Kerala’s influential Catholics warn the Left government of violent struggle if their powers to run professional colleges come under review

KA Shaji

The spectre of the Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle), which culminated in the dismissal of EMS Namboodiripad’s first Communist government in Kerala in 1959, is back to haunt the VS Achuthanandan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. The Catholic Church, which stage-managed the show almost 50 years ago with the Nair Service Society, is now busy studying the mood of the faithful to re-enact its second episode.

“Kerala has turned into the devil’s own country under Marxist rule,” exhorted Thrissur Syro-Malabar Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhathu. “We would not allow the atheists to control our educational institutions… The memories of the liberation struggle of 1959 are still fresh in our memories. And we will resort to that if the government continues its anti-minority policies,” the archbishop declared in a meeting of the employees of educational institutions run by the archdiocese.

“People still remember the liberation struggle of 1959 by which the Christians helped overthrow the world’s first democratically elected Communist regime. The struggle against the Communists (who assumed power in 1957) began in 1958 and ended with the government’s dismissal in 1959. The Achuthanandan government would suffer the same fate if it continues to interfere with the educational rights of the minorities,” the archbishop told Tehelka.
“The Supreme Court has annulled most anti-minority clauses of the controversial legislation which was brought to regulate the self-financing professional colleges. That law is unconstitutional. Now, the government is resorting to coercive tactics to impose their wish on minority institutions. We would not allow that,” the archbishop added.

The archbishop is not sitting idle after making the statement. He has forced almost all bishops in Kerala to issue pastoral letters to the faithful, urging them to go to any extent to overthrow the government. The Indian Union Muslim League treasurer and former Industries Minister PK Kunhalikutty was the first politician who came out in the archbishop’s support. Recently, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) chief Ramesh Chennithala also called on the archbishop to express the party’s solidarity. But apart from the Left leaders, the lone Congress voice that differed from the party’s stance was that of Defence Minister AK Antony who dismissed the archbishop’s call saying the political scenario in the state had changed and that it is impossible to recreate 1959 now. The reason for this comment is very personal: When he was chief minister, Antony gave no-objection certificates to all minority professional institutions on the basis of a verbal assurance that they will give 50 percent seats to the government for admitting general category students. Later, the managements backtracked saying there was no written agreement between them and the state to go for 50:50 seat sharing. Left in the lurch, Antony made his most controversial statement: “I have been cheated by the minority managements. Minorities, as a united pressure group, are bargaining for more sops and concessions. They are least bothered about social commitments… It’s unfortunate.”

Now, the immediate provocation was the LDF government’s move to seek 50 percent seats for general category students in the professional colleges run by minorities; a folly committed by Antony earlier. Significantly, many professional institutions run by Muslims and other Christian factions have already accepted the government’s admission formula. Further, the government’s plan to bring all schools under the supervision of local bodies also irked them.

Soon after the archbishop’s exhortation, most bishops came forward to emulate him though he is not the head of the Syro-Malabar Church. The head is Major Archbishop Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil, a non-political leader who oversees the Eranakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. But Archbishop Thazhathu is spearheading the current agitation. According to political observers, the Thrissur archdiocese had been the nerve-centre of the first liberation struggle which was funded allegedly by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and therefore, the archbishop’s threat assumes significance. The archbishop is also organising ground-level meetings of the faithful to form a cadre-outfit to protect church institutions. According to Cardinal Vithayathil, it was “the folly” of the then EMS government that triggered the Vimochana Samaram. He hoped the current government would “not create a similar situation” that would compel the church to take “emergency action.”

Initially, other Catholic denominations like the Latin and the Syro-Malankara were less articulate in attacking the government. Even a Latin Catholic laity association publicly decried the pastoral letter issued by Archbishop Thazhathu. Sensing danger and division among the Catholic community, the Latin Major Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram, Susaipackiam, immediately issued a strong letter against the government. In line with that, Syro-Malankara Major Archbishop Baselius Clemmis Catholicose also deplored the government’s move in a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram. Linked to this is the decision of the Kerala University syndicate (dominated by the Leftists) to de-affiliate three engineering colleges run by these Catholic communities.

The main worry of the Catholic churches is that the LDF government is trying to impose its decisions through “skewed” tactics. “The LDF continues to violate the Christians’ constitutional right, as a minority, to establish and manage educational institutions. The government also runs politically motivated campaigns against church leaders and plans to revise Kerala’s education policy in a bid to eliminate ‘faith in God’,” alleged Archbishop Susaipackiam.

“The education department is planning to hand over our schools which receive government grant to panchayats and municipalities. The move will give more teeth to the local bodies in teacher appointments and administration,” said the archbishop.

Changanacherry Archbishop Mar Joseph Perumthottam, in his letter, exhorted all students and teachers to cooperate in the protest against politicising educational institutions and promoting atheism in schools. The archbishop alleged that the quality of education in Kerala was deplorable as none of the institutions figured in the best 40 in the country. “If you want to move ahead, more freedom is needed,” he added.

Kerala Education Minister MA Baby says the bishops’ worries are baseless. “There is no truth in the allegation that the government is trying not only to control appointments and admissions in the church-managed schools but also to propagate its ideology through curriculum reforms. In fact, the government wanted to bring in more transparency by making these schools answerable to local self-governments. Such an action would not curtail any right of the minorities,” said Baby.

As per the latest statistics, Christians form just 19 percent of Kerala’s 3.18 crore population. Irrespective of their numerical strength, they are economically very strong and politically decisive in many parts. Three Catholic denominations, two Syrian Orthodox factions and one Marthoma church make up the majority. But the idea of a second liberation struggle fails to enthuse even the hardcore among the faithful. Many are of the opinion that the success of any such anti-democratic struggle would definitely defeat the state’s efforts to curb the commercialisation of professional education. “The bishops always demand a free hand on appointments and admission. They have no faith in transparency or accountability to public. Such a moneymaking exercise is certainly against the teachings of Christ,” said Joseph Pulikkunnel, a Catholic reformer in Kerala. Eighty-seven-year-old Kulangara Chacko Antony, who had been part of the Vimochana Samaram in 1959, said the churches today do not wield the clout they did in the mid-50s.

But the rethinking among the faithful is not disturbing the church leaders. “If any action is taken against the Christian establishments, there would be a strong reaction. No minister will then enter Thrissur district,” warned Archbishop Thazhathu.

The 1959 struggle had been a strange cocktail of social forces. The bishops, irked by the radical educational reforms of Kerala’s first Education Minister Professor Joseph Mundassery, had successfully roped in other caste forces like the Muslim League and the Nair Service Society in the struggle against the EMS government. But now, the equations have changed. The powerful Ezhava community leader, Vellapally Natesan, is not supporting the church’s initiative and is toeing an anti-minority line: “This is not 1959. We will not allow Christians to cash in on our sentiments,” he said.

The CPM, however, is viewing the threat from the churches seriously. At least for the time being, the rival camps in the party have buried their hatchet to address the issue. After several months, Achuthanandan and CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan spoke in the same language to placate the bishops.



For five years, IIM Kozhikode has set an example for dalit and adivasi empowerment.


