defence Minister A.K. Antony ( Yes, defence minister of India! surprise surprise! so much that someone quipped online he is the best defence minister as he is very good in self-defense) and also the great M.P from Trivandrum, "the Anniyan", who decided to gift the people of Trivandrum his presence and sight on this great day ( One funny thing about Mr.Pan is that every time he visits Trivandrum, which is once every 3 months, he gives a speech warning the central government for its anti-Kerala and anti-Trivandrum policies.. but then he disappears for a couple of months to Delhi and hangs out with the very central government there doing nothing..Apparently the Delhi weather is good for his hair) and ofcourse, the enitre coterie of the state government machinery.

Our Chief is undecided whether to smile or not, especially since he will be sharing the stage with "bourgeois"! Another minister has decided he will just sleep through the function. Other ministers are not sure about attending the function as they are still learning about their assigned portfolios from the respective secretaries. Ex Minister Joseph is reportedly unhappy about the seating arrangement, as they have seated him away from all know. And also kept all microphones away from him, just in case he decides to sing instead of know.

The press continued to play spoilsport with all sorts of messed-up reports continuing as headlines.. A leading City edition of an English daily reported in front page on how Condoms are choking the drainage pipes of leading IT companies (wonder why media is always hellbent on such propoganda..I wonder if there is any truth in such crappy reports, and it sounds more of a sales pitch than anything else. I am sure there is nothing new going on in IT companies. And if at all its true, it must be that more people have begun to use condoms, unlike yesteryears when the same things happened in any other office or neighbourhood without condoms. Anyway I am sure it was thrilling news for the majority of the jobless in the state). And on the same day another Malayalam daily applauded the IT gains of the state with the headline "Technoparkil Adambara karukalude melam" (which translates into : IT guys are just freaking out in posh cars, what the hell are all non-IT people doing?). Meanwhile another paper reported on how CPM who continuously opposed the Smart City project is now in discussion with the promoters for a stake in the project! (blimey!) Yet another report brought out the dismal presence of Brand IT-Kerala in the just concluded So much for IT friendliness and IT promotion!!

Meanwhile, bus and lorry operators denounced the governments decision to curb their rights to mow down smaller cars, motorcyclists and pedestrians. They termed the decision of the government to implement mandatory "speed-governors" on their vehicles as a direct threat to their fundamental right to overspeed and kill. The All-Kerala-Heavy Vehicles-Employees-Union Secretary in a statement pounced on the state government and said the state already has a governor. They have begun an "indefinite strike" and with public transport already crippled, the state is in a grave situation. With half the state flooded with incessant rains, publich transport was the only mode of transport safe to get across from one point to another. Now thats also gone.. The government quickly decided to give more thrust to the Inland Waterways project, considering that most of the state is perpetually under water nowadays. And luckily enough, the tourism department conducted the Kerala Boat Show at the appropriate time. They are even planning an exchange offer: "exchange your Maruti for a boat".

Meanwhile, the official website of the Kerala Government now displays this message:

"November 1st is the 'Keralappiravi day'. Kerala State came into existence on 1st November 1956. In this regard the State Government has organised 50day's celebrations. The Ministry of Kerala is trying to reach new heights with novel ways of administration. Peoples' grievances are being sorted out by the sincere efforts of the Government. "

Good grief!! As much as I would like to write more on the above, I will save it for another day, another post..Lets all save ourselves for now.. Save Kerala! Let me go wish her a wonderful birthday and a great future!
Read more!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Creation Myth

Two weeks ago, I posted a blog to assess the public perception of violence in politics. The question was:

Do you think that hartals and shutdowns are favoured by:
1) A minority of the political parties?
2) Almost every party in Kerala?

Of the 39 voters who voted, 30 opted for (2). Before writing this article, I might have done the same, since almost every political and trade organization in Kerala has called a shutdown at some point in its history. It is only fair to believe that no one has developed a philosophical opposition to the idea of a shutdown.

But, it also makes sense to see the other side of the coin. 9 respondents chose (1) and therein, I see a different perspective on the issue and possibly some support for what I am about to claim. I believe that violence in Kerala politics is no longer a by-product of its grassroots movements; it is actually a political institution in itself.

