Thrikkakara By-election Victory: Factors that helped Congress

Thrikkakara is a pro-UDF constituency. So, there is little reason to probe why the UDF candidate Uma Thomas (INC) won the by-election from there.  Benny Behnan (INC) had won from the constituency in 2011 with a margin of 22406 votes. Uma’s husband P. T. Thomas (INC) was elected from the constituency in 2016 and 2021, with decent margins. So, it was no surprise that she won on Congress ticket from the constituency. What needs to be analysed is how she garnered a record margin of more than 25000 votes.

In his death, P. T. Thomas had gained a ‘larger than life image’. The adulation he got surely helped his wife to surpass his majority. Her candidature had become an automatic choice for the Congress. That also kept possible challengers from within the party at bay, barring a few like K. V. Thomas. This resulted in the Congress election machinery working unitedly, without faction fights. Both the KPCC President K. Sudhakaran and Opposition Leader V. D. Satheesan provided able leadership for the campaign and even their detractors joined in.

On the other hand, the selection of candidate had become a bit controversial for the ruling Left Democratic Front with last minute induction of Jo Joseph. He failed to make a first impression and all in the CPI (M) were not happy with the selection and manner in which the campaign was conducted. The dominance of the State leadership in the campaign side-lined local leaders who could have been effective in grass-root level campaign.

Efforts at social engineering and communal polarisation by both the CPI (M) and BJP failed. The BJP suffered a loss in its votes share and lost its deposit. Political parties in Kerala are to realise that attempt for communal polarisation is a double-edged sword.

However, a major factor that boosted the vote share of Congress was the absence of Twenty 20 Party in the elections. The party had aligned with the Aam Aadmi Party but had decided not to field a candidate.  Twenty 20 had won 13897 votes from the constituency in the general elections to the Assembly in 2021. These votes apparently have gravitated towards the UDF this time. Its leader Sabu M. Jacob (KITEX) had hinted in favour of UDF though there was bitter antagonism between him and late Thomas. But more than any hint from Sabu, those who voted for Twenty 20 and AAP were people who cannot be herded (Kunnamkulam constituency, where voters benefit from funds from KITEX indeed present a different picture.) They take independent decisions, and LDF policies apparently antagonised them.

Finally, there was a sentiment against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who said that the by-election gave an opportunity for the voters to correct their mistake of electing Congress candidate P. T. Thomas.  The voters clearly chose to repeat the ‘mistake’.

It will be a folly to build new dam at Mullaperiyar

The proposal for a new dam at Mullaperiyar is not in the best interests of Kerala. It should press for phased decommissioning the dam while ensuring water supply to Tamil Nadu, at least for a few decades in reduced quantities.

A new dam means handing over the problems to another generation, about 50 to 100 years from now. This is also what the Maharaja of Travancore did by leasing land for 999 years. But that was because his hands were forced. Kerala has to see that this would not happen again.

Feasibility of new dam
Mullaperiyar dam site is in a seismically active area. Even though technologies are now available to build earthquake-resistant dams, it is still advisable not to build dams near fault lines. The area also falls in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and National Park. Various clearances including forest clearance will be required to build a dam there. An environmental impact assessment will have to be done and this is not going to be very favourable. The Gadgil Committee on Western Ghats has already called for decommissioning of old dams on the Ghats. Construction of new large dams on the Ghats is no more considered an environmentally sound proposition.

There are actually few locations along the course of the river for building a new dam. The one proposed is downstream of the present dam on land not leased to Tamil Nadu. Kerala is already saying that it would build new dam on its own and will not be willing to lease additional land to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu will object to its losing ownership and control over the dam. Use of this land will require denotificaton of the sanctuary area required for expanding the reservoir. This, in turn, necessitates a resolution by the Legislature and approval by the Centre.

New technologies will be needed if Tamil Nadu proposes to build a dam upstream of the present one and even that will require negotiation of a new agreement between Tamil Nadu and Kerala and environmental clearances. There will be specific objections to building dams that will store water above the current full reservoir level which is fixed at 142 feet by the Supreme Court. The negotiations between Kerala and Tamil Nadu can prolong for any number of years, given their history of reviewing the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project agreement.