ALL THOSE who oppose caste-based reservations on the grounds of a dilution of merit might find themselves forced to a rethink by the Centre of Excellence at the Indian Institute of Management,
Kozhikode. A joint venture of the IIMK and the Kerala government’s SC/ST department, the Centre’s achievements have made it a model for other states and centres of higher education.

After his BA, K. Dilraj, attained the life ambition of most young men from his tribe: a job as a lower division clerk under the ST quota. Five years later, Dilraj, now in his late 20s, is ICICI-Lombard’s Regional Manager in Chennai, and his monthly earnings are about to cross Rs 1 lakh. Dilraj’s is not an isolated case, however. For five years now, the Centre’s five-month Certificate Course for Professional Development (CCPD) has been selecting disadvantaged Dalit and Adivasi youngsters from across Kerala, and providing them the training to make up for their cramping lack of exposure and resources. They are then turned out to take on the world, reservation or no reservation.

According to programme director DD Namboodiri, the CCPD has already supported, groomed and empowered 217 SC and ST youngsters, and 40 more are waiting in the wings. At least 35 percent of the CCPD’S alumni are already with top MNCs,national corporates and other organisations, while some even run their own companies. Thirty-seven percent were inspired to return for higher studies. The transformation, for many, has been amazing. Dilraj, who was among the first batch in 2002, says: “It changed everything — my personality, exposure, skills, outlook. My confidence really went up, and I had a go at the CAT. I made it, and here I am.” VM Sreejith, who runs a bio-informatics company, says the Centre re-moulded him. “I was always withdrawn — I had no self-confidence and I could not even meet people without stammering. My ambitions were no different from those of anyone else from my background.

But the Centre of Excellence transformed me.” Other alumni include people like MM Risha — daughter of a Dalit labourer, motivated to pursue higher studies after the programme and now with an MNC in Hyderabad — and Sarita Velayudhan, a young Dalit woman from a modest Kerala home, now an executive with a US-based firm in Kochi.

SC and ST communities are 10 percent of Kerala’s population, but their numbers in private corporations are negligible, obviously because they lack soft skills and exposure,” Namboodiri says.

``We focus mainly on communication, IT skills, and personality and entrepreneurship development, but touches upon almost every other aspect the disadvantaged SC/ST student may have missed out on.”

The entry criterion is graduation, but most alumni have higher qualifications. Apart from the IIM-K faculty, guest professors from places such as France, the US and Indonesia also take classes here. Each week, the faculty ensures that students from the Centre interact closely with the IIM-K’s MBA students, to bring down mental barriers and boost confidence.

The Centre is to become an autonomous institution next year, with support from IIM-K, the National Institute of Advanced Studies and the Tata Institute of Social Science. It will then be called the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation, and will focus on research, training, and advocacy for marginalised communities.

Most IIMs have three-week preparatory classes for disadvantaged students. But what is really more important is removing the barriers to their entry and giving them the competitive edge. That is what the Centre of Excellence is proving now.



K A Shaji /Alapuzha and Kottayam

Is the much trumpeted Kerala health model deteriorating? Given the nature of epidemics wreaking havoc in the erstwhile Travancore-Kochi region, it seems so. This year itself, till July 16, as many as 193 persons died due to the outbreak of various kinds of viral fevers including Chikungunya in the state. Though the Union health ministry and a number of research agencies continue to swear that Chikungunya is not a deadly disease, doctors working in the affected areas have nothing else to blame for. With the surfacing of a few Dengue fever cases from the same region, there are enough indications that the state is sliding into a public health quagmire.

As many as 8.75 lakh people suffered viral infections since May this year and about 8,011 among them are still undergoing treatment at different hospitals. So far, 157 cases of Chikungunya have been identified. A state which had been boasting of its high level of vaccination and its preparedness to fight any epidemic is rattled by these developments. Moreover, the death of 38 newborns at the Sree Avittom Thirunal (SAT) Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram due to in-house infection poses serious questions on the state’s so-called achievements in the public health sector.

Economically, the viral outbreak was a severe blow to the state. Since many of its staff are on medical leave, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation is cancelling its services in many south-central districts, pushing the corporation into a huge debt-trap. Further, latest reports suggest that the Malayalam film industry is also badly hit by it: about 40 actors including superstar Mohanlal, a three-time National Award winner, and top actress Meera Jasmine are suffering from the disease. “The situation is alarming. But we are trying our best to bring it under control,” said Kerala Health Minister PK Sreemati.

Along with the medical teams of the defence services, many socio-political organisations are also involved in relief operations. However, the tussle between the 20,000-member strong Indian Medical Association (IMA) state unit and the health minister has turned out as a major embarrassment to the government. When former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy came out in the open saying the ima had not been invited to join the relief work, the minister replied by distributing copies of her letter to the ima office-bearers seeking their help.

The spread of epidemics has already turned into an annual affair in low-lying, coastal regions of Alappuzha, where the water contamination is very high. Along the backwaters, mosquitoes are rampant and there is no effective mechanism to control it. A few health experts are also highlighting the breeding of mosquitoes in rubber plantations in hilly areas where primitive forms of rubber processing is prevalent. “The Aedes mosquito that breeds in stagnant water can carry Chikungunya and Dengue viruses. To check the menace, keep the surroundings very clean,” said Dr K. Madhavan Kutty, former principal, Kozhikode Medical College.

The decline of the Kerala health model has deep-rooted causes. Says Dr CR Soman who heads the Health Action by People: “It is a warning to other parts of the world which follow the Kerala model. A serious discussion at the international level is required on what’s happening in Kerala.” Prominent among them is the gradual withdrawal of the government from the public health sector though the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front win alternate terms. The third National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in March 2007 shows that Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in urban Kerala has increased to 18 per 1,000. It was 16 in the second survey (1998-99). The percentage of children, aged between 12 and 23 months, who have received all recommended vaccines have declined to 75 percent from the previous 80 percent. The percentage of children under three years who are underweight has gone up from 27 to 29 percent.

The state had claimed the eradication of diseases like Malaria. Not only have they made a comeback, but also hitherto unheard of diseases like Japan Encephalitis have arrived in the state. For decades, Kerala has had a unique place in any health index table. “Good health at low cost” was the motto of Kerala as Dr B. Ekbal, national convener, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, puts it.

The movement began half a century ago when the health situation was abysmal. During 1957-58, Kerala’s expenditure on health was 8.48 percent of total revenue expenditure when the average was 4.36 percent across the country. The trend continued even in the 80s despite the fact that the state underwent a severe financial crisis. By the middle of that decade, each village had a primary health centre and there was a chain of government hospitals at the taluk and district levels. Further, a rise in the literacy level, especially among the women, also helped achieve better health standards.

The expenditure on health was 9.61 percent in 1960-61. It came down to 7.53 in 90-91 and 5.67 in 2001. According to the Economic Review 2006, it’s 6.3 percent in 2005-06 whereas the World Health Organisation recommends 13 to 15 percent as desirable. Pertinently, the population in Kerala was 2.91 crore in 1991 and it reached 3.18 crore in 2001: an increase that demands higher health sector allocation.