The notion of institutions in our state politics may seem laughable. Given the chaos, scandals and scams splayed in the public media on a daily basis, the common man may be right in thinking that our leaders have no control over their cadets and followers, let alone themselves. But, at some point you have to ask yourself – Why is politics caught in a stagnant culture where strikes and hartals called at a whim are obeyed?

After looking at the rolls from the 2006 elections, I can offer a short one: violence has become an incentive in certain parties. Much in the same way that companies promote certain executives over others by measuring their sales performances, certain parties have and continue to use violence as a yardstick for political performance. In short, he/she who makes the most noise gets promoted the fastest. And not just any noise, it has to be a ruckus that is worthy of capturing the attention of the public so often fed a stale plate of “revolutionary” politics.

By law, any person running for election has to submit information regarding their criminal history or lack therefore. This information includes the IPC sections under which a case against a candidate is charged, so it is pretty easy to figure out who is charged with what, including unlawful assembly, rioting, assault, murder or intimidation. I looked for candidates with cases charged under three large categories: unlawful obstruction (IPC 143, 145, 149, 283), rioting (146, 147, 148) and assault/intimidation (323, 332, 353, 333, 358, 152, 324, 307, 308, 508).

What I found is that on average, the left-leaning parties (CPI(M) and CPI) are accused of engaging in more than twice as many illegal obstruction activities as the next party (DIC). Below, I have listed the top ten parties when it comes to candidates who are engaged in illegal obstructions, i.e., hartals and shutdowns.

You might say that that is an unfair measure if a very small contingent is accused in an atrociously high number of cases. Well, let us take a look at the proportion of candidates charged with such cases in each party. Again, the CPI(M) and CPI parties come out on top as between 60% and 80% of their candidates have been charged with such activities. The nearest party (DIC) is about 40% culpable. Still high, but when you combine with the frequency of the charges, the left is entirely in a league of its own.

Ok, so you say, illegal obstruction activities are not that serious. After all, what is a hartal or shutdown here or there? It’s all “peaceful”. I beg to differ and I could not have a bigger begging bowl. Let us kick it up a notch and take a look at instances of rioting.

Rioting is far more serious than hartals and shutdowns, because mob violence is the worst expression of a civilization. It is what happens when people disagree to talk and resort to violence to express themselves. It is anathema to a society that overcame bigger problems like subjugation and foreign oppression through non-violence. So, how does the left score?

Why don’t we kick up the violence meter all the way? Let us take a look at how the parties rank on the basis of assault / intimidation cases.

Note that in all three categories, a candidate in the highest-scoring party is about twice as likely as the runner-up and more than thrice as likely as the second runner-up to be charged with a crime.

Lastly, I present what I like to call the “Politician of the Month” roster. Most companies hand out “Employee of the Month” awards in recognition for what they view as outstanding performance. Highly competitive organizations run themselves by differentiating between their employees’ abilities. Politics is no different. But are you at ease with the yardstick used in our current state of politics?

The conclusion is inescapable to me: there is an unspoken “revolt, then get promoted” mechanism in the left-leaning parties. Revolution and progress have become synonymous to them. How has this happened?

The story begins with the left’s entrenched appeal to the poor and downtrodden. Politics is like any other territorial battle. The most effective way to cordon off a vote bank is by ensuring that everyone else is fiercely opposed. After all, when life seems like a zero-sum game, why change the rules of the game? Why not perpetuate the perception that the haves benefit at the expense of the have-nots? Why not oppose any benefits that could have come from egalitarian land reforms by freeing industry and other more productive uses of land than agriculture? Why not see it to that the poor are actually gainfully employed? Because the left is more than an ideology in a democracy – it is a self-preserving organism like everything else.

People often juxtapose capitalism and communism as alternate economic systems. This has been our greatest folly and the biggest hoax the left has pulled off because communism is not an economic system. It is a creation myth – a story of how people fall into classes and are by birth, opposed to each other. Here is the irony though. In a dictatorship, communism has no opponents and therefore, it can happily pursue the economic welfare of all. In a democracy however, communism is just like any other political entity. And poor democracies in particular are perfect breeding grounds for the left. Because unlike other political parties, the left already has a handy divisive myth. It can protect and perpetuate its vote banks. That is why the story of class warfare has become a self-fulfilling way of life in Kerala.

