Sparring between PSC and Government

The PSC and the government are at loggerheads over extension of ranked lists for appointments to various posts in government.  It was usual for the Cabinet to recommend extension of various rank lists for different reasons and PSC used to accept them routinely. This time the left- dominated Board of the PSC has refused to accept the recommendations of the government, leading to almost a show down between the autonomous PSC and the government. Obviously, politics is behind the decision of the PSC though there is some merit in PSC’s stand.

The government wants extension of the ranked lists because of its decision to discontinue unified retirement date introduced by the previous government and fix 56 years as the age of superannuation.  The extension will offset the disadvantage arising from the decision to those in the live ranked lists of PSC.  However, it is notable that for the youth seeking employment in government service and who are yet to be in a PSC list, the decision would offset their entry by about one year. This is partly the result of the previous government’s decision also as the decision by the previous and present governments effectively increased the retirement age by one year in two steps.

The consequence of this to new applicants would be that they would enter government service one year later, on an average, and retire a year later. So, the average age of government servants would shift upwards and the youth who have already passed their examinations would have a longer wait for job.

However, the general consequence of extension of ranked lists is that the quality of those entering into government service would come down. A PSC list is expected to be live for only one year. However, if new list is not published, a list will be valid up to three years. This is what is being extended to up to 4.5 years now. Over such a long period, the best candidates in the list would get other jobs. Finally, those getting advice in the fourth year would be those who would not have normally got into government service.

If the PSC struck to the one year norms, the government would be getting the best of the lot and at an early age. However, the PSC is so understaffed and so bureaucratic that this hardly ever happens. New lists are always delayed. And this is the best excuse for government to seek extension of rank lists when they come under pressure from those in the live lists.

 

Endosulfan: the denouement

The Supreme Court has finally said it: no more studies are needed (to establish the link between the broad spectrum pesticide endosulfan and the health effects on people).  This is apparently the results of work done by Dr. Mohammed Aisheel and others in compiling a large bibliography of studies on endosulfan besides recent studies by Kerala government and various research establishments.

The studies showed   that the endosulfan could cause large number of diseases reported from Kasaragod district of Kerala and Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and the mechanism of action of the pesticide in human body. Studies may still be needed to conclusively establish that some of the diseases manifesting in the district is indeed caused by endosulfan.

endosulfan

A severely handicapped child who is getting assistance as an endosulfan victim

That is, while endosulfan as cause of many diseases is established, it may be more difficult to establish that the very diseases in a person or group are caused by endosulfan. The disease can be caused by other factors and these needed to be eliminated to prove the latter. However, the Supreme Court is satisfied with the evidence at hand and ordered continuing of the nation-wide ban on endosulfan on the basis of the precautionary principle.

It is notable that the Union Agriculture Commissioner maintained in his report prepared for the committee appointed by the Supreme Court that said that the problems were confined to Kerala and Karnataka and recommended ban only in these two States.  They had even taken the line of the endosulfan manufacturers that endosulfan is safe to pollinators which goes against the findings of the Kerala Agriculture University.

It is also notable that much of the data and studies linking endosulfan to various diseases were available when the O.P. Dubey and C. D. Mayee committees appointed by the Central government declared that no link had been established between the use of endosulfan in the estates of Plantation Corporation of Kerala and the health problems reported from the Padre village. The Director of Agriculture of Kerala Government, who was a member of the Mayee committee, signed the committee report. This was despite the findings of the expert committee (headed by Dr. P. K. Sivaraman), appointed by the Kerala government, which was before him.  The report was submitted in August 2003 and the Director signed the report in December 2004, hardly ten days before then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy visited Kasaragod promising succor to the endosulfan victims.

The victims are yet to get the package promised to them except for sanction given for a project funded by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Though it has been shown that the aerial spraying of endosulfan was done disregarding the rules and without valid requirement for pest management, no action had been taken against any of the officials culpable of poisoning entire villages.

Endosulfan: spray of death
Endosulfan: brochure published by Kerala Government (13 MB)
Endosulfan: a Kerala story

 

Administering drugs, instead of controlling mosquitoes

The government and local bodies, which could not control mosquitoes or supply mosquito nets to the poor, will again embark on mass administration of drugs for filariasis later this month, assuming that an unknown percentage of the population is infected.  (Official documents claims that the prevalence of microfilaria towards the end of last century was about 15 per cent.  Current figures are not known.)

