Friday 11 December 2009

Where are the Citizens? For Those Missing the Best Stand-up Comedy in Town...

Watching local self-government at work has been one of the major learnings since coming to Calicut. Kerala has achieved the greatest decentralization of administration and it is a brilliant idea but has come with flaws, learnings and strategic shifts meant to get the system to work better. Local self-government as the word suggests – means just that, the people’s representatives directly administering most of the panchayat governance except for law and order. While the constant criticism I have heard is of funds lapsing, turf wars between government departments and local bodies, besides panchayat members and lower-level bureaucracy being incapable of visionary development and technical inadequacy, efforts are on to help these men and women at the grassroots understand the nittygritties and the responsibilities that come with funds and powers at their disposal.

Just for example, the NREGS system in Kozhikode has been a spectacular failure. Panchayats could not come up with projects that could give workers the mandatory 100 days of work partly due to the planners own lack of time and ability to plan, and partly due to the perception that nobody in Kerala will work for Rs.120 when jobs paying Rs.200 are available. The state then stepped in realizing the inadequacy of the decentralized process and got an expert body called Integrated Rural Technology Centre based in Palakkad to prepare a master plan on projects possible in the 78 panchayats of the district for the next five years and to identify the labour pool that can be given 100 days work. It remains to be seen if NREGS will work now and be able to rise from the paltry average of 12 days a year of work that the district is currently generating. Well, that’s something I will keep track of.

But the greatest failure of decentralization is not the system, but we the citizens. Empty audience stands at the council meeting and what I hear about sparse citizen presence at gram sabhas, which is an opportunity for people to hear their representatives and to tell them their grievances in public, shows how we are also to blame for a rotting system. We say we send these guys out to rule for five years and they don’t turn back. We never ask if we are doing our bit to keep them in check. Accountability can never be a one way street.

The motivation for this post came from a meeting of the Corporation Council that I attended today. This was my first opportunity to watch the town’s leaders in action. And the occasion did not disappoint. It was a learning experience and as I will reveal later in this post, was a humorous experience too. The Mayor is not a man who I was impressed with; his speeches at public meetings rarely had vision and are drab affairs. But his officiating at the council today was stately. He silenced the hecklers interrupting speakers, gave them opportunities to talk when they raised hands at the end of a speech and displayed a good command over most corporation affairs. The LDF enjoys a brute majority of 42 members while UDF has just 10 in the 55 member council. It was a pleasant surprise seeing the 33 per cent reservation for women in practise, but like all public stages in Kerala only a few of them rose to speak and that too a few tepid sentences yielding the stage to men to make grand, decisive speeches.

Watching the day’s proceedings, I couldn’t help but admire the LDF men. Though at the bottom tier of our democracy, these men could speak fluently about the all-powerful national UPA government and critique its actions eloquently. In a country like India with more than 50 per cent below the [real] poverty line, it’s not the BJP but a leftist party like the CPM which should have been naturally leading the opposition in parliament. To be honest, the CPM despite all their perversions and follies can speak better for the lower and lower-middle classes than any of the parties today. However the CPM continues to trip in being unable to come up with a sustainable economic model in Kerala different from the capitalist model. That Kerala under the left has a better social security net and is a welfare state compared to the India under the UPA came out today in the pronouncements the councillors made. While the central government according to them gives widow and old age pension to only people in BPL status and those who don’t have male children, the Kerala government implemented the central scheme for widows and elderly persons across the board – definitely a more sensible decision considering these are some of our most helpless groups.

-------------------------------

Okay now to a few incidents from the council meeting…reading this post one should not take home the idea that all these guys are dimwits, some of them were real smart. There were several call-attention motions on pressing needs but I am unsure if any of these people have a vision to build a Kozhikode that can scale up for the coming boom. These are people we elected – so we can’t absolve ourselves for the quality of discussions in such meetings. But I had a jolly good laugh too and hope I get assigned for more of these meetings…both to learn and to laugh more! ;)

LDF guys ranting and raving for over an hour against globalization, disinvestment and the decision by central government to withdraw 10 lakh Group D jobs.
Me (to fellow journo): Aren’t these guys elected to deal with city issues?
He: Communistukaaralle. Polandil enthe sambhavichoonne prasangichillel meeting kazhinje manasaakshikuthe ondaakum.
(We laugh. I couldn’t help but remember Sreenivasan’s immortal movie, Sandesham.)

The Leader of Opposition stands up. I have heard stories of him from my colleagues in office. Once at a public meeting, my chief had told him about Lech Walesa. On stage, the LOP spoke about a Shaw Wallace who had freed Poland from the commies, to much laughter. Later, he blamed my chief for passing on wrong info.

LOP: If the UPA government has taken away 10 lakh jobs, they also know to brink back 9000 lakh jobs.
LDF guy: LOP, if you didn’t know, that’s about the country’s whole population. Not the number of jobs required.
LOP: Okay, okay. All I am saying is that these guys at the “Kendram”, orre nammale pole alla, nalla thala chore olla kakshikala.
(The LDF guys and we journos break out in laughter. The UDF guys hide their heads in embarrassment.)

UDF member: The Congress government would have solved this problem of price rise. All you Leftists do is blame the centre on what is a State subject.
(LDF guy stands up to rebut him and launches into a lengthy diatribe on the ruining of the PDS system by the Congress government. But then he winds up and says the following in all seriousness.)
LDF guy: The problem with you UDF guys is that you don’t read anything. At the most, some of you read tabloids like Manorama and Mathrubhumi. Vivaram vekkaan thaalparyam ondengil, try reading Deshabhimani.
(Now it was the turn of us journos to laugh)

Later an item on agenda, is the issue of buying hydraulic ladders to maintain the beautiful looking street lamps in Kozhikode, sadly none of which I have ever seen light up.
LOP (thundering): Wait, wait, don’t pass this yet. How many hydraulic ladders do we have?
Mayor: We have one. We’ll need one more.
LOP: By the way, what is this “hydraulic ladder”?
(Relief followed by laughter amongst the LDF who thought LOP was about to nail them with a real tough poser)
Mayor: Pump cheythe pokkunna eni ille. It is easier to get work done.
LOP: Aah, that I knew! (and nods his head like a beaming school boy who learnt something new)
(More laughter follows.)

A new item on agenda is about a court order to the corporation to pay compensation for a land acquisition within December.
LOP: I need more time to study this issue. Let’s hold it for next meeting.
Mayor: But the next meeting is one month away. We’ll be held in contempt of court.
LDF member(butts in gleefully): Let the LOP have his way. Just record in the minutes that the corporation could not proceed because of LOP’s objection as proof of corporation’s innocence, so that court will hold him responsible.
LOP (frantically): I withdraw my objection. Pass the agenda.
(LDF guys laugh. The LOP is the epitome of helplessness.)

The Mayor comes to one of the last items on the agenda.
LOP: I protest. This is something the UDF can’t agree to.
LDF member: Priyapetta LOP, please turn back and look. All the UDF members have left! But how can we blame them…they learn from their seniors in parliament. (More laughs…the LDF guys are using their brute majority and caustic wit to rub it in)
LOP (turning back…only 2 of the original 10 are left): Eh! I Pass.

At the end of the day, I was amazed at the reserves of confidence the LOP possessed despite being outwitted and laughed at, yet fought grandly the LDF who came armed with facts, figures and current affairs. Who knows, if the Congress can replicate its Lok Sabha and Assembly bypoll success in next year’s panchayat elections (a tall order!), our good man could very well become the next Honourable Mayor. But if citizens were present at local body meetings, wouldn't these council and panchayat meetings help strengthen our democracy and give people insight into the working of the political system and their representatives? Not to mention the healthy jokes and laughs they are missing...

Friday 4 December 2009

Commercial Cinema's Year of Revival

A visit to Trivandrum last year had reawakened my hope that good cinema would flourish again in Kerala. At that time, between Onam and Ramzan the theatres had four good and different films running – Thirakkatha, Thalappavu, Gulmohar and Rathrimazha and not a single one of these was a masala flick. The period when I left Kerala, around 2002, was when the industry was recovering from near death. Since then, some new directors, scriptwriters and actors have been coming into their own. Seven years later, having seen some of the commercial films of the year, I can confidently say the industry has bounced right back and is headed for better times in the years ahead. Thought I’d jot down some belated thoughts on some of the un-ignorable movies of the year.

Rithu – Arguably Malayalam’s first multiplex film and one that has come closest in depicting a segment of urban upper-middle class youth and their lifestyle. While portraying nicely the modern and self-centred life of the IT crowd, I was impressed that the movie was able to sneak in the class tensions and perceptions that each strata and political thought in society, share about the other. However, the movie was dampened by bad scripting of the last few scenes. Rithu also showed the guts to deal with behaviour that makes even the Kerala elite squirm uncomfortably – homosexuality, open displays of affection and women drinking. For long, Malayalam cinema has failed to connect with evolving social dynamics – especially in relation to the urban middle class. Kudos to the effort by director Shyamaprasad and scenarist Joshua Newton to tell a story about Malayali software engineers after failed attempts by two other fancied names in dealing with the same theme.

I was apprehensive how the young lead cast with metrosexual looks would fare but they along with known faces in Kerala like journalist K.Govindankutty and director M.G. Sasi have been aptly cast for their respective roles. Funnily enough, unlike the hundreds of clones that have followed Dil Chahta He, Rithu’s success wont see a similar trend in Malayalam cinema – because unlike the metro multiplexes and the foreign markets which dictate the trends in Bollywood today, it continues to be the youth living in poorer localities of Kerala, whether rural or urban and lower middle class families who make up the lions share of the crucial opening week crowds. Yet another reason is that except for a few of today’s commercial filmmakers the rest continue to stick to the tried and tested formulas of action, comedy, family melodrama, song and dance routine.

Bhramaram – I was about to rate Thanmatra and Blessy as a one-film wonder, till the lavishing of accolades by his filmmaking peers after Bharamaram released, tempted me to go watch it. From his earthy croaking of the Annarakanna song right down to his ragged, overweight, weary appearance I rejoiced at seeing a Mohanlal getting so deep into the skin of a character but all credit to Blessy for a brilliant yet simple storyline with a deeply psychological theme. The movie was shot in never-before seen high-range locations and the camera work by Ajayan Vincent is probably one which I will rate the best ever in Malayalam.

