20080530

Living with DDT

Profits Over People


Damning reports. Alarming statistics. There’s a strong case against India’s lone DDT manufacturing facility in Kerala but the plant shows no sign of shutting down


KA SHAJI
Kochi and Eloor



I DON’T MAKE my omelette from local eggs as they smell of pesticide,” says carpenter TV Gireesh as he stands outside India’s only DDT-manufacturing factory. DDT is a deadly insecticide banned in most countries. Located 18 km from central Kerala’s Kochi city, the government-owned factory has long been accused of severely polluting the environment in the industrial belt where it is located, affecting human and animal life as well as harming crops and vegetation. Gireesh is among the increasing number of activists who want the factory shut down without delay.

The nauseating smell of DDT assaults the senses as one nears this industrial belt built around the once small villages of Eloor and Edayar. There are about 200-odd factories in the region but it is the DDT factory of the Hindustan Insecticides Limited (HIL), manufacturing DDT and Endosulfan since 1956, which has many of the area’s 40,000 residents up in arms. There is by now sufficient evidence to show that water in the village’s wells has become unfit for drinking and that large tracts of land are turning uncultivable by the season.

DDT is the most notorious of the 12 chlorinated chemicals identified for elimination by the world’s most authoritative agreement on the subject, the Stockholm Convention of World Nations on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). A signatory to the Convention, India has banned the use of DDT in agriculture. HIL’s DDT production is thus fully export-oriented: its client list has eight African countries, including Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. International groups like Greenpeace also oppose DDT production at the factory. An Empowered Committee set up by the Supreme Court on environmental issues has also called for immediate shutdown of the factory.

Environmentalists say the factory has polluted the local Periyar river. According to a study by S. Bijoy Nandan of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, 16 species of fish, including eels, catfish, goby and cyprinids, have disappeared from the river. Some 30 more species are threatened; five are classified as endangered. Located adjacent to a highly sensitive wetland ecosystem, the HIL plant discharges effluents in an open creek. A 2006 study by Greenpeace and Britain’s Exeter University found that water from this creek contained more than 100 organic compounds, 39 of which, including DDT, were highly toxic. “DDT and related compounds are of particular environmental concern,” Greenpeace India activist Sanjiv Gopal told TEHELKA. “Not only are they toxic but they are also highly resistant to degradation and are liable to accumulate.”

Environmentalist CR Neelakandan says besides its effluent killing birds, frogs and fish, the pollution from the DDT factory is badly affecting women. According to a health survey held this year by the Kerala government, breast cancer and complications related to reproduction are increasing in the region. Says Thankamma Ayyappan, who lives near the factory and was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago: “Doctors have confirmed that it was caused by exposure to DDT. It is cruel of the government to run a factory that kills its own people.”

SOME YEARS ago, local activists commissioned experts from the Occupational Health and Safety Centre of Mumbai, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) of New Delhi and St John’s Medical College of Bangalore to study the health problems caused by DDT. The report found that in comparison to a less polluted village in the same district, the chances of Eloor’s inhabitants contracting cancer were 2.8 times higher. Children were at a 2.6 times higher risk of bodily deformities due to congenital and chromosomal aberrations. Chances of children dying due to birth defects had increased 3.8 times. Death from bronchitis was up 3.4 times and from asthma 2.2 times. Air pollution was 85 percent higher than in Kochi city. Since that report, another study by the Cochin University of Science and Technology has confirmed the high prevalence of DDT in locally available milk, fish, chicken and eggs.

But despite the overwhelming evidence, the government has refused to consider shutting down the factory. Activist Purushan Eloor, campaigning against the factory for a decade, says: “HIL’s best option is to produce another product. But it has taken no R&D initiative in this regard.” In 2004, the Supreme Court issued a directive to state pollution control boards to ask industries without environmental and other authorisations why they should not be shut down. Following this, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board ordered over 100 industrial units to tighten hazardous waste disposal, and served closure orders on 32 units. But the order made no difference to HIL.

Purushan claims that at a conference called last year in Senegal to discuss the status of pollution control as per the Stockholm Convention, he saw an executive of HIL distribute copies of a letter addressed to the Convention’s Secretariat by the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which controls the HIL workers’ union. The letter stated that DDT was harmless and claimed no worker associated with DDT production at the factory had been diagnosed with health hazards in the past 50 years. Purushan asks, “Why was an HIL official part of India’s official delegation to a conference that aims to eliminate the production and use of DDT?”

INTUC is the major force among the 356 employees of HIL. The union is supportive of the management, as it fears job loss for employees in the event of the factory’s closure. Fearful of retribution, union members refuse to talk to outsiders but, speaking on condition that they not be named, some workers said they continued to work at the factory because they had no alternative livelihood.

HIL general manager Venugopalan Nair has views similar to INTUC’s. “If DDT is harmful, why has it not affected our employees?” Nair asked in a chat with TEHELKA. He said the workers at the factory sleep on DDT bags and eat near the production unit and yet have stayed unaffected. But his arguments don’t cut much ice with the local populace. “We want to breathe fresh air and drink clean water,” says local grocer Zakeer Hussain. “People are losing their health because of the pollution caused by DDT.”



20080517

Mamootty's politics

A Turn In The South


Malayalam filmstar Mammootty's cosying up to the BJP irks leftists in Kerala


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

IN KERALA, politics pervades ordinary life perhaps much more than in the rest of the country. It is also not fashionable in God’s own country to hold vague views when it comes to politics, and artistes are no exception to the rule.