This is somewhat like administering paracetamol to the entire population during monsoon assuming that many people have contacted fever. No one knows whether repeated administration of drugs (diethyl carbamazene citrate-DEC and albendazole) year after year would reduce its effectiveness. Filaria may develop resistance over a long period, going by the evolutionary principle. WHO had conducted a study in 2008 to find out whether the effectiveness of albendazole had decreased following mass administration among children in Nepal. (Though the study has been reported on the WHO Website, the results could not be found.)

However, the main concern is regarding the ethics and use of funds.  It is against medical ethics to administer potent drugs to people with no disease for which the drug is a cure. Moreover, principles like that a doctor should see the patient and administer drugs as per body weight is dispensed with. This also means that advisable precautions are not taken. (See http://www.icm.tn.gov.in/drug%20formulary/ANTIINFECTIVE%20DRUGS.htm)

Mayor swallows pills

Thiruvanathauram Mayor K. Chandrika takes the pills at inaugural of Mass Drug Administration

Drugs for entire families are delivered together by volunteers even to children if the parents are not at home. There is the risk of children consuming the drug indiscriminately, resulting in overdose. Warning against use of the drug by infants, pregnant women and the elderly may not always reach them. Both DEC and albendazole are prescription drugs which are to be administered by doctors and supplied through pharmacists.

The mechanism of action of the diethylcarbamazene citrate against microfilaria (the causative parasitic organism of filariasis) is not known.  Latest studies show that the unusual and novel therapeutic effect on the cell walls of the parasite which is yet to be fully studied. The drug has effect on human neutrophil and eosinophil. (See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC185347/pdf/aac00198-0157.pdf)

Doctors are not even sure of the dosage (The earlier recommendation was for administration of diethyl carbamazene citrate for 12 days. Now the prescription is just one dose of the drug combination). Still, it is being administrated to the entire population (excluding three districts in Kerala) though none can be sure of long term effects of taking the drug year after year.   Albendazole can cause birth defects in newborns, if taken during pregnancy, according to authoritative sources. (See http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a610019.html)

Reaction to diethyl carbamazene citrate can range from dizziness, nausea and vomiting to skin rashes, fever and even anaphylaxis (which can be fatal). The latter reactions caused by dead microfilaria rather than the drug occur only if microfilaria is present in the body in large numbers and anaphylaxis will occur only in people allergic to dead microfilaria. ( A case of such reaction was reported from Trivandrum Medical College years ago.) Few reports of such incidents in Kerala indicate the prevalence of microfilaria is actually lower than projected.

The practice of mass drug administration against filariasis had been started about a decade ago. The claim was that the disease could be eliminated in five years with 65 per cent coverage of the endemic areas. This did not happen and the project is now being extended with new target of 2015 for elimination. If the money spent on mass drug administration was spent on improving primary health care, it could have helped in the treatment of many diseases.

Fogging

Fogging for mosquito control

The prevalence of filariasis, it may be noted, is actually the results of lack primary health care. Diseases like elephantiasis, the advanced form of filariasis, occur in society because of absence of proper health care. For filariasis could be cured, if detected at its early stages, and progression into elephantiasis could surely be prevented. Doctors can easily advice tests to confirm filariasis at early stage when swelling of testis or breasts is noticed.

Elephantiasis is absent among upper strata of society because they get early treatment. Incidence of filarisis is also lower among them because of use of mosquito nets and other measures to prevent mosquito bites. If the government provided mosquito nets to the poor, instead of drugs for cure, not only filariasis but also other vector borne diseases such malaria, Dengue fever, chikungunya could have be prevented to a great extent.

Poisoned food

Every man has a right to food as implicit in the right to employment. However, this right is being denied not only to the poor but also to others also these days.

Almost all the food items sold in public markets are poisoned. The situation usually goes beyond mere adulteration. High levels of red and yellow category pesticides including organo-chlorine and organo phosphorous pesticides found in vegetables and fruits. There are reports from Tamil Nadu that some farmers cultivate vegetables differently for own use and sale.Mangoes

Pesticide is applied at every stage on vegetables for sale. Coconut too has become unsafe with the use of aluminium phosphide.  Some of these applications are quite unnecessary or by way of extreme action to prevent pest attack. The consumption of vegetables treated thus has resulted in high incidence of various diseases, including impotency and kidney failure.