However, the chain of public health institutions built earlier exists even today but is in ruin. Most hospital buildings are near collapsing; the premises are cluttered with foliage and waste material. The wards are over flowing with patients and x ray machines and laboratories do not function. The situation in pharmacies is worse. The congested and under-staffed hospitals are the direct results of the political shortsightedness and administrative apathy.

Sums up Dr Soman: “It is a matter of shame. Kerala is fast becoming an urban state but we still have mosquito-borne epidemics. The Army health teams are doing what the local panchayats are supposed to do. Had they performed on time, there would have been no Chikungunya outbreak.”



Palora Matha was an illiterate poor woman who belonged to Chombal village in Kozhikode district of north Kerala. She was unaware of the importance of a newspaper in the growth of a Communist Party. But Matha donated a calf, her only valuable possession, to the legendary Marxist EMS Namboodiripad to start the Communist Party’s mouthpiece Desabhimani in the early 1940s.

Desabhimani had humble beginnings and it was the soul of EMS for decades. It may be a matter of paradox that the very day the CPM state committee decided to expel Desabhimani deputy general manager K. Venugopal from the party and the newspaper for accepting a bribe of Rs 1 crore from a private financial firm, the party state chief Pinarayi Vijayan was laying the foundation stone for a multi-storeyed headquarters for the newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram. The newspaper, which owns five independent printing centres, has already a full- fledged office at the heart of the state capital. The newspaper sources were tightlipped over the price of the prime land at Aristo Junction and the estimated cost of the new building. Stories doing the rounds in the party corridors say that the new headquarters’ estimate is over Rs 10 crore. Party sources also revealed that Vijayan is visualising a tower quite similar to Express towers in Mumbai.

A protégé of Vijayan, Venugopal had accepted the bribe from a businessman, promising help in hushing up a financial scam which involved crores of public money. The businessman, PV Chacko, was hauled up on charges of cheating and violating the Prize Chits & Money Circulation Scheme (Banning), Act 1978. Around 120 bank accounts of his company had been attached. Sources said Venugopal had agreed to return the money but the party secretariat asked the Desabhimani party unit to investigate the matter. The unit, headed by chief editor VV Dakshinamurthy, ordered his expulsion allegedly after he owned up to the charges.
Following the allegation, the party leadership had reportedly approached Chacko and returned the money. As a result, Chacko convened a press meet and declared that neither had he given money to any CPM leader nor to anybody in Desabhimani. With Chacko withdrawing the allegations, Venugopal and his bosses had nothing to fear!
However, within a week after Venugopal’s expulsion, Kerala’s second largest daily Mathrubhumi published some documents revealing Desabhimani’s acceptance of Rs 2 crore from Coimbatore-based lottery king Santiago Martin, who was accused of money laundering through lotteries. The revelation has put the CPM in a tight spot. The beleaguered party, finally, decided to return the money to Martin who is evading arrest in Tamil Nadu. Many say he is hiding in Singapore.
Party insiders suspect that it was Venugopal who had handed over the crucial documents to rival newspapers to blackmail his party bosses. By doing so, he clearly exposed the corrupt elements in the party. Venugopal hails from a traditional Communist family in Kannur and is the son of Marxist stalwart AK Gopalan’s elder brother. He reportedly possesses documentary evidence on a number of shadowy dealings of senior leaders, owing allegiance to Vijayan. Even though Desabhimani general manager EP Jayarajan repeatedly claims that the money from Martin was investment in bonds and advance for advertisements, it has now become clear that the money was Martin’s contribution to the construction of the new tower. Notably, CPM’s television channel Kairali is also erecting a multi-crore state-of-the-art building at a prime plot near the state Assembly in Thiruvananthapuram.
Now, Vijayan is spitting venom at Mathrubhumi daily for exposing the party. “Mathrubhumi has one Gopalakrishnan (its editor). He thinks if he writes something, the party will crumble down. It’s a yellow newspaper,” Vijayan said in a public meeting. Incidentally, Mathrubhumi managing director MP Veerendra Kumar is a Left Front Lok Sabha member from Kozhikode and his son MV Sreyams Kumar is an ldf mla in Kerala. In a bid to rein in Mathrubhumi, Desabhimani had published reports on Veerendra Kumar’s alleged land encroachments in Wayanad district in north Kerala. Ostensibly, Kumar’s family has huge land holdings and plantations in the district and his late father Padma Prabha Gowder was known as the architect of modern Wayanad. “What is now happening is an attempt to intimidate the newspaper. It’s highly objectionable,” said veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar.
It’s not for the first time Kerala CPM is receiving tainted money. During the 1996-2001 EK Nayanar regime, some of its leaders had accepted money from country liquor baron Manichan. Nayanar’s political secretary P. Sasi was under the shadow. Another strong Vijayan loyalist, Sasi is currently the CPM Kannur district secretary.

Later, the party expelled the then Thiruvananthapuram district secretary M. Sathyaneshan on that issue. However, there was no explanation from the party that Manichan had a stake in Kairali.

Recently, a vigilance team chargesheeted Kerala Police Inspector General Tomin J. Thachankary for amassing assets worth Rs 95 lakh, disproportionate to his known source of income. The alleged middleman in purchasing electronic equipment for Kairali from Singapore, Thachankary is the right-hand man of many CPM leaders. He runs a CD manufacturing unit in Kochi and it was in the eye of a storm when dgp Raman Srivastava ordered the removal of Inspector General Rishiraj Singh from the post of anti-piracy cell chief to avert a police raid there. Later, EP Jayarajan, at a public function, called Singh a “mad officer who destroyed the CD market for helping CD manufacturers like Moserbaer”. Though he has several godfathers, the state government suspended him on July 10.


Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan tells KA SHAJI that the government’s anti-encroachment drive in Munnar would not fizzle out and that the law will also apply on the Tatas

Why are you turning against Tata? Will it affect Kerala’s image as an industry friendly state?

Who said I am against industry and against Tata? They can continue their activities in a legal manner here. Our objection is only related to their encroachment on government land. Kerala is the first state in India that launched radical land reforms. We have to continue it. Instead of raising obstacles, Tata must cooperate with the government by returning excess land in its possession. We are now taking action as they are not ready to respond positively. There would not be a separate law for Tata and another law for the rest of the world. My stand is clear and transparent.

Then why this controversy regarding your taking over of ‘Tata land’?

There is a concerted attempt on the part of vested interests to torpedo my government’s Munnar mission. We have taken action against big sharks including Tata after proper discussions in the cabinet and the Left Democratic Front (LDF). We are one in the mission. But Tata is prompting vested interests to wreck the unity in Left movement in favour of the Munnar mission. They would not succeed. My colleagues said nothing contradictory. The Opposition was misinterpreting what they said. Our mission in Munnar including taking over of excess land from Tata would continue.

Are you optimistic about success in Munnar?

Yes. I am optimistic. We will bring all encroachers including Tata Tea to book. There will be no special favour to any one. All the encroached land would be taken back and vested with the government. Then the landless poor would get their share from it; priority would be given to landless Adivasis and Dalits.