I heard feeble criticism for the movie from several quarters – people were saying it was too dark and too disturbing. But the single line story of a man forced to revisit his ugly past (that he had forgiven and forgotten) in order to set right the turmoil in his psychedelic, hazy present is on par with the best that Malayalam cinema churned out in its heydays. With Bhramaram, Blessy can aspire to be compared with his mentor Padmarajan, but the sad fact is that today there are too few filmmakers around with the possible exception of T.V. Chadran who can shock and disturb viewers like Padmarajan, Bharathan, K.G. George and Pavithran managed to successfully do, in film after film in the eighties.

Puthiya Mukham – It is close to 15 years since Yodha released, and I continued to complain of getting headaches, turn-offs and revulsion seeing ageing Malayalam heroes bash up villains and goondas, with no improvements in cinematography or stunt choreography. Puthiya Mukham finally helped Malayalam draw level with Tamil cinema on the technical front and though the film was an all stunts no-brainer focussed solely around boosting Prithviraj’s star value, its unprecedented success will finally undo filmmakers’ belief that Tamil cinema’s big budgets are impossible to stand up to.

Pazhassi Raja – I had watched Kaminey with utter disbelief wondering at the ‘power of cool’ and the influence of reviewers in exalting an average film by an excellent-so-far filmmaker to the status of a cult classic. A sense of déjà vu crept in watching Pazhassi Raja the other day. Reviewers, hysteric fans had all dubbed it the greatest Malayalam film ever! Really? Editing gaffes, some poorly choreographed unwanted stunts and meandering scenes marred the movie. The graceful performances of the lead actors, some beautifully directed and photographed sequences and the lavish canvas the movie was mounted on were the saving graces – a good effort, but definitely nowhere near Malayalam’s best.

The trailer had said, ‘History is not always written by the winner’. I had gone to the theatre expecting an encore by MT and Hariharan, a repeat of that best ever shot tale of a loser, ‘Braveheart’, and possibly a repeat of their own masterpiece about a famed loser, ‘Oru Vadakkan Veera Gatha’. But sadly Pazhassi Raja has scenes of Mammootty flying in the air, single-handedly killing with his sword dozens of British soldiers armed with rifles and many more absurdities. I console myself in the belief that MT and Hariharan surrendered the opportunity to make a world classic to recoup the huge budget of Rs.27 crore, their producer had trusted them with.

Swa Le – Few films about journalists and the newspaper industry have been made in Malayalam like New Delhi, Pathram, etc. But none of these ever dared to tell the true story. And Swa Le does it in style! Journalists are percieved to be courageous crusaders of society, yet very few know how appalling the working and salary conditions of most journalists in India working in small newspaper and TV establishments are. Swa Le tells an honest story with much black humour. Unfortunately, the travails of the lead character fails to strike an emotional chord; probably the unfocussed script would have done better in the hands of a more experienced director. The tepid scene were Dileep makes a call to a hospital at night to find out the condition of two persons hospitalized in a boat tragedy is exactly something I was forced to do too in this brief career and like the movie clearly shows it’s a moment when you wonder how we are vultures watching life ebb away, waiting to swoop down. Some of the humourous scenes depicted in the movie are from real life, with many of my colleagues narrating similar incidents. Food for another post! ;)

Kerala Café – None of the short films that made up this ensemble movie was world class. But the shorts were a break from the past, for most of the filmmakers who crafted these films and for us viewers used to a diet of character and superstar centric cinema. The feeling while coming out of the theatre was the same as having read a short story collection – the way back home I couldn’t help looking at people on the streets and thinking how our lives have made us receptacles of stories, which in the hands of some writer could become a short story, novel or film. Beyond the stated theme of travel or the superfluous café that the makers said linked these shorts, I thought most of these shorts had stories about a set of humans unable to understand the motivations and travails of the people they encounter.

While all the films except for Mrithyunjayam had interesting themes, only Revathy’s Makal, Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey and Anwar Rashid’s Bridge succeeded in flawlessly executing their intentions. Debutant Shankar Ramakrishnan’s Island Express was an excellent idea centred around the 20th anniversary of the Perumon tragedy but was lost in unnecessary abstraction that robbed it of its charm. Lal Jose’s Puram Kazhchakal, Shaji Kailas’s Lalitham Hiranmayam, M. Padmakumar’s Nostalgia, B. Unnikrishnan’s Aviraamam and Shyamaprasad’s Off-season were good efforts but lacked tightness in the scripts to tell a complete story inside ten minutes. All kudos to Renjith for bringing so many talents together and displaying the courage to produce and conceptualize this portmanteau film.

Neelathamara - A good film, but makes you wonder why Lal Jose chose this MT film to be remade. With a storyline similar to Nandanam, which released only a few years back, the young generation would find nothing unique in the film. But very nice visuals distract the viewer from the fact that there is nothing new in the storyline. The new actress, Archana impresses with her smile and looks set for a long innings while Kailash, the other new face did not have much to perform in a heroine-centric role. A welcome change was the total absence of melodrama in the film, something which sets it apart from Nandanam. I haven't watched the old Neelathamara, and so can't say if the decision to tell a restrained story was a conscious decision, in tune with the times. Both Paleri Manikyam and Neelathamara, stands out by introducing a number of fresh faces and following unconventional casting, a welcome move in an industry which had a stock set of actors to do each type of role.

Paleri Manikyam, Oru Paathira Kolapathakathinte Katha - The best film of the year. Period. Director Renjith comes up with a once in a life time work, for which I am using the same words I said directly to him, "Renjithetta, you will be remembered long after you are gone, for just this one work." We were talking endlessly and excitedly about the various aspects of the film in office that our cinema correspondent rang up Renjith and handed the phone to me, much to my surprise. Based on a novel by T.P. Rajeevan, who again I chanced to speak to a few weeks back, the film's theme is outwardly simple - that of a man led back to his native village to investigate two unsolved murders, committed 52 years ago, on the very night of his birth, the first case of sexual harassment recorded after the state was born.

That Renjith's narrative craft is at its very peak is obvious when you see the layers and layers of plots and sub-plots which he expertly unfolds and then neatly links to the main plot. His directorial ability reveals itself in beautifully getting the period and setting for the story right, besides getting dozens of fresh-faced actors from theatre to deliver their roles convincingly. It's not often you get to see so many side characters with depth and of relevance to the storyline. Manoj Pillai weaves magic with the camera, with beautiful shots and no unintrusive gimmicks sucking the viewer right into a world most of us were not born in and can no more relate too. Shot in the interior regions of Kozhikode, the movie also touches on the last stand of the feudal system and the change in character of the communist movement in Kerala. I have often felt that Mammootty the actor has a grandeur that puts to shade other actors and even the storyline, but here Ranjith lets Mammootty revel in multiple roles, but the decision only help in extending our willing suspension of disbelief further into subconscious terrains, that few scripts manage to succeed these days. If Renjith continues in this vein, the Padmarajan nostalgia of Malayalis can rightfully take a backseat and we can savor the joys of seeing in the present, a master filmmaker Kerala has long craved for.

P.S - I have ranted and raved for a long time on the need to undermine the star system. Let the star system stay. But let us audiences value the story, director and scriptwriter on par with the stars henceforth. Neelathamara released last week to favourable reviews - I am yet to see it. Oru Paathira Kolapathakathinte Katha, adapted from a novel, the novelist of which I had the chance to meet at a Calicut bar, releases today with pre-release reports promising a good fare. All of you who stayed off Malayalam films for a while can head right back home – we are back to making good movies!

Friday 27 November 2009

Finding Peace, Courting Change...

Phew! What a life it’s been. Two years ago, munching countless burgers in Los Angeles sulking about a life wasted on software code. A year ago, lounging in Chennai amidst discussions, writing, activism, books, lectures, reporting and beer. And tonight at Calicut, in a little apartment, looking back at six months as a professional journalist, grudgingly admitting that I have the best job in the world. Long gone by, the days I hated waking up to go work. A job I love doing? How unattainable that seemed a while back! And yet, I am here. Those lines of The Alchemist – on wanting something with all your heart and the universe conspiring to help you achieve it. Could that be true - I continue to wonder if this is a universal truth or just a great writer seeking to inspire readers? If true, what are those forces that got me here?

Journalism! The money adequate; every day recurring with new challenges, experiences and learnings; the satisfaction unbounded. The kick from arriving at an idea for a special story; happily doing the mundane like covering an event, seminar or exhibition; the hesitation before picking up the phone to talk to a stranger or walking into a dreary government office; scribbling illegible-even-to-myself notes at breakneck speed trying to keep pace with the speaker before finally overcoming daily deadline tensions to turn those priceless notes into a coherent story replete with quotes, facts, figures and where possible an over-arching narrative. The calamities that fate wills you cover in person or through phone; how a tragic incident becomes news that you have to convey to a reader accurately and vividly.

The six months haven’t been easy. An introvert by nature, there is hesitation to approach people; sitting in lone corners at press conferences and knowing very few journalists; I am the outsider. The lean Onam-Ramzan season – stray thoughts said my career was over; as stories thinned out and miserable hours typing staid press releases foreboded ominously that I had failed – yet again. The classmates in big cities earning national page stories and bylines; how that irked for a while! The sub-editing that I occasionally thought was unreasonable to me and my writing style, how I decided they unfairly denied me some bylines on painstakingly done stories – and how with experience I have now matured and accept the sub’s word as final, how crucial though thankless their job is, yet which they do without complaining. And then came October, a month of calm and cleansing, when the stories returned on a platter, when complaints and comparisons with others ceased and along came the beautiful realization that writing is the only job on Earth I am temperamentally fit for. And did not bliss return!

