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.


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.

Surveillance cameras infringe privacy of citizens

Kerala Health Minister V. S. Sivakumar has announced that surveillance cameras would be installed in Ward 9 of the General Hospital in Trivandrum. Ward 9 is where the hospital authorities admit older persons who require geriatric and palliative care.

The ward is over crowed with double the number of patients against bed strength. There was complaint that the body of a patient who died was left in the ward for hours without moving it out to the mortuary. The Minister visited the ward in view of the the complaint and reports of pathetic conditions at the ward. His prescription of cameras (in addition to promise of more staff) would deprive the old men of their private moments. Many lie there half-naked often without any relative to care for them. The ward sometimes see emotional outbursts as well as intimate moments with family members.

Surveillance cameras in Trivandrum

Surveillance cameras in Trivandrum

It is not clear why the Minister wants cameras in the ward. Is it for the hospital superintendent or other to keep watch on what is going on in the ward? Is it to check whether bodies are lying on the floor? Is it assist the nurses in keeping tab on the patients owing to shortage of staff? Or is it to see whether the patients are being care for or is it to keep prying media men out of the precincts? Whatever it is, surveillance cameras in hospital wards is not a good idea.

It is not even good for classrooms. Some tuition masters and schools in the city have installed cameras in their classrooms to keep tab on the students. What kind of attitudes would children develop when they are aware that they are being constantly watched upon? Classrooms are not private places. Still, they have a right to some kind of privacy, at least during intervals.

Traffic police and Motor Vehicles Department are also increasingly using cameras for surveillance.There are more than 500 cameras installed in Trivandrum city while Kochi have about half the number. Cameras from private establishments are also being connected to the police control rooms. You will be watched as you pray at the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum (though not at the sanctum sanctorum). Some residence associations are also setting up cameras to find people dumping waste in this locality though the legality of installing such surveillance by private persons in public places is in doubt.

Traffic surveillance camerasVehicles as well as citizens are under constant watch along the main thoroughfares of the city. Though the cameras help to book traffic offences by capturing screenshots of violations, police men are still on the streets directly booking offenders. So, harassment of drivers and corruption do not disappear.

Anyway, the police still need personnel at junctions to regulate traffic and it doubtful whether monitoring of the video feeds are constant. If effective monitoring of all junctions and other points are to be done, one requires a large number of personnel at the control rooms. This cannot be cost effective despite the advantages of the technology and falling costs of equipment. (The 57 cameras at Padmanabha Swamy temple reportedly cost about Rs. 15 millions).

Besides, misuse of the system by police as well as private citizens could not be ruled out. When police criminal nexus exists, surveillance could even aid criminals and quotation gangs. It is any way a case of big boss watching over the citizens from all angles. Police can use the system to track movements of politicians, journalists and others. Though it is said that camera surveillance would help to check crimes, it effectiveness is yet to be proved (except in the case of traffic offences). The advantage could be limited as cameras would only force shifting of occurrence of crimes  from city centres to the suburbs. Somewhere we have to strike a balance between privacy, surveillance and prevention of crimes.

Advertising State lotteries: is it a good deed?

Can buying lotteries be a good deed?  The government says so in its advertisements for Kerala lotteries. It argument may seem right as the revenues from the Karunya lotteries of State government is to be spent for funding assistance to poor patients requiring treatment for serious ailments affecting vital organs of the body.

Lotteries nurture the instinct for gambling. Everybody knows that most of the buyers of the lottery never benefit from it whereas the seller always benefits. However, running of lotteries by the government has been justified on the ground that it provides employment to many and satisfy the urge of the people to try their luck. The justifications get a boost when the government saysTelevision advertisement for Kerala Lotteries that the returns are to be used to fund care of critically ill patients. It also serves as a good marketing strategy for the State lotteries.

However, the picture changes when one examines these arguments from another perspective. The government is resorting to creation of non-productive employment instead of creating real employment opportunities.  Free treatment of poor patients for serious ailments is not a priority of government: it is not willing to spend tax revenues for the purpose; but want people with gambling instinct to do the job. It is promoting the instinct by using fund raising aspect of the lottery for marketing purposes and terming it as a good deed. The marketing campaign would lead to people imbibing wrong values: the buyer of the lottery hides his greed behind altruism.

Proposal for five-day work week in Kerala

The proposal for five-day work week for government employees in Kerala is borne out of financial exigencies rather than any well-thought-out plan to improve administration.  As it stands now, the reduction of a work day result in poorer services for the public though there may be gain in terms of governmental expenditure in running the services. So, it would be lesser service to the public at lesser cost.

However, the situation could be qualitatively different if the government contemplates five-day week after efficiently implementing e-governance. Many of the government services could be offered to the citizen at lesser cost on a 24×7 basis if the e-governance system is expanded to cover more and more areas. Then curtailment of a work-day may not affect the public much.

As to the financial problems of the government, it is the governments own creation. It had created more than 15000 new posts in one year, adding to the burden of the exchequer.  Considerable sums are being spent for welfare though there is no assurance that it reaches the right hands. Government land is being granted for a pittance to the farmers and the landless and also to influential organisations. Many of these gifts are not justified.  This is when it has established schemes and ways for routing welfare assistance. The Government  indeed cared for the poor and disabled by raising the welfare and old age pensions which was a welcome measure. However, a casualty of the financial strain faced by the government was the noon meal scheme in schools.

Secretariat decked up for Onam holidays

Secretariat decked up for Onam holidays (file photo)

It is high time that the government focused on augmenting revenues from the flouring trade in gold, textiles and hospitality. Special concessions to the IT sector are no more needed. Government could either reduce expenditure or improve efficiencies by routing its subsidies in cash through the banks. It is also worth thinking whether government should maintain cars and drivers for its office or provide them with a car allowance. This, in fact, was one of the recommendations of a expenditure commission appointed by the government. Several such recommendations for austerity have been gathering dust.

UDF government courts controversies

The open sparring in the UDF over the lease of estates in Nelliampathy and the controversy over regularisation of conversion paddy fields have dented the image of ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala.

The Government Chief Whip P. C. George took cudgels against Forest Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar for initiating steps for takeover of estates over expiry of lease or violation of lease conditions including sale or conversion of the estates. Mr. George’s contention is that the Forest Department is acting against farmers, meaning the estate owners.

Nelliampathy Estates

Nelliampathy Estates

Estate owners have been trying every trick in the book to prevent reversion of their estates. They have also gained support of a section of the UDF in favour of their efforts to retain the leases.  However, a section within the UDF is opposed to it. In fact, there was a section favouring the estate owners in the previous LDF government also. However, the CPI which was in charge of the Forest portfolio had favoured take over.  After the UDF government came to power, interested groups were working for change of policy and that yielded some results.

The fight in the UDF over the issue would not die down easily as much is at stake.

Similar is the situation on the question of reclamation and conversion of wet lands and paddy fields. Those attempting large scale conversions had received the support of a section of the previous government. Now, they were getting almost full support from the Cabinet with it approving a proposal to regularize pre-2005 conversions. This would have helped realtors and investors in resorts and other projects. However, opposition is growing in the UDF with V. M. Sudheeran and others openly speaking against the decision. What they are pointing at is obvious.

These controversies are accentuating dormant internal schisms in the front and could even threaten the cohesion of the government.