Mullaperiyar: What is Pinarai Vijayan up to?

Pinarayi-Vijayan

Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan

The new Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarai Vijayan has willingly courted controversy in the first week of assuming office itself over Mullaperiyar and other issues.

The essence of his statement on Mullaperiyar was that Kerala will have to take into account the finding of the empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court that the dam was safe and future negotiations would have to be over the report of the committee and its reliability. Secondly, he said that a new dam at Mullaperiyar, which Kerala had proposed as a means to ensure safety of people of five districts in the State, was not possible without cooperation from Tamil Nadu.

Faced with strong opposition to the change in the State’s stand over Mullaperiyar, Mr. Vijayan clarified that the government was still for new dam. What he had said was that it was not possible to build a dam without cooperation from the Centre and Tamil Nadu.

There was no compulsion for Mr. Vijayan to come up with an early policy statement on Mullaperiyar as no decision was pending on the issue that needed immediate attention. He also made a statement in favour of revival of the Athirappally hydroelectric project which is strongly opposed by environmental activists and leaders of the CPI which is a constituent of the ruling coalition, the Left Democratic Front. He could have delayed taking a stand on both the issues if he wanted.

However, he apparently had political and administrative reasons for making statements on Mullaperiyar and Athirappally even at the risk of losing some goodwill. On the face of it, the statements hook his bite noire in the party V. S. Achuthanandan who had adopted stands in favour of new dam and against Athirappally project in the past. There has been a truce between Mr. Achuthanandan and Mr. Vijayan before the elections, and Mr. Achuthanandan, as Leader of the Opposition, led the campaign of the Opposition Front. However, the CPI (M) chose Mr. Vijayan as the Chief Minister.

Mr. Vijayan’s statements come at a time when the party is considering an advisory position with Cabinet rank for Mr. Achuthanandan in the Government. Mr. Vijayan’s camp has already raised the criticism that this would give rise to duel power centres. If Mr. Achuthandnan loudly opposed the policy pronouncements by Mr. Vijayan, that would be proof to support the argument. Being a seasoned politician, Mr. Achuthanandan’s reaction was measured. Yet, there is no certainty that he would get the position he desired.

In a raising a controversy, Mr. Vijayan’s political costs are limited. His party does not have much support in any of the areas that will be directly impacted by failure of Mullaperiyar dam. The sufferer is the CPI which has won seats in areas that would be hit by a failure of the Mullaperiyar dam and impacted by the Athirappally project. CPI had done a sterling performance in this election winning 70 per cent of the seats it contested. The CPI (M) knows that it would have to concede more ground to CPI as CPI comes out of political stagnation in Kerala. So, any damage done to CPI is to its advantage.

There is also speculation that the CPI (M) would like to come closer to AIADMK considering CPI (M)’s diminishing importance at the national level. It is also notable that in Devikulam constituency in Kerala, where there is a Tamil population; AIADMK secured over 11600 votes which was more than twice the margin of victory of the CPI (M) candidate in the constituency.

Apart from political objectives, Mr. Vijayan’s statement is clearly aimed at laying the path for new initiatives. Kerala has nearly exhausted its legal options on Mullaperiyar at least for the time being. The way it conducted the cases before the Supreme Court left a lot to be desired. For example, the Supreme Court made an erroneous observation in its 2006 judgement that the waters would be contained in the Idukki dam downstream in case of failure of Mullaperiyar dam. However, Kerala failed to produce the Dam Break Analysis showing that towns and villages and a large population would be washed away, in subsequent litigation in the Court. The previous government then tried to hide reports of the Analysis, which it had commissioned, and other documents relating to the litigation from public by issuing an executive order against releasing documents on Mullaperiyar under Right to Information Act.

Now, Mr. Vijayan needs an opening to drive new policy and this could not be done without admitting the status quo following the Supreme Court orders and the impossibility of building a new dam in the near future. He has to open dialogue with Tamil Nadu. Acknowledging that there is a finding that the dam is safe is first step towards that.
Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala is slogan raised by the previous government. However, with Tamil Nadu seeking legal options and rejecting the proposal for a new dam, it had only campaign value. Mr. Vijayan has not specified what policy options he would pursue now. He probably has to reconstitute the Mullaperiyar Cell, which failed in its objective, and hold discussions with experts and lawyers before proceeding.