The construction activity, once started, is going to cause serious disturbance to wildlife in the area. This will hinder environmental clearances and invite protests. Issues like lower riparian rights of Kerala too have to be considered while proposing a new dam. (Lower riparian rights are internationally recognised. They, among other things, specify that a certain amount of water should be allowed to flow down while damming a river.)The adequacy of spillways of Idukki dam to handle additional flow too will have to be considered, especially in view of the recent change in weather patterns.

In fact, there is hardly any justification for building a new dam in national park on the Western Ghats. Full scale inter-basin diversion of river waters is not permissible even in other areas these days.

Kerala’s incapacity to build dam
Though Kerala says it can build the dam, the work would have to be entrusted to an outside party, probably to a multi-national consultancy and dam-builders. The State Water Resources did not have the capability to build such a dam in a time bound manner. Two its last projects, Edamalayar and Kallada were plagued by cost and time over-runs and corruption. The State Electricity Board too doesn’t have experienced engineers for this work, though it once had the capability. (The Board neglected its civil wing and engineers who have designed and executed large dams have all retired). The State Public Works Department is recently in the lime light for faulty construction of buildings and bridges and corruption.

Though a former Water Resources Minister had boasted that the dam could be completed in a year, nothing like that is ever going to happen in that Department. We have engineers who always stated that the Mullaperiyar dam is unsafe but could not prove before the Supreme Court that a 120-year-old dam posed sufficient risk to attract the precautionary principle! (So, the government thought that a retired jurist, who incidentally believed that the dam would be safe for another 100 years, was a better option to represent Kerala in the Committee set up by the Supreme Court.)

Phased decommissioning
Given this scenario, the best option is to press for phased decommissioning of the old dam. Tamil Nadu has not so far accepted Kerala’s long standing demand for new dam. So, it is time that Kerala focus on the demand for decommissioning of the dam and not fall into the trap of building a new dam.
Former Union Secretary for Water Resources Ramaswamy R. Iyer has said that it will be a folly to build a new dam on Mullaperiyar. “We can start thinking of phasing it out. That means giving people time to get adjusted to this idea and seek alternative sources of economic activity, and perhaps a different pattern of development that does not require so much water,” Mr. Iyer said in an interview to Frontline magazine published in December 2011.
“Accept the fact that the dam is not going to be permanent. Explore alternative means of supporting the livelihoods of people who will be affected by the phasing out of the dam,” Mr. Iyer said.
The phased decommissioning of the dam, which he suggests, will not be without problems. Currently, there is no means to lower the reservoir level of Mullaperiyar dam beyond 136 feet other than drawing of water through tunnels by Tamil Nadu. This is because the saddle spillways are at 136 feet. The capacity of tunnels is limited to 2200 cusecs and will be inadequate to manage flows caused by floods which will exceed the capacity of tunnels.
There is a proposal that Tamil Nadu should build a new intake tunnel at the level of 50 feet from the base. (The present intake is at 104 feet and water below this level could not be drawn). The techno-economic feasibility of this proposal has been questioned by some engineers. But new technology may help, though it may be costly. The Mullaperiyar dam does not have a sluice gate at the bottom for emergency discharge of water. There was a proposal for a tunnel to downstream of Mullperiyar River for discharge of water, but it has not come up for serious consideration despite the risks posed by the dam.
It is often convenient for Kerala politicians to call for new dam. But the proposal does not suit current thinking on environment and river management. Building a new dam will be a folly as pointed out by Mr. Iyer. Instead of undertaking such a foolish proposal, Kerala should demand a time table for phased decommissioning of the old dam.

Related link: A dam has a life— Frontline report, December 2011.

The flight of capital, talent and workforce

The flight that took industrialist Sabu M. Jacob from Kerala to a warm reception in Telangana is a microcosm of what is routinely and often silently happening in Kerala.

Capital, talent and workforce have been leaving Kerala over decades.  The best efforts to industrialise Kerala took place in the last few decades of Travancore Government. Subsequent democratic governments only saw the decline of traditional industries. The first major industry to move out of Kerala in a significant manner was the cashew industry. The coir industry declined, but remained in the State like the wood industries as it is not easy to shift the raw materials from Kerala.

