Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lavalin Case: Politics of Evasion as Skeletons Tumble Out of the Cupboard

THE MUCH-AWAITED New Kerala March led by Pinarayi Vijayan will launch forth from Kasargode on February 2. The same day Kerala High Court will decide whether the State Government’s go-ahead is required to prosecute the accused in the SNC Lavalin case, in which Mr. Vijayan finds himself an accused along with ten others who were officials in the State Government's power department.

The CPM state secretary is the only politician accused in the case, and he happens to be the first senior leader of the CPM facing a corruption case in its entire history.

I have seen dozens of articles accusing Mr. Vijayan and also dozens defending him including the People’s Democracy article written by M A Baby in 2005 to the latest defense put up by Finance Minister Dr T M Thomas Isaac which appeared in Mathrubhumi today.

It has been one of the most-talked about cases in recent history and Mr. Vijayan happens to be the most controversial politician of our times. Most of these people named in the case are known to me personally for a long time and I have worked with some of them in my career as a journalist.

Hence I do not want to pass a comment on the merits of the case. Let the courts decide whether these people are really culpable or whether they are being wrongfully accused, as the CPM is trying to say.

Let us, however, remember one thing: The CBI is not the first to inquire into case. Much before it, the State Government’s Vigilance police had made a preliminary inquiry and had found corruption in the deal. In fact, the Vigilance took up the case following a report made by the Comptroller & Auditor General of the State Government who found massive loss to public exchequer.

But the CPM, both the state leadership as well as the politburo in Delhi, seem to think there was no reason to examine the case in a court of law. We can understand if the state party unit led by Vijayan says there was no reason for any inquiry, but when the PB, that too the available PB members who consisted of only Prakash Karat, Mrs Brinda Karat and two others, came to the same conclusion even before the official note filed by CBI in the High Court was made public, then it is a matter difficult to comprehend.

That is the problem with this case: People come to conclusions even before they see the evidence, even before they hear the arguments. But will the CPM be able to hold on to its no-inquiry position for long, especially when more and more skeletons are steadily tumbling out of the cupboard?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Enter, the Obama Epoch

Barack Hussein Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America.

Will Uncle Sam ever change...?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Assessing E Balanandan: Worker, Trade Unionist, Marxist Politician

E BALANANDAN died yesterday. He died at the ripe age of 85, his public life spanning more than six decades, rising from an ordinary worker in Kalamassery to a top Communist revolutionary who served in the politburo of the CPM for a long time.

In my career as a journalist I had occasion to interact with him on a number of times. He was simple, down to earth, with a wry wit and easily accessible. In Delhi he lived in the small one room flat at the Vithalbhai Patel House, and always welcomed his guests. He was willing to listen to what you have to say and was always game to a little gossip.

He had a long innings in the Communist party and was often at the centre of its inner party struggles. I was witness to two major occasions when he faced severe setbacks in his inner party struggles. The first was when his most trusted supporters like M M Lawrence, K N Ravindranath, Apppukkuttan Vallikkunnu and others, who were then known as the CITU group in Kerala CPM, were simply thrown out of the Kerala state committee in a severely contested election. It was an open and blatant case of factionalism in the party. It was V S Achuthanandan, Pinarayi Vijayan, M A Baby and others who organised this bloodless coup in the party. Swami, as Balanandan was always known in the party, could do nothing when his gang was simply thrown out, lock stock and barrel at Palakkad in January 1998.

Swami issued a press statement a few days later in which he directly referred to the Palakkad incidents. He said it was against party norms and corrective steps would be taken. As part of these steps, appeals were filed with the Central Control Commission which upheld their case, but the next party congress, instead of reinstating those who were thrown out, decided to clip the wings of the control commission led by veteran Samar Mukherjee. In fact that was the first step in the direction of dilution of party organizational principles for the sake of expediency. But that remained a half-hearted step. They should have gone the whole hog in making it a bourgeois party with open and normal elections to all posts. But it was not to be; and now we have a faction-ridden party which is neither a strong working class organisation of committed cadres nor a bourgeois political party which aims to capture power. It has the vices of both and virtues of neither.

The next time I saw him face another setback was in Delhi in 2005 when he was removed from the politburo of which he was a member from 1978. By then he was a strong supporter of V S Achuthanandan in the new equations in Kerala party. But the official group in Kerala led by Pinarayi had already made their kill at Malappuram state conference ensuring a comprehensive win in party elections. The central leadership could not ignore the voice of the party rank and file as expressed in the Malappuram conference, and the first casualty was Balanandan who had to make way out of the politburo.