Endnotes to Methodology:
I included every case, regardless of whether it was pending, bailed, stayed or sentenced. The only exceptions I made, of course, were those that were acquited, of which needless to say, there were very few. I also excluded 50 candidates whose information was not available or was illegible in the ECI database.
Read more!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Chikun-duniya episode

What we know: More than 100 people dead in Kerala in under 4 weeks; possibly due to a viral disease with mosquito as vector. The state authorities remain clueless, and the public continue to be a donkey at their mercy.

What we have heard and seen so far:

Kerala Legislative Assembly:
Opposition MLA's prepare for walk-out over the issue of alarming deaths in Kerala, and question the Honorable Health Minister for answers.

Honorable health minister: "What death? Where? When? Nobody has died in my state! What chikungunya? Nobody has ever died in Kerala because of this Chikun thing.."

Opposition walks out, assembly is adjourned while mosquitoes continue to bite and people continue to die.

Union Health Minister, during his in-and-out visit to the state to "assess the situation": "It is certainly not Chikungunya!"

Honorable CM 's office, Trivandrum:
CM:"Those who say the deaths were not due to Chikungunya are duty bound to make it clear how such a large number of deaths had occurred in Alappuzha." (Not sure if he realized his own health minister was the first to deny the deaths!)

Indian Medical Association (Kerala __ Chapter): "The deaths since early September were possibly not due to chikungunya"

Principal, Government Homeopathic Medical College: "Homeo medicines such as Uppttorium (!!#??*?!@), Rextokes(!?@##??!) and Brayonia (!!??##!^!) were effective for prevention and cure of the disease"

Kerala Home minister: "As the World Health Organisation (WHO) has come out with a report saying that the fever widespread here is not chikungunya, things have cheered up. There have been no reports of cancellation by tourists who have already booked to travel to Kerala" (While our beloved minister is cheering himself up, people are still dying!!)

Union Tourism Minister: "The tourist officers posted abroad have been directed to dispel any misconceptions about the diseases and inform the visitors that these are not contagious"

An awakened Kerala StateHealth Minister: " The Kerala government will launch a sanitation and "anti-mosquito" drive"

Alphonse, a social activist: "If you enter a government hospital in Kerala, you are sure to get some disease"

The wisest and the most literate men who rule the land (quick to capitalize on the whole fiasco, not bothered about either the mosquitoes or the deaths): " There is no chikungunya in Kerala. Its all made up and a ploy by capitalists. A company from the US is selling Chikungunya card tests and making huge profits! How can we let this happen in Kerala?" (The entire state did not have a lab with facilities to test for the disease until a couple of days ago, and the card-tests were in demand because people wanted to rule themselves out of the disease.)

The show goes on..and now its a bit more complicated with Dengue fever also being rampant across the nation.

Ouch! I got bitten by a mosquito! Let me get that Uppttorium..
Read more!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

How many naughty politicians does it take?

In the movie, the Patriot, the legendary Benjamin Martin (played by Mel Gibson) questions the revolutionary forces recruiting men for their war against England, “"Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?" The question although posed in a colonial setting is relevant to anyone who is concerned about who leads Kerala. Let me digress for a moment.

The 2004 General Elections in Kerala may not have seemed very different from previous elections, but was unique in one aspect. It was the first time a 25-member team called Election Watch Kerala organized the first public dissemination of information concerning electoral candidates from Kerala. It was widely publicized in local magazines and newspapers. If the name of the organization sounds familiar, it’s also because the parent NGO, Election Watch, is based in Andhra Pradesh where it has been monitoring electoral rolls for quite some years now. One of the main conclusions of Election Watch Kerala’s public report was that "unlike many other states, Kerala does not have a serious problem of criminals entering the election arena. Most cases declared by candidates relate to law and order issues and are a by product of Kerala's agitation politics."

Note that this is the same period that threw up erstwhile candidates as Babloo Shrivastava into the election foray. So it should come as no surprise that Kerala seems to be better off. Or is it?

It is true that by and large, Kerala does not have a significant influx of candidates with criminal backgrounds into elections. However, there is the problem of Kerala's “agitation" politics, which is an issue that has grown uncontrollably. Of all the Indian states, Kerala is most prone to strikes and hartals, which effectively shuts down essential and non-essential services in the state.