Kerala’s matinee idol Mammootty, the winner of four national awards and five Filmfare awards, is discovering this bitter truth now. Once the darling of the Left, he has come under intense attack after he lauded BJP prime ministerial candidate LK Advani’s book, My Life, My Country, at a function to release the book in Kerala. The 55-year-old actor, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, and who was once the target of Hindutva forces, is being criticised by the Leftists.

Mammootty is also under fire for becoming a brand ambassador of Microsoft’s e-literacy drive in Kerala, which is fast emerging as India’s free software destination due to the CPM’S opposition to Microsoft’s attempts to monopolise the IT field. As free software groups and Left groups step up their criticism of Mammootty, the party has itself chosen to remain silent. The superstar continues to remain chairman of CPM’s television channel and is a close confidant of party state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan.

Mammootty’s reputation among Left circles reached a peak last year when he chose to ignore warnings from the Right against inaugurating the national meet of CPM’s youth wing Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) in Chennai. At that meeting, Mammootty termed the Left as a corrective force and said that the carnage in Gujarat would not have happened had the Left been a formidable force there.

The comment angered the Sangh Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) threatened to boycott Mammootty’s films. Hundreds of his effigies were burnt in different parts of the state in protest. Mammootty has always been proud of his solidarity with the Left. Though another Malayalam film superstar, Mohanlal, refused to become a director of the CPM’s Kairali television channel fearing the alienation of his viewers affiliated to the Congress and the BJP, Mammootty accepted the offer.

He had also refused to become the brand ambassador of Coca Cola when Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan advised him against it. But that picture is fast changing now.

“The support from Pinarayi is helping him to continue as chairman of the television channel,” says a senior Left leader who preferred anonymity. He said that two years ago eminent Malayalam literary critic MN Vijayan was removed from the editorship of CPM’s weekly newsmagazine for writing in other publications, disassociating himself from the ideological compromises of a section of leaders. He wanted to know why Pinarayi was not applying the same standards in the case of Mammootty as well.

IN FACT, the Achuthanandan camp in the CPM is upset over the Pinarayi’s continuing patronage of Mammootty. Achuthanandan is a champion of free software. He is also unhappy that the man in-charge of the party’s television channel praised a top BJP leader.

Mammootty’s recent appearance in a Malayalam film, Roudram, as an IPS officer who takes on an ‘inflexible’ chief minister (clearly a take-off on Achuthanandan) had raised many eyebrows.

Last year, Malayalam media had reported that Mammootty played a key role in winning back investment from Dubai’s Internet City to the multi-crore Smart City Project in Kochi, which promises 90,000 jobs. But sources close to Achuthanandan, the key architect of the Smart City deal, say that Mammootty had no such major role in the project. It was just media hype planted by the Pinarayi camp to belittle Achuthanandan’s efforts. The CPM has been riven with factionalism ever since Achuthanandan used people’s support to upstage Pinarayi in the run-up to state Assembly elections in 2006. This also ensured that Pinarayi’s hopes of becoming chief minister remained a wish.

“Mammootty was bold enough to call a spade a spade at the national meet of DYFI in Chennai. But he also praised Advani’s concept of India-Pakistan confederation while participating in the book release,” says Ninan Koshi, a Leftist thinker in Kerala. Koshi said he wished the actor had attempted a comparison between the Gujarat about which he talked at the Chennai DYFI meet and the image of Gujarat appearing in Advani’s book before attending the release function.

At the book release function, the filmstar surprised even the Sangh Parivar by terming the book as a “statesman’s biography” reflecting the country’s history and political scenario.

The actor, who cancelled his shoot to participate in the function, also wished good luck to Advani to become India’s next prime minister. While Leftists see it as an attempt by the actor to regain the confidence of viewers affiliated with the BJP, Mammootty is not ready to give any political colour to his participation.

“It was just a book release function. I am not part of any political party and my participation in the function assumes no political significance. I was just showing courtesy,” said Mammootty. However, he is silent on the decision to align with Microsoft.

Youth Congress state president T. Siddique is more vociferous in attacking Mammootty for sharing the dais with Advani. “DYFI must apologise to the people having secular values for inviting him to inaugurate its national meet. It must be the duty of Pinarayi Vijayan to remove him from the chairmanship of Kairali channel. Otherwise, we would be forced to believe that the CPM and the DYFI too share Mammootty’s perspective on Hindutva,’’ he told TEHELKA.

“With which political philosophy does he associate himself?’’ asked PC George MLA, chairman of Kerala Congress (Secular).

“The CPM must make its stand clear on Mammootty. He would not dare to participate in Advani’s function without permission from Pinarayi Vijayan,” adds George. He says there are reasons to believe that the CPM Kerala unit chief was trying to mend fences with Advani. “To prove this allegation wrong, the CPM needs to remove him from its television channel,’’ says George.

The change in the approach of the BJYM is also palpable. The outfit which attacked Mammootty last year is all out to support the star. “Mammootty is not an asset of any political party. He is a member of none. So he can participate in any function,’’ says BJYM state president K. Surendran.

On celluloid, Mammootty had both Marxist and Hindu religious avatars. In films like Stalin Shivadas, he perfected the art of being a hardcore Marxist.