Kerala has always lagged in manufacturing. Service industries dominated; but that needed money to come in from outside either in the form of remittances from Keralites working outside or tourists. What distinguishes Sabu Jacob’s Kitex Garments is that it is a rare (for Kerala) 100 per cent export-oriented manufacturing unit in the State.

A unit of Kitex group

One of the major constraints for manufacturing units in Kerala is environmental factors.  And the major allegations being raised against Kitex Garments and related companies is that it is polluting a river, and that it is not paying minimum wages.  But to a neutral observer, it is clear that Kitex is the least polluting of several major industrial units in Ernakulam district. Clearly, there is selective amnesia from the part of officials and politicians. It is not clear whether Kitex did not pay minimum wages to any particular section of the workers. But generally, the workers there are satisfied about their wages.

Militant trade unionism, which is fortunately on the decline now, and greedy full-time politicians have been the bane of all industrial enterprises in the State. There are signs that the latter too may face a decline in the future. In fact, the fight between Sabu Jacob and politicians from both the ruling and Opposition fronts is a political fight—a backlash, at least from a few entrepreneurs, to the exploitative tactics of politicians.

Twenty20
Sabu Jacob had floated his own political party Twenty20 to fight the situation. He captured control of several panchayats from regular politicians, and fielded candidates from eight constituencies in the last Assembly elections. His candidates failed to win in the Assembly elections because the entrepreneur failed to take certain things into consideration that makes a successful political campaign.

His selection of candidates was something similar to his company selecting it managers. The candidates were qualified but lacked popularity. If Twenty20 had fielded actor Sreenivasan or had roped in technocrat E. Sreedharan, the outcome might have been different.

Their campaign style too was defective. The candidates often started speeches with their biodata and there were not many local people accompanying them during house-to-house campaigns. Sabu Jacob’s speech showed feudal tendencies with him often reminding people of the services of his father and family. He also declared that it was in people’s interest to vote for Twenty20 (as they were benefiting from his hand-outs and good governance in the panchayats) and he would go his away if his party was defeated. This was when the biggest stake holder was Mr. Jacob himself. The party had no declared policy on most subjects or position on hot topics in the State.

But Mr. Jacob always stressed the need for creation of employment in the State and highlighted the flight of the youth from the State for jobs outside the State.

Migration of workforce
What the party was raising was something that should have been serious concern to the State for long. Early migration from Kerala started to Burma (now Myanmar) and Malaysia before independence.  After independence, small numbers of people were migrating to the United States, Canada and European countries. But it was the construction boom in the Gulf in the seventies and eighties that turned migrations into a flood. Now people also migrate to Australia and New Zealand.

According to government agency NORKA, about 40 lakh Keralites are now working abroad. While those in Gulf countries will return, almost all of those migrating to developed countries will never return.  Number of Keralites working in other States is given as 13.74 lakhs.

According to 2011 census, the total workforce in Kerala is about 116 lakhs which comes to 34.78 per cent of the population.  (This means that, on an average, one employed person supports two others). This is apparently against the resident population.  But as many as 63.74 lakh people work outside Kerala. This means that about a third of the State’s actual working population is forced to seek jobs outside the State. This is a serious situation which needs to be corrected urgently.

Tailpiece:
Whatever the political parties in the State are saying against Kitex Garments, the investors are supporting the company deciding to have investments in Telangana. The price of shares of Kitex Garments shot up by about 80 per cent in three days after Sabu Jacob left for Telangana. On July 13, there were no sellers for the share, indicating that the share price may go up further.
It is indeed a vote of confidence for Telangana and the negative vote for industrial climate in Kerala.

Additional information update
The company has filed a case against revision of minimum wages to the workers. The case is pending decision.

Congress MLA P. T. Thomas has told the media that the company has not installed reverse osmosis plant at its factory as agreed to a meeting called by K. Babu who was Minister in 2012. Why the UDF and LDF governments had not enforced the decision is a larger question.