Even before Mr. Vijayan deprecated the proposal for new dam, there was a section of those agitating against the raising of water level in the old dam who argued that the dam should be decommissioned in a phased manner. The decommissioning should be over 50 years or so allowing Tamil Nadu the opportunity to shift its agriculture practices to modern techniques that need less water for irrigation.

Water policy expert Ramaswamy R. Iyer, who was Union Secretary for Water Resources, stated as back as in 2011 that Kerala would be repeating a folly committed more than 100 years ago by building a new dam.

Opinion is growing around the world against large dams and inter-basin diversion of river waters. The Mullaperiyar dam totally cut off flow through river. International covenants now recognise lower riparian rights and the need to allow flow needed maintain ecosystems and activities downstream.

Moreover, Kerala’s stand on impact on the Periyar Tiger Reserve is contradictory. On one side, it argued that the raising of the water level would harm the Reserve. On the other side, it proposed a major construction activity and impounding of water within the protected area.

It is expected that Mr. Vijayan would look into all this and come up with a new approach to the issue.

Tragedies and failure to fix responsibility

Police at Puttingal temple near Paravoor following the fireworks accident on April 10, 2016

Police at Puttingal temple near Paravoor following the fireworks accident on April 10, 2016

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has announced that rules relating to fireworks in places of worship and elsewhere would be made more stringent while announcing judicial probe into the fireworks tragedy at Paravoor.

The announcement was made without waiting for the finding of the enquiry commission or its recommendations on what are the changes needed in the laws. Instead, the Additional Chief Secretary (Home) was immediately tasked with the job of proposing changes to the rules and stipulations.

This is part of an attempt the divert attention from the fact that it was not lack of laws but failure to enforce them that had caused the tragedy. The tragedy would not have occurred if the ban order issued by the Additional District Magistrate was carried out.

This is not the first time that governments resort to such gimmicks. Whenever enforcement fails, governments talk of inadequacy of laws. Instances are several such as rape laws and the Goonda Act. The so called strengthening of the legislation often results only in increasing the bribes and political patronage that goes behind violation of the laws. Besides, those without influence get punishments disproportionate to their crimes.

The announcement of enquiry commissions is used by politicians as a ruse to escape from public ire. Inquiries of by judicial commission often drag for years at huge public expenditure and its recommendations are not often carried out. The time taken could help matters to cool down and delay or avoid fixing of responsibility. In fact, failure to fix responsibility is a major factor behind repetition of tragedies in Kerala.

The Paravoor tragedy may claim a toll higher than that of Perumon tragedy which had claimed 106 lives. The enquiry commission failed to dig at the real reason for the accident and blamed it on ‘tornado’ without any basis. When 45 tourists died at Thekkady following boat capsize in 2009, the attempt was to blame it on the driver though the boat was defective. Following enquiry by a judicial commission, changes were brought to inland vessel rules. However, even the stipulation that life jackets should be issued and worn by the tourists is still being ignored at several places.  There are many similar cases like the Kumarakom boat tragedy and enquiry commission report on that.

Now, it will not be a surprise if those who failed to enforce the additional district magistrate ban order against the fireworks display at Peravoor are not taken to task. Poor fireworks contractors who are minor spokes in the giant wheel that drives festivals like that at Paravoor will be punished.

Kerala government undermines right to information

top-secretThe Right to Information Act was enacted to bring transparency in administration and thus check corruption.

Kerala government is hitting at the very root of the legislation by exempting a branch of the Vigilance and Anti-corruption Bureau (VACB) from the purview of the Act.

A notification issued by the government a month ago excludes the “top secret section” of the Vigilance from the purview of the Act. All confidential verifications and vigilance enquiries /quick verifications of sensitive nature are done by this section of the VACB.

Those who can hide behind the notification include the Chief Minister, former Chief Ministers, Ministers, former Ministers, members of the Assembly and Parliament and all India service officers. Works related to all surprise checks inclusive that of all India service officers, Chief Minister, former chief ministers, ministers, former ministers, MLAs, MPs are also exempted.  All correspondence made by VACB with Lok Ayukta, Lok Pal, CBI and CVC in connection with any enquiry and investigation as well as all petitions which are already under enquiry/investigation by Lok Ayukta,, Lok Pal, CBI and CVC are covered under the notification.

