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The chief minister who is making a difference

May 22, 2007 15:42 IST
Observant visitors to Kerala often stump me with two questions. First, how has a state so blessed by the rain god let its rivers run dry? Second, why doesn't India's most literate state not feature at the top of the software ranking?

The answer to both: Human folly.

Kerala was once at the forefront of both the electronic and the environmental revolutions. (By Indian standards anyway!) A quarter of a century ago, citizens came together to block the Silent Valley Project, raising their voices until not just Thiruvananthapuram but even Delhi had to listen.

And KELTRON -- does anyone even recall the brand today? -- was making the best television sets in India, even talking of branching into computers, when Gurgaon was little better than a desert on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway. Instead of capitalising on these, we Keralites frittered away these advantages.

Few thought the situation would improve when V S Achuthanandan took over as chief minister. The veteran's honesty and incorruptibility is beyond question, but could an octogenarian lead the state in the first decade of the 21st century?

The chief minister is surprising us all today. Through a combination of construction and demolition, Achuthanandan is giving Kerala a second chance.

Let me begin with the demolition job. The highlands of Kerala form one of India's great monsoon catchment areas; unbridled -- and utterly illegal -- construction in the hills was slowly destroying them. And with the construction lobby winning patronage from all sides of the political spectrum, nobody seemed to have a clue about how to stop them.

After going to the hill-station of Munnar, to see the devastation of the once verdant slopes in person, the chief minister of Kerala ordered a demolition drive. I thought this would be as half-hearted and shambolic as the sealing drive in Delhi. I was wrong.

The first structures to be demolished were giant towers installed by the mobile phone giants Airtel and IDEA. They stood, I believe, at the second highest point in Kerala.

Do not rush to blame the Communist chief minister for his supposed hatred of corporate entities. The cell phone companies had built on land whose ownership was claimed by the brother of the local CPI-M district secretary!

The party affiliation did not spare the demolition. The symbolism did not end there. The second entity slated for demolition was an illegal construction owned by the CPI, a member of the ruling Left Democratic Front. The party has its district office in the building. (There was also a hotel in the same place.) The party, I understand, owned the title to the land yet the actual construction was illegal.

Once again, the chief minister showed no mercy.

There followed, I was told, an amusing sequel. Enraged CPI workers raised slogans against the chief minister. With the same breath, they shouted slogans in favour of the Left Democratic Front ministry! They could do no less I suppose given that the revenue department is headed by a CPI functionary.

Speaking of revenue ministers, the third set of demolitions involved a 'resort' owned by a former revenue minister's relative. But the popular mood is staunchly behind the current chief minister. The next day, we were treated to the sight of the former minister addressing the media, blandly supporting everything that Achuthanandan had
ordered.

I was in Kerala while the demolition drive started. All of it received extensive coverage on both the electronic and the print media. Believe me, it was a treat to see Keralites watching it as avidly as, on other occasions, they might watch a cricket match or the election results.

The demolition drive cannot and must not be limited to Munnar. Vast tracts of Kerala's public property, from the beaches to the hills, has been taken over by the land mafia. Its political clout ran so deep that it made no difference whether there was a Congress or a Communist government in the state. In one place, the Kerala police no less found that 48 acres of their land had been taken over!

Achuthanandan is the first chief minister who has had the guts to take on the land sharks. He has set up a special team for the purpose, hand-picked men chosen for their integrity. But I hope everyone understands the chief minister is under formidable pressure.

The public, not just in Kerala but elsewhere, will have to demonstrate their support for the chief minister's policies.

Kerala's hills and beaches are national resources. Wipe Kerala's hills of their green cover, and you effectively cut the catchment area not for the state alone but for Tamil Nadu and even Karnataka. Encroach upon the beaches, and you will soon see that tourist dollars too dry up.

If demolition is one part of Achuthanandan's policy, then construction is the other. I refer to the green signal for the Smart City in Kochi.

Sections of the Left Democratic Front opposed it when the idea was mooted by the Congress-led United Democratic Front. Some farmers are afraid their land shall be taken over at rates below market prices.

The fears of the farmers must be assuaged at all costs. Kerala certainly cannot afford a Nandigram-like situation. But if -- and it is a pretty big 'if' -- this is possible, Smart City could be the fillip that puts Kochi in the same league as Bangalore and Hyderabad.

It could mean thousands of crores of rupees by way of investments, and create lakhs of jobs. As Keralites all over the world would attest, it wasn't any lack of affection for the state but sheer lack of opportunity that drove them to emigrate. Between the Smart City in Kochi and the TechnoPark in Thiruvananthapuram, I hope this is about to change.

If it takes guts to take on entrenched lobbies as Chief Minister Achuthanandan is doing in Munnar it takes equal courage to reverse one's own position. If the Left was a stumbling block in the path of the Smart City project earlier, then the chief minister is making amends.

Hopefully, Kerala can also learn from the mistakes made by pioneers. Bangalore is scarcely a 'garden' city any longer, and old-timers complain that Pune's charm have withered. India's policy-makers forget that Silicon Valley didn't just offer economic opportunities, California was actually a better place to live than some places in the United States. I am delighted that the chief minister understands that economic development cannot come at the cost of environmental degradation.

V S Achuthanandan's first days in office offered little to cheer about. But the past month or so offers hope that his administration has turned a corner. Should he continue in the same vein, I for one shall happily acknowledge that Achuthanandan stands right up there with the late Achutha Menon in the pantheon of Kerala's chief ministers.

T V R Shenoy