It is alleged that there is discrimination against non-supporters of Twenty20 in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat and that the panchayat authorities do not attend certain meetings attended by local member of the Assembly.

Much ado about data privacy of voters list

Operation Twins

The CPI (M) has accused Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala of leaking data on voters and publishing them on a server located in Singapore. However, the accusation does not hold water in the face off facts.

Mr. Chennithala had published data on 4.34 lakh persons in the voters’ lists for the upcoming Kerala Assembly Elections, whose photos appear under different names in the same constituency or other constituencies or whose names appear more than once in the lists, on the site operationtwins.com. Voters’ lists are data in the public domain, so no leak has taken place.

Voters list is not sensitive data under the IT Act and Rules unlike health information which is defined as sensitive (recall the controversy over Springler).   Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 also has a proviso to Section 3 that says that “any information that is freely available or accessible in public domain or furnished under the Right to Information Act, 2005, or any other law for the time being in force  shall  not  be  regarded  as  sensitive  personal  data  or  information  for  the  purposes  of  these rules”.

It is true that the Web server is located in Singapore. However, that does not alter the legal position. Voters list is data officially published under the law and accessible in public domain.

The only thing that you can accuse the Opposition Leader is that there are some errors in his list of bogus voters. Besides, he was not honest enough to include some duplicate entries of Congress candidates and their relatives in the list. Possibly because of limitations of photo matching, the names of twins have been flagged as duplicate entries, with operation twins thus causing some heartburn to real twins. While a chunk of data point to fraud, other duplicate entries could be the result of failure of the officials to delete previous entries when voter requests change of address or corrections.  It is clear that sufficient diligence had not been shown by electoral officers.

Mr. Chennithala has chosen to register a domain with commercial extension for the site and keeping the registrant information private. He could have chosen extensions (top level domains) like .in or .org.in. But it is a matter that hinge on availability/personal choice/ignorance. The person who registered the site probably did not register the site in the name of Mr. Chennithala and wanted to keep his name private.

It may also be noted that the accusations against Mr. Chennithala comes when there is demand for publishing of more data relating to electoral process internationally by organisations like the Open Election Data Initiative. So, Mr. Chennithala’s initiative is setting up a site to expose electoral malpractices is laudatory.

In fact, Mr. Chennithala has been raising a number of allegations against the LDF government. If even a fraction of them are correct, that do not bode well for the State. If the LDF is re-elected to power, the government would be at the mercy of Central agencies. This can give rise to deals between the CPI (M) and the BJP or even instability of the government.

However, this may not be a problem for Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan to manage for he has already taken a few leaves from Modi’s note book to retain power and pelf.

Duplicate entries in voters list is a massive fraud

Lakhs of duplicate names and fake entries in the voters list for Legislative Assembly elections in Kerala is a massive fraud on the people of the State.

The initial estimates are that the number of duplicate entries, which can be used for voting by impersonation, is above four lakhs. There is also the allegation that migrant workers had been enlisted without following procedure and checking their status properly.

It is surprising that the electoral officers had not cared to check for duplicate entries at least in the same constituency not to speak of duplicate entries across constituencies. This is when computer technologies these days make it easy to find duplicate entries, though Malayalam script and variations may make it a little difficult than in English.

The existence of large number of duplicate entries came to public knowledge when Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala raised the issue and accused the ruling front of complicity. Apparently, he had been assisted by someone skilled in analysis and comparing of large chunks of data.

It is not surprising that the things have come to such a pass, given the lackadaisical manner in which the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Kerala, handled data. This had not started in recent years. As back as in the nineties, total votes polled and the sum of the votes polled by individual candidates did not tally in certain cases. In one of the election reportage, published by the ECI, the numbers did not tally in more than 25 constituencies. Though this was brought to the notice of the CEO, he did not correct them and they still remain as the official tally. By 1996, computers came into use in compiling data and the figures. Data, which could not be validated, were artificially tallied by adjusting invalid and uncounted votes.

In the 2016 Assembly elections, some data in the Constituency data summary, officially released by the Election Commission (especially that of electors and votes polled), do not match with the detailed results published by ECI. There were also variations with detailed results published on the Web at the time of announcement of results.