Others like Dhruvam has enacted his character coming from an upper-caste background. But in real life, he is now under increasing pressure to define his political leanings: either as a Leftist or as a man who has a soft corner for Hindutva.

Kerala's sea reclamation move

200 New Nandigrams?


A Kerala government proposal to reclaim land from the sea for promoting industrial development has fishermen worried


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram


A STRANGE IRONY this. While the CPM in West Bengal is struggling to smother the revolt in Nandigram, the CPM in Kerala, it seems, is readying itself to unleash more Nandigrams. But the fight this time is not over land, but over the sea.

The fishermen community in Kerala is up in arms over the state government’s proposal to reclaim land from the sea for promoting industrial development in the state. The fishermen community has already launched a campaign against the project and even burned the effigy of Kerala Finance Minister TM Thomas Issac, the man behind the idea. According to Issac, land is very scarce in Kerala and the only option left before the government is to allow industrial units to function on lands reclaimed from the sea. NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) has already promised finance for the project. “The concept is still in a rudimentary stage. The idea came up when we were discussing new areas where NABARD could intervene. The concept is still amorphous and has to be fleshed out,” explains Issac.

However, environmentalists are not impressed by Isaac’s claim. “This is the normal way through which controversial projects are coming up in Kerala. The ministers talk like this till the ground works are over. In the meantime, they would hire some so-called experts to eulogise the project and to win public support. The previous Congress government had tried to establish an expressway linking Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod, which would have been an environmental catastrophe. So, vigilance is necessary in the case of this project,’’ says Kerala’s leading environmental expert CR Neelakandan.

T. Peter, chairman of Kerala Swathanthra Mathsya Thozhilali Union, a major fishermen’s outfit, is even questioning Issac’s claim that the proposal would not affect the fisheries sector and the highly-sensitive coastal ecology. “The minister says the project would come up in area where there are no fishermen. In the entire 590 km coastal stretch of Kerala, there are over 222 fishing hamlets. Fishermen are living across the coast except in Bakel and Kovalam. These two spots have already been handed over to the tourism department. Where else are you going to establish the project?’’ he asks.

When contacted by TEHELKA, Kolkatabased expert P. Basak, who was previously head of Kerala’s Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, informed that reclamation drives conducted by China, Hongkong, Singapore and Japan have both positive and negative aspects. “Some are good and some are bad, but overall, over a long period of time, environmental impacts are negative. In the case of Kerala, the minister is promising he would not do any harm to environment. So, we will have to wait till he comes out with a detailed proposal,’’ he says.

According to top CPM sources, the idea has never been discussed either in the cabinet or in the ruling Left Democratic Front. However, the move has already evoked entrepreneur interest.

“The government may be thinking the project would help avoid repeating more Nandigrams. But if implemented, it would create as many as 222 Nandigrams along the Kerala coast. We will not allow the real estate mafia to take control of the sea and force us to move out,’’ declares Peter.

20080510

A Jumbo Tragedy

Elephants in temple festivals


The failure to enforce rules and stressful use at temple events are forcing elephants in Kerala to run amok


KA SHAJI
Thrissur and Kochi

EVERY SUMMER, a tragedy unfolds in Kerala. Somewhere or the other, elephants trained to participate in temple festivals turn on their trainers and the religious congregation around them and stampede. Sometimes, they kill people. On April 24, an elephant ran amok at a temple near the coastal Thrissur city trampling an elderly woman to death and killing two men, including a mahout (while its own sat atop terrified) who it impaled on its tusk. It took two hours to control the animal. By the time the elephant was brought to heel 90 minutes later, it had also destroyed portions of the temple. This is the season of the Thrissur pooram festival when elephants are taken and form part of processions to mark one of the most significant Hindu religious festivals in Kerala. This incident occurred around noon when the elephant was being taken out of the temple for a ceremonial procession.

Animal rights activists say the temple tragedy underlines the serious flaws in the management of captive, or tamed, elephants in Kerala. Since January, rampaging elephants have killed 18 people, including eight mahouts, across Kerala. According to the Kerala Elephant Lovers’ Association, a group of passionate advocates for the beast, the elephants’ fury continues because of the failure of the government to enforce the rules set out for the management of the captive elephants. “How can civil society continue to ignore the failure to adhere to the norms?” asks VK Venkitachalam, head of the association, who alleges that the authorities at the temple where the elephant rampaged had not complied with an order of the Kerala High Court specifying the do’s and don’ts for the use of elephants at such events. The court’s order included a restraint on the display of the captive elephants between 11 am and 3 pm as stipulated by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

ACCORDING TO the government rules, organisers must begin providing the forest department daily fitness certificates for the elephants from three days before an event begins. But such certificates are submitted in bulk only to get the requirement out of the way. Says Radha Krishnan, an elephant lover: “Earlier, only kings and lords owned elephants. Now, they are a necessity at temples, churches and mosques. With a steady increase in number of festivals, the casualty also increases.”

Many elephants are made to quickly cover many kilometres between temples during the January-May festival season. “Elephant owners and trainers are warned every year to care for their animals,’’ says noted environmentalist PK Uthaman. “But many elephants still have to endure unhealthy living conditions and are underfed.” Adds another expert, KC Panicker: “The number of elephants participating in festivals is very large, about 50 to 60. That has to be reduced. All elephants have to be given a fitness certificate by a veterinary surgeon.”