What is the level of encroachment?

Munnar comprises 1,37,000 acres of land. Of it, only 57,000 acres were earmarked for Tata to cultivate tea, bring up trees for firewood and construct cottages for their workers. Another 20,000 acres were earmarked for the Iravikulam National Park. What happened to the rest of the land? Tata must explain. Why are they opposing survey of land in Munnar? They are a worried lot as my government started acting against them. So far, no government had acted against Tata.

Will the action against Tata turn a challenge to your government?

Never. The Opposition is trying to create a smokescreen. My party and the Left Democratic Front are unanimous against any kind of encroachment. The central leadership of my party has complimented the government for its success in Munnar and for the Smart City deal.


Kerala Tea Party

K A Shaji and Suresh Varghese
KERALA CHIEF Minister VS Achuthanandan is a rather lonely man in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) these days after taking on one of India’s biggest corporate houses.

The veteran CPM leader’s decision to reclaim government land in Munnar controlled by Tata Tea of the Tata Group, which enjoys support across the political spectrum and especially among the CPM’s West Bengal lobby, was met with strong rebuttal from Tata and from within his own cabinet. Forest and Revenue ministers Benoy Viswam and KP Rajendran, both from LDF constituent CPI, stated Tata Tea had not encroached upon the reclaimed 1,280 acres and that it was vested with the state forest department since 1971.

The CM braved a heavy downpour to reach Munnar and led the task force to reclaim the land in question. To the astonishment of those present, Achuthanandan personally replaced the “Gundumalai Estate, Tata Tea” billboard with a state government hoarding. He also warned Tata against placing hurdles on his Mission Munnar. “If the Tatas go to court or try some other means to stall the recovery of land, we will cancel the title deed and take back all the leased land given to them. Let this be a warning,” the CM said, referring to a recent Kerala High Court stay on recovery of excess land from the company. The reactions were swift. A Tata Tea advisor threatened legal action. “It’s a poor propaganda stunt. The land the CM reclaimed is nothing but forest land with no plantation at all. We have nothing to do with it,” said T. Damu, advisor to the Tata group. Munnar Task Force special officer K. Suresh Kumar maintained the land was under Tata control. “Whether it was forest department’s land or not was immaterial. Our findings indicate that this land was in the company’s control. Why else did they put up their board?” he asked.

Most CPM central leaders have nothing to say about Achuthanandan’s Munnar operation. When TEHELKA asked CPM central secretariat member Nilotpal Basu about the incident, he said, “I will not comment on Kerala affairs. You must ask any Kerala leader.” Understandably, for many pro-reformist Bengal leaders, Achuthanandan has turned out to be an ideological liability. The CPM, which is pro-Tata and investment friendly in Bengal, is finding it hard to explain the differences in industrial policies of the two Left-ruled states. With the CM’S popularity on the rise, it would be difficult for the CPM to underplay himKK Ragesh, CPM student wing Students Federation of India’s national president, said, “There is no dichotomy in their (Achuthanandan and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) policies.” Ragesh, who belongs to the CPM’s all-powerful Kannur district committee and believed to be close to party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, shed more light on the issue. “Irrespective of Tata or any other group, in Bengal the CPM is committed to carry forward the state’s industrialisation plans. In Kerala too, the LDF government is investment friendly. The best example is the Smart City IT project: the LDF signed it with a Left stamp. As far as investment is concerned, the CPM has only one approach: we welcome it, if it’s beneficial for the people. But in Munnar, it’s the eviction of encroachers; whether Tata is at the receiving end or not is irrelevant.”

Soon after the confiscation, Kerala’s mainstream media, which used Achuthanandan against Vijayan till now, swiftly realigned and targeted their individual enemies. The major media groups — Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi — now find themselves in warring camps. Manorama stepped up its attack against Achuthanandan, provoking the CM to say that he will enquire into encroachments by the group after Mission Munnar. Indirectly supporting the CM, Mathrubhumi, owned by Janata Dal (Secular) leader MP Veerendra Kumar, declared war against the Vijayan faction by exposing the Rs 2-crore Desabhimani scam. Irate over Mathrubhumi’s support to the CM, the CPM organ reported that Kumar had encroached upon acres of forests in Wayanad district. Further, the two CPI ministers’ defence of Tata has added to Achuthanandan’s troubles. The party, which opposed Tata’s land acquisition in Singur in West Bengal, is a staunch supporter of the corporate house in Kerala.

Expressing his dismay over the CPI’s public dissociation, Achuthanandan said: “I will not buy their misleading interpretations. The Forest and Revenue ministers have confused the public. Among the 1,280 acres recovered in my presence, only 60 acres are identified as shola (natural) forest. The rest was under Tata Tea control. They had installed over 20 boards in different places claiming ownership.”

“For decades, the Tatas hogged almost all the land in Munnar, running a parallel government. Even the local panchayat had to beg for land to set up offices and civic amenities. People had to plead with the company even for power connections. They had even admitted in an affidavit in the High Court that they had been selling government land in pieces,” said the CM.

Pertinently, the CPI has its own target. Food and Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran is the proponent of the Kerala State Essential Commodities Act, 2007, which the LDF is expected to pass soon to ban the entry of corporates in the retail sector. Divakaran claims that it would be the first attempt of its kind in the country and the LDF in Kerala doesn’t intend to “regulate” big retailers, as Bhattacharya did in Bengal, but wants to impose a blanket ban. “We don’t want them here at all,” Divakaran said. In Kochi, Reliance has opened six of its proposed 70 supermarkets. “We don’t want to invite trouble by revoking licences which have been issued already. But local administrative bodies have now been directed not to issue any more licences. We will stop Reliance in its tracks,” Divakaran added.

The CPI, which supported Achuthanandan on many issues previously, is ideologically a rudderless ship currently. The party’s apparent double standards in dealing with corporates have left its cadre in a quandary. “The CPI is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It is politically aimless today,” says a disgruntled leader of the CPI youth wing, the All India Youth Federation.

The 80-year-old chief minister seems to be having the last laugh and is not willing to buy reports that the Tata Tea fracas has sullied the government’s image among corporates. He also feigned ignorance about the reported decision of Tata Steel to rethink signing a Rs 1,500-crore agreement with the state government.

According to political observer John Mary, Achuthanandan has nothing to lose in this battle. “For the next Assembly election, he is unlikely to be the leader of the LDF. His only concern is to leave a lasting impression in governance before taking the last bow. Probably, he wants to be known as a fighter for the poor.”



Caste Politics

K A Shaji /Thiruvananthapuram

A century has gone since the social reformer Sree Narayana Guru unleashed a mass movement in Kerala against communal and casteist discriminations. “Ask not, say not, think not caste” was the Guru’s ultimate advice to his followers. But Vellapally Natesan, a liquor baron who is the general secretary of the Narayan Guru-established Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), says it would be difficult not to think of caste or religion in today’s Kerala. “Minorities are swallowing the majority here. We have only two options: either succumb to conversion or commit suicide.” As the SNDP’s general secretary, Natesan is also the de-facto successor of the Guru.