The CEO’s Office has been reluctant to release computer-processable data, which can be used for data validation, despite an order by the State Information Commission under the RTI Act. (The accompanying image shows the operative part of the order of the Commission dated May 29 last year which is yet to be complied with). These were symptoms of deeper malady.

Despite all the improvement of communication facilities, the CEO office often has not been able to come out with correct percentage of polling on the polling day itself. The number of electors supplied before and after polling often varied as last minute enrollments and deletions were not either properly updated or were plainly incorrect.

Now, it is going to be an uphill task for the election officials to delete lakhs of duplicate and fake entries and furnish the count. There is also the issue of bogus or multiple electoral identity cards issued in the name of the same person.  It is not going to be easy to find them and destroy them.  This raises the prospect of miscarriage of the electoral verdict.

Though the irregularities could not have happened to this scale without the connivance of officials, a proper inquiry is yet to be conducted. So far action had been taken against only one official though many need to be removed from playing any role in the elections. Meanwhile Mr. Chennithala has approached the High Court seeking action.

SIC order
Operative part of the SIC order on RTI request for election data.

Elections Declared: Whom to Vote

EVM
Voters of Kerala, which goes to Assembly polls on April 6 , will have to be very diligent in casting their votes. (The same goes for other States too).
Otherwise, your suffrage would be undermined by your elected representative choosing to change sides. The political climate in the country is such that it is not easy to predict who would be changing their loyalties and when. Here is an advisory.

Do not vote for the candidates who are liable to be blackmailed because of their involvement in crime or corrupt practices. Avoid voting for greedy politicians. If your candidate has wealth beyond his known sources of income, never vote for him or her. (They are in politics for amassment of wealth and they will change the side the moment they get a good offer.)

Avoid voting for candidates of small parties which are prone to change sides. There are a few exceptions  in this regard like CPI and CMP which has not switched sides for  decades (four and two and half decades respectively).  Most have changed sides or split with groups migrating from one front to another. New parties such as the Twenty-twenty are to be judged by the caliber and integrity of the candidates they are putting up.  If it is a retired civil servant, check whether they had faced allegations of corruption. If it is a media person or businessman, evaluate his or her professional conduct. If they had been honest, fair and ethical, they may not change sides.

BJP State president K.  Surendran has stated that BJP will rule Kerala if 30 to 40 of its candidates are elected. This is to be taken seriously because seven State governments have been brought down by the BJP in the last seven years by engineering defections. Actually, the party will not need even that many members to gain a share in power in Kerala. 

It is notable that the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Kerala, is yet to State the reasons for malfunctioning of electronic voting machines during last Lok Sabha  polls despite an order from the State Information Commission to release the information under RTI Act.

Keep an eye on the legislators and the voting machines too. Ensure that your verdict is not miscarried.

“Democracy’s a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it’s no longer democracy, is it? It’s something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism.” Sam Shepard

Kerala Assembly elections: Congress needs a paradigm shift

It will be an uphill task for Congress in Kerala to win the Assembly elections this year. The party will have to reinvent and meet new challenges.

Congressmen will have to forget its group squabbles and seat sharing and come up with a new array of candidates who could win the elections. It is also time for a generation shift.

The Congress has taken a big risk by alienating Kerala Congress (M) so that it could try to dominate in the UDF strong-hold of Kottayam— a long-standing dream of Congress men from the district such as the Kottayam MLA, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan. They thought that the death of Kerala Congress leader K. M. Mani gave them the opportunity. However, erosion of votes seen in the panchayat elections even in former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s constituency (Puthuppally) showed that the dream is a difficult one to realise, though Mr. Chandy and Mr. Radhakrishnan will be able to hold their fort. In the strongholds of Ernakulam district, the emergence of Twenty Twenty as a political party is throwing up a new challenge.

These would force the Congress to pay special attention to districts which are not their strongholds and cut losses in districts such as Pathanamthitta. In this scheme of things, Thiruvananthapuram district becomes one where the party has to fight some important battles especially against the BJP.

