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Is the LDF coalition's confidence wearing thin?

PN Venugopal

30/6/2010

On May 18, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) completed four years in power in Kerala. Its Public Relations Department (PRD) came out with a four-page pullout in every leading newspaper with each of the 19 ministers elaborating on their achievements. The PRD started this campaign a fortnight preceding the anniversary and the bombardment with full-page ads continued even after a month.

The Left had been in power in Kerala several times in the past, but such indulgence in self-advertisement is unprecedented. Stepping into the election year, is this a sign of nervousness and is Left's confidence ebbing?

The LDF, a coalition of seven political parties led by the Communist Party of India (CPI-M), was swept into power in the 2006 Assembly elections bagging 98 of the 140 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Veteran communist V S Achutanandan, who became a hero of the masses due to his interventions in crucial public issues as the Leader of the Opposition, lead electioneering from the front. He was sworn in as CM along with 19 ministers.

Revenue collection up

While assessing the performance of a government, comparison with the previous regime becomes inevitable. The governments in Kerala have always been cash-starved and bogged down by innumerable instances of empty treasuries that could not pay salaries and pensions, amounting to almost 90 percent of the state's revenue.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused to allow overdrafts due to mounting debts. Old-age pensioners, agricultural labourers, widows, etc., used to be the first victims. Dearness allowance enhancements to the government employees were never paid in time. Naturally, maintenance and development of basic infrastructure was affected too. All these were true for not only the previous United Democratic Front (UDF) regime, but also for the earlier LDF government which was in power from 1997 to 2001.

But now, these issues have become a thing of the past and although the government coffers are not exactly overflowing with money, revenue collection has increased from Rs 9,783 crores in 2004-05 to Rs 23,198 crores in 2009-10. Welfare pension has been enhanced to Rs 300 from the previous Rs 120-200 and Rs 500 crores have been spent for debt relief schemes for farmers, fisherfolk, and others.

Wayanad out of suicide trap

One of the first exploits of the new government was to bring succour to the farmers of Wayanad district. During the preceding five years, Wayanad was tormented with a maximum share of the 11,516 farmers suicide cases reported in the state and was declared 'distress-affected'. Consequently, a 'Debt Relief Commission' was set up.

While the commission studied each case in depth, the government stopped the aggressive loan recovery methods adopted by banks and money-lenders. The state got out of the spate of suicides almost overnight. Although complaints have poured in about the functioning of the cash-strapped commission and its lack of adequate infrastructure, farmer suicides have not been reported anymore. Debts of the fisherfolk too have been brought under the commission's ambit.

Power, PDS, PSUs, and paddy cultivation

Thanks to the improved power management, an uptick in power generation has added 96 MWs. The result: no power cuts in the last four years. Despite the Central Government slashing the quota of rice and wheat, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is all perked up. Apart from ration shops, Kerala now has nearly 2,400 government-sponsored stores which sell essential items at a price lower than the market rate. This network certainly contributed in pegging the recent price rise which affected the rest of India.

At the fag end of the UDF rule, there were proposals to close down or privatise all loss-making PSUs. Only 12 of the 42 companies were making profits then. But the LDF Government had different ideas. The Industries Ministry revamped the companies and also provided budgetary support. As of now, 32 companies have accomplished operating profit. Separately, the IT sector too has shown tremendous growth with exports reaching Rs 3,000 crores from Rs 680 crores in 2006.

The government had initiated several schemes and incentives for bringing more land under paddy cultivation which had been dwindling fast with many leaving their farms fallow and wishing it away for real estate purposes. The initiatives have been effective to a certain extent and paddy cultivation has been resumed in 15,000 hectares, boosting the production by 1.25 lakh tonnes. Rs 12 per/kg of paddy - the price at which the government is buying from farmers -- is considered reasonable by most farmers.

Health -- a mixed bag

The health sector is a mixed bag. There were laments that the much-acclaimed Kerala model of public heath was in the throes of collapse and the LDF was set to revamp it. But the Health Department has been at the receiving end with various fevers like chikungunya and dengue stalking Kerala, come monsoon. However, latest reports indicate that the trend is being reversed gradually.

Four government doctors working in various parts of the state say that the infrastructure and logistics in the government hospitals have improved dramatically and all essential medicines are available. While conceding that certain improvements are visible, Secretary of the Indian Medical Association, Kerala, Dr Rajagopalan Nair, points out that the funds have been funneled out from the National Rural Health Mission. He also alleged that there was no coordination in the implementation of various schemes.

Short-lived 'revolution'

These favorable statistics notwithstanding, what makes the LDF nervous? To all those keeping abreast of the developments, the answer is obvious: land acquisition for various 'developmental' activities and the consequent displacement of people.

It may sound ironical, but matters related to land were pegged as a great achievement on the first anniversary of the Achutanadan government. It started with the eviction of illegal occupants from the hill station town of Munnar. The first to be evicted were posh tourist resorts. It wasn't just eviction, but downright demolition of the resorts lead by a specially designated IAS officer, an IGP, and the district collector. The operation was supervised by the CM himself.

People just could not believe what was happening in front of their eyes. It was the fall of high and mighty. The euphoria spread across the state. Illegal encroachments of road, river, and paddy fields were systematically demolished. Thousands of people gathered around and cheered when the boundary walls of prestigious cinema houses and high-end jewellery outlets came crashing down in Kochi.

