20080718

Tears In God's Own Country

As the Kerala government goes on an overdrive to sell tourism, its major destinations are beginning to resemble garbage dumps

KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram

IT’S BEEN two years since the World Travel and Tourism Council’s ill-fated shortlisting of Kerala, along with Greece and Mexico, for its Destination of the Year award. The nomination drew widespread civil society criticism, which protested that Kerala was no model of sustainable tourism by any international standard, and that tourism had in fact done very little to ensure “maximum benefit to local communities”, a key criterion for the award. They also highlighted the massive degradation tourism promotion has wrought on Kerala’s highly sensitive ecology. The council finally dropped the nomination, dealing a temporary setback, at least, to the vaulting ambitions of Kerala’s tourism stakeholders.

In the months since, the divide between local communities and the state’s tourism industry seems only to have grown. Powerful lobbies have made rampant encroachments on forest and revenue land, targeting hill stations, backwater regions, coastal areas, wildlife sanctuaries and small land holdings owned by Adivasis and other economically disadvantaged groups. To take the Munnar hill station case alone, encroachment here was as much as two lakh acres, according to government figures. Last week, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan admitted in the Assembly that last year’s much-hyped eviction drive had retrieved only 15,000 acres in Munnar and 3,000 acres in the rest of the state. The numbers, however, do not tally with those of the state Revenue Ministry, according to which only 4,500 acres have been retrieved in Munnar. The anti-encroachment drive, meanwhile, has died an unmourned death as vested interests managed to influence mainstream parties in both the ruling front and the Opposition.

A major casualty of the damage done to Kerala’s unique backwater region is the Vembanad Lake, the largest in the Alappuzha-Kottayam region, the setting for Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. According to fisheries and backwaters expert Dr S. Bijoy Nandan, about 65 percent of the lake has fallen victim to reclamation projects. His finding is corroborated by the Kerala Council for Science, Technology and the Environment, which reports that the state has only 23 percent of its backwaters left.

The famous Kumarakom bird sanctuary in Kottayam is another martyr to flawed concepts of tourism promotion. Situated near Aymanam village, where Roy’s novel unfolds, it became a must-see over the last few years. Three years ago, large stretches of mangrove forests in the sanctuary were destroyed by government agencies to ensure “easy visibility of birds to visiting tourists”. As a result, the number of bird species in the sanctuary has come down from 189 to 66. “If this continues, Kumarakom will have no birds in another decade,” foresees Kerala’s well-known birdwatcher PA Uthaman. Another warning comes from environmentalist MK Prasad, who points to the horrifying shrinkage of the mangroves from 70,000 hectares to just one percent of their former size. “Hotels and holiday resorts have mushroomed in reclaimed wetlands which were once part of the mangrove ecosystems. Nobody is bothered about the mangroves in Kerala now,” he says.

In the coastal region, illegal construction has made a mockery of all laws to curb environmental degradation. The tourism lobby is also alleged to have forced traditional fishermen to quit their lands and livelihoods by inducing them to sell their usually minuscule properties at throwaway prices. Fisherman Tenson, 52, used to own about a fifth of an acre near Alappuzha’s famous Mararikulam beach. He lost it all a few months ago when he sold it for a pittance. “Thirty-eight men came to my house one morning to convince me over three-and-a-half hours to sell. How can a poor, unlettered fisherman like me resist such tactics?” Tenson’s eyes brim with tears. “Later, after I’d thought about it, I wanted to give back the advance they’d given me and get out of the agreement. But even though I tried continuously for six months, which was the period in which I could walk out of the agreement, they never showed up. Finally, I was forced to transfer my property into their hands.” Hundreds like Tenson have been rendered bereft of their centuries-old livelihood in coastal Kerala. Dalits and tribals in hill stations like Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad have met the same fate.