Whenever I ask people what they think about how to put an end to this situation, it appears that we run against a wall. There is a perception that every political party is in a cartel favouring this method of political protest. What I want to know is how widespread is that notion. So, I propose a survey:

Do you think that hartals and shutdowns are favoured by:
1) A minority of the political parties?
2) Almost every party in Kerala?

It may be fair to ask what is the point of this survey. Well, I have been doing some research on the side and looking at the 2006 State Assembly electoral rolls myself. There were more than 900 candidates in the election, so I have been a little busy for a while. But, I think it would be interesting to test this hypothesis by analyzing the criminal backgrounds of these candidates and looking at their penchant for hartals and violence – behaviour that our dear Chief Minister labelled as “naughty”.

If you haven’t caught on to the significance of the answer, consider for a second what would happen if the electoral rolls suggested that option (1) was the answer. I say “suggest” because there is a leap of reasoning you have to make. But if there is one ideology amidst others that promotes this form of protest, then I think that’s of concern to everyone who hates Kerala’s 1 shutdown a month practice. Wouldn’t you want to know if you were being ruled by one tyrant or too many?

So, tell me, how “naughty” do you think our politicians are?
Read more!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Think Twice Before You Drink

A huge debate is going on now- was it correct on the part of the Government of Kerala to ban Coke? Those who support Government’s decision say that Coke being a carbonated drink (read MNC’s drink) should not have any kind of pesticide. Those who oppose Government’s view argue that pesticides get into Coke through the water and Government should take steps to provide good and safe water to one and all.

I am an environmental engineer working in the design of water and wastewater treatment plants for the last 5 years in US. I would like to present some facts to you about the so called “safe to drink” water we get in our homes in Kerala.

So when we think about a water treatment plant what comes to our mind? The process like coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, using sand and disinfection with chlorine. Over 85% of drinking water treatment plants follow these conventional treatment processes.

Most of the treatment plants in US are moving away from conventional treatment process. Research has found that many organic contaminants (which include most of the pesticides) cannot be treated using conventional treatment process.

US Environmental Protection Agency in March 2001 published this report. The abstract of it reads like this

“A group of chemicals, known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs), has been identified as having the potential to cause adverse health effects in humans and wildlife. Among this group DDT, PCBs, endosulfan, methoxychlor, diethylphthalate, diethylhexylphthalate, and bisphenol A may occur in drinking water. The various components of the drinking water treatment process have been evaluated and granular activated carbon has been identified as the method to be used for the removal of EDCs from drinking water. This document presents treatment processes for large municipalities and small communities to remove EDCs from drinking water.

So did you read DDT and endosulfan – two compounds that we use widely as pesticides and pet subject of our CM. How many water treatment plants have granular activated carbon treatment plants in Kerala? I don’t know of any. So what that means? You may be drinking water containing DDT and endosulfan. Our elected representatives are doing nothing to improve the drinking water quality.

We think if we boil the water we are safe. Yes boiling water removes virus/bacteria but most pesticides/organic contaminants which are carcinogenic persist. If virus/bacteria are present you get sick immediately. If carcinogenic substances are present, over a period of time you get cancer. Now you know, who is the main culprit for increasing the cancer rate in our community?

Another wrong belief- adding more chlorine to water is good. Yes it is good in killing the microbes but if we add chlorine to water not properly treated it produces what is called “disinfection byproducts” which are highly carcinogenic. These compounds are regulated in US and most of the water treatment plants are moving away from using chlorine as a primary disinfectant. All water treatment plants in US have to monitor for disinfection byproducts daily. Does anyone sitting in Kerala Water Authority have any knowledge about disinfection by product formation potential of chlorine? I don’t know. It is time for them to know this, as they are playing with the lives of millions of people.

There is a treatment plant near my house in Trivandrum. This treatment plant is in a place called Vandithadam. What they do is, pump water from the Vellayani Lake and pass it through a sand filter, add excess chlorine and sent it to the distribution system. Last time when I came back from India I took a water sample and brought it to my lab. I found the disinfection by product almost 50 times that is permissible in US. Yes, being an Environmental Engineer, I know the water my parents and brother drink, is not safe, but do we have any other alternative?

I wish the political parties instead of taking law into their own hand and destroying public/private property do something to provide safe drinking water to the people.