Last year, the Kerala government announced that committees will be set up in each of the state’s 14 districts to ensure that Captive Elephant Management Rules were followed. Such committees were to include forest officials and activists. But no committee has been set up in any district even as elephants run crazy and kill people, and temples continue to use elephants in their events.

“It not just their beauty but also the faith that the elephant represents Lord Ganesha that makes the elephant crucial for our festival events,” says P. Chandrasekharan, who runs one of the city’s temple administrative bodies, the Thiruvambadi Devaswom. In most cases, long working hours in sweltering heat and dehydration puts elephants under extreme stress. “We cannot directly interfere with individual temple administrative bodies,” G. Sudakaran, who heads the ministry that exclusively caters to the management of such temple bodies, told TEHELKA. Admitting that it was cruelty that forced the beasts to the violence, the minister adds: “We will try to bring in new legislation to stop the use of elephants.”

But a ban on the use of elephants in temples would be easily flouted in festival-crazy Kerala. Elephant lovers as well as festival organisers say that the need of the hour is a consensus that will bring down the abuse of the animal. Pointing out that the elephant is Kerala’s state animal and that the state government’s emblem also has two elephants in it, government official KP Sreekumar says almost all festival events have at least one richly caparisoned elephant.

Currently, some 700 elephants are in captivity across the state. About 260 are with the devaswoms, the temple bodies, while 440 are individually owned. The largest private collection is 14 elephants. Earlier, only the high-caste Namboodiris owned elephants. But elephant ownership is now seen as symbolic of wealth and prestige. Kerala Forest Minister Binoy Viswam had last year said that all elephants will be ‘retired’ at the age of 65 years. But no followup action has been taken. His other elephantfriendly initiatives such as fixed work hours and safe transportation for the elephants also remain on paper.

“The Kerala Elephant Owners’ Association would welcome scientific initiatives on the part of the government to avoid tragedies. We have to compile a proper set of rules to decide what needs to be done when elephants run amok,” says the association’s representative P. Sasi Kumar.

In Kerala, elephants rarely breed in captivity. Capturing them from the forests is banned. They are now being bought from Bihar, West Bengal and the Northeast.

The cost of each calf varies from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. The journey to Kerala lasts up to 15 days. Once trained, elephants are rented at the rate of Rs 15,000 for a three-hour programme. Such events invariably begin around noon and the elephants are made to stand in the sun and denied water for long periods. “There is a misconception that elephants fan their ears and dance because they appreciate the music,” says EK Easwaran, an elephant expert. “Actually, elephants fan their ears to cool their bodies and dance on their feet to get away from the hot tar.”

After a long strenuous walk in the hot sun, when the animals are hungry and thirsty, their mahouts feed them and take them to water. But instead of bringing them much relief, this actually clogs their intestines, says Easwaran.

Elephants, he says, can never be completely domesticated and always desire to return to the wild. A mahout puts the elephant under stress by hitting it when it disobeys commands. “Captive elephants are always made to work even when there is no work,’’ says Easwaran. Clearly, man or beast, there is only so much repression that a living being can take, as the rampaging elephant showed at Thrissur.


Fly By Cochin

Kochi Duty Free

The airport’s duty free shop is pandering — at passengers’ expense — to one company’s monopoly on purchasing, reports KA SHAJI in Kochi

YOU CAN privatise, but if you can’t provide any competition, then you might as well privateer. With two million Malayalees working abroad — but returning regularly to visit family and friends in Kerala — the Cochin Duty Free Shop caters to a captive customer base with an aggressiveness that borders on self-aggrandising.

Averaging a daily sale of $17,000 (nearly Rs 5 lakh), it contributes a healthy 25 percent of the revenue of the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL).

What it doesn’t provide is competitive pricing. Take the price of that benchmark brand, Johnny Walker Black Label. On May 5, 2008, at the Delhi Duty Free, a one litre bottle was selling for $29, with an offer of two bottles for $52 — there weren’t many takers for single bottles. Cochin Duty Free had a regulation price of $30 per bottle, with no special offers, the same night. If a dollar a bottle doesn’t seem much (even if you forget the offer), think of 20,580 cases of Red and Black: it’s a lot of dollars.

The problem, says sources, is that the Cochin Duty Free is not permitted to purchase liquor (or anything else) on its own. It must place all its orders through a foreign company. “Who benefits from such a mode of purchase? It is neither the state exchequer nor the airport company,” alleges a senior executive of CIAL. Look at the figures: Nuance, an Australian company and a private duty free operator, gets Johnny Walker Black Label at 80 GBP a case and Johnny Walker Red Label at 42 GBP per case. Cochin International Airport, however, pays 123.26 GBP per case for Black Label and 55 GBP per case for Red Label.

CIAL imports an estimated 21 containers of these two brands every year. According to rough estimates, in the six years that CIAL has run the airport, its losses due to just these two popular brands amount to Rs 25 crore.

As always, who gains? Those involved in the purchase and the foreign company that has the contract: WRITER’S E-MAIL shaji@tehelka.com

Alpha Kreol Limited, a subsidiary of the UKbased Alpha UK and the UAE-based Kreol Group. The decision to purchase products through Alpha was taken by CIAL’s board after inviting a global tender. It’s now the ‘sole and exclusive' management consultancy of the Duty Free Shop at Cochin International Airport. Alpha refused to comment on the difference in import and sale prices.