That was the end of a major political career. Ever since Balanandan was not a major force in our politics. Yesterday, as his pyre was still burning, I had to make a quick assessment of his contributions, his strengths and weaknesses for a news channel.

I thought there were three major points to remember about him:

First, he was one of the last of our politicians who came from the nationalist movement,with a firm commitment to the ideals of that struggle. His simple life and selfless career embodied those ideals.

Second, he was a trade unionist and politician who failed to notice the changing times and the new challenges posed by a new world. This phase emerges in the seventies when he was an influential figure who opposed the Silent Valley movement, a sign of the nascent environmental movement in India. Same was his attitude to the new digital world that made its impact in the next decade, when he opposed computers as anti working class. He even wrote a book, Computerisation and Indian Working Class, in which he theorized computers would prove to be a great job destroyer!

The third, I think, was a more serious issue: It was in the days when he was the leader of Indian working class movement that the Marxist trade union movement slowly ossified itself into a powerful coterie with its own interests which often clashed with the interests of other sections of our society. There emerged a divide, a deep divide which pitted the organised trade unions against others, mostly unorganized sections of people. Trade union movement became, in the public perception, a gang of organized hooligans who were mercilessly fleecing even the small peasant or petty trader. It was a disaster. Balanandan and his comrades in the trade union front failed to see how this would affect the working class in the long run. Now we know. The working class has practically lost control of its party to the middle class in front of our very eyes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Comrade Abdullakkutty Finds a Real Hero in Narendra Modi; So Does Anil Ambani

Corporate leaders present Narendra Modi as future prime minister of India: news

PEOPLE ADDICTED to pink papers will think that making money is glorious and those who have made it are real heroes. Not only the pink-paper addicts but even Chinese communists seem to be of this mindset as ever since DengXiao Ping took over they used to say making money is glorious.

I have no complaints about people making money. For me those who make money are glorious, just as those who make a beautiful earthenware are also glorious. But I see only the pictures of the Fortune 500 gentlemen (and few women) on the cover pages of our newspapers and magazines, not the poor pot-maker in our villages.

No complaints either. All of them can't make it to the front pages. So let those with bags of money enjoy the sunshine. After all it is their advertisement money that keeps the newspapers and magazines going. Fair and square, sure.

But what about selecting such gentlemen as our prime minister? Is making money or bringing in a lot of money to one's place the real test for a prime minister?

Messrs Anil Ambani, Sunil Bharti Mittal and others say yes, they are prime minister stuff. And when they saw Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, who by the way was responsible for the murder of over 2000 Muslims in Gujarat only few years ago, they found a real prime minister in waiting. Narendra Modi bhai should be our prime minister, said these gentlemen in unison in the presence of the great man in Gujarat the other day.

If the Corporate India thinks Narendra Modi should be the prime minister, why should I complain? No reason whatsoever. If anyone should have a complaint, then it should be Lal Krishna Advani who thinks he is already nominated as the prime minister-in-waiting by his party and the National Democratic Alliance.

So how many prime ministers-in-waiting in the Opposition now? We had Advani first, then came Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and possibly even Kalyan Singh and yes now Narendra Modi too. An excellent show in waiting for all of us.

But the fun of the thing is, even our Communist MP from Kannur, Comrade Abdullakkutty thinks Modi is the man for us, the man who will save us with investments, with money. He said so in Dubai the other day and his party seems to be a bit uncomfortable. But frankly, what exactly is the view of the other comrades in his party? Sincerely, do they not her a bell ring whenAbdullakkutty dared to say what he said?

That is Chinese model, comrades. As Comrade Deng had said we need not worry whether the cat is white or brown so long as it catches mice. Long live Comrade Deng, Long live Comrade Abdullakkutty..!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Politics, Economy and Culture of Waste and Waste Management

A FEW days ago I had occasion to discuss the issue of municipal waste with some friends in a discussion group. The discussion started when Sajan Gopalan of Doordarshan commented that the municipal waste which he dutifully puts in two separate baskets provided by the municipality is simply mixed up by the Kudumbasree people when they take it away.

Then I said, I was surprised. Why should people send out the bio-degradable garbage to the municipal people? Why can't they burn it in their own compound and put the ashes to some vegetables in the compound or if there is no space, grown in pots or old buckets?

In fact we try to do this at our home and do get some good results in the form of a nice cheera thoran or fine green chilly and coconut sauce (this one is great: just try with cooked tapioca...) once in a while.