Calicut has been a mixed bag. Years and years lived in big cities where time seemed at a premium, now appreciating the laidback pace of life of a small town, how every place is five minutes away, how there is no hurry to reach anywhere, how people are friendly and smile and small-talk. But the intellectual circle that fuelled thoughts and ideas at J-school, or the fun crowd that made US life bearable – now missing and it riles. The nights are lonely, the books uninviting, the movies not compelling, the beer tastes musty – where are the circles of writers, firebrands, activists, etc that I have read this city is host to. Will I find them in Delhi? Can the spirit shine without bright minds to rub ideas on?

Journalism is tough work – I may not become a great journalist, but my ideologies and love for writing helps me stay afloat. The first gives me ideas and perspectives for stories on people and issues I hold close to heart, while the love for writing helps me get out of the office and away from press releases and do specials, features or at the least cover events. The career in India has begun from Kerala, and from a place I had the least idea of before coming here; I wonder how the Calicut experience will help in the future, but none of it matters. When the day ends, I come home happy, hungry, tired and sleepy but yearn for daybreak and getting the newspaper in my hands and seeing my story in print. What other profession do you see the rewards of your toil so quickly?

P.S.It’s become hard to find my personal voice after writing on others – the choice of words that earlier came gushing out, now reduced to a trickle. Noticed I began and ended this post in first person and somewhere in the middle the ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ had mostly vanished. This is why I am returning to blogging, to rediscover my old ways of writing. Tried twitter but it’s a plain stupid tool, not for fools who love to write long, loud and clear. Unsure if this is a new innings in blogging or just one night’s restive creative burst – troubled by a lot of injustices around me, but realize my writing, beliefs and life need this blog to express opinions, humour, irreverence and interactions that the newspaper doesn’t have space for. Cheers!

Monday 31 August 2009

Where Lies Mahabali

I guess I am withdrawing slowly from the blogging front. A feeling that I am doing adequate writing in the newspaper lead to this blog losing priority. Writing in newspapers is a double-edged sword. Newspapers have a style, certain requirements, deadline tensions and space constraints that lead you to write in a way that is often not creatively satisfying. Sometimes the subbing of your stories also leads to heartache. But at the end of the day, the satisfaction of engaging with society and governance and the hope that you are making a small difference to peoples lives, keeps you afloat.

I was telling Ashok, who is now in Calicut, some weeks back that the fiction writer in me might have died. A professional editor, he sprang a surprise on me last week when he asked me to write a short story for his blog. He was even kind enough to suggest a theme, probably knowing that my block needed some external help to pierce through. He asked me to write a story connecting Onam and Loyola. I nervously agreed to write. It had been a year since the last fictional exercise. But I finally pieced together something. Hope the result satisfies readers. Happy Onam everyone! Where Lies Mahabali

Monday 18 May 2009

Calling the media's bluffs!

The elections are over and the Indian citizen has spoken resoundingly what his concerns are. While the middle and lower classes of urban India voted for development and stability, rural India gave its vote to a central government and state governments which initiated measures in support of agriculture and rural employment. And tying all these strands together was an overwhelming mandate against the divisive forces of communalism. But now I am ANGRY. Angry at how the English media has begun twisting the people’s verdict to suit some vested interests. The immediate culprit that comes to my mind are the big industrialists – both domestic and foreign; not ruling out US influences either!

One of my concerns have to do with the hullabaloo raised in the TV channels and the pink papers of India about the marginalisation of the Left along with several regional dispensations and how the next government is free to undertake now, economic “reforms” that were blocked earlier. While the media is free to pursue an agenda, what is galling is that it is not even the much maligned political class, but the media which is overpowering and taking the reins of the democracy and governance that it is merely supposed to act as the watchdog over. A few hours ago, Times Now put forward the name of Montek Singh Ahluwalia for Finance Minister, a person who did not even contest the election is being bandied for a most important cabinet position! The media has begun pestering the government over its agenda – specifically what corporates are interested in: labour reforms, privatization of pension funds, full FDI in insurance and banking sectors, etc. It was an eye-opener for me, on how the man to whom these questions was put to yesterday, Kamal Nath, restrained himself from answering these questions even while Messrs. Rajdeep Sardesai, Arnab Goswami and co went to the extent of telling him that his name is being bandied for the Finance Ministry post. While it is easy to dismiss these TV channels, it is alarming and dangerous when one realizes that such reporting is sub-consciously educating the voter with a daily dose of “neo-liberal” policies.

Yet another issue that has angered me is the way Prakash Karat is being taken to task. I am no admirer of Karat, after the way he bungled the issues in the Kerala and West Bengal CPI(M) which lead to the party’s marginalization in these two states, but it seems almost malicious, the anger of corporate India and media against him for attempting to scuttle the nuclear deal and the above said economic reforms. Very conveniently, the media has ignored the real reasons for the defeat of the cpi(m) in these two states and instead pinned the blame on karat for the nuclear deal, his daring to form a third front with “despicable” regional parties and for thwarting reforms. Infact, in the process the media is doing injustice to Mamta Bannerjee who has taken over the leftist position in Bengal and endeared herself to ordinary people. While Karat deserves to be panned for his focus on the Third Front pipe dream without setting his own house in order, the coming days will see more of the media extensively reporting and mal-reporting the oncoming crisis in the cpm. Infact the media would be doing the CPI(M) a big favour by asking them the real question, namely- "How Left are you guys?"

The media’s silence on the UPA’s NREGA policy, farm loans waiver, RTI, successful handling of the economic slowdown, etc as the major ingredient of its success while constantly harping on the failure of the opposition campaign to come up with stronger alliances was pathetic. Only P.Sainath was left among CNN-IBN’s experts who constantly turned the scope of discussions towards rural India which accounts for almost 2/3 of of the Lok Sabha constituencies. In the coming days we will see the media driving the agenda for the ministers who it thinks should get each ministry, the parties that should be supporting the government (we are now seeing the media voice its disapproval of Mulayam, Laloo and Mayawati joining the UPA dispensation…after all these guys are rustics!), the agenda for the next government, the future of the BJP and CPI(M), etc, etc. It is amazing how a lot of what is being shown on TV is just reporters and anchors putting words in politicians mouths and depending on “reliable” sources within 10 Janpath and AKG Bhavan for all their news without the politicians never actually coming forward to say even one of these items that makes for 24*7 TV news.

The BJP has been told firmly and clearly that communalism won’t sell. But history teaches us that fascist tendencies take root amidst competition for meagre resources, poverty and unemployment. The UPA would do well to understand that it is not just its economic reforms agenda which has made it the darling of India’s elites and middle class, but a number of policies of its like NREGA, farm loan waiver, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, RTI, etc that brought them back to power. Unfortunately, the Left will not be around this time to provide the checks and balances that kept the Congress firmly grounded. New policies that I hope the UPA will take up this time would be provision of social security for India’s unorganized sector, reservation of jobs for Dalits and Adivasis in private sector, implementing the Sachchar Committee recommendations and last but not the least providing justice to Gujarat and Kandhamal riot victims.

P.S – Opening up comments for this post. Was written in great hurry…a more detailed and hopefully better-worded analysis of the elections will follow. Having missed the last general election thanks to being abroad and following this election with keen interest thanks to the profession I am in, I think our voters chose as best as they could for the good of the country. Now it is upto the UPA to do justice to the mandate that has been delivered not just from cities, men, upper classes, industrialists but also come from villages, women, labourers, Muslims, Dalits, etc. And as for the English media especially TV reporters, glib-tongued anchors, so-called expert guests, who are unanswerable to none and consumed by hardly 20% of the country, the people of India have proven they are smarter than us know-all journalists! Heading to Calicut. Reporter with The Hindu.

Saturday 21 March 2009

A manifesto hard to live up to

The release of the 2009 election manifesto by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has evinced much interest thanks to the involvement of the Left parties in the incumbent UPA government till mid-2008 and their recent attempts to forge a third front for the impending general elections. The manifesto while retaining the socialist ideals stands on slippery ground this time compared to past elections as the CPI (M)’s state units in Bengal and Kerala are seen as having drifted significantly from the Marxist ideology.

The manifesto touts the efforts of the Left for having stalled attempts of the Congress-led government to enable full convertibility of the rupee, the attempt to increase FDI’s in insurance, privatization of pension funds, allowing foreign banks to buy Indian private banks, etc. It also explains in detail the efforts made by the Left to support and later prevent manipulation of the NREGS and the RTI Acts.

The manifesto also details the CPI(M)’s criticism of the several "neo-liberal" policies of the Congress which it could not obstruct like FDI in retail and real estate, not restoring capital gains tax from the stock market and unnecessary mollycoddling of the rich and the corporate sector when focus should have been on the common man. But the manifesto also puts the question mark on what a communist party was doing supporting an out an out capitalist political formation.

The actions of the West Bengal government in Singur and Nandigram have alienated its rural votebank and damaged its “leftist” credentials. The CPI (M) seems to have learnt its lessons from its misadventures in industrializing Bengal through the SEZ and acquiring farm land route. Atleast that is what the manifesto says. To quote from the 31 page document, “The Special Economic Zones have become the instruments for large scale transfer of land to corporates depriving the farmers and the rural poor of their meagre landed assets.”

The manifesto also calls for scrapping the Fiscal Responsibility and Budgetary Management (FRBM) Act and consequently the recommendations of the 13th Finance Commission in the current recessionary scenario. This stems from the ideological confusion witnessed in the Kerala unit of the CPI (M) with the clear demarcation between the hardcore communists who preach the Marxist ideology if not in practice (?) and a dominant faction which believes that liberalization and private capital is imperative as the 13th Finance Commission’s allocation for States is insufficient to pursue a socialist agenda that is driven by the government.

Also finding much space in the manifesto is corruption by those holding public office, but the SNC-Lavalin scandal which has implicated its Kerala secretary and polit bureau member Pinarayi Vijayan, has deflated the anti-corruption moral high ground that the party could earlier boast of.

Perhaps what the manifesto clearly needed to enunciate was how the “neo-liberal” agenda can be reversed, in stages or at one go. A section in the manifesto says, “no further tariff cuts in agriculture and industrial goods” without any mention of restoration of the tariff rates to the 80’s and pre-mid 90’s levels that protected the farmer. The CPI (M)’s inability to catch the fancy of the masses or the classes despite its comprehensive manifesto indicates that the manifesto written in Delhi by its top rung ideologues, is unable to connect or effectively convey a concrete action programme, to the cadre or the ordinary people.