Read more!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yehi Hai Right Choice

Update: This post has resulted in a heavy dose of heated debate. As it rages on, thought we might do well with something to chill a bit :) Here is the malayali version of the popular "hot-stepper" I received via email: Very funny, and kind of throws at us something else we need to tackle right at the school level - communication (voice and accent training especially), behavior and other soft-skills.

powered by ODEO


Every now and then I get this urge, as well as requests from readers, to change the title of this blog to just Save Kerala and not Dog's Own Country. But it doesn't take long before there is an act by our beloved "mallu" brethren which puts most dog's to shame. Acts which make you feel like hiding your face under a pillow and want to make you forget that you are a Keralite too.

The latest came in the form of student political outfits rampaging through Coca Cola and Pepsi warehouses, and damaging the properties and stocks. This was their response to the High Court order quashing the Kerala Government's order banning "manufacture and sale" of Coke and Pepsi company products in the state. Kerala was the first and the only state to comprehensively ban the colas in the state, and even the West Bengal government, another Left ruled state, managed to think a bit more sensibly. The Kerala government has decided to engage in further legal wrangles by challenging the High Court order, which is fair enough. I would have agreed had the government decided to ban it from educational institutions only until the court decided.

But how can we let vandalism and goondaism rule the state? Who is answerable to the losses of the distributors, owners and the companies? Who is answerable to the further damage in Kerala's image as an investment unfriendly state? These goons from the supposedly political parties had a free-for-all with camera-men and TV channels airing the footages as if it was something glorious. And strangely, there were no cops in sight. Two days after the incident, no arrests have been made. Ofcourse, we know who is ruling the state. Or have these party outfits taken over as the Kerala Police?

If Coke and Pepsi products contain pesticide residues, it is obviously from the ground water. Dont the government and its policing activists have anything to do or say about that? After all isn't that what the common man drinks? Shouldnt the government be more concerned about providing potable and safe water to the entire state? In any case, Coke and Pepsi have conducted independent studies that show their residues are much lower than the required (even European) standards after their purification processes. And the BIS standards the CSE (again not a Government body) has used, is not applicable to bottled drinks. IF at all we decide to have it as a standard, are we going to have the same standard for our Corporation water, which the majority of the people drink? Are these goons going to stop drinking water then or break the Corporation water tanks?

If these "people's party" leaders are really concerned why are they not breaking down warehouses and shops that house liquor, arrack and toddy - which is what the people of Kerala prefer over Colas or even water, ofcourse. (Perhaps the government is just endorsing that preference by these outrageous acts.) The country-liquor and toddy made in Kerala has perhaps in the worst possible standards: and every now and then we have people dying and going blind. But they dont fight or campaign against alcohol: ofcourse for them it is part of a "local industry" and has to be supported. Why arent these "activists" breaking down Beedi factories and tearing up Cigarette packets, when the whole world knows tobacco is carcinogenic and harmful? There are larger political interests surely behind all these anti-Coke, anti-Pepsi campaigns. After all its easier to make the people of Kerala a willing bunch of donkeys.

And the leaders of the party outfits said they are making people's voice "heard". Isnt that the lamest reason you could ever hear in a state that gloats under the umbrella of 100% literacy? If the people have a voice why dont we let them decide? We can just choose to NOT DRINK it, or DRINK it. We dont need third rate scoundrels or their parties, or even the government, make such decisions for us. I have a right to think, consider facts and decide which is safe and what I want to drink. It is unacceptable that a party makes that choice for the people. The people should have the right of choice, and that is what would have made us seem more literate, democratic and cultured.

Imagine every now and then you are thirsty, and you ask : Dear politician, shall I drink Coke, Pepsi, Corporation water, Arrack, well-water or Smirnoff today?

So much for the "Peoples Voice".

Read more!

Friday, September 15, 2006

How Hartals and Bandhs Hijacked our State

Recently, the Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said “a single day's shutdown costs the state a staggering 7 billion (or 700 crore) rupees”.

Put that estimate and Kerala’s population together and that translates to a cost of 233 rupees per Keralite for a single day’s shutdown. No, don’t look in your wallet; your pocket change is probably still there. The money in your bank vault is probably still there as well. And your house isn’t going anywhere. So, what’s the problem, you ask? Well, let’s suppose that you’re not a government employee and that’s fair to assume since only 3% of our labour force is employed in the government. Are you self-employed? Well, you’ve just lost your daily wages. Are you employed by a private firm? Well, you can be sure that in the long run, your job is in jeopardy as the firm loses money.

