20071022

Holy Ghost On Malabar Coast


New age churches


The mainstream church in Kerala is seeing a rapid erosion in its ranks as proselytising Pentecostal groups exploit discontent among the faithful


KA SHAJI
Tiruvalla, Kerala


I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.The Gospel according to St John, 14:16

THERE WAS no disunity among the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ over the path to salvation. As far as they were concerned, Christ took the form of man to establish the church as part of the divine plan to ensure salvation to all. Unity, alas, has not been granted to multitudes of lesser mortals in Kerala.
The state has 60.5 lakh Christians — the highest concentration in the country. But today the faithful are confused as to which path to follow. Adding to their confusion are numerous Pentecostal denominations, each suggesting separate ways to the eternal life. In a bid to protect their “originality”, the new-age Pentecostals are also fighting an internecine war of words, blaming each other for diluting the true meaning of faith and worship.The Pentecostal movement’s growing clout has alarmed the Syrian Christian church, which commands the largest following. Several of its denominations — like the Jacobites and Marthomites — have witnessed a sharp erosion in their ranks.Many of the laity feel the mainstream church isn’t doing enough to address contemporary concerns. “The organised church is a big failure in addressing the spiritual needs of the laity. They will be finished if there is no deep introspection,’’ opines KG Jacob, who recently converted to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Why are the faithful fleeing?
The mainstream clergy once used to accuse the Pentecostals of stealing their flock. That doesn’t hold true any more. Very few return after crossing over, so the switch can no longer be claimed to be impulsive or money-driven. “Personalised evangelism” is the buzzword among those preaching an alternative Christianity that is at times a frenzied challenge to the established church. Says KV Pathrose, a recent convert from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, “I was an alcoholic and when my church ignored me, a friend brought a Divine Feast pastor to my house. In a matter of three days, I was a transformed man.” The Pentecostal groups are bringing about a major attitudinal shift among Kerala’s churchgoers. Catholics and Syrian Christians, bred on the sacrosanct tenet of the Immaculate Conception, are now embracing the Pentecostals who shun that dogma.
Tiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district is the breeding ground of most of the Pentecostal outfits. This small town has India’s highest number of bank branches and ATMs thanks to a strong NRI population. Many NRIs get influenced by Pentecostal teachings outside India and force their families here to convert. Kumbanad near Tiruvalla is the headquarters ofthe Indian Pentecost Council (IPC). It is also the headquarters of the Atmeya Yatra Movement, a new-age church set up by millionaire evangelist KP Yohannan. Once the citadel of Mar Thoma and other Syrian Christian groups, Kumbanad has turned into Pentecostal country. The same phenomenon has happened in Kozhikode district’s Nellipoyil, a small village that is home to about seven denominations.“Prayer fellowships are attracting men and women to the otherwise fundamentalist Pentecostal outfits,’’ pointed out Shaju Philip, a Kozhikode-based journalist. Father Paul Parathazham, a professor of sociology at the Papal Seminary in Pune, surveyed “flock stealing/ flock desertions” in 2002, and says the Church should be “perturbed” by the phenomenon. His study located three reasons for the exodus: the absence of Christian fellowship in mainstream churches, an inability to “experience” God, and a decreasing exposure to the scriptures.Parathazham’s report prompted the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to issue a set of guidelines — conceding that there were “unmet religious needs of the faithful” and asking for prayers to be made more spontaneous, appealing and personalised. The church has also sought initiation of the BCC — Basic Christian Community — movement through family units for closer interaction. The organised church says most conversions are taking place for pecuniary benefits and overseas funding.
“We have no counter-strategy for the Pentecostals’ delirious, limb-shaking sessions. The situation is grim, though,” says one priest. Concurs Fr Paul Thelekkat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church: “I’m afraid it all looks like a kind of opiate. The Church cannot entice believers through gimmicks.”ACCORDING TO Eapen Thomas, the treasurer of the Indian Pentecostal Church of God, his outfit has about 2,500 small and big churches all over Kerala. The Indian Pentecostal Church of God and the Assemblies of God are the front-runners while about 800 small groups also remain active.
“Today we are five lakh in number and the growth appears to be tremendous in recent years. Maybe it is because there is growing unrest in most frontline traditional churches,” says Sam Kuzhikala, media coordinator of the IPC. Divine Feast, a Pentecostal church that opened in Kottayam just three years ago, has grown to a congregation of 8,000 in the town alone.Apart from established Pentecostal churches, there are many independent fellowship groups that regularly congregate at homes.
Their members are unhappy with mainstream churches but are not fully integrated with the Pentecostal establishment. One such group is the Heavenly Feast, which is popular among neo-converts since it permits members to wear jewellery, unlike the more austere Pentecostals.But the Pentecostal progress has had its repercussions.
The Hindutva brigade, which finds its streetcorner hallelujahs and barbs at Hindu gods offensive, has often retaliated. Joseph William Cooper, a bishop in the New Jerusalem Universal Church, a Pentecostal fellowship with its headquarters in Ohio in the United States, was injured in an attack on a ministry near Thiruvananthapuram in January 2003. Such was his zeal that Cooper told Ohio newspapers that his hand was “healing nicely” from the machete cut he received in Kerala, and “if the Lord wants me to return, I‘ll still go back”.
WRITER’S E-MAILshaji@tehelka.com