P.SFirst time I am writing an editorial. Bringing out daily newspapers now. Have learnt to appreciate newspaper editorials who have to present an in-depth take on issues within the constraint of 500 words and a few hours deadline.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Caste oppression gets a helping hand from the establishment

Caste oppression continues to be a feature of the agrarian belt of Vellore and Thiruvannamalai districts, and presents a challenge that is ingrained in the inherent complexities of India’s none-too-glorious history and scathing deficiencies of the current system. The economic and social development the country has witnessed since Independence has imparted a class character to urban India but in villages, caste equations still continue as fertile grounds for turmoil and conflict. Slowly but steadily, Dalits are organizing themselves and uniting to press intently for the rights that should have been theirs in any fair and democratic setup.

The process of Dalit upliftment ironically didn’t begin with an indigenous effort in Vellore district unlike in most other parts of India, but from an empathetic British District Collector in pre-Independent India. He studied the conditions of the poorest in society and ordered many lands in Vellore to be classified as Depressed Classes (DC) land. But the Dalits, illiterate and uninformed as they were, very few came forward to take possession of this land and it soon passed to the upper castes in society. As the higher castes in Tamil society moved to urban areas taking up jobs and other opportunities, the then backward castes like the Vanniyars for example, moved up the caste hierarchy to preserve the feudal agrarian order of Zamindar and tenant, landlord and landless farmer, peasant and tiller. With land reforms being hazily implemented in Tamil Nadu, the Green Revolution that was unfurled in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s hit the Dalits who were tillers on others lands very badly, as mechanization reduced significantly the labour that was needed in agriculture, forcing some of them to migrate to cities in search of work.

It isn’t that caste tensions are prevalent across all villages in these two districts. They are most noticeable in those villages where the Dalits are in a minority compared to the upper castes. In such areas, Dalits live with a perpetual fear of clashes breaking out over land, women, festivals and use of common facilities like tanks, temples and toilets. At several places where Dalits are moving to reclaim their land, the lack of cooperation at all tiers of the bureaucracy and the antagonistic stance of the police force are very evident. It comes as no surprise that the stakeholders in agriculture, bureaucracy and the justice system are bonded by caste ties, a formidable combination that the Dalits will find increasingly difficult to pierce as they up the ante of their struggles.

There have been several instances in Vellore and Thiruvannamalai of Dalits who owned agricultural land or who newly won rights to land selling it back to their upper caste neighbours. In most cases they sold it back for amounts far below the market price, a bogey that is raised by the upper castes; they say it is pointless empowering the Dalits with land as they will not retain it. The Dalits in these districts say it is the fear of upper castes whose lands inevitably surround theirs and the obstacles placed in the way of their farming efforts that force them to do so. Dalit activists also admit however that many of their ilk begin to possess an immense desire for quick money; the option before them is to sell the land, but sadly the money is almost always squandered away in drinking and gambling. As a result, all new efforts at land reclamation are done with pleas to transfer pattas to Dalit women rather than the men.

Government efforts to generate employment in rural areas for the landless through the NREGS have brought significant relief to the Dalits. But here again caste discrimination is practised in subtle ways, through segregation of work, so that Dalits and Vanniyars don’t have to come into physical contact. Dalits also complain that they are made to do the physically more taxing work, while others get away more easily. Works done through NREGS like digging public borewells, irrigation and rain-water canals are also monopolized by upper caste landlords who ensure the water does not reach Dalits, like in the case of Muniyamma of Kadalaikulam village (Dalits fight to reclaim land in Vellore, Page 17). But the government response to land demands by Dalits has been characterized by red tape and unease with ruffling upper caste sentiments.

The worst form of caste segregation and oppression can be seen in “inter-caste marriages” (for want of a better term, as rarely do the relationships culminate in marriage). Though an unwritten agreement exists that Vanniyar men will keep to Vanniyar women and Dalits to Dalits fearing caste conflicts, the Vanniyar men are free to break this arrangement and get into physical relationships with Dalit women - often with the promise of marriage, and more often than not walking away from the relationship after saddling the women with their offspring. After interviewing a few women who had been thus promised and betrayed, it was obvious that the panchayat and police machinery sided with the errant men. Only recourse to strong legal action with the help of Dalit political support even gave them an outside chance to win alimony, forget about marriage. These women say that the men would have been ready to accept them, but for fear of ostracism from their community and the threat of disinheritance of ancestral land.

The Tamil Nadu government policy of 50% reservation for Backward Castes fails in rural Tamil Nadu as can be seen from the fact that these erstwhile lower castes have taken up the mantle of upper castes today and continue to perpetrate their hegemony over the Dalits through our existing democratic systems of governance. A crucial file relating to the Kandhaneri graveyard issue(refer above mentioned article) going missing and the sad case of M.Bhagyaraj of Karungali who was assaulted by 14 upper caste youth, but only one person was arrested and later released, despite him having made 26 visits in 18 months between May 2007 and December 2008 to various police officials in the district to press his case, all point to a parochial civil and political machinery, which treats the Dalits on the basis of their caste identity as lesser citizens of the country.

Unlike the Vanniyars, who have today more or less consolidated behind the Pattali Makkal Katchi(PMK) as that party’s political base, the politically active among the Dalits who make up 17% of the state’s population, remain divided among a handful of Dalit and Dravidian parties. The Dalit question and the caste system were glossed over by the Indian National Congress in the freedom struggle and the constitutional reform process that followed it. Caste consciousness is an integral part of the Indian mindset whether rural or urban, and the question remains as to whether the caste system can reorient itself towards practising equality of all castes including the Dalits, even as the nation progresses towards its goal of super-power status.

P.S: An analysis piece written for the college newspaper based on reporting done at Vellore and Thiruvannamalai districts. Wonder if I can get out of the urban trap and report from rural India when I come out. Around the time I was in Vellore, I was appalled but not at all surprised to come across these two opinion pieces on the caste system written by an honourable Supreme Court judge; I leave you to make your conclusions - Part-I and Part-II.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

"They have labelled me a traitor"

Sunanda Deshapriya, is a free-lance journalist for the Ravaya newspaper and previously was editor of the Balaya magazine, both publications in the Sinhalese language. He is in India following the attacks on Sri Lankan journalists who have dared to be objective or even-mildly critical of the Sri Lankan government. In an interview, he talks to Jiby Kattakayam and Karthik Ram on the authoritarian rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has made a mockery of the democratic process in his country.

Q: Sir, what made you come to India?
SD: The government said that the media has to take sides. If we did not support the Sri Lankan government blindly, we would be denounced as LTTE supporters. My name was put up on the Defence Ministry website as a traitor. My office was set on fire. After the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga and the brutal assault on Upali Tennakoon, my family asked me to leave, as they feared for my life. Sri Lankan journalists in exile avoid coming to Madras. Because I am here, I will be labelled an LTTE agent back home. But I doubt I will be able to raise public awareness on the atrocities being committed in Sri Lanka as effectively, elsewhere in India.

Q: Did you know Lasantha? Could his death have been avoided?
SD: Yes, we were friends and both of us were part of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka. He had been attacked in the past and as there was a known threat to his life, Lasantha, should have been more careful. Probably, he didn’t take it too seriously as he was a close friend of Rajapaksa. I came to know that Rajapaksa was shocked by Lasantha’s murder. Atleast now, he should realize the monster he has let loose.

Q: In the last two years, 17 Sri Lankan journalists have been killed and many missing. After Lasantha’s death is there an outcry against the government from the citizens?
SD: The government is taking advantage of the huge pro-war sentiment to attack the press. The process of suppression started in 2006 in the North. Tamil journalists critical of the government in Jaffna were silenced. Then in 2007, the repression started in the South. There is no independent media left in the country today. Many journalists are in exile. Just yesterday four more journalists arrived in Bangalore from Colombo. Even acts of corruption by the government can’t be investigated by us. Our leaders have become so drunk with power, that Gothaba Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother, has said that international media like CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera will be chased out. Have you heard anything like that in any war zone in the world?

Q: The Army has become very strong in Sri Lanka now. Do you think Gen. Fonseca would seize power?
SD: Fonseca has become a national hero. But then, why would they take over? They have everything while operating in a democracy. They also have the support of the people. Almost every Sinhalese family has a member in the army – the rich as officers, and the poor as soldiers. In Colombo, university students collect 500 water bottles daily to send to the army. Similarly in schools, children are encouraged to send biscuits.



Q: What do you think will happen after the LTTE is defeated? How will the Tamils react?
SD: The army will be stationed in large numbers in the East, like has been done in the North after the capture of Jaffna in 1996. Tamils will take the defeat of the LTTE as their own defeat. Sinhalese youth from poor, rural backgrounds form the core of the army and they lack a cultural understanding to effectively and humanely soldier the conquered areas. The war is far from over.

Q: What do you think is the future of the LTTE?
SD: If they can come back as political force, they and the Tamil population stand a chance. They will still be capable of inflicting damage through suicide attacks, but to build an organized movement again will take time.

Q: Will a political process be initiated in the East too, like was done in the North?
SD: Yes, a provincial government with very limited power would be installed in the East as was done in the North. The problem is that the Tamils have no credible political leaders around, who inspire confidence. But you can imagine what democracy the North and East will get, if even the people of the South have no meaningful freedom.

Q: After the war, do you think the government would return to a more benevolent form?
SD: I doubt it. The government will use the fear of suicide attacks to justify more army presence everywhere. And patriotism is strong and irrational. Everything else including political freedom and freedom of expression gets subjugated in its wake.

Q: One final question, sir. Is the global recession affecting Sri Lanka too?
SD: Yes, it is. I can give you one example. Around 300 apparel factories closed down. Once the current fighting is over, we will get a clearer picture on that.