Interestingly, the notification is issued by a government headed by a Chief Minister who has set up Web cameras in his chamber and office claiming that they would enhance transparency. (That it is a farce is another matter). Moreover, the notification is issued misinterpreting a provision of the RTI Act. Section 24(4) of the Act provides for exclusion of intelligence and security organisations from the purview of the Act. The Government has used this provision to include the ‘T’ branch of the VACB in the schedule of organisations excluded from supplying information under the Act.

But the rider is that the provision applies only to “intelligence and security organisations” notified by the government, and a vigilance bureau is neither. Even if it is accepted for argument’s sake that the VACB is intelligence or security organisation, Section 24(4) specifies that information pertaining to the allegations of corruption and human rights violations shall not be excluded. So, the notification by the government is totally in violation of the Act.

It is just aimed to help corrupt ministers and bureaucrats to buy time from public exposure just before the elections. It is notable that the LDF has not strongly come out against the notification— they are also beneficiaries of the notification.

Related: Mullaperiyar studies are public documents

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘war over sea’, a misplaced adventure?

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is reportedly planning an outreach programme in Chavakkad in Thrissur district next week to take up the cause of traditional fishermen. The most pressing issue there is described as the woes of fishermen resulting from the Central Government’s decision to impose ban on fishing for 61 days. He is ill-advised to take up this issue as a shorter ban on fishing is not actually in the interests of traditional fishermen.

It may be recalled that the traditional fishermen had launched a series of agitations for three-month ban on bottom trawling during monsoon led by persons like Fr. Thomas Kocheri and Sr. Philomin Mary in the eighties. The mechanised boat owners were strongly opposed to the ban though it was aimed at conservation of fish resources.

Fishermen's agitation

Fishermen blocking the highway at Alappuzha in 1985 demanding, among other things, ban on trawling.      Photo: Roy Mathew

Congress leader K. Karunakaran was not in favour of the ban and had used police to suppress the agitation when he was the Chief Minister. However, even Congress supporters in the Dheevara Sabha were forced to take a stand in favour of the ban. The agitation led to appointment of various committees to study the issue. Finally, the government decided to have a shorter ban of about 45 days though this was not a scientifically sound decision. Expert committees had called for a longer ban during monsoon to cover the entire breeding season of fishes.

What has changed between now and then is that more of the traditional fishermen have become owners or workers of mechanized fishing boats. The same forces which opposed the ban for quick returns and lobbied with Karunakaran are now behind Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s move. The only difference is that more ‘traditional fishermen’ are now with them. However, this assessment would depend on whether someone is ‘traditional’ by birth or by use of the fishing gears.

Scientifically, the only thing that has changed is confirmation of the fact that all (economically valuable) fishes do not breed during monsoon. Experts in the eighties have either discounted this fact or did not have adequate data to come to a conclusion. This may necessitate deeper look into the recommendation and possibly modification of the ban on a regional basis. More important may be the need to declare marine reserves like wildlife sanctuaries.

A shorter ban will not fully serve the purpose and a two month ban is reasonable considering all the factors. However, stricter enforcement of ban on net types and mesh sizes will be more crucial to conservation of marine resources. Fishlings ought to be allowed to grow to certain sizes before they are harvested.

Related Report:

After land, Rahul to wage war over sea

Kerala’s vulnerability to earthquakes: action lacking

Kerala is yet to take steps for reduction of vulnerability from earth quakes though the issue had come to the fore several times during the past two decades.

As many as 45 earthquakes had been recorded in Kerala during the 20th century. On the basis of assessment of about 65 earthquakes recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Centre for Earth Science Studies here had stated that there was possibility of earthquakes of the magnitude of up to 6 on the Richter scale occurring in the State. (Sensitive instruments have recorded around 200 mild tremours in Kerala from 2001 besides a few of magnitude of less than 4.)

Earthquake chart

Historic earth quakes: from 19th century to 2001

The most vulnerable areas were in Kochi and Alappuzha where buildings sit on 400-metre-deep alluvial soil. These soil formations could get fluidised in the event of even moderate earthquakes leaving to devastation as hardly any of the buildings there are designed to withstand earthquakes.