“It is surprising that the Chairman of CIAL is the chief minister of Kerala and his government has not taken any action on these malpractices,’’ points out a regular customer.

CIAL authorities, on the other hand, aver that the contract with Alpha has benefited the company. “Alpha runs over a dozen duty frees, the world over; their competency is helping us do good business,’’ CIAL’s general manager (commerce) Suresh Babu told TEHELKA, claiming that “Ours is the cheapest price, compared to other duty frees”.

When asked about price variations, he said that it was not his duty to make available the price list from other duty free shops around the world. “According to my knowledge and belief, we are selling all liquor brands at lower rates. You should go to Dubai or Bahrain to verify this,’’ he added. Actually, one only needed to check in Delhi.

Actually, one only needed to check in Delhi.


Nobody’s Child

Karunakaran and prodigal son

NCP Kerala chief K. Muraleedharan is under fire from both the ruling combine and the Opposition for his boss Sharad Pawar’s decision to slash the state’s rice quota

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

HE IS no fall guy. But K. Muraleedharan, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Kerala chief, is finding himself to be fair game for both the ruling and the opposition combines in the blame game over rising food prices. The NCP in Kerala is not part of either the ruling Left Democratic Front or the opposition United Democratic Front.

Muraleedharan is being painted as the villain behind the Central government’s refusal to restore Kerala’s rice ration quota. Posters denouncing him and Union Agriculture Minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, are visible. Rice is Kerala’s staple food and its shortage seems to have dashed Muraleedharan’s hopes of getting the NCP back into the LDF. The party briefly joined the Left alliance during 2005-06.

The son of Machiavellian Congress leader K. Karunakaran, Muraleedharan left the Congress with his father in 2005 to form the Democratic Indira Congress-Karunakaran. The new party had only one agenda: to bash Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. A year later, he found the going tough for the party and merged it with the NCP.

However, the gamble failed to bear fruit with the LDF throwing out the NCP citing the father-son duo’s controversial political careers. Though Muraleedharan had the backing of CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, the faction representing Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and constituents like the CPI and the RSP blocked his entry. Fearing a further loss of followers, Karunakaran rejoined the Congress last year. But Muraleedharan stuck on with Pawar even though the NCP was weakened in Kerala.

Sources close to Muraleedharan say Vijayan offered the NCP a re-entry into the LDF and the Kozhikode Lok Sabha seat to him in the next election. But the rice allocation issue is preventing even Vijayan from taking a pro-Muraleedharan decision. Recent criticisms of Pawar’s decision by CPM leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury went against the NCP leader, who had already said no to joining the UDF.

Kerala Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran, who belongs to the CPI, says Pawar’s move is political. “Pawar denied rice to Kerala only because the LDF turned down his request to include the NCP in the alliance,” he says.

PAWAR’S STATEMENT that it wasn’t the Centre’s responsibility to provide rice to Kerala was used by the Achuthanandan camp to further discredit the NCP. The chief minister said Pawar had sabotaged the public distribution system (PDS) by leasing out godowns in Kerala of the Food Corporation of India. By putting the blame for the rice shortage squarely on Pawar and not on the Congress, Achuthanandan has further undermined Muraleedharan’s chances of rejoining the LDF.

State Agriculture Minister Mullakara Ratnakaran says Pawar has been particularly discriminatory against Kerala. “Kerala has been relying heavily on other states, especially Andhra Pradesh, for rice for the past few decades. The situation became severe this year with the Centre slashing the state’s PDS quota by as much as 82 percent,’’ he says.

The Congress leadership in the state is happy with the turn of events. “Pawar has lost the right to continue as minister after his statement,” says KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala.

Muraleedharan’s defence of his boss, meanwhile, is making him more and more unpopular. “Why is Pawar alone being blamed for the denial of rice? He has agreed to help Kerala in whatever possible way. Both the fronts are vilifying him only to destroy NCP’s Kerala unit,” Muraleedharan told TEHELKA. He refused to answer queries on the party’s plans.

Amid the charges and counter-charges, Muraleedharan is planning to launch a television channel to buoy his and his party’s popularity. But others in the party call it a ploy to ensure uninterrupted media coverage for him. Without media attention, they say, Muraleedharan can’t survive.


Police‘Duress’ Has Woman Join Maoists


High Court staffer goes underground citing harassment by cops. Embarrassed state government yet to respond


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram


YOUR GOVERNMENT and your police have made me a Maoist. They have given me the political will to become a full-time Maoist instead of just being an ideological sympathiser,” wrote PA Shyna in a letter to the Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. The chief minister, who received the letter last week, has chosen to ignore the issue.

Hailing from an affluent Muslim family of central Kerala, Shyna is risking not only her life but also the future of her two small daughters by adopting Maoism. But she blames her move on the Kerala police and its continuing atrocities on her family.

The Kerala Police raided Shyna’s house on January 10 this year following a ‘tip-off’ that some Maoists from West Bengal were holding a secret meeting there. The police took into custody several human rights activists who had come from Nandigram, West Bengal, along with Shyna and her children. Though no case was registered, the police insisted that Shyna had connections with banned Maoist groups in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

Shyna went underground with her children after the police raided a house in Perumbavoor, where a top CPI (Maoist) leader from Andhra Pradesh had stayed during last February. A special team of the Andhra Pradesh police nabbed Malla Raja Reddy from Angamaly in December 2007. Reddy later confessed that he and his aide had come to Kerala earlier that month.