Pesticide is being applied even on fish to keep away flies. Fomalin is being used to prevent rotting.  Milk also comes with pesticides and formalin besides a number of chemicals used for preservation including antibiotics. These can cause serious health problems. Very few dairies supply milk that is not dangerous.

Similar is the case with meat. Quality checks are only in paper while producers and traders use all sorts of methods to increase yield.  The government had been failing to act the new food adulteration law, citing various excuses including absence of laboratories for routine checks.  The real reason for lack of enforcement is, however, the nexus among traders, politicians and officials.

Chandy’s balancing act

The reshuffle of portfolios of Congress Ministers in Kerala is a disgrace to the State.  Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has given into bullying by communal forces under duress.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy

It is no secret that the communal forces lobbied regarding selection of candidates for elections and choice of ministers behind the scene. The difference now is that the lobbying has come into the open and the Chief Minister has openly succumbed to the pressure. In the process, he has even gone to the extent of shedding the Home portfolio that he held in order to placate the majority community. Communal forces would now become bolder unless secular forces are able to assert themselves more.

Mr.  Chandy is likely to come under more pressure from communal forces as the by-election from Neyyattinkara Assembly constituency nears. At some point, the Chief Minister would land in a position that he could not meet all the demands while his party men would use subterfuge to win ministerial and other positions.

One consequence of the communal balancing act that Mr. Chandy is forced to undertake is that he had neither been able to choose his ministers nor allocate portfolios based on merit.  This had reflected on the performance of his ministry

Honouring Yesudas, Is Assembly Setting a Bad Precedent?

The Kerala Assembly honours playback singer K. J. Yesudas on Wednesday. That Yesudas is meritorious to receive honours is unequivocal. However, the Assembly may be setting a bad precedent.

The danger here is that the practice of the House honouring eminent persons could become something like the universities awarding honorary degrees. Many an unworthy persons receive honorary degrees with universities having to bear various kinds of pressures. The Assembly too is sure to come under pressure for honouring persons under influences that may not always be honourable.

K. J. Yesudas

K. J. Yesudas

These days we see communal organisations competing each other for issue of commemorative stamps. There are not many complaints because the postal department is liberal in the issue of such stamps.
However, the Assembly cannot be liberal like that. Questions can still arise why the Assembly is honouring a popular singer and not the well known exponents of classical music or arts. Will the Assembly be honouring people from other fields such as literature?

It is true that the House has honoured past members and journalists on occasions like its jubilee. However, the connotation that the House was honouring someone was almost absent as it was considered part of the celebrations rather than connected with the business of the House. Besides, those honoured were someway associated with the functioning of the Assembly though journalists are technically strangers as far as proceedings of the House are concerned. Now, the occasion for the House deciding to honour Yesudas is that he is completing 50 years of his illustrious career as professional singer this year.

One should recall that there was even opposition to civilian awards. The Janata Government headed by Morarji Desai had discontinued the Bharat Ratna, the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri awards in the late seventies. Though it was restored three years later by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the choice of winners continued to attract criticism despite the government having a system and machinery to make the selections. How is the Assembly going to make better choices if it plans to honour more people?

Leases and rents

Opinion may be divided on whether the State government should move now to collect revised rents from Tamil Nadu for the forest land leased to it. However, a legislature committee had suggested last year that it should and its report has now been published by the Legislature Secretariat.

More than what the report says, there may be something to read between the lines in the report.

An Act had been passed by the Assembly as back as in 1980 to revise the rent on grants and leases given by the erstwhile princely States of Travancore and Kochi which later became part of Kerala. However, it remained unimplemented for years, allowing large gains for the plantations. In the nineties, the Forest Secretary stayed revision of the rents on a representation given by planters. Though the Act was subsequently amended to reduce the rents proposed and remove some practical difficulties, it took years for the law to get the President’s assent. The Central department delayed it raising questions such as those relating to the profitability of plantations though they were not relevant to assent for an Act passed by the legislature after due consideration.

Government’s after government deferred implementation of the Act. At one point, the late T. M. Jacob of Kerala Congress raised a written allegation in the Assembly that bribes had been taken to delay revision of the rents. Finally, it was the last LDF government that gave the green signal for enforcement of the Act. However, steps were taken only in some districts such Thrissur for revision and the process is yet to be completed.