P.S: We had read about the murder of Sri Lankan editor, Lasantha Wickramatunge and almost forgotten about it. A few days later a classmate sent me his last editorial, written before he died. In it, Lasantha had coldly prophesized his death but passionately defended his work. It fired us up to protest the atrocities against journalists and the tamil population of Sri Lanka. The protest we organized and the march that followed was a success if I should call it that; hopefully it awoke in all who participated a realization that journalism and activism can and should definitely overlap. More than a week has gone by since then; what still remains in me are doubts on whether all this current idealism will be shorn off, working for the media establishment.

Monday 9 February 2009

No Honeymoons In The Time Of Recession

Barack Obama has an unenviable task at hand. Not only is he staring at the worst economic crisis that has hit the US since the Great Depression, but he has also to help America pull out of two unwieldy wars that is bleeding the treasury dry. And how Obama reasserts the economic and military might of America will decide if he can preserve the unipolar world in the face of the rising economic power of China and Russia. With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, no American president has stepped into office with such odds to surmount. But the America of Roosevelt’s time was one content to leave the global stage to Britain and other European powers to dominate as she bided her time adopting a wait and watch strategy.

Obama’s first few weeks in office have been anything but spectacular. He began in a rash of policy initiatives, reversing several of predecessor Bush’s unpopular policies. His decision to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison was welcomed. But his ambiguous stance on Iraq with regards to the pullout of troops while stating in the same breath that Iraq’s fate will be left to its citizens inspired little confidence. His continuance of the US stance of non-criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza signifies how entrenched America’s foreign policy position vis-à-vis the Middle East continues to remain.

On the domestic front, Obama’s appointments to the top political posts in his administration show his dependence on Washington veterans. Interestingly, he campaigned across the country as the outsider who promised a break from the politics of the past, which he said centred around compromises, deal-making and lobbying. His appointments like Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, Rahm Emmanuel as Chief of Staff, Tom Dashle as Health Secretary besides his own Vice President, Joe Biden are all long-time survivors of the world of Congressional politics. While this indicates a measure of pragmatism on how Obama intends to survive in the rough and tumble of Washington politics by using these influential centrist democrats to win support for his policies, critics point out that the baggage that these politicians carry will ensure a watering down of several hard measures Obama intends to push forward.

For a president, who has never had any executive experience in governance, unlike several of his predecessors Obama’s actions in the first few weeks seems to be of a man very conscious of the fact that people are trying to gauge his abilities as a leader. The haste with which he made his appointments seems to have backfired as his two top political appointments had to be withdrawn in the face of tax evasion charges. The financial stimulus package that he has rolled out quickly, got mired in the quagmire of Congressional politics despite the bipartisan approach he preferred to take. Influential analysts like Paul Krugman have criticized the President for an act of “political naiveté”; for fantasizing that the Republicans would be gracious to let his $937 billion package be ratified without a fight and without demanding changes to the bill that satisfy them.

Obama seems to have picked the cue after two weeks were lost in accusations and counter-charges and though belated, has come down hard on Republicans for their misplaced actions of the last eight years which caused the present crisis and for the time wasted in the last one year believing that Fed interest rate cuts and tax cuts would o the trick. In his weekly radio address he said, “We can't rely on a losing formula that offers only tax cuts as the answer to all our problems while ignoring our fundamental economic challenges." Obama and his democrat pack having summarily failed in the first weeks to nail the Republicans for the blame they have to cope for the crisis, have turned increasingly aggressive, with Obama even resorting to a campaign-style approach to selling his stimulus package to the American people.

Obama's inaugural address stood out for masterful oratory and a lot of rhetoric; his first weeks in office show a president fumbling but also learning fast.


Obama’s plans also include creation of jobs through increasing spending on public infrastructure works, a move which does not find approval with Republicans who call it “wasteful government spending”. The difficulty with which he got the stimulus package cleared by Congress bodes more trouble for him as he mulls a much bigger $1 trillion bailout package for banks and financial institutions (the Bush Administration’s earlier $350 million loan has been found to be woefully inadequate). The trouble for Obama is that Republicans are unwilling to shed their dogmatic belief on minimal state involvement and regulation of the economy, despite the crisis this approach has caused. Increasingly, the taunts are beginning to appear in the conservative media calling Obama a “socialist”.

Perhaps, what would be the greatest tragedy of the recession would be that Obama will be forced to temporarily defer one of his major election planks that called for a comprehensive reform of the country’s health system. A large population running into millions is unable to access healthcare because of the virtual absence of a public health system, the high cost of private healthcare and the failure of the medical insurance system to encompass poorer sections of the society. Coupled with job losses, wiping out of pension funds and home losses, the lack of health care adds to the worries of families caught in the recession. It would be foolhardy to ignore this constituency as they voted overwhelmingly for Obama to bring about the change he constantly promised. That his next campaign for a second term in office will have to begin in two years will be on the back of Obama’s mind.

The start of America’s financial crisis began with Bush’s invasion of Iraq and as the war stretched on, his administration ignored the visible signs of the recession, pumping dollars into the war instead of the flagging economy. The war also catapulted Obama’s meteoric rise with his consistent voting record in the Senate against the Iraq War winning him the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton and ultimately the US Presidency. But pulling US troops out of that country seems an impossibility as Iraq continues to witness sectarian clashes between its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish population while the NATO troops act as mediators in one sense and onlookers in another. The only feasible strategy for him is to pull the US out from a winning position somewhere down the line; 16 months he says, but Iraq’s peace that Saddam Hussein once ensured will remain shattered long after the US is gone.

Obama’s intensification of American involvement in Afghanistan holds little merit, as the Taliban will continue to resist the outsiders, with or without Pakistan support. Obama’s denial of the fact that America built the monster of Islamic fundamentalism signifies his inability to set a fresh agenda for US-Arab reconciliation. Its manipulation in some cases and indifference in others, on the pretext of fighting the USSR has thrown several Muslim nations into disarray and destroyed the secular political aspirations that promised to arise in these countries. Probably where Obama has a chance to leave a lasting impact on is Pakistan, by encouraging and actively supporting the nascent democracy that has taken shape once again there. His appointment of Richard Holbrooke, who helped resolve the Northern Ireland conflict, as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is hopeful indication of a creative solution arising in the trouble-torn region.

Obama’s foreign policy challenge lies in restoring America as the de-facto leader of the world, by engaging nations on an equal footing while getting them all to acknowledge that the unipolar world continues. For this, he will have to pull his weight in Europe which has successfully come out of America’s shadow. Bush lacked both the credibility and the chutzpah to hold under his wings Europe’s colourful but strong-willed political bosses like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozhy and Gordon Brown. With Russia’s resurgence and Europe’s new found closeness to Russia on the back of oil ties, Obama has to actively engage the formidable combination of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev as equals – something he has managed to signal through Vice-President Biden at a security conference in Munich, and to which the Russians responded positively.

To be fair on Obama, his current term in office and probably his next too will be entirely taken up dousing the fires, fed and then left untended by the previous regime. Obama’s inaugural address probably showed the true face of the man – a pragmatic politician, who was able to address all classes of people in American society - the whites, black, women, aged, the patriots, the capitalist, the labour class, the middle class, soldiers and war veterans. But his speech also had several mentions of ideas that are socialist in nature – ideas that a lot of America equates with communism. The conservative media potshots have already begun, the Republican war cries are out, and every policy, every word of his is getting more scrutiny than any previous president. Clinton tried to please everyone, Bush refused to engage anyone – the tightrope Obama has to walk needs to find that middle path between conciliation and assertion. He can’t afford to fall – if his policies fail, the multi-polar world of yore will return; and with it a host of new problems.

P.S - An early assessment of Obama's tenure written for the magazine format. Still figuring out how to write for a mag!

Monday 2 February 2009

Dalits fight to reclaim their lands in Pallikonda panchayat

Dalit farmer Venkatesan, 31, recently reclaimed two cents of land his ancestors owned opposite the village temple, only to find the government cancel the patta, succumbing to pressure from upper caste groups in his village. A few kilometres away, Muniyamma, 65, a Dalit widow and a mother of five sons won back two acres and 10 cents of agricultural land that was her father's, after a protracted battle in the courts and a tense standoff outside. These are not isolated incidents but a case of Dalits uniting for their rights and rightful property in the face of a well-entrenched caste system that obstructs their attempts to rise up the social hierarchy.

For Venkatesan, a recent convert to Christianity who owns five acres of agricultural land and has donated 50 cents to build a church funded by Korean missionaries, the two cents of land at the heart of Agaram village for which he is waging an uphill struggle should not be so significant. But having grown up facing discrimination for being born a Dalit, his land opposite the Gangai Amman Kovil symbolises the open challenge he has thrown - both to the Hindu religion and the 300 family strong upper caste Naidus of the village. He has successfully mobilized his community of 45 Dalit families to stand up and protest. Unhappy with his hut coming up opposite the temple, the upper castes petitioned the government to cancel the patta on the grounds that he was unmarried and thus an unwelcome influence near the temple.

Though frail and infirm, the deep, hard lines around the eyes of Muniamma, a resident of Kadalaikulam village, tell us the story of a brave woman who returned from exile to reclaim her ancestral property. The original patta of her land, recovered by Dalit activists from the local village office, had her deceased brother's name on it and the A-Register had her father as the original owner. Muniamma had migrated to Bangalore unaware of the lands she owned until the patta was recovered. After a spirited court case, she took possession of the land from the Vanniyar usurper. But upper caste farmers surrounding her land blocking irrigated water; her lands are dry and yield nothing but a few mangoes. "Once the patta in my brother's name is transferred to me, I will take a loan for a borewell," Muniamma says. "My two acres of land will fetch above Rs.20 lakhs, but I have lived all my life without a land to call my own and I will never let it go."
Muniamma dug in and took her soil - now she needs to dig for water


At the neighbouring Karungali village, landless Dalits belonging to 75 families have united to press for their rights to a huge swathe of agricultural land, classified as Depressed Class land in the pre-Independence era, but now in the illegal possession of the Yadava community. Their demand for one acre of land per Dalit family from the available 150 acres that rightfully belongs to them is pending with the Revenue Department, while a civil case is being fought simultaneously in the courts. Their leaders Ravi and Magendran say that the Dalits' combined efforts will not end with the land reclamation and they plan to start co-operative farming once the land becomes theirs to cultivate.