The police said it Shyna’s house to “locate a laptop which allegedly belonged to Reddy,” after the family fled. Though they had no evidence to substantiate their claim, police have often claimed that Shyna and her husband Roopesh hid Reddy in their house.

Anticipating further trouble, she decided to quit her job and sent the resignation letter by registered post. The registrar of high court refused to accept it and she had to send a messenger carrying the letter later.

“Problems of everyday existence and the responsibility to look after the needs of the children had prevented me from active political work. These were the reasons why I had chosen the clerical work. Now the policemen are behind me and the education of my children remains affected even though I had never associated with any ultra Left organisation,’’ says Shyna justifying her decision to join the Maoists.

Kerala High Court registrar Sathish Chandran refused to comment on the issue.

ACCORDING TO TA Sudheesh, former president of High Court Staff Association, “Two years have gone since Shyna left her post. When the registrar issued the termination order, the union exerted pressure to revoke it. Shyna had no extremist links then. I don’t know why she is choosing the Maoist path now.” Shyna was also the association’s vice-president.

Kochi Police Commissioner Manoj Abraham said there was no case pending against Shyna under his jurisdiction. Though police from Kalamassery town police station conducted the raids, no case is registered there.

A strong Marxist sympathiser in her initial years, Shyna started distancing herself from the CPM during her college days. After her post-graduation, she chose the job of a clerk with the Kerala High Court in 1998.

Shyna’s woes started soon after she formed the Cochin Export Processing Zone Workers Union (CEPZ). The companies in the CEPZ paid low wages and the employees faced extreme working conditions. By organising the workers, Shyna started to highlight their plight, say her associates.

Shyna was also associated with the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, an apolitical organisation, which fought for the restoration of tribal land. According to high court sources, it was her appearance at such public platforms that invited action from the authorities who said it was a violation of service rules. But Shyna justified her involvement saying she was never part of any political group and was fighting for human rights.

Though the probation period in the court was two years, Shyna had to work for four years. At the end of the fourth year, there were attempts to terminate her services without citing any reason. The move was revoked following intervention of the Kerala High Court Staff Association.

Kerala Police dubbed Shyna a Maoist when she criticised them for allowing the Andhra Pradesh police to arrest CPI(ML) Maoist Central Committee member Santo Raja Mouli from Kollam in southern Kerala.

“I have committed nothing wrong and history will absolve me,” says Shyna. “I feel Maoism is the better option to fight state terror. The credit for making me a Maoist goes to the Left government and its police. You made me a Maoist.’’

A Taint To Remember

Kodiyeri in PB

Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has reached the Politburo, but his track record is murky

KA SHAJI

ON THE EXACT day when Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was getting elevated to the Politburo at the CPM’s Coimbatore Party Congress, the Kerala High Court was making a scathing attack on his police policy which had failed miserably in restoring normalcy in Kannur, scene of violent clashes between the CPM and
the RSS. That was not the first time the court came down heavily on Balakrishnan’s police. Soon after the latest bout of political violence in Kannur in March, the court even questioned the sincerity of the investigating officials and condemned the political interference in investigations.

Despite all this, Balakrishnan made it to the politburo, outscoring even senior collegues like Education Minister MA Baby and Local Administration Minister Paloly Mohammed Kutty. As far as Chief Minister Achuthanandan is concerned, Balakrishnan is a lesser evil to him compared to Baby and Kutty, loyalists of the CPM’s Kerala secretary Pinarayi Vijan. For an average Keralite, Balakrishnan is a product of the party’s lumpen political ethos in the volatile Kannur district. Balakrishnan started his political career as a party strongman in the region where the cadre often engaged in the “politics of annihilation”. Like Pinarayi Vijayan, he always justified the criminal elements within the party fold by speaking of the need of self-defence against the BJP-RSS communalists.

Though elected to the state Assembly on four occasions from Thalassery, he never held any administrative position before being made the home minister. Vijayan’s moves to foil Achuthanandan’s attempts at becoming the chief minister by denying him a seat backfired when the cadre and the public went up in protest. But Vijayan vowed not to allow him the prestigious home ministry. He chose Balakrishnan for the post ignoring his lack of administrative acumen. The elevation of Balakrishnan to the Politburo, it seems, is a clever strategy to create yet another power centre in Vijayan’s home turf of Kannur. Even though Balakrishnan chose to ignore the “media finding” that he would turn a new power centre in Kannur politics, top sources within the party say that if Vijayan is indicted in the multi-crore SNC Lavlin scam by the CBI, the central leadership can hand over the secretaryship to Balakrishnan.

They are also hoping Balakrishnan would be the ideal candidate for chief ministership after the retirement of Achuthanandan. But, before all that happens, Balakrishnan must squeeze himself out of an old scandal that is refusing to go away. Balakrishnan is accused of performing puja at the Kadampuzha temple in Malappuram district, which many believe helps in eliminating one’s enemies. The CPM, in self-defence, says that Balakrishnan is a proclaimed atheist and no ritual meant for eliminating adversaries was conducted at the temple on his behalf. But the allegation against Balakrishnan persists. Balakrishnan turned defensive when Janashakti, a Marxist publication, reported last year that the wife and son of the home minister had performed the puja at the temple after manipulating the list using his influence as minister.