Meanwhile, says fishermen’s leader Lal Koyilparambil, the privatisation of Mararikulam’s “public” beach is almost complete with almost 90 percent of it in the hands of private entrepreneurs. While the Kerala government continues to tout Mararikulam as a shining example of “responsible tourism”, the beach’s erstwhile fishermen have been dispossessed forever of the lands and sea they once called their own.

Another pet Kerala concept that’s bitten the dust is eco-tourism. “Come to Wayanad and you’ll see the mushrooming number of resorts close to pristine forests. They offer illicit liquor and wild game meat along with opportunities to sexually exploit tribal girls,” says firebrand tribal leader CK Janu, who has campaigned hard against the resorts along with her outfit, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha.

“Kerala’s long-term sustainability as a tourist paradise is under threat,” says Sumesh Mangalassery, a tourism researcher and head of the NGO Kabani — The Other Direction. “Even the government is now admitting the fact that major tourist destinations suffer from a host of serious problems: piling of waste and garbage, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of landuse and infrastructure planning, encroachment, unauthorised constructions and drinking water shortage are just some.” A sad pass for a state once rated by National Geographic Traveller as among the 50 mustsee destinations of a life time.

Sewage is another menace. State Pollution Control Board (PCB) studies have found that 100 ml of sewage water discharged from the houseboats’ so-called “bio-toilets” contain 9,000 to 30,000 coli-form bacteria. The permissible level is 50 in 100 ml of drinking water and 500 in 100 ml bathing water.

ACCORDING TO THE PCB, one million cubic metres of sewage is generated in the state’s coastal areas, of which 30,000 cubic metres reach the surface of water bodies. The backwaters in Kochi alone receive 60 tonnes of sewage from the city. Streets in major tourist destinations like Alappuzha and Kochi now resemble garbage dumps, leading to the outbreak of epidemic diseases like chikungunya in post-monsoon periods over the last few years.

When contacted, Kerala State Pollution Control Board chairman G. Rajmohan said the board is in consultation with the tourism department and local bodies to evolve a permanent mechanism to minimise pollution. He also claimed that efforts were already on to initiate legal measures against large-scale violaters. The board can act tough only with the help of local bodies and so its success depends on their sincerity, he said.

For future action, says Kerala Home and Tourism Affairs Minister Kodiyeri Balakarishnan, “The state’s acceptance of responsible tourism as a motto is part of efforts to save the situation. Nature will be protected and haphazard growth of tourism will not be encouraged.”

But the government has made a poor showing so far. As Kerala Congress (Secular) MLA PC George points out, “The ruling CPMand CPI have leased 90 percent of their multi-storeyed party office buildings in Munnar to private hands to run resorts. The irony is that both party offices are situated on encroached lands, something the land mafia cites to justify their own encroachments. So, just who of these will initiate the rectification drive?” In all likelihood, neither. •

Wedded In Delhi Divorced In Kerala


Anti-Americanism keeps them together at the Centre, but in Kerala the CPM and CPI are at each other’s jugular. Will the Congress have the last laugh?


KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram


WHILE LEFT parties in New Delhi join hands for their biggest anti-America battle yet, a very different scenario is playing out in traditional Red stronghold Kerala, where the CPM and the CPI have been sparring with each other for over a year now. Sour relations between the two took a new turn for the worse in early July, with the late-night arrest of PS Supal, state head of the CPI’s youth wing, the All India Youth Federation (AIYF). The arrest of a Left leader under a government headed by a Left party rocked the Kerala Assembly, and the CPM found itself isolated even among its partners in the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).

According to political observers, the incident has foregrounded the strain in CPM-CPI relations, which began last year when a part of the CPI office in the famous Munnar hill station was demolished during an anti-encroachment drive. The CPI had been using just the ground floor of their multi-storeyed office for party purposes, while running a holiday resort out of the other floors. Demolition drive officials managed to partially demolish the building after a go ahead from Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. But the drive was aborted after an angry CPI openly took on Achuthanandan, while Revenue Minister and CPI MLA KP Rajendran got the concerned officials transferred using his ministerial powers. Thereafter, the CPI has never missed a chance to ridicule Achuthanandan and other CPM leaders on every platform they get.