The Kerala Assembly Committee on Environment had called for enforcement of national building code as back as in 2001. It had suggested that the strength of buildings in earthquake prone areas should be tested using the services of experts and measures taken to strengthen weak buildings. The quality of materials used for construction of multi-storeyed buildings should be ensured. Use of wood and bamboo should be encouraged in the construction of houses for the poor.

Though BIS standards exist, they are not being followed for building construction. Houses for even tribals were being built with concrete though many tribal communities liked to live in thatched homes. Though a five-year, UNDP-funded earthquake vulnerability reduction project was taken up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode from 2003-04, nothing much was of heard of its results. The disaster management policy, drawn up in 2010, also remains largely on paper.

Now, it is hoped that the expert committee which is considering changes of to Kerala Municipal Rules would look into matters connected to seismic safety. It is high time that Kerala moved to quake-resistant constructions and retrofitting of buildings for safety, especially in risk prone areas of Kochi and Alappuzha.

Governor redeems

Finance Minsiter K. M. Mani

Kerala Finance Minister K. M. Mani presenting the Budget for 2015-16 in the Assembly on March 13, 2015 amidst vandalism by Opposition

Kerala Governor P. Sadasivam has at least nominally redeemed the prestige of Kerala legislature by warning legislators about their conduct.

A former Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India, Sadasivam will not have failed to notice the obvious break down of not only Constitutional norms but also gross violation of democratic principles by the Opposition. There is no place for vandalism in legislative bodies in a democracy. However, reaction from opinion leaders was generally muted while the ordinary people on the social media could do nothing more than lampooning the politicians.

The Governor’s remark that the happenings on the floor of the Assembly on Friday (March 13, 2015) may even justify submission of a report by the Governor to the President under Article 356 of the Constitution of India is a rebuke to both the ruling and Opposition fronts. What the Governor hints is the vandalism of the kind in the House amounts to Constitutional break down warranting dissolution of the Assembly.

The Speaker N. Sakthan could not maintain even a semblance of order in the Assembly because of his reluctance of use force. Normal practice in the House is to use the watch and ward to cordon the podium of the Speaker as soon as the Opposition starts disruption of proceedings. On Friday, the Opposition had started their protest even before the House was called into session. Speaker probably hesitated because he was new to the Chair and did not want to start with a direct confrontation with the Opposition and become a direct target of the Opposition in the coming days.

The Opposition leaders had gone to the Governor saying that the presentation of the Budget was not in order, after creating all the disorder. The Governor has indirectly rebuffed them by accepting the Speaker’s stand that the Budget was duly presented. The Speaker could not be seen as conducting the business of the House during the bedlam created by the Opposition who had also practically gheraoed the Speaker and thrown his chair off the podium in gross disregard to the prestige of the House and its privileges. (The procedures adopted in the House for presentation of the Budget could be irregular but could not be challenged in a court of law. The House is the final arbiter of its own procedures).

The Governor, who himself is part of the Assembly as head of the State, has hinted that the further proceedings on the Budget including passing of the demands for grants on account and Appropriation Bill should be done in an orderly fashion. He may not condone total absence of order and decorum.

 

Mullaperiyar studies are public documents

The Kerala State Information Commission has ordered Kerala Irrigation Department to release study reports and documents, submitted by it before the Supreme Court in the Mullaperiyar case filed by Tamil Nadu, under Right to Information Act. (See earlier post here)

The Department had refused to provide reports including the Dam Break Analysis on the ground that they were documents of “Strategic interests of the State” which were not required to be released under the RTI Act. The Commission did not uphold this contention and points raised by the Department in very detailed 70-page affidavit.

The complaint against the Department’s stand was made to the Commission as back as  in March 2012. The hearing was taken up only by the middle of 2013 and was completed by September 2013. However, the Commission took nearly six months to issue the order.