Then why can't we just put a bin somewhere in the corner of the terrace, in case one has only a flat, and keep the green waste there? I am sorry, but I feel there is a culture in it, a culture which has an ethical aspect to it.

At this point I had to enter into a series of exchanges with RVG Menon who is a senior social activist who runs the Integrated Rural Technology Centre at Mundur in Palakkad. Since they are of some public interest, here is an edited version:

RVG Menon:

There is a law against burning Municipal Solid Waste. Much of our household waste, consisting of food wastes, is not easily combustible also.

However, bio-gas, and vermi composting, are good solutions, provided the household has the necessary infrastructure and the people are willing to spare the time and effort.

Still, many households, located in flats or two or three cent land, will need to put out their garbage, in cities. This cannot be avoided. Moreover, public facilities like markets also generate a lot of waste, which needs to be centrally handled and processed.

Under our wet climatic conditions, and given the nature of our wastes, composting is possibly the best processing solution. If properly managed, this can be done without causing undue problems in the neighbourhood. When IRTC suggested this solution to the Chalakkudy Municipality, they came over to IRTC to see how we were doing it. They found that we had our composting yard within a few meters of our living quarters. They went back and one ward councillor willingly offered to vouch for a composting site next to his own house. They also formed a society to operate this plant. IRTC built this plant and operated it for one year to provide a model. In fact, when the minister, Paloli Muhammad Kutty came to inaugurate the plant, he was surprised to find that he was being given a rousing reception by the local people. He said he had expected brickbats! After one year, the society took over the running of the plant, and they ran it satisfactorily for quite some time. Later, I came to know that the particular councillor has been replaced and the plant is having some problems.

But this proves that composting plants can be run properly, given the will and support.

This holds for the Vilappilsala plant of Trivandrum City Corporation also. The problems in the neighbourhood (and they are very real and serious, no doubt) have arisen from some ignorance and carelessness on the part of the authorities, in the initial stages. The undigested wastes were being dumped, unscientifically, in the open valley, beside the plant. This should have been buried in a Sanitary Land Fill, as per regulations. This lapse was responsible for all the leach-ate problems. Now the Corporation is trying to correct it, and a solution is being worked out. This could have been done one year ago, but the lethargy of our bureaucracy and the limitations of our red tape system were responsible for the delay.

N P Chekkutty:

I still think there are some ethical issues in this. And also I do feel as an adviser to the authorities, you are taking a technical view of the problem.

Look at Vilappilsala. What the authorities are talking about is a huge plant, a plant that would need more and more waste for its consumption. The bigger the plant, the greater the profits for all those concerned, including politicians. This has become an accepted fact.

Sunita Narain, sometime ago, was writing about similar plants that processes human excreta that pollute Yamuna in Delhi. After visits to the plants she came to conclude that the plants were adding to the problem and not being a part of the solution.

Now let us take your argument that household solid-wastes like food leftover are not combustible. Agreed. But let me try to point out some solutions I see in my neighbourhood in a small by-lane where most of the houses are five to ten cent plots, all of them individual houses with small compounds.

The wastes we see are as follows: First, the plastic waste mainly in the form of carry bags, packed items, etc. Here we do not have any option. The authorities should help dispose them off or recycle them. They do so, these days.

Second, the combustible waste like paper, dry leafs and twigs, branches of trees, coconut waste, etc. These are highly combustible and as a matter of fact I do help my wife cook rice once in a week or when we have time on the normal traditional hearth using these items. The rice cooked this way is much tastier than the one done in pressure cooker.

Then the third variety is vegetable waste and food waste. We do have plants and most of the vegetable wastes directly go to the plants. As for food waste, if you keep vegetarian separate, it is fine. We used to give it to a neighbour who owns a cow. Now another neighbour who has dogs takes them. The non-veg waste is taken care of by a dozen or so cats ready always at the door.

So why can't we insist that the households shall not send out waste except plastic waste? Why do we insist all these bio-degradable being taken to the street to make them sink, and make our lives sink too?

Now people will say flats can't do it. Hope flat builders can set up bio gas plants, as part of the project. And the authorities insist that such plants be made and put penalty for defaults?


Dear Chekkutty, Let me confess that I am not an authority on this subject. I am still learning from experience, and eager to learn from other people's experience. So your comments and experience are quite welcome indeed.

If you can manage without putting out your garbage, it is fine. As a matter of fact, the TVM Corporation encourages this practice. And even provides some incentive. But many are not so lucky - not even a square meter of soil in their back yard. Or, perhaps they are too lazy. It is good that many of the new apartment complexes are providing for waste treatment (bio-gas plants).