Though born in the lower caste Ezhava community, the Guru never visualised the SNDP as a forum meant exclusively for the community. As a constant fighter against Brahmin orthodoxy, he built temples that were open to all, irrespective of caste or community. However, Natesan’s SNDP is a far way from the Guru’s path. At one level, it is attempting to make the Ezhava community a junior partner in the Hindutva brigade by reviving age-old customs and rituals similar to those of Brahmins. At another level, it has grown intolerant of other social reform organisations and is spreading hate against not only Christians and Muslims but also the atheist Leftists.

“The Christians with their political clout and foreign money power are trying to destroy the Hindu communities of Kerala. When I speak out against this bias I am branded a Hindu communalist, but I don’t care,” said Natesan. “The Muslims, who constitute 17 percent of Kerala’s population, own almost all the schools and colleges in the six districts of north Kerala. Arabic is taught in schools at government expense,” he said.

“Since 1940s, the Ezhava community has been the backbone of the Communists. Ninety-nine percent of the martyrs of Communist agitations are from our community. But we have been trampled upon and not given our share of political and social power,” he said.

Writer Sukumar Azhikode finds a liquor manufacturer leading the Guru’s movement paradoxical. “The Guru was totally against the production, consumption and selling of liquor. He had advised Ezhavas not to engage in brewing or selling toddy. Vellapally has not only shown disregard to the Guru, he has turned the SNDP into an outfit of liquor barons,’’ Azhikode said.

Azhikode’s stand against the SNDP has irked Natesan in the past. “Greatness cannot be achieved by merely writing books,” he reminded Azhikode once. When Azhikode supported expelled SNDP leaders S. Rahulan and CK Vidyasagar and denounced MB Sreekumar, Natesan’s right hand man and the SNDP’s president, for his alleged involvement in corruption as a member of the Travancore Devaswom Board, Natesan termed the Gandhian Azhikode a drunkard and a “leper”. Azhikode responded to the charge by saying, “I don’t drink and if drinking is such a vice, why is Vellapally running bars and liquor shops?”

According to Kerala’s Cooperation Minister G. Sudhakaran, Natesan and his counterpart in the Nair community, PK Narayana Panikkar, general secretary of the Nair Service Society (NSS), are preventing the state government from opening all the temples to everyone. Vellapally, he pointed out, was also opposed to allowing playback singer KJ Yesudas entry into the Guruvayur temple.

Former SNDP president Vidyasagar agreed. “In open platforms, he supports the opening of Guruvayur temple even to non-Hindu believers. But it is just a ploy. He is threatening the government with a communal backlash if that is done,” he said.

According to former SNDP leader S. Rahulan, the organisation has turned its educational institutions into operations for making money. He also accused Natesan of blatant nepotism. Natesan’s wife Preethi heads the organisation’s women’s wing, and their son heads the youth wing.

Natesan’s attempts at bringing the Ezhavas closer to the Hindutva fold are seen by historians as undermining the community’s struggle against caste hierarchies. “Ezhavas were always followers of Buddhism,” says Dr Kusuman, head of the department of History at Kerala University. “Sree Narayana’s campaign against caste adopted simple, commonsense means. As Ezhavas were denied the right of worship in temples, he consecrated a Shiva Linga at Aruvippuram near Trivandrum in 1888. In two temples, he put up mirrors where the deity is usually placed, making his message clear to all. He strongly advocated internal reform among Ezhavas,” Kusuman said.

Vellapally’s hope of a broad Hindu alliance with Narayana Panikkar’s NSS failed to materialise when Panikkar backtracked. An irate Natesan showered abuses on Panikkar, who countered with his own set of charges. “Panikkar is against entry of non-Hindus in Guruvayur and of women in Sabarimala. But Vellpally is not ready to come out in the open on these delicate issues,” said social commentator TK Ramachandran.

The SNDP has arguably been the biggest social reform movement in Kerala. The entire nation had taken note of the Guru’s revolutionary call. Mahatma Gandhi travelled to Varkala near Thiruvananthapuram to meet him and express solidarity. Rabindranath Tagore and Periyar Ramaswami Naicker found his war against caste brave and exceptional. French writer Romain Rolland wanted the entire world to listen to this man of “beneficent spiritual activity”. The Communist Party, elected to power in Kerala in 1957, acknowledged the fact that it could strike roots in the state so easily because the Sree Narayana movement had prepared the ground. While assuming power in Uttar Pradesh last month, Chief Minister Mayawati recalled with pride the struggle the Guru had waged against casteism. But now in Kerala, it seems all that is a thing of the past.

The Ezhavas and Narayana Guru

By the 19th century, temples in Kerala had become inaccessible to the Ezhavas, an obc community traditionally engaged in farming and tapping toddy. They had to pay head tax, thalakkaram, while Ezhava women were forced to pay bread tax, mulakkaram. There were prescribed distances to be kept by Ezhavas when they came across savarna castes. After the British assumed control of Malabar in 1792, a number of Ezhavas, or Tiyas as they are also called, rose to important positions in the administration.

Inspired by Sree Narayana Guru, Dr Palpu and others established the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in 1903 to fight caste discrimination.

Famous Malayalam poet Kumaran Ashan was the Yogam’s first general secretary and remained so for several years. As a member of Travancore’s legislative assembly, Ashan helped improve the position of Ezhavas. Through active participation in the agitations of the Civil Rights League in the 1920s and the Abstention Movement of the 1930s, the Ezhava community secured substantial political and economic gains.

In the evening of his life, Narayana Guru grew disillusioned with the Yogam and dissociated himself from it. He founded his own Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham as a religious order.

KA Shaji



CPI Office in Munnar

K A Shaji /Munnar and Thiruvananthapuram

Who was the late PK Vasudevan Nair? To any observer of Indian politics, he was political idealism personified. Known for a simple lifestyle and transparency in public life, this top CPI leader had renounced the post of Kerala Chief Minister in the late 70s to cement the emerging CPI-CPM unity at the national level. Nair, who always kept himself away from power politics, was forced by the CPI to contest the Lok Sabha election in 2004 and was made the party’s parliamentary leader thereafter. Unfortunately, he had an unexpected demise just a few months after the formation of the present Lok Sabha.

You would get a different version of Nair’s life, though, in Munnar, the tourism hotspot in the news for a massive anti-encroachment drive launched against industrial groups like Tata, former bureaucrats, leading lawyers, local land mafia and several political parties. As per documents at Munnar’s village office, Nair was a farmer who had been cultivating 14 cents of land since 1959. Nair was registered as a farmer by one K. Balakrishna Pillai, the then special village officer of Munnar. But it now seems that Pillai had acted on the directions of the CPI rather than of Nair.

According to sources in the Special Task Force that is currently engaged in demolishing encroachments, the CPI had submitted an application with an apparently forged signature of Nair at the Munnar village office in 1998 seeking patta (land deed) for the 14 cents of occupied land with survey number 62/10c in the then Kannan Devan village. The property was in fact not the private agricultural land of Nair. Instead, the land was used for constructing a five-storey building that eventually turned into the party office-cum-holiday home.