Wait, so what, you say? The average Keralite earns less than 150 rupees per day, you say? Ahh, but you ignore the potential that is Kerala. For every rupee that the average Keralite earns, he or she loses out at least another rupee in potential wage increases. Why? Because of the complete absence of any substantial manufacturing industry in our state. Because of the complete lack of any sizable investments in our infrastructure. Because of the 20% of our educated youth who walk around unemployed. Because of these simple frustrations that crop in our lives. All because bandhs and hartals have scared any sensible entrepreneur or investor from Kerala.

Bandhs and hartals have become everyday occurrences in Kerala in stark contrast to the rest of the country. In other parts of India, a call to strike rarely affects all sectors of the economy in the fashion that is afflicted on our state. When a party or trade union calls for a dharna or bandh in Kerala, life comes to a standstill and the average person stays at home. When the same happens in Delhi, Calcutta or Madras, people go to work, stores stay open and general life goes on. Why has our work culture reached this stage?

Most people can point quite readily to the source. Public employees are not required to keep attendance and the costs of cutting work are far lower for them as they are salaried employees. The opportunity cost is even lower for politicians. In fact, they actually gain voting lobbies in the form of government workers and trade union members through such stunts. In contrast, employees in private firms have much to lose by resorting to coercive forms of protest. That is why you see one or two private bus strikes every year. And even those do not lead to full-scale shutdowns. The power to paralyze life has come to define the life of the public sector.

But what a narrow section of society it is. According to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, government employees constitute 3% of the total working population. Political party workers constitute at most another 0.5%. How can such a narrow section intimidate the rest of society?

Well, they would not be anywhere without outright support by their unions. Most government employees are unionized and all political parties are by default, organized. The same cannot be said for Kerala’s self-employed businesses, which are affected most by these hartals. At last count, this sector constitutes 31% of Kerala’s labour force, a formidable voting bank that can turn the current state of stagnation on its head. Intimidation and apathy, however, have struck this section into inaction. No one wants to say no to bandhs or hartals as long as they are the lone voices in the wilderness.

The writing on the wall is clear. The need of the hour is a new social contract and a grassroots operation to back it.
Read more!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

So, Whats Now for the Development Agenda?

Angane, Kerala has undergone yet another political transition! This post is a (optimistic) status review of major development initiatives that are on the pipelines for our state and how recent political transition is affecting it.

Intro: New Vikasana Agenda

Over the last few years, especially during OC’s tenure, there seemed to be new concept of Vikasanam in kerala that is getting increased attention. One that emphasis on big infrastructure projects and attracting large scale private employers, of the new economy, to the state. Kerala can still break away from its economic stagnation and scarcity of employment, if this new Vikasana agenda is given the political fuel to continue its momentum.

I feel politically environment is favorable enough for this new Agenda to take root. As more and more time passes, leftist are becoming milder and milder in their antagonism against economic liberalization. Strong political examples from Bangali Marxist leaders had to filter into the minds of comrades at home, especially since they are on the ruling side now. Second, VS in the Chief Minister’s post is a lesser evil than him being the opposition leader, as far this agenda is concerned. Unlike OC, he is not expected to be a proactive leader nor a visionary in this field but hopefully external pressures and the realities of governance will keep him on track. As an added bonus, less political cheap shots from selfish opposition politicians means, less harassment from the media for the new Vikasana vision. It is also widely conceived that during the leftist tenure state is more stable (except for Kannur,ofcource ) in terms of bundh, political unrest, student agitation, etc for reasons that are very troubling to say the least.

Smart City:
It is really been a rollercoaster ride for this project. Judging by the moment, it seems VS's administration has done a good job keeping the project alive. His preconceived strong stand on this project gave him the upper ground on the negotiations with DIC. Hopefully, the government and DIC can workout the exact wording of the contract soon. The implementation of this project, if happened, would be a huge strategic victory for the state’s new development vision. Entrance of Smart City along with vallarpadam port terminal project will increase Cochi’s business profile and will attract many other large and small scale employers to the city. Cochi is a little nuke bomb waiting to be exploded with jobs!