The Corporation has to cater to the needs of everybody. Otherwise they will throw their garbage in the streets. And then there are the markets and other public facilities. I do not know of any city which can get along without providing for the collection of disposal of wastes. It is a mandatory obligation also.

I don't believe it is correct to generalize that greater the garbage coming to the processing plant, greater is their profit. This may be so in some cases where the agreement is drawn up like that. But it is not so in Vilappilsala, which is operated by the Corporation, or its designated agent, on a no-profit basis, at present. And I can vouch for the fact that there is absolutely no corruption in the operation, at present, political or otherwise. All decisions are taken strictly on merit, in a transparent manner by a group of committed individuals, under the constant guidance of the Mayor and his team. There has been no interference so far.

As for operating such a huge plant in an environment-friendly manner, our team is confident that it can be done, given a little more time and also engineering support from the Corporation Technical Staff. But the point is, it has to succeed. We have to make it work.

Otherwise what are engineers for?

N P Chekkutty:

Dear RVG, First of all, it is not a question of whether I could manage my own garbage on my own. If my note created such an impression of self advertisement, I am sorry.

But my point is this: Can we just shrug of our responsibility in waste creation and ask the authorities to take it away? And how is this waste dumped? As far as I can see it is dumped on the poorer people's premises, people who have little say in decision-making. It is there in our city at Nallalam, it is there in Kochi, it is there at Laloor in Trissur and also there in Trivandrum at Vilappilsala. If we are ignoring this issue and hope that technology will solve it for us, I think we are making a big mistake.

I am unable to share the optimism of those who have full faith in science and technology to find solutions to all problems of our making. For me, the question of waste, its generation and disposal, are not only a technical or engineering issue but cultural, and social. Hence, they are political too.

Who is responsible for the waste generated? In our modern social life, we seem to have come to accept that those who generate maximum waste are those who are powerful, affluent. Consumption is the key to this idea.

In fact in my original note, I was trying to point this out, this cultural degradation that is an integral part of our waste generating social and cultural practice. We had a tradition of living with nature, by nature and what I see now is the overturning of this great tradition we had nurtured for long. And our insensitivity to this question of waste seems to be the symptom of a malaise much deeper.

I am not a Gandhian, but in this matter I think Gandhi should be a model we should try to emulate.


Dear Chekkutty, When I wrote, "If you can manage without putting out your garbage, it is fine…”etc, I did not mean "you" in a personal sense at all. It was more like "If one can manage one's own waste...." I am really sorry for the ambiguous use of language, which led to a misunderstanding.

Any way, I do agree that the solution cannot be a technology fix. It needs behavioral as well as cultural changes. But my point is this. If we are employing a bad technology or bad management, it has to be corrected, and we cannot hide behind the need for cultural change.

We should definitely encourage households to manage their own waste if possible, insist on big apartment complexes to make their own arrangements wherever feasible, force hospitals to have a collective treatment facility, but at the same time, make arrangements for an efficient collection and disposal of wastes from those households and commercial establishments which are unable to comply with this requirement, owing to genuine reasons. We have to take care of street sweepings, market wastes and also waste from public buildings, etc.

The situation in VIlappilsala is scandalous, there is no doubt about it. A number of things have gone wrong there, including site selection, design of the facility and also callous operating practices. As I mentioned earlier, half digested and undigested wastes have been dumped there for several years, and the only practical solution now is to cap it and prevent any leach-ate from flowing down into the water course. This is being done now. Nobody we have talked to had any better solution to offer.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Shared Traditions, Shared Fortunes: Exploring the Cultural History of Kozhikode

EARLIER THIS week came two of my best friends, John Samuel of Action Aid from Bangkok and Bobby Kunhu, a human rights lawyer from Pune. Bobby has his roots in Kozhikode as he is the great grandson of our best-known freedom fighter E Moidu Maulavi though he has been born and brought up in Tamil Nadu. John has been a globe-trotter ever since he left his village in south Kerala and he is one of the most effective leaders of the global civil society movement.

This visit has been pending for almost one year and ever since John expressed his desire to spend a day or two in Kozhikode, I was thinking about what should I show him and where should I take him. It was not an easy thing to decide, because John being as familiar as a fish in water in the first world charms in Washignton DC and the exotic pleasures in Malawi's villages or Bangladesh's marooned mangroves, what could I single out in this most familiar city of ours where a normal visitor cannot find anything particularly exciting?