It has been suggested that top Congress leaders like Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala should contest from Thiruvananthapuram to wrest the Nemom seat from the BJP and the Vattiyoorkavu seat from the CPI (M). However, the leaders were not willing to move out of their pocket boroughs.  Obviously, they could fail in Thiruvananthapuram if BJP and CPI (M) come to a tactical understanding behind the scenes. Many are already concluding that the BJP is forcing Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan for some adjustment, as a quid pro quo against Central agencies going slow on the probes on involvement of the Chief Minister’s Office and some Ministers and Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan in gold smuggling and other scams. Now, the party is trying to persuade V. M. Sudheeran to contest from Vattiyoorkavu while the strategies for other constituencies are not yet clear.

The party has members of Parliament Rajmohan Unnithan and K. Sudhakaran to hold the fort in Kasaragod and Kannur districts respectively. But K. Muraleedharan, MP, has stated that he would campaign only in his constituency (Vadakara), pointing to ongoing infighting in the party.

Though the honesty and suave manners of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is no match for the divisive politics of Narendra Modi at the national level, the presence of the Wayanad MP can cast a spell in Kerala.  But this has to be matched with selection of inspiring young leaders to win strong-holds of the CPI (M). Names such as that of AICC spokesperson Shama Mohamed has come up in this regard. Congress will also have to think of fielding winnable candidates from outside the party also as the stock of the khadi-wielding politicians with no worthwhile job of their own (other than politics) is fast diminishing. But the scramble for seats among party men has always prevented Congress from scouting for talents outside.

Yet, the party is showing some signs of mending. It is drawing up a well-studied manifesto under the leadership of Shashi Tharoor and other qualified persons.  However, barring Mr. Tharoor, the social media presence of Congress and its outreach to the young are still poor compared to BJP and the CPI (M). Though Congress men are active here and there solo, there is no coordinated action to project policies or political views. In fact, many leaders are found wanting or afraid to take on BJP and even the CPI (M).  This is why it is important for the party have a new generation of leaders with no baggage from the past to carry.

One India goes for a toss

Montage from twitter.

ONE INDIA—we hear about that often during these Covid-19 times. But the disease is proving that we are far from achieving unity. Look at the following reports.

Karnataka Closes Kerala Border, 7 Die Due to Delayed Medical Assistance
Telegana Stops Issuing Passes to Migrant Workers and Others Returning from Maharastra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
Karnataka Bans Entry of People from Gujarat, Maharastra and Tamil Nadu till May 31
Kerala Stops Malayalees Returning From Other States at Border
1000 Buses from Rajastran Dispatched from Alwar Stopped at UP Bharatpur Border by UP Cops
40 Haryana Buses from Gurgaon with Stranded Migrants Were Sent Back by UP Police

Indian States were stopping their own people from entering the State on the ground that they were coming from Covid-hit red zone, not to speak of people from neighbouring States. The BJP Government in UP not only refused entry for buses from Congress-ruled Rajasthan but also from BJP-ruled Haryana. So, the migrant drama played out in UP was more than a Congress-BJP tussle.

Centre fails to lead
The Central Government did not intervene or coordinate movement of people wanting to return home for nearly two months now. All it did finally was to send some trains here and there without waiting for clearance from the States.  However, this did not address even part of the problem. In fact, the States were acting as if they were different countries and returning workers were refugees coming to their States. This happened because the Centre did not take overall responsibility for Covid-19 control.

The Union Government, however, tried to achieve a form of paramountancy by dictating orders to the State governments on lock down. But, it failed to address critical issues like financing the fight against the disease and addressing inter-State issues such as that of the migrants, and even inter-State movement of patients. Much of the resources for the fight in terms of equipment, personnel et cetera had to be mobilised by the States. The Central agencies other than the ICMR played hardly any part.

Soon, the Centre lost the plot. By the end of the first phase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who announced the lock down without consulting anyone, started consulting the Chief Ministers. By the time, he announced the fourth phase; the Centre had to concede more freedoms to the States.  This was despite the fact that the lock down measures hardly attracted any Opposition from the States.  The States were allowed additional borrowing from the market and they went into a ‘self-reliant’ mode as if they had embraced the Atma Nirbhar slogan of the Prime Minister.  The borders were made as impermeable as possible, often citing order of the Union Home Ministry.