Techno Park Expansions.
The expansion plans for park is quite impressive. I don't see any hurdles here because of the political transition. Glad to see VS is fine with giving out land directly to companies rather than through government agencies. Hopefully, the growth rate in information technology sector will keep up for the years to come, so that all future expansion plans will be realized.

Vizhinjam Harbor.
Only hiccup. Instead of doing Dharna's and kerala style useless gharavos in delhi, why not our honored MPs call up a news conference and threaten a 'withdrawal of support', unless Central babus give clearance to the project? Kerala government should also propose tighter regulations and safety precautions to address legitimate national security concerns aroused by the Chinise involvement. It ties into the post Brijesh made earlier... kerala politicians don't know smart politics.

Naluvary Patha aka Express Highway.
Our state will be choked to death by vehicle traffic and will be unsuitable for business, unless such access controlled highways are built in the near future. Most likely, 25 -30 years down the road, an Express Highway in kerala is going to be a forgone conclusion, simply because our state can not be able to survive without it.

At least a strip down version of the original plan should be allowed to be built during this government’s term. I feel this project is politically more feasible now. All it need is a No Objection Certificate from CM saying he is okay with the project (of course a modified repackaged one) as long as there is no ‘corruption’ and no ‘real estate mafia’ is involved.

The original plan had several 'image' problems. The vision was oversold to a narrow minded social and political environment. It is very important that public perceive this project as an uninterrupted blood vessel that can bring prosperity to all sections of the society, not just the rich, as many perceive now. May be doubling or tripling the access points than originally planned would increase public liking of this project. Also, government should get central funding for the project, something the previous promoters hadn’t bother to do. Hoping VS won't be a odakke in this, at the end...

Power Sector.
Inefficient KSEB should be broken up and private sector power producers should be allowed to compete, at least in the industrial sector. As long as current subsidies are kept, there shouldn't any reasonable political pressure for not to implement the reforms especially since it is mandated by central government.

Government Institutions.
Historically, leftist governments show more innovations for the public institutions. Hopefully this trend will continue this term as well. Already, it is a welcome move to start new audit system aimed at local government. If the lefts are committed to the Janakeeya Aasuthranam and Local Government Decentralization, they should give more taxing powers and more financial independence to local administrations.

End Note
And now, for the interest of keeping the readers awake, I should cut short this 'review'. There are many more notions/sectors of development to discuss. It is a good idea to keep track of states development affairs through savekerala blog while keeping it as apolitical as possible. Please add your thoughts in the comment section.

Read more!

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Tribute

It has been over 78 years since we saw the first malayalam movie release in 1928. I think it has been one of the things we could be proud of about Malayalam. Though I cant relate to the term "Mollywood", I have grown up watching, enjoying and relishing a lot of malayalam movies. From poochekkoru mookuthi to boeing boeing, rajavinte makan to commissioner, adiozhukkukal to ennale, nadodikaattu to america america america, manichithrathazhu to pakshe, some of the best movies I have seen have been from Kerala.

Though at times I feel sad when I see current malayalam releases, there are enough memories to keep me happy. Mohanlal and Mammooty are two amazing actors, especially Mohanlal who has got the ability to adapt to any role. I have seen Mohanlal right from the days he began acting along with Sankar, his buddy then. It is amazing how he has matured as an actor. I haven't seen such fine acting by any other actor who has come into the scene after them.

That the movie industry is in trouble is evident from many facts: We dont see good movies like we used and have to wait for Onam, We see most of the actors moving off to Telugu or Tamil for work, We see them going on strikes..

Sadder is the state of cinemas in Kerala. As a child I used to hear people say how good the cinema halls in Kerala are, much before Dolby and Surround were there. From then it has been a lot of stagnation, along with Mallu movie-goers writing their names on the seats or peeling off the sponge off the cushioned chairs, that has led to the pathetic condition the cinema halls in Kerala are today. People in Kerala, most of them, will think thrice before going to the hall to watch a movie. It is high time a PVR or a Adlabs mutliplex opened in the Kerala cities, but I hope movie-goers will learn to behave more responsibly and civilized.

All said, the rich history of the Malayalam movie industry is worth its respect and here is my Tribute

powered by ODEO

Click on the Pink Play button twice! And let me know your take on "Mollywood"!! Ugghh!!