RTI

Order of State Information Commission

Earlier posts:

Mullaperiyar: behind the veil
Mullaperiyar dam break analysis: area of submergence
Mullaperiyar: strategic failure of Kerala government
K. T. Thomas and Mullaperiyar
Mullaperiyar: Directive against disclosure of dam break analysis
Mullaperiyar and Kerala’s technical studies
Conclusions of empowered committee of SC in Mullaperiyar case

Mainstreaming tribals

Attappady-- a view  Photo: Roy MathewChief Minister Oommen Chandy proposes to bring Attappady tribals to main stream as the government has failed to address their problems after six decades of ‘tribal development’.

Well, his plans are for the next generation. Children from the tribal hamlets are to be educated in special model residential schools and all eligible students given admissions to the Plus One and undergraduate courses.

This is a course of action that had been tried in countries such as USA, Canada and Australia which have invited protests. However, such protests over uprooting the tribals from their culture are muted in Kerala. Many anthropologists hold opinion against weaning tribal children away from their culture and mainstreaming them. But the questions whether they should be allowed to live primitive lives or proselytised to adopt modern lifestyle is an enduring question.

As to the immediate problem of malnutrition among tribals, the government has come up with an answer—community kitchens. Mr. Chandy’s view is that the tribals do not eat well. Many are so lazy that they are willing to cook. It is not clear whether the tribals would come regularly to the community kitchens to eat. Even if they do, that could make them lazier as far as cooking goes. Better, if community kitchens teach them how to cook and encourage them to do their own cooking.

Tribal Women at Agali, Attappady

Tribal Women at Agali, Attappady

But the real problem in Attappady is not that the tribals have not learned to cook or made eating cooked food a habit.  The real issue is alienation of their land, destruction of forests and restrictions on their access to forest resources including food materials. However, the Chief Minister refuse to acknowledge this and take strong measures to resume their lands despite court verdicts. Even problems like drunkardness stemmed from land issues. Alcoholism spread as a result of exploitative tactics of the settlers in Attappady.

Studies have reported that the deaths of infants in Attappady were not the result of alcoholism among their mothers. It happened because of malnutrition. The government wants now wants all tribal women to give birth at hospital to ensure the nutritional status of mothers and children. For this, vehicles are to be provided. On one hand, this is better said than done. Many tribals had failed to get timely medical attention not because of lack of schemes or vehicles but because the officials concerned did not care. On the other side, it is notable that Kerala is emphasising on hospital based deliveries when the West that promoted it is now going back to midwives and deliveries at home.

Agriculture development policies to befool farmers

Agriculture policy-- publicity photo

Publicity material showing submission of the draft agriculture development policy to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy on July 11, 2013.

The draft Agriculture Development Policy of Kerala, drawn by a drafting committee chaired by K. Krishnankutty, tries to befool the farmers at least in respect of the highlighted policy initiatives.

The flagship proposals are what is called Actio apportum (translated into Malayalam as Avakasa Labhom) cess, to be routed to small and marginal farmers of paddy, and incentive to farm workers. This is described as a legal demand of right for sharing revenue or profit generated out of farm produce when it is traded.

However, this is nothing but a less-than-5 per cent subsidy for paddy production, totalling to about Rs. 400 crores annually. This amount could very well have been provided as a direct subsidy from government after collecting one per cent value added tax on rice. Still better, it should have been funded from revenues gathered elsewhere.

The policy, on the other hand, proposes collection of Re. 1 a kg as cess at the end point of sale of rice and payment to the farmers through Agriculture Department. The traders/millers would pass on this cess to the consumers or the farmers themselves by reducing the procurement price of paddy. So, this Actio apportum could just be a mirage.

The real right of the farmer is to get remunerative prices in the market place or through procurement by government. The policy has only usual bureaucratic proposals like “Price Fixation Authority” and minimum support price to address that. The experience so far is that procurement has not actually worked well because funding procurement has not been a priority for government.

The cess proposal would only serve to increase the size of bureaucracy especially in the Agriculture Department. There would have to be separate accounting and even a vigilance mechanism to detect evasion. A portion of what is collected as cess will vanish this way. The proposal also has a flaw in that the benefit is proposed to be limited to small and marginal farmers. Paddy production is to be sustained and it is not always the marginal farmer who can achieve that. So, all paddy cultivators would have to be provided with subsidies.