The Kerala Example
Kerala had done well in containing the disease, but miscalculated on what the lock down will or will not achieve elsewhere in the country.  Its achievements were largely the result of early detection, isolation, contact tracing and better care. It also looked after the migrant workers. The lock down at the national level made it easy for it to enforce social distancing and adopt precautionary measures including closure of places of worship and other establishments.

In its bid to keep its record intact, it delayed steps to facilitate return of Malayalees outside the State and abroad. This was despite some States like UP bringing back students from Kota in Rajasthan. In fact, Kerala could have asked the Centre to facilitate return of Keralites to the State and migrants to their respective States, after the first phase.

Despite claims to the contrary, it was also not well-prepared for a large influx of Malayalees from outside. This caused crowding and other issues at the border check posts. The migrant workers became restless as their return was being delayed, often because other States were also trying to keep matters pending.  Hence, Kerala too had at least isolated cases of migrants trying to reach their homes on trucks and cycles. Even now, the mess is far from over. The State did not operate a single bus or Sramik train for Keralites from Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai till now. Keralites had to arrange their own vehicles for their return to their homes at high costs. Sramik trains from Delhi and other places are yet to reach Kerala.

There is still no national plan as to how to deal with Covid-19 other than extending lock downs. Full mobility may not be restored at least until July. Kerala has a total lock down on Sundays, the scientific reasoning of which is unclear other than delaying the infections by a day or two.  Lower business hours and total closures on Sundays could only increase the crowd. We still have no trajectory either at the national or State levels as to what is to be achieved even by July.

Information Commission orders release of video footage of polling in Kerala

The Election Commission of India and its electoral officers have been forgoing openness and transparency in the electoral process, thus undermining democratic elections in Kerala and probably elsewhere in the country. A recent order of the State Information Commission may help to restore at least some degree of transparency.

Access to Webcasting to candidates, agents and public during the Lok Sabha polls last year had resulted in detection of several cases of impersonation and bogus voting. However, when repoll were held, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Kerala restricted viewing of Webcasts to ‘election machinery’ citing a letter from the Election Commission issued in 2015. This impeded concurrent social auditing of the election process.

The letter said that the Commission had decided that henceforth, webcasting in polling stations will be restricted to viewing only by the election machinery in keeping with the spirit of Rule 93(1) of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.[ The rule actually deals with production and inspection of election papers. It specifies that used ballot papers, counterfoils et cetera and sealed control units of EVMs should not be opened or allowed to be inspected by any person or authority except under orders of a competent court. This a clause aimed at maintaining the secrecy of balloting. There is no reference to Webcasting or video footage in this clause. How the Commission could take a decision to deny real time access to web footage under this clause and how it could be in the spirit of the Rule is anybody’s guess.

Even if the decision is valid, it did not cover requests for footage under the RTI Act. However, when Advocate D. B. Binu sought the CCTV/Webcasting footage from polling booths that recorded polling percentage of more than 90%, the State Public Information Officer (SPIO) in the Office of the CEO did not release the information. He initially said that a clarification was being sought from the Commission in view of the restriction imposed by the Commission on public access. Later, he claimed that “the final list of polling booths where webcasting was done was being finalised” (sic). He added that no separate details in the manner of polling booths where 90 % and above polling was recorded was kept in that office. The appellate authority dismissed first appeal saying that the Office was awaiting clarification/permission from Election Commission of India on providing such video footage to the public.

This was when there was no provision under RTI Act giving power to the SPIO to get clarification/permission from the Commission. Moreover, the Handbook for Returning Officers had provision that copy of the video footage should be made available on payment of Rs. 50 (fees as per Right to Information Rules, 2012). Hence, the clarification sought was clearly a delaying tactics by SPIO and a clear violation of RTI Act.