Turtle Folk

Olive Ridleys are safer here


In a heartwarming coming-together, a village in Kerala conserves thousands of Olive Ridley turtles’ eggs



KA SHAJI
Kolavipalam village, Kozhikode




IT WAS around two decades ago that Surendra Babu, an autorickshaw driver in Kolavipalam, a sleepy fishing village in Kozhikode district, read in a newspaper about the threats faced by endangered Olive Ridley turtles on the Gahirmatha coast in Orissa. Almost immediately, he realised that the turtles which arrived at Kolavipalam beach every year were the same species he was reading about.
Surendra Babu was a school dropout, but that was no impediment to him or to his poor fishermen friends in starting a unique initiative to help conserve the Olive Ridleys — the Theeram Prakriti Samrakshana Samithy. During nesting season, spread over four winter months, they patrolled the beach by night looking for turtle nests. The idea was simple: the eggs had to be protected from predators, human and animal. So, freshly-laid eggs were carefully dug out from their original nests for immediate transfer to a makeshift hatchery. Fifty days later, when the two-inch long hatchlings struggled to the surface, they were gently released into the sea.
It wasn’t easy. Most of the men had to sacrifice fishing time for the sake of the turtles. They were openly ridiculed and some were even manhandled as vested interests feared that the effort was a protest against a massive sand mining operation.
The news of the conservation programme, however, spread rapidly. An informal network of sympathisers brought news, and sometimes even eggs, of nesting events miles down the coast. The group now releases as many as 3,000 hatchlings into the sea every year. The villagers call them “the Turtle People”.
Olive Ridleys have been coming to Kolavipalam for as long as Surendra Babu can remember. His first encounter with a turtle took place when he and his father were landing their fishing boat one early morning. As they walked towards the village, they saw a female Olive Ridley ponderously returning to the sea, leaving a tell-tale trail of flipper marks that pointed to where, under cover of darkness, she had buried her eggs. “To make up for oru poor catch that day, we decided to collect the turtle eggs, and give ourselves a treat for lunch,” recollects Babu. But the chance reading of the newspaper article changed all that. “It is believed that Ridley’s invariably return to the beach where they were born to lay eggs,” says Sajeevan, another activist. “The number of hatchlings we’ve released into the sea has increased each year. We dream that our beach will one day see an aribada (mass nesting). It may take 20 years, though — who knows if this beach, even this village, will still be here.”
There is good reason for this sense of doom. The beach at Kolavipalam was over a kilometre wide not many years ago. Today, it has been reduced to a rapidlyshrinking strip. The people here say the beach, the turtles and their hamlet are threatened because of illegal sand mining. Every day, tonnes of fine sand from the sandbank are taken away to be used for construction work and land-filling. Ironically, sand mining is banned by the state government because of its adverse environmental impact.
WITH CONSIDERABLE effort and difficulty, the turtle people obtained a restraining order from the court on the mining, but it still continues, albeit not so openly. The villagers see the preservation of the turtles as an extension of their own struggle. “Everybody calls us the turtle people,” says one of the activists, “but it is not us who are preserving the turtles but the turtles who have provided us a platform to voice our protest.”
While most of the activists are fishermen, there are also autorickshaw drivers, teachers, boatmen and shop owners among them. Even after a hectic day of fishing or daily-wage labour, they wholeheartedly participate in searching for eggs in the night and early morning. “The sea, the shore and the creatures along it are part of our daily life. We don’t have to allot a specific time to protect them. We do that everyday as a routine, as our duty”, says Vijayan, a fisherman.
In an official appreciation of their initiative, the state Forest Department has agreed to finance a hatchery for the eggs. The villagers, too, have stopped eating turtle eggs ever since they were told the eggs belonged to an endangered species.
WRITER’S E-MAIL
shaji@tehelka.com

20071012

The Marxists’ Own Bofors


The CBI is likely to chargesheet the CPM’s Kerala state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan for helping a Canadian firm swindle public money worth almost Rs 400 crore


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

PINARAYI VIJAYAN, the CPM’s state secretary in Kerala, has just returned to the Politburo after four months of suspension. But celebration time may already be over.