“The CPI is playing spoilsport in Kerala, that too in an election year,” warns a CPM Central Committee member from North Kerala, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They handle the crucial agriculture, civil supplies, revenue and forest departments in the coalition ministry but have failed expectations miserably. If they further harm Left unity, they will be wiped out from Kerala politics.”

Until the Munnar incident, the CPI was not only in perfect harmony with Achuthanandan but also supported him against his party rivals led by controversial CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Along with the Achuthanandan camp, the CPI initially raised strong opposition to a multi-crore Asian Development Bank loan, which allegedly came with antipeople strings attached. But the party later made an abrupt U-turn without informing the chief minister, and facilitated the borrowing of the loan as planed by Finance Minister TM Thomas Issac, a Pinarayi lieutenant.

While the CPI and the CPM now slug it out, the former became the subject of open ridicule last month when it raised serious objections against the composition and funding of an integrated food security project. The brainchild of noted economist and Kerala Planning Board vice-chairman Prabhat Patnaik, the multicrore project was aimed at tackling Kerala’s food crisis by increasing rice production. The CPI saw the attempt as an interference in the affairs of its agriculture department; the CPM, however, finally went ahead with the project regardless. Then there was the controversy over the hundred-year-old Thiruvananthapuram golf club, which the CPI attempted to take over from an administrative body comprising IAS officials and top businessmen. While the club was shut down through the CPIheld revenue department, it was almost immediately reopened after the CPM put its weight behind it. The matter is currently before the Kerala High Court.

THE DIVIDE between the Left majors is most visible in CPI bastion Kollam. In order to rout the CPI candidate in the district co-operative bank elections, the CPM joined hands with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, another LDF partner. Unable to tolerate the defeat, the CPI last week abandoned its role as convener of the district Left coordination committee. “We all have collective responsibility for maintaining Left unity. The CPM has taken control of the cooperative bank in a most undemocratic way, and the cooperative department has gone out of its way to help them,” alleges CPI Kollam district secretary K. Prakashbabu.

In Idukki district in central Kerala, the dispute between the two parties over the sale of two tea estates has spilled out into the streets. A CPI public meeting, organised to protest the sale of the estates to big plantation groups, was attacked by a CPM mob at Vandiperiyar, near Munnar. Vazhur Soman, CPI state committee member and state vice-president of the All India Trade Union Congress, was among those injured in the attack.

The last Lok Sabha election saw the highest number of Left candidates winning from Kerala. The Left bagged 18 of 20 seats and the Congress got nothing. “The situation will be different this time,” says prominent Left-leaning writer and political observer Sara Joseph. “Kerala may be the only South Indian state where the Congress will have some advantage, and that is because of the street fighting within the CPM and among the Left partners. That will definitely influence the mandate and the Left will be lucky if it manages even six seats.”

Although Pinarayi Vijayan managed to regain control of the CPM, and is keeping Achuthanandan a prisoner of party discipline, the party is facing challenges from its own disgruntled cadres. A mammoth convention was held in Shoranur in Palakkad district where expelled leaders vowed to fight the ideological deviations and class compromises of the CPM leadership. Kerala has seen expelled CPM leaders organise gatherings of this scale only very rarely, but similar meetings are planned for other parts of the state and they are certain to damage the LDF’s prospects even further.

”The leadership has been adopting a neoliberal path for quite a while, and their class compromises are visible in their party and governmental decisions. This has worried the cadres, and a realignment process has already began in various parts,” says N. Sugathan, president of the Adhinivesa Prathirodha Samithy, a forum of activists who left the CPM over ideological differences.