It also leads to a dichotomy in policy. The government had been lifting tax on rice in past budgets with the avowed objective of helping the poor. Now, it is thinking of a cess instead. Tax on branded rice, which is not consumed by the poor, would have been the best option to raise funds for subsidy.

Cover design of the draft policy

Cover-page design of the draft policy document on agriculture development, Kerala.

The incentive proposed for agriculture workers is Rs. 6 a day. For an agriculture worker earning around Rs. 600 a day, this is a pittance. The Agriculture Department will have to maintain accounts and keep tab on the status of the worker and days of work done by him to make the payments. This is when the Department’s job is increasingly becoming disbursement of incentives and subsidies instead of providing extension services.

The real objective of the Latinisms and rhetoric about farmers’ rights is votes in the forthcoming elections. The politicians can claim that the present government has, for the first time, recognised the right of the farmers (called Actio apportum ) for a share in the profits of middlemen who are buying rice for Rs. 22 a kg and selling at exorbitant rates (up to Rs. 90 a kg.)!

Publicity material about the policy speaks of improving the status of farmers. However, actually the policy equates farmers to Class IV employees of government by proposing income guarantee “to the tune of that received by a Class Four Employees in State service”!

The policy proposes that farm lands should be reserved for agriculture, banning sale or use for no-agricultural purposes. Such a restrictive land use policy could be detrimental to the development of the State. Kerala could not remain an agrarian State for long (as the examples of developed societies show). So, some agriculture land would have to be used for industrial and infrastructure development. Anything that prevents establishment of agro-industries and production of value added products at the farm level would even be harmful.

So, implementation of this policy would have to fine-tuned, keeping overall development of the State in view. What actually is required is measures to check land being purchased and sold for short-term profit. Leaving land fallow should be discouraged by imposing higher tax on uncultivated land. Such a policy could be imposed by offering the low tax rates only for land certified to have a certain level of crop density.

Another proposal is to provide yield and sex assured animals to livestock farmers. Genomic section programmes are to be used to produce sexed semen that will ensure that only female of the species is born. It ought to be examined whether this would impact diversity which is crucial to prevent mass casualties from unanticipated diseases.

Contributory pension scheme and its flawed logic

The contributory National Pension Scheme for government servants brings uncertainty about future pension benefits of government employees and makes government jobs less attractive.

Employees of Kerala Government began an indefinite strike today to protest against the pension scheme, though it will not affect serving employees who would continue to be eligible for statutory pensions. It will be the new recruits who would be hit by the pension scheme.

The government argues that more than 80 per cent of its revenues were now being spent on salaries and pensions. Though the pension scheme will only cause an immediate increase in government spending with a ten per cent contribution to be made to the pension fund, it will free the government from paying pensions to the new recruits two to three decades from now.

The government says that there was four-fold increase in pension liabilities over the last decade. However, this is in proportion to decadal increase in revenues and borrowings of the government. This is not to say that the level of expenditure on salaries and pensions are justified. It rather points to continuing inefficiencies of administration in checking expenditure and tax collection, despite availability of new tools such as computers. Large scale leakage of revenues remains unplugged. The employees too had not been helpful in this regard. Over-staff and idling are not rare in government service.

The government as well as employees contributions into the pension fund are to be deposited in government securities, public sector bonds and in mutual funds. When the deposits are made in government securities, the government itself would be paying interest on its own contribution and employees’ contribution. This is not going to improve government finances. Like salaries and pensions, interest payments are also a heavy burden on the State government.

Mutual funds offer no guarantee of reasonable returns. Some of the pension funds run by them have not performed well, giving some indication of what would happen to the money of employees. The employees would have to bear the cost of the authority formed to run the pension fund. When authority makes investments in mutual funds, the employees would also have to bear the fund management charges imposed by the mutual funds. Some of the government-run welfare funds give an impression what these costs would be— the welfare fund boards eat away much of the contribution by the workers. It would not be surprising if the government would have to give grants to the authority in future to ensure a reasonable pension to the employees a few decades from now. In any case, the pensions then would neither be assured or growing (with every pay revision) as is the case now.

The net result could be that the government jobs would not attract talents. And the performance of government could fall further. It is also doubtful whether the pension scheme would help the government to overcome in financial problems. The real beneficiaries would be those who get to handle the funds.