AN IRKED Balakrishnan soon ordered a crime branch inquiry to prove his innocence but no probe has been held so far. Last week, the Kerala home department pleaded ignorance about such an inquiry ordered by the minister when an advocate sought details of the probe using the RTI Act. When the issue refused to die down, Balakrishnan asked the state crime branch to look into the affair. The explanation of the party was this: Balakrishnan, in whose name the puja was performed on August 6, 2006, was not the home minister but a high school teacher who went by the same name. But the temple authorities were not ready to buy the explanation. “I am absolutely certain that the people I received at the temple were the minister’s wife and members of his family accompanied by a circle inspector and personal staff,”
said a temple official, who preferred anonymity. Despite his unimpressive track record, Balakrishnan’s political credibility will now depend on how fast he extricates himself from the scandal he is currently embroiled in.



The Branding Of Region

GI Status

Indian farm products queue up for a unique mark that lends them an internationally recognised status, reports KA SHAJI in Kochi

IT IS THE original black gold — long before oil was discovered under the desert sands, it was the lure of this spice that had launched a thousand ships. Columbus reached the West Indies, but it was the Malabar coast that was his real destination. The treasure he was seeking to trade in — pepper. The seafarer who did reach the pepper coast, Vasco da Gama, wanted his men to take back saplings. King Zamorin of Calicut (now Kozhikode) was unfazed. “They can’t take along our monsoon,” he is supposed to have famously said.

How right he was. Without the unique south-west monsoon, there can be no Malabar pepper for it is the monsoon rains that cause pollination in local pepper vines. Centuries after Vasco da Gama, the distinctive nature of Malabar Grade 1 and Thalassery (formerly Tellicherry) pepper has been recognised and they’ve bagged the prestigious Geographical Indication (GI) status. This puts Malabar pepper in a special niche, like Champagne, Tequila or Roquefort — or Basmati, Pashmina and Darjeeling tea, for that matter.

Designed to conform to World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms, GIs identify the origin, quality and reputation of a product. “This is a rare recognition and it gives us legal protection against unauthorised claims,” says S. Kannan, director, Spice Board.

The GI tag is also a guarantee of quality and it allows growers to establish their produce as a brand that commands premium prices. India’s GI laws have been effective since 2003, but it’s only now that their impact is being felt, with more and more Indian products winning international recognition. Producers are taking advantage of the labelling, setting high standards, and commanding a higher price. India produces 50,000 tonnes of pepper annually and exports 32,000 tonnes, which makes it the second largest exporter of the spice (next to Vietnam). “It’s a welcome relief,’’ says AC Varkey, chairman of Malabar-based Farmers’ Relief Forum.

Another product that received the GI mark is Alleppey (now Alappuzha) green cardamom. Again, growers will benefit as the majority of the country’s nearly 9,000 tonnes of cardamom production is of this variety. “The idea is to provide legal protection to Indian Geographical Indications and to boost exports,” says a GI official.

The GI boom has touched the paddy sector as well: ‘Palakkadan matta’ rice and two varieties of the medicinal ‘Navara’ rice (black glumed and golden yellow glumed), have been registered. Palakkadan matta is described as a bold red rice with a unique taste that comes from the crop’s geographical location and peculiar weather, whereby the action of the east wind is crucial to the flavour of the rice.

Other products are waiting their turn: Wayanad district, which produces about 71 percent of Kerala’s coffee and stands second only to Coorg, in Karnataka, on the national coffee production graph, has also applied for GI status. Better known as Monsoon Malabar Coffee, its USP is a unique processing system that owes its flavour to serendipity.

In the Nilgiri hills, it is the cup that cheers that’s looking forward to GI status. Aromatic Nilgiri Tea has several attributes of flavour that have prompted the Tea Board to file for GI status. The orthodox variety of tea being produced here comes to around 10 million kilos per year, and about 70 percent of this variety is exported. “The certification will provide solace to small and medium cultivators as well,’’ hopes KV Poulose, one such cultivator in Gudalur.

While acquiring GI status is certainly a huge advantage, getting it is no mean task. “First, one needs to ensure that the products stay pure and that there is no adulteration. At the next stage, othercountries that import these commodities and related products must sign a legal mandate,’’ said Spice Board chairman V J Kurian. Also, getting the GI mark is not the ultimate goal. Farmers’ leaders point out that , often, GI status is just the beginning. “The government must ensure an increase in crop production, without compromising on quality. The target must be to help the lower strata of farmers. Finding better markets using GI status would help bail out cash crop farmers who have been distressed lately due to severe fall in prices,” says M. Surendran, who leads Infam, a farmers’ organisation.

The fiscal 2007-08 has seen 31 GI registrations — the highest number ever. And as uniquely Indian products start to standardise their cultivation and production values, these numbers are set to increase. In business-speak, that’s called the ideal brand protect.

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A Bend To The Right

CPM Party Congress


The Buddhadeb line gains ground at Coimbatore, but talk of a third front is headed nowhere, reports KA SHAJI


ELECTORAL ARITHMETIC seems to be too much for transformative politics to solve. The 19th Party Congress of the CPM ended with a resolve to take the initiative in floating a national-level third front, but the party seems to have learnt little from the bitter United Front and National Front experiences. General Secretary Prakash Karat and Politburo member Sitaram Yechury preferred to remain silent when asked to name parties with an “alternative platform of policies” that the CPM is looking to tie up with. There have been few takers for the CPM’s offer other than a few members of the now defunct UNPA. Moreover, parties like the DMK, RJD and NCP seem more concerned with continuing with the existing UPA.