The CBI probe into kickbacks received from Canadian firm SNC Lavalin, which was setting up a cancer hospital in Pinarayi’s hometown Thalassery, is in its final phase, and Pinarayi could be interrogated any time.

The other man who returned to the Politburo along with Pinarayi — Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan — is relishing the chance to corner his rival. The state government has put it on record with the CBI that SNC Lavalin has swindled up to Rs 12.54 crore, collected from different overseas agencies. This amount is in addition to public money worth Rs 374.50 crore wasted by Lavalin in the name of carrying out repairs on a few hydel projects in Kerala. According to CBI sources, Pinarayi, as power minister from 1996 to 1998, had flouted norms in awarding contracts to Lavalin. Senior CBI officials told TEHELKA that the evidence against Pinarayi is damning and he is likely to be chargesheeted soon.

It was only a few weeks ago that then Home Secretary KK Vijayakumar informed the CBI team that Lavalin had cheated the state government of Rs 12.54 crore of the Rs 25.3crore collected for the cancer hospital.

Pinarayi hired senior Supreme Court lawyers when he appeared before the Kerala High Court and declared there was nothing irregular about the deal and the government had suffered no loss. But the court decided in favour of a CBI inquiry.

Controversy surrounded the Lavalin deal ever since it was signed in October 1996 by the EK Nayanar-led Left Front government in which Pinarayi was the power minister. Lavalin entered Kerala in 1995 by signing an MOU with the Kerala State Electricity Board, which appointed the firm as a consultant for modernising and replacing generators in three hydroelectric projects in Idukki district.

In February 1996, the contract was extended to include project supervision, technical assistance and sourcing of funds. The project was specified for completion within three years. The consultancy fee was set at Rs 20.31 crore.

The rot set in around October 1996 when the CPM returned to power. A highpowered official team led by Pinarayi visited Montreal to revise the Lavalin contract. The consultancy contract was expanded to include a supply contract for procuring equipment. The consultancy fee remained unaltered but an additional Rs 149.15 crore was committed for buying equipment. It may be mentioned that Lavalin itself did not manufacture any power equipment. The contract was tied to other deals. An accompanying grant for the Malabar Cancer Centre Hospital was negotiated. Lavalin commi tted itself to mobilising Rs 98.3 crore for the hospital.

S. Varadachari, then Principal Secretary (Finance) of the Kerala government, questioned the deal and called it a ploy to bypass accepted tendering norms. The signing of the contract was rushed through in 1997, ignoring the lower offer for the same job by the public sector Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL).

Lavalin pledged to complete the cancer hospital within four years. By March 1998, Kerala’s electricity board as well as the Cabinet had formally approved the deal, including the grant to the hospital. The recommendations of an experts’ committee in favour of BHEL were ignored. After the renovation was done, not a single unit of additional power was generated. The imported equipment and technology was found unfit for the hydel projects.

By July 2005, the Congress was back in power. The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) pointed out a serious breach of norms and undue haste in signing the deal. The CAG report stated that the deal caused a loss of Rs. 374.50 crore to the exchequer. In January 2006, the state Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau ruled that the deal was out of order because no tenders had been invited. In February, the Vigilance Department recommended chargesheeting top officials.

IN MARCH 2006, a writ was filed in the High Court demanding a CBI inquiry. The Congress government in power decided to institute the inquiry. This was followed by the usual cover-ups. The Vigilance Department claimed a crucial file related to Pinarayi was missing. The SP who investigated the case went on long leave. Nevertheless, Vigilance Director Upendra Verma submitted an FIR without consulting the government. It was the last phase of the Congress-led government’s tenure. The Left was expected to return to power. The Congress tried to transfer Verma. The Election Commission blocked the move because the model code of conduct was in force.