In 1998, the CPI was in power in Kerala along with other Left parties and its nominee KE Ismail was the revenue minister. According to top sources in the government, it was Ismail who directed the then village officer to prepare a report supporting the party’s claim for the patta. The patta was granted within a few weeks accepting the claim that Nair was a poor farmer who had been cultivating there for decades. Sources in both the revenue department and the CPI’s local unit concede that Nair was not aware of his party’s own land scam. A vigilance team of Kerala Police, which is probing the recent land scams in Munnar, has also expressed doubts about the originality of Nair’s signature on the application for the patta.

The underhand way in which the CPI obtained land in a prime area in Munnar to construct a multi-storey holiday resort was unearthed only recently when the Special Officer for Eviction, K. Suresh Kumar, verified the documents. The party and its trade union are in fact using only a minor portion in the basement area. The rest has been leased out to a private tourism promoter and is run as a resort from which the party is getting about Rs 45,000 per month as rent.
Until recently, a concrete bridge used to connect the building to the national highway to help tourists reach the resort.

Soon after taking charge in Munnar, Suresh Kumar found the bridge to be encroaching on government land and ordered its demolition. The CPI termed the destruction of the bridge an attack on the party building and began baying for the blood of Suresh Kumar, an officer seen as close to Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. The CPI has found support from the Pinarayi Vijayan faction in the CPM.

The controversial building is also located on the banks of the Kunnathu Palar river. There is already a directive from the Supreme Court to remove all illegal construction close to the riverbed in Munnar. However, the CPI is unmindful of the criticism. Its state secretary Veliyam Bhargavan told Tehelka that seven cents of the building’s land was purchased out of the party fund in 1959 in the name of Vasudevan Nair, and in 1998 the party had applied for patta of only four cents of land. Of the application said to be written by Nair seeking patta for14 cents of agricultural land, Veliyam called it the handiwork of an anti-CPI lobby working in the state. “The application may be a creation of that lobby to defame our leaders,” he said. But the CPI’s claim of being targeted has little merit. The CPM and the intuc are also facing action for having holiday resorts in their buildings built on encroached land.

``I’ll not continue as special officer if I am stopped from demolishing the illegally constructed party offices of the CPM and the CPI in Munnar,” Suresh Kumar told Tehelka. “The building constructed on the plot that the CPI claims as its own is an illegal construction. The resorts functioning atop the CPM and the CPI party offices are built on farmland and are illegal.”
The issue has hurt the CPI’s image in Kerala.

The party’s alleged closeness to Tata Tea, which illegally occupies about 50,000 acres of government land in Munnar, has evoked widespread condemnation from political, environmental and social activists. While Achuthanandan is waiting for a report from a Hyderabad-based agency that is conducting a satellite survey to assess the extent of encroachment by Tata Tea, Forest Minister Binoy Viswam, who belongs to the CPI, has already issued a notice to the Tata group to furnish reasons for illegally occupying 3,000 acres of land, a figure seen as too small by Achuthanandan’s supporters.

The Revenue Minister and CPI’s state assistant secretary KE Ismail blamed a “media syndicate” in Thiruvananthapuram for the problems plaguing the party. However, a strong section within the CPI believes Ismail to be the one responsible. The last state executive meeting of the CPI witnessed angry outbursts against Ismail and his supporters. A section also wanted the party itself to demolish the building to move out of the embarrassing



As party elections approach, the powerful Kerala CPM boss senses the ground slipping underneath, reports KA Shaji

Finally, the dictatorship of the politburo is clear and present in the CPM’s Kerala unit. The party’s central committee, in its three-day meeting that concluded in New Delhi on June 26, ratified the month-old suspension from the politburo of Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and party state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, a decision that party sources say has come as much more of a shock for the secretary than for the cm.

If the central committee does not convene again before September to revoke the suspension, the party in Kerala would conduct its multi-level organisational elections, as a prelude to the party congress, for the first time under a secretary who has been removed from the politburo, the highest decision-making body in the party, for indiscipline. Such a situation would erode Pinarayi’s already shaken base among the party cadre and would upset his chances of getting reelected to the powerful post.

On the other side, Achuthanandan has no such problem as the suspension in no way affects his chief minister’s post. Neither the politburo nor the central committee has said anything negative on his style of administration so far. Instead, both have complimented him on his success in making the multi-crore Smart City project a reality and the demolition of illegal constructions in Munnar.

It was only a few days back that the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the Kerala State Electricity Board headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram as part of its investigation into the sensational snc Lavalin corruption case. As per information available from the CBI team probing the case, Pinarayi would be interrogated very soon. This is for the first time that a top CPM leader is under the CBI’s scanner. Even an interrogation would make it tough for him to continue as state party secretary.

Barely two days before the central committee meeting, another corruption case had started haunting the Pinarayi group. The CPM was forced to expel from the party K. Venugopal, a close associate of Pinarayi and deputy general manager of the party mouthpiece Desabhimani, for accepting a bribe of Rs one crore from a private financial company for withdrawing corruption cases against its chairman. This was confirmed by a party communiqué issued by the CPM state secretariat in which the Pinarayi faction has a brute majority. Until now, Venugopal had been the right-hand man of Pinarayi.

The private financial company’s chairman, VK Chacko, informed top leaders of the party including Achuthanandan about the transaction after Venugopal failed to help him. The efforts by Chacko to settle the issue through intermediaries did not succeed. The official communique said that the expulsion of Venugopal for committing “financial transactions defaming the party” had been approved by the state secretariat.

But the big question doing the rounds is who were the party leaders who accepted the money collected by Venugopal. Venugopal was able to return only Rs 15 lakh to Chacko. Politburo chief Prakash Karat has said that the party has a mechanism to trace the money and it will take stringent action against those involved in the deal.

Another major irritation for Pinarayi is the politburo’s dilution of the disciplinary action taken by his own state secretariat against 14 senior Achuthanandan supporters in Thiruvananthapuram. The Pinarayi faction had constituted an inquiry commission of its own against those who had openly protested against denial of an Assembly seat to Achuthanandan, and had found 14 leaders in Thiruvananthapuram guilty. The commission recommended their expulsion from the party and the secretariat was ready to do so. But following the intervention of the central leadership, nobody was expelled. Only minor actions were taken.

The central leadership also entrusted a three-member committee led by Kerala Labour Minister PK Gurudasan, a known supporter of Achuthanandan, to look into all other disciplinary actions taken in the state. The committee comprises of a neutral leader and a Pinarayi faction representative. This intervention of the politburo has rekindled the spirits of a number of Achuthanandan supporters who were subjected to extreme actions like expulsion.

The indifference of a large number of second rung leaders is also irking Pinarayi. “The dissidence had gripped the Kerala unit like a cancer. Hence the remedy should also be along the lines of oncological treatment. Removal of the proponents of factionalism is the only solution and we are mentally preparing for it,” said a top second rung leader.

The second rung leaders are not ready to risk their careers. Education Minister MA Baby was the only leader who reacted to the media over the suspension of the senior leaders one month back. Baby’s guarded words were aimed at pleasing the politburo, Pinarayi and VS alike.