But this 'revolution' did not last long. The first blow came from within the ruling coalition. The Munnar office of CPI, the second biggest partner of the coalition was adjudged illegal as it was built on government land. Though the menacing arms of the machine went about its task nonchalantly, it was stopped half way. No sooner had a chink in the armour got exposed, scores of aggrieved parties exploited it to the hilt. Stay orders were obtained wherever demolitions had just begun. Those who had already lost their buildings sought compensation. Merchants' unions became vocal and to top it all, a faction of the CPI(M) itself came out against the CM. He succumbed to the formidable forces arraigned against him. The three-member demolition squad was disbanded. The 'revolution' that had begun with a bang ended with a whimper.

Education, a muddle

Unmindful of the stiff opposition from the Left and the Left-leaning student unions, Kerala had opened up its higher education to the private sector during the UDF regime when A K Antony was the CM. Engineering and medical colleges sprang up even in remote corners of the state. Antony justified his decision by pointing at the student outflow to Karnataka and other states for professional courses. He also said that sanction for the new institutions was on the condition that private college managements would allot 50 percent of the seats based on merit and follow government fee structure. But no agreements were signed and the managements simply denied any such understanding once the colleges were sanctioned.

Antony soon left Kerala to join the Central cabinet and the job of cleaning up the muddle fell on the LDF which came to power next. (It was not for the first time that Antony was doing the vanishing act bequeathing a conundrum to the successor. In 1997, he had banned production and sale of arrack and lost elections within two months. The tremendous task of curbing an activity and a habit which was legal till then fell on the shoulders of the LDF).

M A Baby, education minister in the LDF Government, made valiant efforts to regulate the professional colleges through an education bill, but it was struck down by the High Court. The minister and the LDF were forced into unprecedented compromises with the managements. At the beginning of every academic year, the managements extract further concessions. The LDF has not succeeded in getting out of the vicious circle but instead, has got deeply mired in it.

Mega projects, massive protests

That the Achutanandan government was faction-ridden became obvious when the Industries Department, headed by Minister Elamaram Karim, a strong ally of the CPI(M) party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, initiated or supported several projects in the private sector which required large-scale land acquisition and equally massive eviction of people. Sobha high-tech city in Kochi, Mavoor Township in Kozhikode, Kinalur project in Kozhikode are only a few cases in point. When a survey by revenue officials for laying a four-lane road to the proposed factory site at Kinalur was halted by people, they were lathi-charged and several women and children were injured. This is the latest of several such resistances by the people against mega projects.

One of the main reasons for the volatile reaction of the people is the suffering of those evicted from their homeland -- be it for the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal at Kochi or the Smart City (a non-starter).

Even as all these were happening, the struggle for land by the landless too was gathering momentum in many parts of the state. The Chengara struggle is a prime example of the indifference of those in power towards movements of adivasis and dalits. It took the government more than three years to arrive at some sort of settlement with the landless who had forcibly occupied the rubber estates of Harrison Malayalam Plantations demanding cultivable land.

'Development', at any cost

The much-discussed stand of T Balakrishnan, Principal Secretary (Industries), three years ago is indicative of the thinking of a powerful segment of those in power. He had circulated a note calling for the repeal of the Kerala Land Reforms Act because "it had outlived its utility" and "was also proving to be a stumbling block to development". The Act was a pioneering and iconic legislation of the first communist government in Kerala. It is inconceivable that a bureaucrat would dare undermine it without the tacit support of the powerful segments of the party leadership.

Balakrishnan was again in news recently. "Shouldn't we have averted closure of Coco Cola factory at Plachimada? It was contributing nearly Rs 500 crores annually to the exchequer and livelihood to hundreds," he said in a programme on May 24 in the presence of Industries Minister Elamaram Karim. He also said closure of Pepsi (at Puthusserry, Palakkad) was averted at the intervention of the Industries Minister. Development, even at the cost of the people, has been the general attitude of all political parties in the state. The Left is no exception.

This approach is glaringly visible in the tooth-and-nail fight Power Minister T K Balan is putting up with the Centre for getting clearance for the Athirappally power project. If executed, the project will reduce the Athirappally waterfall to a trickle and cause incalculable harm to the eco-sensitive area. This government had brought in several legislations and schemes for the protection of wetland, paddy fields, and biodiversity of the state in general. But it has invariably faltered in the implementation and execution. Soon after assuming power, the government formed a Working Group on Environment (WGE) and based on its recommendations, the Kerala Planning Board was to take up environment as a specific subject while formulating plan proposals. But nothing was heard of it later.

On a downswing

Out of the seven parties in the coalition in 2006, only four parties -- CPI(M), CPI, RSP, and Congress (S) -- are in their original form. Major chunks of Janata Dal (S) and Kerala Congress (J) crossed over to the Opposition while the Indian National League (INL) has quit the LDF to join the UDF. No ideological reasons have been cited for this shift. The Janata Dal quit squabbling over seats in the 2009 Parliamentary election, while the other two acted on instincts of self-preservation. The LDF could win only four of the 20 seats in the elections, down 13 from 2004. The CPI(M) is apparently making a bid to make best of the situation by striking a totally secular posture ("no more trucks with communal parties") and harping on class-based politics as against identity politics.

Ever since the Communist party assumed power for the first time in 1957 and right through the coalition governments lead by the party from 1967, Kerala has seen a number of progressive legislations and innovative schemes though there were many flaws in their execution/implementation. But there was no lack of ideological clarity. For the first time, Kerala is witnessing a Left coalition led by a party that is being pulled in different directions.

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One of the first exploits of the new government was to bring succour to the farmers of Wayanad district. During the preceding five years, Wayanad was tormented with a maximum share of the 11,516 farmers suicide cases reported in the state and was declared 'distress-affected'. Consequently, a 'Debt Relief Commission' was set up.


These favorable statistics notwithstanding, what makes the LDF nervous? To all those keeping abreast of the developments, the answer is obvious: land acquisition for various 'developmental' activities and the consequent displacement of people.


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