In Karnataka, the fiasco of the Janata Dal (Secular)’s alliance with the BJP is making the comrades nervous of approaching it. And delegates from Andhra Pradesh and UP complained that Chandrababu Naidu and Mulayam Singh Yadav were even more neo-liberal than the Congress. In such a situation, talk of a third alternative and transformative politics remains so much rhetoric. Why not, then, initiate dialogue with the Maoist outfits, which share the CPM’s concerns on imperialism, Hindutva and neo-liberalism? Sitaram Yechury confronted this question on the first day of the congress by saying that there cannot be a dialogue with them until they lay down arms. However, there was no reply when asked about the CPM’s refusal to accept the disarming of Maoist groups in Nepal as a precondition for their entering into a dialogue with mainstream parties there.

Nor was there any talk of aligning with people’s movements or including civil society groups into the third alternative.The growing clout of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in the party is preventing such a dialogue. The congress also showed little care for Left unity. Though CPI general secretary AB Bardhan was a guest of honour at the inaugural function, no leader of the other Left parties — RSP and Forward Bloc — was invited. In its organisational report, the CPM even stressed the need for fighting the RSP and Forward Bloc “politically and organisationally”.

The congress, which marked an end of the Jyoti Basu-Harkishan Singh Surjeet era, was also reflective of the CPM’s changed perspective on FDI, industrialisation and displacement. The CPM’s stand that it alone will not be able to stop SEZs came as a rude shock to nine delegates from Maharashtra who wanted a blanket ban on them. The elevation to the Politburo of West Bengal Industry Minister Nirupam Sen, the architect aggressive economic reforms, is another example. A second new face in the Politburo is Kerala Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a similar proponent of “reform”.


Hammered By The Sickle

Kuttanad's bitter harvest

The CPM’s anachronisms reach a frightening level: rice farmers are starving because the party says, ‘no machines’. KA SHAJI reports


THE CPM’S time-warped ideas are reaping a bloody harvest for Kerala’s rice farmers. The party’s peasants’ unions have been boycotting machines for years, insisting that the sickle is revolutionary both as tool and idea. Ask local Congress leader and rice farmer Shaji Cherukad, and he’ll tell you that raising a banner of revolt in the Red bastion of Alappuzha is a recipe for starvation. Cherukad lent his fields for a “symbolic” protest by Congress leaders against the CPM unions’ refusal to allow farmers the use of cutting and threshing machines.

The Congress’ state leadership turned up in full strength to deploy a giant harvesting machine on Cherukad’s farm in the Kuttanad region, and offered the gathered mediapersons some defiant bytes. But no sooner had the ceremonies ended that Cherukad’s woes began. Those in charge of operating the machine fled fearing the CPM’s wrath, and the farm workers avenged this assault on peasants’ unity by boycotting Cherukad’s farm. Twenty days after the harvest date, the crop lies uncut and rotting. What makes the situation bizarre in the Alappuzha-Kuttanad region, once called Kerala’s rice bowl, is that the embargo on machines has meant a severe shortage of farm hands.

At Thengara, a 69-year-old farmer died on March 27 while cutting the crop. TG Govinda Pillai died after he had been forced to reap the crop himself after weeks of vain search for labourers. The comrades are now seeking to overcome this obstacle with an elaborate plan whereby farm workers will have to take turns to work in the fields from next year. “Each worker should sow and reap at the time specified for him. This will ensure that enough workers are available and farmers wouldn’t need to come to us asking to be allowed to hire machines,” says CK Bodhanandan, leader of the Travancore Karshaka Thozhilali Union (TKTU).

Both production and acreage of rice have been plummeting over the years. The state depends on its neighbours for about 80 percent of its requirement. Also, the fact that harvesting takes a long time, increases the crops’ vulnerability to summer rains. Over 1,500 hectares of paddy was submerged in the rains in the belowsea level Kuttanad this year. Another moderateto- strong shower could wipe out a crop worth over Rs 30 crore in almost 7,000 hectares .

FARM LABOUR makes up the bulk of the CPM cadre in the region. The TKTU fixes the farm wage and considers applications for permission to use a machine. But even this is a big change. Five years ago, the union had enforced a blanket ban on machines in over a lakh hectares. Today, not a single farmer owns a harvesting machine. Some hire machines from Tamil Nadu. While the strong unionisation of farm labour has regularly hiked wages, it has also forced many farmers to shift to cash crops.

Not even Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s campaign some years ago here, in which party workers chopped down cash crops, has helped. The TKTU’s leaders extract a nokkukooli (payment for watching work being done) for every harvesting machine allowed into a farm. Though the union denies the levy, not everyone’s amused. It takes 10 or more workers a full day’s effort to harvest an acre of paddy; a single machine can do the job in less than an hour. The CPM’s intransigence has left the region on the brink of famine. “I could have saved at least 90 percent of my crop if I had a machine. The harvesting would have been over in the first week of March itself, before the rains that destroyed my crop this year,” laments Samuel Kunju, another farmer. “I had taken a loan of Rs 1,75,000. How am I going to repay it? Maybe I should ask the union.”