A poignant example of the alienation of Dalits from their lands is the story of Kandhaneri village. The Dalits petitioned the Vellore district collector for a graveyard in 1995 after the existing 10 cent cemetery that stood on rocky land made the digging of further graves impossible. The government acquired 69 cents of land in 1997 from the village head, Sivalinga Gounder. However he refused to let go of the land, complaining that no compensation was offered to him but in reality he is yet to collect the amount. The Dalits went ahead and buried two of their dead with police protection in 2005. The Vanniyars responded in gruesome fashion by planting crops over the grave. An act the Dalits view as an insult because they treat their dead with the reverence reserved for gods. Ravi, the leader of the Kandhaneri Dalits says, "My father donated the land for the village school and water tank, which are used by all castes in the village.” What hurts Ravi and his people more than the civil authorities' refusal to evict the usurper, is the Vanniyar reluctance to repay an old favour.

Though aided in their legal struggles and democratic forms of protests by Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu, an organization active in Vellore and Thiruvannamalai, the success achieved by the Dalits profiled above is a tribute to their unflinching courage. Their fight against the humiliating and dehumanizing practise of the caste system continues while running the grave risk of injury and even loss of life. One step at a time, they are breaking down the barriers that hinder their progress, without losing the belief that their caste rivals will accept them as equals one day. Perhaps, this is why they refuse to take up violence. But one wonders how many more landless Dalits live in Vellore district slaving for others, ignorant of the fact that they once possessed land, while the land records which could prove their ownership catches dust and attracts termites in musty village offices.

P.S: Reporting done during a weeklong stay in Vellore district as part of course work.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Killing the Bharathapuzha

Bharathapuzha is a 209 km long river which originates in the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu and flows into the Arabian Sea. The course of this river is richly intertwined with the history, arts, culture and growth of towns and villages of North Kerala. But the progress that mankind saw in the twentieth century devalued this great river into a sole provider for the need and greed of the people living on its banks and policy makers living far far away from it. Once a perennial river that was a muse to writers, poets, dancers and musicians, today it is a dead river with vast dry stretches which fills up for a few days in the year when the monsoons arrive. When the rains fail, the sandy stretches of Bharathapuzha are a reminder of the desertification that lies in store for Kerala if it continues to ruin its rivers.

11 dams, 4 in Tamil Nadu and 7 in Kerala stand through its course. These projects diverted water from these rivers for the purpose of irrigation. Then came river interlinking treaties between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Then came hydro-electric projects. The river soon started drying up and its huge sandy beds became a rich source for indiscriminate sand mining. The river bed is today encroached indiscriminately for residential purposes. Today with several parts of North Kerala stretching south upto Thrissur district in the clutches of water scarcity, plans to construct hundreds of check dams to conserve water in specific areas of the river have been proposed and dozens of them already in place. However what nobody ever speaks about is the restoration of the river to its original flow which would solve all these problems.

Today agriculture in Kerala is almost non-existent. No one talks about whether these dams were useful for agriculture in the long run. But every month, plans for new constructions on the Bharathapuzha river appear regularly in the media. Today energy has replaced agriculture as the raison d’etre for having new dams. Sample this article, http://www.kerala.gov.in/keralcallsep04/p05-09.pdf which appeared in the September 2004 issue of Kerala Calling magazine as cover story. It has the audacity of pitching environment versus energy needs to win their case for the Pathrakadavu Hydro Electric project, a substitute for the Silent Valley Hydel Project which was abandoned in 1973 after a spirited agitation.

The government entrusted the Environmental Risk Assessment to a little known registered voluntary organization in Trivandrum called Environmental Resources Research Centre staffed by ex-bureaucrats, government scientists and faculty of Kerala University for a princely amount of Rs.22 lakh. The report mentions in passing the loss of 22 acres of forest land and some flora and fauna and even claiming that Pathrakadavu and Silicon Valley are separate entities. Their main object of concern was the road to Pathrakadavu which would open Silent Valley to people and cause environmental degradation, and otherwise giving a green signal to the project! The effect of this project on the dying Bharathapuzha is supposed to be minimal as no reservoir is needed and it is a ‘run of the river’ dam. The report can be accessed here - http://www.infraline.com/power/state/kerala/CEIARepPathrakkadavuProj.pdf

Except for the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History which came out with a detailed rebuttal of this report (http://www.geocities.com/indianliving/silent_valley_1.htm), no media organization has thought it fit to look into the ERRC document that skims over the environmental hazards that the project can cause but goes into great detail over how the project is being built to cause minimal environmental damage. Here is an article in The Hindu on Pathrakadavu and a read of the article's blurb itself shows which way the correspondent’s sympathies go! http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2007/04/30/stories/2007043001730200.htm
Yet another article that inadvertently calls into question the credibility of the ERRC and succeeding Kerala Governments is here: http://www.hindu.com/2007/04/27/stories/2007042711850400.htm
Also damning is the role of the newspaper and the special correspondent, who in this case did not bother to pursue the contents of this report.

Bharathapuzha has also suffered irreparable damage from the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) agreement which Kerala was forced to sign with Tamil Nadu under pressure from the Centre to divert a part of the waters of Aliyar and Palar rivers which are tributaries of Bharathapuzha to Tamil Nadu. What followed was the drying up of the waters of Bharathapuzha and affecting the drinking water needs of people. Here are some interesting articles that appeared in the media on PAP and the national river water interlinking debate that is raging with even leading voices like ex-President Kalam lending it support. Of course, the question of how Kalam is technically qualified to assess river interlinking’s ecological aspect stands. Probably his passion for national integration makes him take up all the wrong causes!
http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/04/11/stories/2004041100060500.htm
http://indiatogether.com/2003/oct/env-nolink.htm
http://www.sandrp.in/drp/july_aug03.pdf

Here are a series of articles, on the fascination with dams over the Bharathapuzha! However not a single article mentions how these already existing check dams have helped solve the drinking water woes.
http://www.hindu.com/2005/01/29/stories/2005012905900500.htm
http://www.hindu.com/2008/01/05/stories/2008010554780500.htm
http://www.rediff.com/money/2007/mar/28dam.htm

The Bharathapuzha Action Plan, which is reported in this article, lists a number of reasons why Bharathapuzha has died and it is surprising that extensive damming doesn’t top the list or even find mention! And the newspaper report does not even bother to raise this question. And the solution suggested here is to increase the number of check dams. Obviously more construction, means more money in kickbacks for these engineers! The possibility of demolishing currently useless dams to restore the normal flow of the river is not even discussed.
http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/04/29/stories/2004042903450500.htm

Excellent articles have appeared in the offbeat media about other issues facing Bharathapuzha like sand mining and the dubious actions of Cola Majors which have set up shop on its banks.
http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/jun/env-sandmine.htm
http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2106/stories/20040326001904100.htm

The media coverage of Bharathapuzha has been regular, constant and often empathetic. However it has failed very often in recent times to bring into play a moral question or check the power of politicians, bureaucrats and local people to tap into the river’s seemingly endless economic possibilities for all kinds of uses ranging from dam construction, irrigation projects, sand mining and most recently drinking water schemes. The difficulty the media today faces is establishing the quite obvious links between politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, contractors and research bodies with solid proof. Sometimes journalists seem to be choosing not to walk the extra mile, to get a hard story. As is obvious from most of the articles I have cited here from The Hindu, the reportage is solely based on facts presented to the media by experts or by government handouts or press conferences. A focus on outcomes of past projects, a fresh look at solutions and highlighting local struggles to save the river, could be the media’s sole chance to help set right the fading course that Bharathapuzha is taking.

P.S: An environmental critique of the media done as part of course work. I chose the Bharathapuzha river as my subject after haggling ceaselessly and I must guiltily admit - rather disinterestedly, over other crucial environment related issues like plastics, cellphones, nuclear energy, fertilizers, etc, etc for my topic. But water, rain, rivers and greenery has some sort of an emotional hold on almost every Keralite and I proceeded with the Bharathapuzha; not without some apprehension on what, if at all anything that I would be able to uncover.

Sunday 4 January 2009

JNURM welcome, but slum residents demand time-bound completion of work

A sad tale of official neglect continues at one of the last remaining slums in Trivandrum city despite being selected for upliftment through the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. Located less than a kilometre away from the East Fort and the Padmanabha Swami Temple, two ancient and still prominent landmarks of Trivandrum City, Karimadom Colony is an 85 year old settlement spread over 10 acres and housing more than 600 families and 3000 inhabitants. The problems that the colony face is entirely due to the apathy of corporation officials and after years of being promised and fooled by government schemes, its residents are not enthused by the JNURM despite the project being initiated by the Central Government.

The project cost put at 16 crores will receive 80% funding from the Centre, 10% from the State Government and 10% by the Corporation. Kudumbasree has been notified as the nodal agency for the project in the State and the task of redeveloping the colony has been handed over to COSTFORD, a non-profit organization founded by architect Laurie Baker and former Kerala Chief Minister, C.Achutha Menon to build affordable housing for the poor. The JNURM scheme was inaugurated by Kerala Chief Minister V.S.Achuthanandan amidst fanfare and considerable media coverage in September. The Hindu carried a detailed report on the COSTFORD project in its Property Plus supplement on June 7th, 2008.

However, the positive implications of this project do not rub off on the residents of this slum and it is not difficult to see why. Ashokan, Karimadom Colony Residents Association secretary says, “We are happy to be sanctioned the JNURM project but to redevelop the area they are first demolishing a row of 22 houses whose residents will have to move out. These people have been asked to live in the community hall while the work goes on. They are okay staying there for a few months but what if the project drags on for 5 years? With what guarantee can these people move out of the huts they already have?” Ashokan has a point. It was the government which constructed the 22 houses for these people in an earlier project and it took 10 years to finish. When handed over, these houses did not even have doors. Many of the girls in the families asked to move out are approaching marriageable age. Ashokan asks what security these families have, as a number of people in the community have a drinking problem.