In July 2006, the CBI found a prima facie case of corruption and asked the state Vigilance Department to hand over concerned files. Recently, the CBI unearthed some crucial documents linking Pinarayi to the deal from the cancer centre, electricity board headquarters and state Secretariat. Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a Pinarayi loyalist, was an unofficial member of the electricity board when the deal was finalised. He is also on the board of the cancer hospital from which the grant money vanished. The cancer centre received less than Rs 9 crore.

Of the Rs 98.3 crore pledged to the hospital, Rs 12 crore was paid to Technikalia, a company in Chennai. Why was this company authorised to receive the grant? An account had been opened in the SBI’s Thalasserry branch, where the hospital is located, to credit the grant. According to party sources, Achuthanandan had given a memorandum supported by documents to the party’s central leadership regarding the involvement of his Politburo colleague in the deal.

But the party took no action. Senior CPM leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri routinely evade questions on the deal at press meets. They may be forced to respond very soon.

Left Vs Left For Capital Gains

CPM Organisational poll



The party’s organisational poll is all about who gets to control its business conglomerate. KA SHAJI reports


EVEN HIS death was a political statement. Kerala’s leading Left theoretician MN Vijayan, who earned the wrath of the state CPM leaders by exposing their ideological degeneration, died on October 3 addressing a press meet in which he reminded cadres that the country was greater than any individual. He suffered a stroke as he was uttering the words, “we will not allow the state to be misled or hijacked”.

His last words assume great significance given the current political scenario in the state where groups led by CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan are pitted against each other in the organisational elections to gain control of the party’s Rs 4,000-crore empire. The inner-party polls have already begun and have created the mood of an Assembly election in Kerala. Will Pinarayi retain control or will Achuthanandan make a comeback has become a topic of great debate in the state.

In his condolence message, Pinarayi, a former student of the professor-turned theoretician, termed him an able teacher but said nothing about his contribution as a fellow partyman. That was not the case about three years ago. MN Vijayan was the party’s conscience and justified the party stand even amidst difficult circumstances.

The first major instance was when party cadres burned a snake park at Pappinissery in Kannur to settle political scores. The issue gained national attention and though the CPM stood isolated, Vijayan was the only academic who supported the party. Vijayan took the same stand when CPM men hacked a BJP leader to death in front of the primary school students he taught.

But Vijayan’s tirade against some leaders who deviated from the fundamentals of Communism and accepted foreign funds with strings attached made him persona non grata for Pinarayi and his cronies. Vijayan’s call for revolt against Pinarayi during the last organisational election had many takers but that failed to become a reality as money and muscle won over ideology. While the party is facing yet another major organisational poll, many feel Vijayan’s last words will have an impact. Meanwhile, the rival groups care little for ideology and prefer “practical” ways to win the election. In Palakkad, alcohol was used to prevent a local leader from attending an election process. When he was in a drunken stupor, his rivals hijacked the proceedings. Attempts to use industrial groups to influence prominent local-level leaders with money are also going on unabated in Alappuzha and Thrissur districts.

The winners have much to gain. After all, the CPM here is run like a corporation with its state secretary as the virtual CEO. No other party in Kerala owns as much land and property as the CPM. It has also diversified into hospital ventures, owns three satellite TV channels and runs the Desabhimani, one of the state’s largest-circulated dailies. Flush with the success of its ventures, “reformists” in the party now plan to set up Information Technology (IT) parks and mega hypermarkets, the latter modelled on supermarkets in the West. Whoever said the comrades were insulated from market forces apparently got it wrong; in Kerala, at least, CPM Incorporated is marching ahead.

But what has left die-hard supporters speechless is the CPM’s foray into the amusement park business. People like MN Vijayan had criticised it but in vain. Initially, the party set up a cooperative society, the Malabar Tourism Development Cooperative Society, to execute the project. The plan was to mobilise funds from cooperative banks and financial institutions for the project. However, it ran into rough weather with the then Congress- led government dissolving the governing bodies of co-op banks and bringing them under its control. But work on the project is on at breakneck speed. A new outfit, the Malabar Pleasures Private Limited, has been registered and is promoted by a group led by the Kannur district party secretariat members.

Funds for the channels didn’t come only from pro-CPM outfits. When the party asked, even liquor barons were only too happy to get out their cheque books. MP Purushothaman, a Chennai-based liquor baron, bought Rs 25 lakh worth of shares. Further, non-resident Keralites are well-known as a source of the party’s funds. Drunk on the success of its burgeoning empire, the Pinarayi Vijayan faction is planning more ventures. The pointsman: E. Narayanan, the brain behind the party’s rubber co-op, Rubco. His latest venture is the newly floated Tellicherry Medical Foundation (TMFL).