The State Information Commission, in a recent order, has now directed the footage to the released. Allowing an appeal from Mr. Binu, Chief Information Commissioner Vinson M. Paul noted that the contention of the Respondent’s office that it was awaiting clarification from the Election Commission of India was not tenable under the RTI Act. Information sought tinder the Act can be denied only under Section 8 or 9 of the Act. Similarly, the argument that the Respondent office did not maintain details of polling booths, which recorded more than 90% polling, was not valid as the CEO’s office is the repository of all such information.

In response to another RTI application from the writer of this blog, the SPIO is maintaining that the reasons for malfunctioning of the electronic voting machines are not available in the CEO’s Office. As many as 434 balloting units, 391 control units and 1041 VVPATs were replaced in Kerala during Lok Sabha polls. The number of BUs and CUs replaced during the by-polls were 15 each. As many as 56 VVPATs were also replaced.

About a month after the by-elections to the Assembly in September/October 2019, the SPIO maintained that the returning officers were yet to finalise data on the polls except in the case of Pala constituency. Though the data were later released on first appeal, it was provided only in PDF format though the request was for data in excel or similar format that could be easily used for calculations.

If what the SPIO said was true, how the returning officers declared the by-poll results and Election Commission notified the winners without finalising the data?

The appeal before the State Information Commission in this case is pending.

Copy of reply from State Public Information Officer, CEO’s Office, on RTI request for election data
Reply from State Public Information Officer, CEO’s Office, on RTI request for election data- Page 2

Performance of Members of Parliament 2014 – 2019

P. K. Biju meeting voters

Did you know that CPI (M) member P. K. Biju (Alathur) was among the top ten performers of the outgoing Lok Sabha in terms of participation in debates, but the topper beats him by a score more than six times higher?

Congress member K. V. Thomas, who did not get a seat this time, and actor Innocent (CPI-M independent), who is contesting again from Chalakudy, were the poorest performers among members who served the full term from Kerala.

Topper Bhairon Prasad Mishra (BJP) from Uttar Pradesh attended all sittings of the House and participated in 2095 debates.  You may even wonder whether the Sabha had so many debates, considering the poor participation by many of our elected representatives. The average participation was about 67 debates nationally and 142.5 for members from Kerala.

Biju participated in 326 debates followed by RSP’s N. K. Premachandran (300) and Independent Joice George (290).  On the other hand, Thomas and Innocent participated only in 42 debates each. P. K. Kunhalikutty (Muslim League) has the lowest score of nine from Kerala. It may be noted here that he was in the House only for about two years, having been elected in a by-election from Malappuram in April 2017. If we extrapolate his performance for five years, it is still the lowest from Kerala.

The outgoing Lok Sabaha has as many as 32 members who did not participate in any of the debates. They included post graduates and doctorate degree holders. They also included former Chief Ministers Shibu Soren (Jharkhand) and Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh) besides actor Shatrughan Sinha.

The oldest member in Lok Sabha, L. K. Advani of BJP, participated in only one debate in  a span of five years. So was the youngest member Pravin Kumar Nishad of Samajwadi Party from Uttar Pradesh who incidentally is a professional graduate.

Supriya Sule of Nationalist Congress Party from Maharastra topped in terms of the questions she had asked the government in the House.  She had asked as many as 1181 questions during the five-year term.  Nishikant Dubey of BJP from Jharkhand presented the highest number of private members’ bills in the House— 48 against average of 2.3 bills nationally.

The following MPs had 100 per cent attendance in the House, besides Bhairon Prasad Mishra.

Kulamani Samal Odisha Jagatsinghpur Biju Janata Dal Professional Graduate 100%
Ramesh Chander Kaushik Haryana Sonipat Bharatiya
Janata Party
Professional Graduate 100%
Bhairon Prasad Mishra Uttar Pradesh Banda Bharatiya
Janata Party
Inter/ Higher Secondary 100%
Gopal Chinayya Shetty Maharashtra Mumbai-North Bharatiya Janata Party Under Matric 100%

Attendance is not marked for Ministers. Niranjan Jyoti from Uttar Pradesh had 100 per cent attendance till she became a Minister in August 2014.

Full set of sortable data at
http://www.keralaassembly.org/lok/sabha/2019/performance_2019.php4