Meanwhile, it is almost certain that most of the CPM’s sitting MPs will be denied tickets during the next elections, as they have not found a place in the good books of the mighty Pinarayi faction. K. Suresh Kurup of Kottayam and NN Krishnadas of Palakkad were known for their excellent performance in Parliament, but their proximity to Achuthanandan caused their demotion to the bottom of the party hierarchy. Kannur MP AP Abdulla Kutty, Manjery MP TK Hamza, Mavelikkara MP CS Sujatha and Ottapalam MP S. Ajayakumar are also out of favour for the same reason. Abdulla Kutty, an young leader who enjoys the support of the Muslim community, was subjected to disciplinary action last week for condemning bandhs and hartals. MP Veerendrakumar, Kozhikode MP and president of the Kerala faction of the Janata Dal, will also be denied a seat as Pinarayi openly blamed him and the newspaper Mathrubhumi, in which he’s a shareholder, for weakening Left unity by “propagating anti-Left canards”.

The CPI in Kerala has three seats in the present Lok Sabha, but even party insiders concede it will be tough for it to maintain any of them. In the meantime, Pinarayi has started efforts to bring the Kerala unit of the Nationalist Congress Party back into the LDF fold, ignoring opposition from Achuthanandan and all existing coalition partners. The NCP’s state president K. Muraleedharan, who refused to go back to the Congress along with his father, the Machiavellian K. Karunakaran, is in need of rehabilitation in any of the leading fronts. Last time, his participation was blocked by the CPM politburo following complaints from Achuthanandan. Pinarayi has reportedly promised the Kozhikode seat to Muraleedharan, based on the calculation that there would be not much opposition from the allies this time. •

20080711

A Time To Brood

Big family, happy `Christian' family

Kerala’s Catholic Church, distressed that the faithful have chosen family planning, exhorts more procreation

KA SHAJI Thiruvananthapuram

GO FORTH and multiply,” the Bible says God told Adam, and that’s what the Catholic Church in Kerala is directing its flock to do too. The state’s family planning programme has been the country’s most successful, but that doesn’t seem to have impressed the Church, which is worried over a drop in Christian numbers from 19.5 percent of Kerala’s population in 1991 to 19 percent ten years later. There is also the Keralite passion for quality education, which has taken large numbers of young people out of the state, leaving behind a rather grey aspect to the Christian age demographic — in most parishes here, active members are rarely younger than 60.

So, borrowing perhaps from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which exhorted Hindus to boost their numbers a few years ago, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) has called on the faithful to say goodbye to family planning. An umbrella organisation of 29 Catholic dioceses, the KCBC has directed its parishioners to not be overly worried about the economic constraints that make family planning an attractive option. Instead, a massive social security project has been constituted to come to their rescue, with financial and emotional assistance for families with more than two children. “Catholic parents with large families can now look forward to plenty of material, emotional and spiritual support from the clergy in bringing them up,” says KCBC deputy secretary Father Stephen Alathara.

Free education and healthcare are just the start of the package; another area of focus is a campaign against abortions. “We want to promote and encourage a pro-life policy,” says Cardinal Varkey Vithyathil. He is not, however, prepared to accept the suggestion that the Church is worried at the dwindling numbers of its followers. “This is not about increasing numbers. We have seen the ill effects of nuclear families. While we understand that economically disadvantaged parents may find it difficult to have more than two children, our plan to provide free education and healthcare to families after the birth of their third child will, we hope, encourage them to have a rethink before limiting the number of their children.”

Last year, Vithayathil had, in a pastoral letter read out at Sunday Masses across the state, reminded believers of the need to uphold what he called responsible parenthood. If Kerala’s Christians continued with their present negative growth trends, by 2050 half their population would be made up of the old, the letter warned.

THE CHURCH also wants to emphasise the Christian concept of love and marriage, which ties sexuality to procreation. Parents should bring forth more offspring and rear them in Christian piety rather than take the easy, unethical course of limiting family sizes, said a priest closely associated with the KCBC.