Rubco was one of Narayanan’s first successes. Established in 1997, it now has annual sales of over Rs 450 crore and a staff of over 1,000. Located in the Marxist bastion of north Kannur, it manufactures a range of coir and rubber products. However, the UDF says Rubco availed of loans worth crores from CPM-controlled cooperative banks, violating norms, and made no repayments. So there is no real profit for the company, the UDF alleges. The CPM’s mascot in Malabar is, of course, the 250-bed Tellicherry Cooperative Hospital. It has also set up an EMS Memorial Hospital at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district. Three years ago, a 100-bed hospital, in the name of ex-party secretary AP Varkey, was opened in Ernakulam.

While some oppose the party’s involving itself in the service industry, sympathisers argue that the CPM had to change with the times. The new logic is that only then can it play a role in modern society. Therefore, they feel, there is no harm in the cadre exploiting unfolding opportunities in trade and commerce. But not everyone agrees. Asks Berlin Kunhananthan Nair, one of the old guard: “Do you think the emancipation of the working class will come through amusement parks and super-specialty hospitals?” This organisational poll will hopefully provide an answer to this.

20071005

Conscience-Keeper Shown The Door

Raju Narayanaswamy's predicaments



The politician-land mafia nexus in Kerala forces the transfer of an IAS officer intent on clearing encroachments


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram





Raju Narayanswamy has a rare distinction. He may be the only IAS officer in the country who invited a divorce notice from his wife for invoking the CRPC against his contractor father-in-law for blocking a public road. Narayanaswamy is in the news, though, for another kind of notice he’s attracted. As district collector of Idukki, he ran into confrontation with the powerful land mafia while leading a state-wide anti-encroachment drive in his district. He has now been transferred to neighbouring Pathanamthitta district.

The transfer has evoked widespread condemnation across Kerala and particularly in Idukki. For the first time, a district observed a dawn to dusk hartal in protest against the transfer of a collector.

Though the BJP extended support to the agitation, the major political parties kept away. But the strike turned unique when almost all Dalit and tribal organisations joined in to support the upper-caste collector. According to the protestors, Narayanaswamy was booted out at the behest of Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph, who had usurped large tracts of tribal and forest land to build holiday resorts in the area.

Joseph is seen as a custodian of Christian votes, and he managed to get the backing of various sections in both the ruling LDF and the Opposition UDF. Joseph and his clique have been annoyed with Narayanaswamy for quite a while now. In the previous EK Nayanar government, Joseph was Minister for Education and Public Works, and Narayanaswamy was a secretary under him. “There was a lot of corruption in the sanctioning of secondary schools. The public will come to know the truth soon,’’ Narayanaswamy told TEHELKA.

Joseph’s close aide and successor as PWD Minister, TU Kuruvila, was forced to resign on the basis of a report the upright secretary prepared on his involvement in an illegal land deal. After the minister’s exit, Narayanaswamy initiated steps to take back illegal land Joseph owned in Purapuzha village. He also found that Joseph had occupied tribal land in Arakkulam village. Further, an inquiry into the Greenberg Tourist Resort — 75 acres of land owned by Joseph’s brother-in-law — found that it was eligible for only 15 acres. Joseph had constructed a road to this resort using the local area development fund belonging to his party’s then Rajya Sabha member Vakkachan Mattathil.

Narayanaswamy says his run-ins with those in power happen only because he can’t help being “stubborn” when things turn “unjustifiable.” Like when he refused permission to a real-estate businessman to fill up a large paddy farm — it would have deluged some 50 village homes with waste from the adjacent government hospital. Or when he refused to sanction payment for a badly-built earthen bund costing several crores — he was proved right when the bund dissolved and vanished in the rains.

Controversies, and trouble, have always followed Narayanaswamy, the topper of the 1991 IAS batch. After finishing first in the computer science class of IIT Chennai, he turned down an MIT scholarship to enter the civil services. Nine years ago, he bulldozed encroachments in Thrissur, earning the ire of powerful local businessmen. Five years ago, he went head to head with Cherkulam Abdulla, the UDF’s local administration minister. Narayanaswamy refused to sanction the registering of a hospital the minister owned as a private medical college, because it did not have the prescribed infrastructure. He also famously raided the house of an influential liquor baron who wouldn’t pay up Rs 11 crore of taxes, and seized his belongings.