Desabhimani chief editor VV Dakshinamurthy told a television channel recently that the action came at a time when the inner party struggle in the party had almost seized to exist. The message he tried to convey was clear — the party cadre and other leaders were not interested in the personal feud between VS and Pinarayi.

The distance kept by known Pinarayi loyalists from recent issues taken up by the state secretary is an indicator of what is in store for Pinarayi. Making noises about a “media syndicate”, attacking Achuthanandan’s former secretary Shajahan, questioning the integrity of Munnar team special officer Suresh Kumar, and the disciplinary action against VS loyalists all turned out to be issues in Pinarayi’s agenda only.

Neither Baby nor Kodiyeri abused the so-called media syndicate. LDF convener Vaikom Viswan opposed any change in the Munnar special team at the party-government coordination committee meeting, only one minister supported Pinarayi’s argument against the Munnar team in the cabinet fraction meeting, and in the Thrissur district committee the disciplinary action against T. Sasidharan and other VS supporters was opposed by district secretary Baby John and former district secretary Mamakkutty, who are staunch Pinarayi supporters.

In the run up to the branch and local committee elections, the Pinarayi group will have to take a stand on all such issues and it is unlikely that the perceptions of Pinarayi will turn out to be the official views of the group.

Most of the leaders believe that the politburo, which has already tightened its grip, would depute its member S. Ramachandran Pillai to lead the party in Kerala. If SRP is deputed to Kerala to head the party in the near future, that would be the beginning of a new power centre in the Kerala CPM.



K A Shaji / Thiruvananthapuram

THE CPM owns three successful Malayali television channels in Kerala. However, they are not quite the desi versions of Hugo Chavez’s Telsur or Fidel Castro’s Television Cubana. Tearjerker serials, horror shows, prime-time soap operas, Vaastu Shastra advice, online lottery results and cinema-based shows constitute the bulk of programming beamed by the channels.

The entertainment channel Kairali, for instance, broadcasts a show called Mayavi, which promotes superstition. People, the news and information channel, sells air-time to Christian evangelical missions which air programmes not usually in consonance with the basic tenets of Marxism. And We, the channel aimed at the young, caters to urban tastes shaped by the post-liberalisation consumerism.

Kairali still claims to be a channel with a difference in spots aired during commercial breaks, but clearly the market is winning over Marx. OK Johnny, Kerala’s leading media critic and documentary filmmaker feels that Kairali is aping its competitors. “The viewers see no difference between the tearjerker soaps appearing in Kairali and other Malayali commercial channels like Asianet, Amrita and Surya. The Malayalam television scene is ruled by female audiences. So Kairali is imitating commercial channels in winning women viewers and advertisers who sell household goods,” he says.CPM’s success as a media conglomerate in Kerala has inspired the opposition Congress party. While the Congress doesn’t even own a newspaper at the national level, its Kerala unit has set up its own television channel — Jai Hind. Congress president Sonia Gandhi will launch the new channel on August 17. “It is a commercial channel with popular programmes. It will be a balanced channel with nothing partisan,” said MM Hassan, former Congress minister who is incharge of the venture.

A.Vijayaraghavan, who represents the CPM in the Rajya Sabha, and is a member of Kairali’s Board of Directors, clarified that the channel is not a party mouthpiece. “My party has its own newspaper Desabhimani and a number of other publications to propagate our ideology. Kairali is a separate entity which also works with people who might not agree with the CPM ideology,” he says.

However the CPMstations are not above partisan politics. Kairali often acts as a shield against attacks on the CPMstate secretary and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s detractor, Pinarayi Vijayan — both from within and outside the party. Achuthanandan never seems to get any such consideration.

While a news channel like India Vision attacks politicians across the spectrum, the People channel abstains from such criticism — even against CPM’s political opponents. Its sole concession to the Leftists seems to be its consistent anti-US position, as in the case of the war in Iraq. P. Surendran, the well-known

Malayalam short-story writer who was recently expelled from the CPM, feels there is a contradiction in People’s approach. “The channel may take an anti-imperialistic posture while reporting from the Gulf. But it still accepts advertisements from Coca Cola and Pepsi even as CPM workers are fighting them courageously in Plachimada and Kanjikode. Don’t forget that Mathrubhumi, Kerala’s second largest daily, continues to decline advertising worth crores of rupees from Coke and Pepsi to protect the water rights of the local people,” he said.

Berlin Kunhananthan Nair, a Left leaning journalist, feels that the channels are mindful of their Communist ownership. “Who says Kairali is independent? It has 2,36,000 ordinary shareholders, all of them card carrying Communists. Abkaris (liquor contractors), NRI businessmen and controversial officials might have invested huge amounts. But we cannot discount the enthusiasm of party workers in setting up their own channel,” he says.

Nair feels though that Kairali is not helping the cause of the CPMin Kerala. OK Johnny concurs. “Except for a few good programmes like Pen Malayalam, the channel is making no difference whatsoever, contrary to its claims. The new We channel for the young treats them as mere consumers with no intellectual capacity. It has no progressive content and is just a comic version of Channel V,” he says.

ACHUTHANANDAN LOYALISTS in the CPM say Kairali could have been a Left leaning professional channel when it was established seven years ago. Sashi Kumar, the driving force behind Kerala’s first television channel, Asianet, had shown how a channel run on a mix of Leftist ideology, politics and professionalism could be commercially viable.

“There was a broad Left intellectual space in Kerala when Kairali was launched. The channel was in fact an extension of CPM’s positive intervention in fields like literature, theatre and cinema. But the decision to keep Sashi Kumar away from the channel and relying on people from the media world who were not as committed eroded its Left base. Above all, the ongoing ideological tussle in CPM also contributed to the Rightist deviations of Kairali,” says Johnny. He feels that in its pursuit of commercial success, the Kairali group has ignored the cause of Dalits and other weaker segments.

Since its inception, Kairali has also faced allegations that it received capital from dubious sources. Several attempts by TEHELKA to contact Kairali’s managing director John Brittas failed. Though the channel is profitable now, it ran losses initially. Those days are long gone. The addition of new channels to the Kairali stable suggests that the CPM in Kerala has tasted capitalist blood and likes it.



The residents of a Dalit colony in Kerala’s Kanjikode have been dying a silent death, reports KA Shaji

The Kanjikode industrial park in Kerala is in the news for good as well as bad reasons. The 300-acre park is the second largest of its kind in the state and the state government has recently submitted a proposal to the defence ministry to establish a defence production unit there.

But the grime side of the story is that industrial pollution in the region has assumed alarming proportion. According to the tribals and the Dalits who reside in the region, Kanjikode is a hell. As many as 42 iron-smelting factories along with the soft drink giant Pepsi’s bottling unit are violating the pollution control measures and industrial safety norms. Almost all the residents near the park are suffering from bronchitis, asthma, cancer and kidney diseases ever since the establishment of these units.Eight-year-old Samadhana Prabhu goes to the local government hospital every week since he is suffering from severe respiratory ailments. The doctors have advised the poor Dalit family to shift their home outside the highly polluted Vivekanada Colony in Kanjikode. But they have no place to go.