That the implementation of JNURM is being done through the state government disheartens the residents. Perhaps what is most damning is that colony residents say that no one has explained to them the impressive plans that COSTFORD has for their community, a charge refuted by COSTFORD. Colony residents were scathing in their criticism of the Manakkad ward councillor who hasn’t made a visit to the colony since being elected two years back or agree to meet them. “If our elected representative doesn’t care for us, how can we expect corporation officials to?” asks Musthafa, a colony resident who is actively involved in community affairs. “We didn’t demand this scheme. All we asked was pattayams for the land we live on. Atleast we can get loans then and renovate our houses.” Just last week, a fight ensued when bidders came to auction for the contract to demolish the 22 houses. The corporation had messed up by not alerting the residents in advance of the visit, and the alarmed residents forced the bidders back.

In another part of the colony, stands six blocks of three storey constructions housing 72 families officially, though the numbers are much higher. Two and sometimes three families cramp into the one room tenements. When asked how this is possible, Fathima, 65, says that after marriage, members continue to stay in the family as they have nowhere to go and thus each flat today houses more families than it was meant to. These houses are an entirely different story - a tragedy waiting to happen due to official apathy. Built to last 15 years, it is now 22 years since the residents moved in. Cracks abound on the walls, ceilings, floors and sunshades of every flat and residents say they haven’t known what it means to sleep peacefully as the creaking sounds emanating from the concrete are hard to ignore anymore. Fathima says, “I have lived a full life. If this building collapses and buries me, I will be happy to go. But I pray everyday that this should happen only when my grandchildren and all the children here are at school.” The peril that resides within these buildings should have made them the first target of the JNURM project.



Irregular water supply to houses forcing the women to line up around the clock at the few working public taps in the colony, waterlogging when the sewage pond nearby overflows during rains and a blocked drain that has never been cleared which leaves sewage out in the open to fester causing digestive, respiratory and mosquito-borne diseases are some of the other issues facing the slum. COSTFORD’s plan has solutions to all these problems but the big question remains, of what is on paper translating to action on the ground. However, architects at COSTFORD are confident of starting construction two weeks from now despite the project getting delayed by three months already. The rebuilding will be done in three phases, and they estimate a total time frame of 33 months for the completion of the project. The Central Government will release funds in instalments and COSTFORD is already in receipt of the first instalment. Ajayan, an engineer with COSTFORD says, “We don’t expect time delays or cost overruns, once the construction begins. We are aware of the bad condition of the slum.”

Despite all its problems, Karimadom Colony has something that is sorely missing in several poor and lower middle class neighbourhoods of the city – communal harmony. Residents proudly boast that the slum which has a 50% Hindu, 40% Muslim and 10% Christian population will never fight in the name of religion. However, colony leaders like Ashokan and Musthafa say that the community remains divided on political lines and hence has been unable to put up a united front for their demands. The JNURM project if implemented according to COSTFORD’s vision will be a proud achievement in Trivandrum’s fight against urban poverty. But whether the project will address the residents’ demands for beginning the construction immediately and finishing the construction within a stipulated timeframe remains to be seen. The affable people of Karimadom Colony have none to turn to if this project fails; Trivandrum’s largely middle-class population are unaware of their existence. The JNURM scheme offers the residents one last chance to live a life of dignity that 90% of Kerala takes for granted. Far away from IT campuses and high-rise apartments that characterize the new Trivandrum, a “few” thousand people wait in hope and despair for new roofs over their heads.

P.S - The first time I am reporting from Trivandrum. Was also the first time I entered a tvm slum. Time permitting, I will develop the other snaps I have taken into a photo feature to put up here. When I come home again, I will have to follow-up and see the redevelopment work, if begun.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Trying to Understand Kerala –An Attempt to Explore Trends and Mentalities

Kerala is today a thorn in the eyes of its own people who have managed to extract maximum mileage out of the above-average indices of progress that the state possesses. Despite a Gross Enrollment Ratio of almost 100%, social harmony, low incidence of poverty, and several other favorable indices of progress, the upper and upper middle classes of the state have been for long seething at the lack of opportunities for them in the State and have used the larger platform of India and the developed world as an avenue for their material growth. I can relate to this personally because after a private education in a good school, competence with English and technical education, the state was too small for my ambitions and I left. A quirk of destiny and a change in my aspirations brought me back to the country and some time in the future will bring me back to Kerala too. At some levels I have managed to de-class myself from my middle class interests and am able to look at issues in a more detached manner.

Everybody says the leftist policies of the state have ruined opportunities for its people. But let me ask, aren’t opportunities more tied to bourgeoisie aspirations? The upper-caste Nairs/Menons were the first to leave the state for a share of the bigger pie. The Syrian Christians soon followed. In the Gulf Boom, the middle and lower class of Muslims and Christians and a smaller but significant number of Hindus saw their big opportunity and jumped. Tea shops are a regular feature in Kerala and Malayali tea stalls and small hotels are a very obvious feature of urban India. It is natural for capable people to move towards the centre than stay on the fringes. But it is the really daring who stay in the fringes and fight. Kerala was and is a fringe state and very few capable people stayed back to fight and keep change a constant within the system. We haven’t had the agricultural land or industry to employ all our people. But they were among the first people to became aware of bigger lands and opportunities. In Kerala how much land, how much employment opportunities can be generated? Very few. Infact I am a staunch supporter of Achuthanandan when he says our natural resources should be exploited only in a manner that will help the local populace.

The cynicism which greets new policy initiatives of the CPM is a reflection of the sad state of the “revolutionary party”. Its decisions to go in for SEZs, private-public partnerships, etc are today seen as an unholy alliance that compromised party leaders are undertaking with big businesses. The role of land mafias continue from Smart City to every other City and SEZ planned. Whether it is the sincere wish to create new jobs or to bulge their own pockets that is prodding Pinarayi and co is not difficult to answer. In a recent talk show, poet Sugatha Kumari passionately pleaded with the communist comrades to withdraw from the path of destruction they were undertaking through rampant exploitation of the State’s natural resources and causing environmental degradation. She used Gandhi’s words – “there is enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed”. The CPM leader she was appealing to on the show, dismissed her as yet another alarmist.

Politics – Yes, the CPM is a vastly different organization today from 1957, 1967 or say as late as 1987. The ideological core is almost lost. They have made mistakes. They had to survive. They infiltrated every organization in the state. They incorporated every element of society into their party. This was a lesson they learnt from the 1959 Liberation Struggle. Recently declassified documents in the US show that the CIA actively sponsored it through contributions to the Church who distributed it to the various groups who opposed the Commies. Look at any of the path-breaking campaigns in the State – it all came through the left parties – the demand for statehood of Malayalam speakers, land reforms, education reforms, saving the Silent Valley, Literacy Movement, decentralization, etc. No one can deny that the cultural activities in the state receive a fillip whenever the LDF is in power – the IFFK, the recently concluded Book Festival, the ongoing international theatre festival, the regular talks by eminent intellectuals in the state, etc, etc. The immense support VS won during his tenure as opposition leader was because he was in tune with the pulse of the ordinary man. Their demoralization with his inaction and failures will cost the party dearly. The tied hands of VS are also an indication of the political winds blowing over the CPM as its leaders cosy upto private capital. Sadly for him he is a revolutionary whose good intentions worked well when he stood outside the system but found that his tough talk didn’t find resonance with the government machinery. If Shornur is an indication of VS’s support on the ground or alternately a rejection of CPM's neo-liberal agenda/misrule, the CPM is in for a split sooner or later. A split in leftist votes will help the UDF come back to power by a huge margin. As for the Congress even today it has a few leaders I still admire, but a few good men with no ideological or visionary moorings other than going with the tide, can change very few things for us.

Schools – Kerala had great government schools until 30 or 40 years back. The middle class enrolled their students in the schools and their children came up this ladder. Once the poor also started sending their children to these schools, the middle class in Kerala for whom social status is a primer, started withdrawing their wards from these schools and sending them to fancier private schools. No prizes for guessing what type of schools politicians, bureaucrats and salaried class preferred to send their children to. Since this is the class which frames policies what followed was a deliberate disregard for the needs of public education and it has languished for long in terms of facilities, curriculum and teacher training that was needed to modernize these schools and keep it on par with private education. Never mind. The poor in Kerala or for that matter in several parts of India today exhibit the same aspirations as their richer counterparts and started sending their wards to private schools(of course these schools are also below average) despite it costing more and doubts of affordability. And are these private schools providing anything that the government schools can’t if they are put an equal footing? I doubt it. So we still manage to send up to college a huge proportion of our children than the rest of the country. Well, don’t talk about quality here! That’s an entirely different debate.

Colleges – There used to be a good number of colleges across the State from where stalwarts of the State’s political, art and literary movement have sprung up. Studying at Delhi and Chennai I have doubts on the quality of education that some of the fancy colleges/universities in Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi for that matter have given their alumni. Other than a natural confidence in social skills and proficiency in English which upper and middle class youth in big cities are endowed with as a birthright I really see no big difference in academic temperament with college goers in Kerala. Of course, for the last 20 years we have systemically damaged the arts and pure sciences colleges and universities in Kerala for a preference for engineering, medical and nursing colleges where all the jobs and money are. And why is the upper/middle class complaining? I see most of their kids studying in the best colleges in the country whether they have/havenot the aptitude for it. In a recent lecture I attended, I was surprised to hear that some of the young talents in Indian art today came from the Govt Fine Arts College in TVM and Calicut. Whenever I passed the "antiquated" tvm college, I used to wonder if they had a life, but how wrong I was!

Health – Kerala developed a good primary health facility on the backing of expansive state support and we saw life expectancy rise and diseases fall. Today Kerala is an anomaly in India that we see more lifestyle diseases than communicable diseases. The spurt in water-borne diseases we saw last year was a result of the huge amount of rainfall we saw last year and the resultant water-logging, or the health and sanitation system improved this year. But today primary health care centres have stagnated and private hospitals are the in-thing in Kerala. It has been proven that health related expenses are a crucial component of rural/poor indebtedness. Without the state government pushing its weight in the health sector I doubt if this scenario can change. In the developing world can it be a coincidence that two states with most state involvelment in health have matching indices with the developed world – Cuba and Kerala?