Read more!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Towards a better system of scholastic evaluation

Marks, marks & marks! Isn’t that all that both parents and students yearn for? But sadly, how unsatisfactory are marks alone, when used as a yardstick to assess a student’s scholastic performance. Shouldn’t we have a better system of evaluation to assess true knowledge?

The current evaluation system of just having one exam has to be revamped. It is disheartening to see parents telling their children repeatedly to score above 90%.
Scoring the maximum does not imply that the student exhibits a good knowledge of the subject. And marks should not serve as a criterion for comparison among students. Parents often compare the marks of their children with other students, which often make the child depressed. This unfair comparison has been aggravated by the media in lauding the best performers in the board exams. This makes the students who have not been included in the top performers’ list feel dejected. Apart from this, fierce competition takes place among the schools also for maximum ranks and 100% pass in the board exams.

In the recent years, the state of Kerala has introduced the ranking system for its tenth board exams (SSLC). This is a welcome step in the education sector. Although some parents and students criticise the ranking method, it has got its own advantages and disadvantages. It reduces the minute comparisons which are taking place but it’s still based on a single exam. It will be more welcomed by the students because comparisons based on unit marks will not take place. To take an example, it is not right to say that a person who has scored 80% is brighter than a person who scored 75%. The ranking system places both these students in a single category.

I have another alternative to put forth. My suggestion is to divide the total marks of 100% into four parts; 25% for surprise tests, 25% for an original study done on a related topic in the subject, 25% for an oral test and finally 25% for the standard written exam. The surprise tests ensure marks to the student who reads regularly and commands good knowledge of the subject. Those students who read extensively and can write well are rewarded in the project. Students who can communicate better orally can score well in the oral tests. And finally those students, who are adept in learning by rote, would score well in the written exam only. And after the marks are calculated, use the ranking system.

This would ensure a fair degree of fairness into the evaluation system which aptly rewards the capabilities of different students from diverse backgrounds.
Read more!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Safe City or Just a Dream

Today, reading an investigative report by a well-respected TV anchor, in a leading Malayalam daily, compelled me to write this post.

The lady in question, decided to check out how safe women are in the capital city of God’s Own Country. And no surprises, the answer was as predicted. We are not. And the worse part is we are not talking about late nights. The writer along with a few other journalists who kept to the background, but stayed around as a much required precautionary measure, was accosted by men from varied walks of life, young and old, with lewd gestures , suggestive remarks and uninvited invitations at a time of the evening, when most businesses had not even shut shop. The interesting fact is that, these incidents took place not in a deserted part of town, but in prime spots with people including cops standing around.

I have to admit reading the article has left me in much despair. I was hoping against hope, that as years go by, we the so called literate people in Kerala, would let go of our worst tendencies and really begin to respect women and act in a noble manner. Alas! This article in the papers today has served to correct any false notions I had.

I am forced to conclude that no woman is safe any time of the day in any city in Kerala. And believe me, it has nothing to do with the way you dress, act, your age, looks or any other characteristic. And I can prove it with examples and many of you reading this post may have similar instances to narrate. In a supposedly conservative society, where traditions are upheld, and where even dating is considered taboo or even downright offensive, I would think, women are given a bit more respect, than looked upon as mere sexual objects. But then the ever increasing and varied parlour scandals, the popularity of semiporn flicks running for ever in local cinemas, and the fact that women are not safe in this city of ours, should be an indication that all is not well in God's Own Country. The narrow minded and lewd attitude of some men in our state is to be really pitied. The sad part is some of these people are even educated and should know better, but that does not prevent them from acting in this vulgar manner.

Any woman traveling alone becomes a target of these nasty few. Even if they do not physically hurt you in broad daylight, being stared at by these morons is equivalent to being disrobed and violated. And if you are not careful, you would soon find yourself approached by these inquisitive men, who after observing you for some time, feels is their right and privilege to inquire about what you do, where you go, who you with and what not.

Isn’t it time that the law intervened and something can be done to make our city safe for all the women again? Why do we have to curb our outings for fear of these cowards? We need the right to complain without fear of backlash, and the administration should see to it that these perverts are nabbed and jailed and never let out or taught a lesson they will never forget in their lifetime? Are we to continue suffering in silence? I can only hope and pray that it will not be the case.
Read more!

Terms of Use and Disclaimer