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve ........................................................ Photo: Roy Mathew

The Public Accounts Committee has not delved into these issues apparently because it was dealing with Periyar Tiger Reserve area. (Besides, other committees have gone into the issue previously and even quantified the losses to the exchequer. The LDF government had estimated the losses as per the amended Act to be about Rs. 18 crore a year in its Budget). It finds that besides the Periyar lease in favour of Tamil Nadu, there are other lease holders in the Reserve area including the public sector Kerala Tourism Development Corporation and a private plantation contiguous to the protected area.  The Committee has firmly recommended that their rents should be revised, but has suggested that the provisions of the Act should be verified in relation to the Periyar lease. It has not gone into detailed examination whether the provisions of the Act applies to the Periyar lease but left it to officials to examine the question and renew the rent. The Forest Department has maintained that the matter could not be decided at its level because it is an inter-State matter.

An interesting aspect of the report is the strictures made by the committee over the delay in notification of the contiguous habitats of the Reserve as ecologically fragile, as envisaged in the Environment Protection Act for the past 30 years.  It also criticizes the quarrying done by Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu in the area during the period. Was the notification been delayed for the benefit of the lease holders in the area?

If the Kerala government now proceeds to revise the rent of the Periyar lease under the Act, it would have the effect of the State recognising the validity of the lease deed as it had done indirectly in 1979 by signing a supplementary agreement. The supplementary agreement is now considered as a major blunder of Kerala government. So, it the rent is to be revised, the Kerala government would have to first cancel the original lease deed (this will require legislation unless violation of lease deed could be cited) and grant fresh lease with revised rent for a limited period.

Recommendations of the PAC

Banks plan to divert farm loans to investments in real estate

The State Level Bankers Committee in Kerala plans to press the Reserve Bank of India to treat loans for purchase of estates as agriculture finance.  If approved, the proposal is sure to create serious problems in the State.

Banks are already reluctant to give loans to genuine farmers. Even now, agricultural loans go to money lenders who, in turn, lend to the farmers. This arrangement suited the banks and their managers because of supposedly higher assurance of repayments. Besides, bank managers, who are corrupt, stood to gain from such lendings.

This situation was one of the causes behind the recent farmers’ suicides in Wayanad district. It was difficult for even landed farmers to get loans from scheduled banks not to speak of those living on contract farming. The money lenders provided them funds which, in turn, came from the banking system.

The latest proposal of the SLBC is actually aimed at classifying lending to the real estate and tourism sectors as agriculture finance, and helping the banks to show that their targets in sanctioning agricultural loans have been achieved. For investment in estates is not really investment in agriculture. Every school girl knows that there no sufficient profits in plantation sector, except in the case of rubber and occasionally cardamom, to justify large investments.  Those investing in estates are actually investing for capital appreciation and also to use estate land for non-agricultural purposes.

The real estate prices are already on the high side in Kerala, and with the banks pumping in money, it is bound to go up further.  The common man is already not in a position to buy land even for housing not to speak of farming. With real estate becoming the prime investment attraction in the State, land is likely to be concentrated in the hands of the rich. This is already happening despite the ceilings under the Land Reforms Act. Plantation is exempted from land ceilings, and lucre now is UDF government’s policy in favour of allowing certain portions of plantations for tourism purposes.  The current trends are likely to defeat the purpose of land reforms and invite fresh clamour of ceilings. Kerala may soon have only real estate in the hands of the moneyed and hardly any farm lands as we knew it in the past.

On the long term, banks may also be risking their money. The real estate boom can collapse if tourism is hit by economic recession elsewhere or degradation of the environment. Any disruption in flow of money from the Gulf countries or weakening of the information technology sector can also hit the real estate prices.

Agriculture will never pay enough to repay large loans given for investment in estates. It is also notable that if the banks are genuinely interested in lending to agriculture, it can and do lend for planting operations.  However, the history of lending to plantation sector in the State is replete with examples of banks giving loans without ensuring proper collateral.  Several estate owners don’t have proper title over much of their land.  If the RBI gives the green signal for sanctioning loans for purchase of estates, the banks may now lend for ‘buying’ leased, environmentally fragile  and excess lands.