Industrialization – Most of our attempts at industrialization have failed. The obvious blame is on senseless trade unionism. Which is right to an extent. But look at industrialization in the context of our fragile ecosystem. EMS went out of his way to invite Birla and they set up the Mavoor Rayons. Some 30 years later the people shut it down because they polluted the Chaliyar river and wreaked havoc with diseases. Another 20 years later Coke was allowed to set up a bottling plant in Plachimada and they drained the ground water system and polluted it too. Travancore Titanium polluted the sea off the Kollam coast. My point is that we can only allow industrialization which doesn’t affect our environment or people in harmful ways. And Kerala is not Jharkand. Exploitation will not be taken for granted. People will resist. People will fight. Corporates will fish only tepidly in our waters, communism or no communism. In a state with small area and huge population density, small scale industries are the way to go, but in this age of globalization I doubt small businesses can fight big corporate giants or see cycles of boom and recession coming and plan accordingly.

Agriculture – Many blame the land reforms as sounding the death knell of agriculture in the state. They conveniently overlook how it destroyed the feudal structure and brought in equity. As farmers got their own land to till, there was a shortfall in labour and with it wage rise. Whenever prices rose, it did not benefit the farmer. Kerala also saw the affluence that cash crops gave to its proponents and paddy cultivation further suffered. But post-91 neo-lib reforms and the close linkage between cash crops and the global economy has only added to the farmers plight as they got caught in a consumption and debt trap. In Kerala the sight of agricultural land being left fallow to be turned later to residential plots or to cash crops is a common sight. It is already late but hopefully we can still turn the tide. This year the government has come out with several schemes for agriculture. Hope they bear fruit. The Kuttanad disaster and the crop loss is I believe a play of rural mindsets which fear mechanization will retrench the old feudal order and benefit the big farmer. Agriculture will continue to suffer because for the last several decades, the Malayali has found that education and its resultant fruits are a better investment than agriculture and children of farming households rarely follow the trade of their parents. I heard at a talk once that Kerala had a successful collecting farming experiment after the Land Reforms which was junked in the 80’s. Unlike Soviet Russia, collective farming cannot be enforced in Kerala. Socialism by force is a failed experiment, will Kerala’s farmers re-think how a collective can help them out?

Transportation – The argument for an express highway on the basis of the trans-shipment terminal coming up is fine. But people have two questions. Why can’t the existing national highways just be upgraded? How many trees and houses will have to be felled for this project? Mohanlal wrote in a weekly column of his dream to travel from Trivandrum to Kasargod in 5 hours. For a businessman like him time and money is most important, not the price others have to pay to help him realize his dream. Most of Kerala travels in buses and trains, not in cars. Why are more buses and trains not coming? It is a heart-rending sight to see women, children and elders standing on long-distance bus and train journeys. Privatization of mass transport has been a fair success. State involvement strengthening and simultaneously allowing the entry of private players will keep Kerala insulated from the next oil crisis and the people prepped up for junking private transport when the time comes. With excellent connectivity and high population density across the state, Kerala is a dream for mass transportation when the energy crisis hits.

Media – One thing Kerala can be proud of is the rich tradition of journalism that the State is host to. The two main Malayalam newspapers, Mathrubhumi and Manorama or the several other smaller newspapers and magazines and the half a dozen odd malayalam news channels compare far better than their regional counterparts or even the national big guns. The quality of reporting which is issue-based and done both at the micro- and macro levels is unmatched across the rest of the country. With meagre advertisement revenues, it continues to surprise me how such quality is maintained. It will come as no surprise that barring the Manorama, most journalists in the State maintain a leftist perspective which could be the reason for the activism, vigour and ceaseless questioning that the media exhibits here. If you are wondering why the newspaper culture hasn’t transformed to movements on the ground, look no further than the simple fact that governments alternate here every five years, that no legislator can afford to ignore his constituency, that every issue finds suffiecient debate in the media and from multiple perspectives. And if a new movement is to rise in Kerala I have no doubts that it will be with the significant backing and intellectual support of the media.

Environment – All over Kerala there are complaints of depleting water supply, power cuts, etc. Whatever we have now is the maximum that can be tapped. Inter-state agreements have diverted a lot of water that was due to us. Hydel projects cannot be constructed without further damaging rivers and forests and livelihoods. Tourism is well and good but creating an economy centred just around tourism is at crossroads with the ecological balance that threatens livelihoods of people.The energy requirement we see today is forcing the government to plunder the Silent Valley again to harness hydel. The Bharathapuzha river is dead, all our rivers are in danger. Most new constructions today are tailored for the rich and the tourist. Kerala needs to pursue goals of sustainable development and not go for the mad rush to promote development. Being close to the equator our lands are at greater risk to climate change than any other. Our ordinary people have stalled the destruction of the Silent Valley, threw Coke out of Plachimada, now are attempting to save Pathrakadavu. But a vast number have also brimmed with anger at these localized attempts to thwart development!

Labour – Once educated a person would prefer a white collar job; Kerala is no stranger to that. We used to have a higher unemployment rates than the rest of India because of the vast number of educated youth it produced. This also created a labour shortfall in the agriculture, construction and other sectors for both skilled and unskilled manual labour. Rich or poor, the malayali went outside Kerala looking for jobs. After 1991 the problem of urban unemployment has been addressed to an extent. Trade Unions are an expression of the interests of different categories of labour that our political parties created to further their political struggles. While organizing labour is a necessity especially in a country like India where 92% of the workforce is in the unorganized sector, the tragedy of Kerala is that the leading parties in the State especially the CPM co-opted the labour movement in a big way and thus has its hands tied while trying to bring about bureaucratic reforms. It is a rare sight to see the state and the labour unions ranged on the same side. Perhaps, a decoupling of trade unions from political parties will help the people of the state in a big way and pave the way for better governance. Migrant labour has stepped into the labour vacuum in Kerala and deservedly earns a better livelihood than they could afford in their home state. The current recession seems to have choked jobs in the service sector but hopefully the tens of thousands of fresh graduates will find work as soon as the economy is back on its knees.

Student Politics – I was once an opponent of campus politics. The SFI could not sell their ideology to me, then. I was not ready to listen either. What appealed to me from them was the fight they put up against the dominant ABVP in our college. In this age of globalization when students are increasingly getting depoliticized, increasingly getting hooked to market products and the consumption culture, increasingly getting sold the neo-liberal vision, I believe that campus politics will make a difference. Of course every young person in Kerala has an opinion on the Congress or BJP or CPM, on terrorism, on politics – but it is one of everything is screwed up and politicians are scoundrels. They can’t empathize with sections of the society they don’t belong to. Political thought and organization within campuses gives them a platform or an opening into the world of politics before they get sucked into the rigors of adult life. Of course like every other state, Kerala has also got a culture of violence in politics which has been effectively used to silence the youth from even making an effort to enter this arena. But what we are seeing sadly is the blame being put on campus politics for violence when the question that really should be asked is whether we really had a democratic culture to begin with? Bhagat Singh was 23, and what most of you can’t digest or is not told, is that he was a communist, when he was executed. I rest my case.

P.S - I am throwing open the comments for this post. I have been thinking of written this essay for long but got the inspiration only today. Will have to keep editing and refining this piece as I go along. I know none of you will bother to read a leftist’s blog. But I was one of you earlier. I hope I still have a voice that speaks to you, when I write. If you empathize with me, I will engage you. Otherwise I have no time to waste in arguments. I know there will be middle class angst thrown at me. It is natural. I don’t claim that my analysis is entirely correct. I know another perception will see all what I wrote as blatant stupidity. When you and I say we are patriots, I ask what have we given up for the country. It is the poor of this country who have given up their lands and livelihoods, knowingly or unknowingly for the industrial and economic development this country has seen. Accept it, we the middle class are plain selfish. We are forever looking to protect and further our interests, even at the expense of others. Gandhiji would not have been successful if he had not engaged the masses in his fight. The 91 Reforms gave us well-paying jobs and new lifestyles but there is another angle to the neo-liberal agenda that was unveiled which has screwed up the poor in this country. Every revolution began at the fringes of human existence, gathered force, coopted or consumed the middle class and succeeded or failed depending on how you see its implications. Kerala was lucky; it saw a non-violent social change through the communist movement, but other parts of India need not see the same. As resources get squeezed, and we continue to exploit the earth, the poor will unite; sharing will replace profit motive and socialism will ultimately win over capitalism. But my fear is that it will be a violent change. My intention was not to paint a rosy picture, but an attempt to try to understand the base sensitivities of the people through the changes our society has seen.

Well, this is me at this point in life. I am glad to be able to see things in this new light and at same time not disregarding what I believed earlier. There are solutions to all our problems. Our middle class don’t-get-my-hands-dirty attitude has to change first – we will have to engage with the state and the people at considerable sacrifice to our material prospects. Those who call for complete overhaul or even a change by being within the system are actually calling for a mini-revolution. A revolution doesn’t happen by writing blogs where the audience is your own class of people. The ordinary people of Kerala love it as it is – despite everything they feel they have a voice. It is their voice you are hearing when the LDF rules. It is their fathers and sons who form the cadres of the CPI(M), SFI, DYFI and CITU. They form about 40% of the state. They work in the government offices, run the political parties, student organizations and unorganized sectors. For them money didn’t come as a birthright. They have had to fight every bit of the way to get where they are. For us, they will indulge in corruption, stall work, hate the upper middle class and yet kow-tow with unscrupulous businessmen, etc because that is the way they see to come up in life. To appeal to them they need to be convinced that people who call for change are not working towards class or individual interest but for the good of all. The readers of this and the countless other blogs on Kerala are IT professionals, Executives, Engineering students, expatriates, etc, etc – we make no difference to the Kerala that is. The Kerala that travels on buses and trains to work, the Kerala that lives in lodges and budget hotels while travelling which are becoming fewer and not in resorts, the Kerala that shops with the small vendors and not in supermarkets does not read blogs – selling them a new vision also involves engaging with the politics and the system of the day. The changes in the neo-liberal pattern we are seeing today are a mimicking of the changes happening in other states. Whether it will lead to a better Kerala is the big question.