“We are not against the industrial units. There are over 498 industrial units. Due to these iron smelting units, Kanjikode is another ‘Bhopal’ in the making. A slow and silent death is in store for us,’’ said 50-year-old Pushpa who resides in the colony.Even the flowers and trees of the colony have turned black due to the emission of black waste from the Kairali Steel, a steel-smelting unit. The residents even hesitate to dry up their white clothes in open place. The walls of most houses have already turned black.
“In the last six months, two men died due to respiratory ailments. The hospitals and the district administration had confirmed it. But the factory owners were not ready to give even a paltry compensation to the victims’ families,” said Pushpa.
“The Dalit families, now living in the Vivekananda colony, were the ones who gave land to establish the park. Accepting the rehabilitation package of the then United Democratic Front (UDF) government, they moved to the colony. However, the government even allowed many polluting units to operate in their residential area,” said SB Raju, a trade union activist. Worse, 16 of these units are located on the banks of Korayar, a major tributary of Kerala’s largest river Bharathapuzha. Due to the direct dumping of industrial wastes into the river, water has turned arsenic and about a kilometer stretch of its bank is deposited with the solid wastes.
Moreover, a sponge iron unit has recently been established close to the Malapuzha drinking water and irrigation project site in Bharathapuzha. Once operational, the factory’s waste and fly ash would contaminate the water source of over five lakh people.
Significantly, these 42 units have employed about 13,000 labourers mostly from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Even the Palakkad district labour office has no information about them. But the local citu office reveals that they work in extremely inhuman conditions. There is no fixed duty hours or minimum wage. They work in a high-temperature environment. “They have provided us gunny bags to cover our bodies. One will pump water on these bags to make us cool. But that is quite inadequate when the temperature rises up to 1,500 degree Celsius,’’ said Masud (name changed), an AP Steel employ, who hails from Bihar.“The workers there are mere slaves. The middle men and the commission agents recruit labourers from North India. Once they join the work, any demand from their side even for basic needs would be suppressed mercilessly,” said R. Sreevatsan, a citu leader. “They are not even allowed to speak to the local people,” he added.
In the previous year, at least seven workers were died in explosions which took place in the factories. The normal daily wage in Kerala is around Rs 150. However, these workers get only Rs 35 as the recruiting agents would also get a cut from their salary.

Following the intervention of Palakkad mp, NN Krishnadas, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan sent a legislature committee to study the situation there. However, the locals say that there is a lobby within the CPM to protect the interests of factory owners. “These units are using lethal toxic and explosive materials as raw materials,” says T. Suresh, president, Pudussery panchayat.
“Parts of missiles, tanks, chemical equipment and even nuclear wastes are being imported from overseas to re-cycle there,” he added.According to a study by the Central Pollution Control Board, no such factory is permissible in Palakkad district, considering its demographic aspects. A top official of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) also confirms the people’s grievances. “The villagers had filed complaints on air and water pollution,” admits ST Jayaprasad, Member Secretary, KSPCB. “The board members visited the area and directed the factory owners to institute a number of remedial measures,” he added. But hardly anyone believes this. Says eminent writer Sukumar Azhikode: “It (KSPCB) is not a board that controls pollution but one that is controlled by the politicians.”

Most factories do not possess the panchayat’s license to smelt iron. Undoubtedly, these are owned by powerful politicians. The locals say a former industry minister (who is reportedly close to the current Industry Minister Elamarom Kareem) owns many. The police, taxes and power department officials confirm that he was instrumental in granting the units clearance, bypassing the objections raised by the departments concerned.

Curiously, Kareem is keeping a studied silence over the demand of local CPM leaders to curb these polluting units.



K A Shaji/Thiruvananthapuram

An extraordinary brigade in God’s own country is battling forces that have been sipping away at its beloved drink. Almost 68,000 drinkers have come together under the banner of the Kerala Alcohol Consumers Welfare Forum (KACWF), refusing to gulp down their daily humiliation at the hands of society and state.

They complain that despite Keralites consuming over twice as much alcohol as the rest of the nation, and despite the exorbitant 200 percent tax on liquor that fills the perennially cash-strapped state treasury, people struggle to even find a place to drink when they have somehow managed to afford the liquor.

Adinad Sasi, president of the recently formed KACWF and a well known TV actor, says the forum is there not to promote alcohol but for the fair treatment of people who like their drink. “There is a major difference between the two. Like any other consumer, a liquor consumer’s right must be protected.”

For some years now, the Kerala State Beverages Corporation has been only retailing liquor brands procured from major companies. A blanket ban on cheap arrack and the 200 percent tax on all brands of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) have started eating into the pockets of drinkers across the state. And there is nowhere to drink. “Where shall we go to have the drink after purchase?” asks Vavukavu Basheer, convener of the forum. “In states like Karnataka there is the facility to drink at the retail shops themselves. And because of the propaganda by religious organisations and prohibitionists, women at our homes are not allowing us to bring the bottle. Often we have to go to vacant plots or abandoned houses to consume the liquor. But this involves a lot of risk as both the police and the moral police in the locality trouble us,’’ Basheer says.

“As it is, alcohol is so expensive in Kerala,” adds A. Vasudevan, secretary of the organisation. “We have to pay Rs 290 for a bottle of regular brandy while it costs Rs 180 in other states. The price is even higher in hotels.’’

Basheer, a correspondent for Malayalam magazine Thaniniram at Oachira in Kollam district, is the brain behind the forum, and the massive response to his idea has unsettled everyone. “We are here to protect the genuine rights of liquor consumers across the state. They are being exploited both by manufacturers and government officials. The association is all out to regain the lost dignity of boozers,’’ he thunders.

A small hotel-room in Oachira, full of empty bottles, is the organisation’s state committee office. Basheer, Vasudevan and Sasi passionately make their case. “We are primarily for drinkers belonging to weaker sections who purchase from State Beverages Corporation outlets,’’ says Sasi. “No poor drinker can go to bars. It is far too difficult for us to manage the soda and the side dishes.”

According to Vasudevan, the organisation will soon submit a 17-point charter of demands to the Kerala government. They include a welfare fund for families of those who die of alcohol consumption, permission to have liquor at the retail outlets, and protection against trouble by police and the excise department.

Basheer explains the logic behind why the state should come to the aid of dedicated tipplers. “What is wrong with asking for a welfare fund? The death of an alcoholic means the death of a major taxpayer. The state benefited from his alcoholism. He even forgot his family to serve the state. It should be the duty of the state to look after his family,’’ he argues.

Other demands include availability of liquor through ration shops, pension for aged consumers, no dry days and a crackdown on adulteration of liquor.

The organisation, which enrolls members by standing in front of liquor outlets across the state, is looking for more members from north Kerala. So far, the bulk of members are from the state’s southern districts. To become a member, one has to pay a Rs 20 registration fee, and Rs 50 as annual fee.

The forum also has complaints about the quality of the available liquor. Says Sasi, “Earlier we used to get country liquor for Rs 10. We would get intoxicated and be happy. Now even if we pay Rs 200, we don’t get a high. What sort of liquor is that? It is not good at all.”