KCBC family commission secretary, Father Jose Kottayil says, “We are planning to provide life guidance training to youngsters. It would help them become aware of the Christian concept of families.” He goes on to blame largescale migration to foreign countries and the “micro-family” syndrome for keeping Kerala’s Catholics static in number. “Our community is well educated and economically better off. Many young parents have only one child to ensure social security, even if they have the means to afford to raise more children,’’ he points out. Vithyathil blames this on “the gross materialism, the weak or corrupted churches and the widespread rejection of Christian beliefs in the West. These have made it easy to convince the public to swallow population control propaganda.”

The move has already irked the Sangh Parivar. “Kerala’s Muslims are always against family planning. Now the Christians are also going the same way,” said a top leader from the Kerala BJP, preferring anonymity. “Both communities are now controlling most of the resources of the state, and an increase in their numbers will definitely create tensions in the future.”

Ayyo, AMMA!

MACTA fiasco

While the rest of the country worries over fuel prices and inflation, Kerala prefers a cinematic cause celebre, reports KA SHAJI

IT’S AN incredible example of navel-gazing. In a week in which news channels across the country were exercised about issues such as the fuel price hike and the Congress-Left parties impasse, television channels in Kerala were fretting about their cinema controversy.

In this theatre of the absurd, since June 4, three of the top Malayalam television channels gave almost 30 percent of airtime to the escalating turf war between the Malayalam Cine Technicians’ Association (MACTA) and the superstar-heavy Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA). Did consumers in Kerala share their news channels’ priorities? Or did the controversy simply provide Malayalis with a slapstick diversion? Either way, no one offered them a choice.

From the time that MACTA’s vaudeville act unfolded, little else occupied the media space. At an executive meeting attended by film actors, directors and technicians, MACTA general secretary and film director Vinayan allegedly said something that caused the crème de la crème of the federation — Siddique, Fazil, Joshy, Priyadarshan, Sibi Malayil, Lal Jose, Rafi-Mecartin, Shafi, Johny Antony, Anwar Rasheed — to resign en masse. They walked out and into the waiting arms of AMMA, run by the capos of Malayalam cinema, Mammootty and Mohanlal. Soon they were joined by the Producers’ Union and then the Writers’ Union.

It all began when actor Dileep walked out of a project to be directed by Tulasidas. Sources say that Tulasidas was ousted from the film at Dileep’s behest and so he accused the actor of walking out without returning the advance. “The Dileep-Tulasidas issue could have been sorted out by the directors. But their union referred it to the MACTA executive council. I had warned Vinayan a trap has been laid for him,” said John Paul, a neutral figure and one of Malayalam cinema’s finest scriptwriters.

Vinayan issued Dileep a showcause notice and a ban order. But Siddique, who wanted a hasslefree start for his new film with Dileep, said that bans were foolish. This prompted Vinayan’s comment, which triggered the resignation drama.

Was this an AMMA tactic to cut Vinayan to size? Even his friends admit that it was as a trade union leader that Vinayan found his metier. He had fought the producers when they tried to ban filmmakers, insisted actors pay for cost overruns caused by their failure to keep schedules and had daily allowances of film drivers and unit boys increased. Producers threatened to stop work, but he ordered MACTA members to strike and the Malayalam film industry came to a standstill. The producers gave in. “If the breakaway group feels Vinayan has grown into a monster, they are responsible. They could have voted him out last year, but their dislike of each other was greater,’’ says a Vinayan follower.

Now, there is a vertical split in MACTA and a leading actor says AMMA will become a trade union. As part of a strategy to hijack MACTA’s role, AMMA leaders told Dileep on June 29 to return the advance. Though Vinayan did urge the breakaway faction to return, it seems as if he has won the battle but lost the war.

As for the viewers, they too have won the battle for film information — they have much more detail than they need — but have lost the war of choice. •