Then I remembered about our history; our long, variegated and rich history that transcends many centuries, numerous historical phases of our global human heritage, where it freely mixed and interacted, giving rise to an exotic, original culture which seamlessly accommodates various streams within, which nowadays people describe as a syncretic culture. In a world of ethnic cleansing, a world of racial hatred and mono-cultural prejudices, I realized that we do have something unique here, something wonderfully original, something about which we should be proud of.

Thinking about it I could see that everyday as I traversed this city's length and breadth, concerned about nothing more sublime than my own bread and butter, I was moving through exquisite realms of history, through rich streams of cultural and civilizational give and take, an unending process of aadan-pradaan to which I never spared a moment all these years...! (That again reminds me of the story of the donkey who used to carry most exquisite flowers on its back to the temple every day, but he had no nose for its rich smells...)

It was like rediscovering my own identity. In my school days history was my favourite subject and I marvelled at the great past of Rome, of Constantinople, of Delhi and so many other cities I had not had a chance to visit. I have read Orhan Pamuk's wonderful book on his city, Istanbul, and often dreamed about its picturesque streets and buildings, ruminating about the beautiful and expansive Bospherous, all the time forgetting about my own city's thousand years of history that is written in its temple walls, five hundred years of heroic struggles against alien invaders etched on its sea-front battlements and charred remains, its unique dalliances with the ebb and flow of human civilization that is marked in its every inch...

I made an attempt to fill my guests with this unceasing cascade of history that permeates every part of this city as I took them on a quick trip from north to south, from Panthalayini or Fandarini in Arabian records which is a small port north of Koyilandy, some 30 km away from Kozhikode, to Beypore, on the southern tip.

Panthalayini, a natural port, was famous in the ancient world and Arabs used to anchor here over a thousand years ago. Historians say it was here Vasco da Gama actually landed though his ship was later taken to Kappad or Kappakkadavu, a little to the south. Panthalayini keeps its historical memories fresh with place-names that remind you of the trade that flourished here, the streets where Arabs and even Chinese set up camps. Even today there is a place called Cheenatheru, or China street, in this place, say local people.

Travelling southward, one comes across the temples of Puthur and Varakkal, both Devi temples, mentioned in Portuguese records as Gama was taken to both these places of worship by his local guides and he obviously thought they were churches of Mary the Immaculate, and did not hesitate to offer his prayers there.

Then you suddenly enter the world of colonial English who came to Malabar in 1792. With Arthur Wellesley and his English East India Company taking over the region, it is a new age of colonial rule with the Portuguese, French and others either sidelined or pushed to the peripheries like French Mahe some 60 km north, or even Goa, further up in the Konkan coast.

West Hill and East Hill still retain a colonial ambience, with a number of British buildings that include the two early 19th century tiled and slanted-roof structures atop the eastern hill, that today serve as the Pazhassi Rajah Museum and the Ravi Varma Art Gallery. The main building used to be the camp office of the Malabar Collector in colonial days and it was here Conoully, who dug the Conoully Canal that links the city from south to north, was done to death by Mappila rebels. The 19th century was a period of long and bloody confrontation between the British rulers and the Mappila rebels in south Malabar, and the Mappilas were officially termed a criminal community, their movements were strictly controlled, the ubiquitous Mappila knives were banned, and the Moplah Outrages Act was brought in to punish them and the Malabar Special Police, the notorious MSP, was set up to crush them.

On the way to East Hill stands the old Bank House, now known as Express House, after Indian Express took over the colonial villa that used to be the residence of the manager of the British- owned Chartered Bank, the only imperial bank in the city for long. Even after most of the old British buildings were pulled down in the city, this beautiful two-story building that has large rooms and open windows and verandas on all four sides remained in a 70-cent plot with scores of mayflower plants giving it shade, and an atmosphere of explosive colour of red in the summer seasons. It had two massive rooms in the ground floor and two huge bed rooms surrounded by a long veranda on all sides at the upper floor, with spacious bathing tubs done in exquisite tiles. (It was in 1990 that Indian Express took it over and since I was the representative of the newspaper in the city at that time, it was my residence for over a year. From the loose tiles I saw there, I conclude that it was built in late 19th century or early 20th century by A P Chirukandan, a famous contractor, as the mark APC is seen on the rear side of floor tiles. The building today has changed beyond recognition, all its trees cut down and the entire compound converted into a printing press since 1992.)

(This is the first part of a series on history of Kozhikode. The second part will appear next week.)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Laughing Gas

Indian airline companies slash airfares: news.

India flying high...!