'In each hartal, enormous amount of public money is wasted. The entire state comes to a standstill. How long can this go on?'
'Every year 3 crore people sit at home not because they support hartals, but because they are forced to do so.'
'This is part of a larger measure to curb democratic rights.'
In 2015, Kerala has witnessed more than 300 regional hartals (strikes) and three major statewide hartals so far. It means Kerala had a hartal almost every day in some part of the state or the other. It is reported that the state exchequer loses around Rs 900 crore (Rs 9 billion) directly on every hartal day. The indirect losses are yet to be ascertained.
Strikes, hartals and bandhs -- the name just underwent various changes and now stands at hartal. When the court banned strikes, it took its rebirth as bandh and now that bandh is banned, it is hartal.
Hartal, a word in Gujarati, was first used by Mahatma Gandhi against the British during the Independence Movement. It was a form of civil disobedience then against the British.
It continues today with much more vigour in Kerala in protest against even petty political crimes.
In a landmark move, the United Democratic Front government in Kerala will introduce a Hartal Regulation Bill in the assembly session starting, Monday, November 30.
According to the draft bill, no flash hartal will be permitted in Kerala; anyone planning a hartal has to give three days' notice. Nobody can restrict a person from visiting a hospital, a hotel, an educational institution or petrol pumps or forcefully shut down shops or restrict people from attending offices.
If they do so, they will invite six months imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both. Also, nobody can stop the functioning of hospitals, clinics, medical shops, distribution of milk, newspapers, fish, water and food.
If the bill is implemented, it will be a landmark in a state that has been crippled by hartals.
Ramesh Chennithala, Kerala's home minister, Dr Thomas Isaac, the former finance minister of the Left Democratic Front government and Raju P Nair, general convener of the Say NO to Hartal movement discuss the bill with Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com
Ramesh Chennithala tells Rediff.com why his government plans to introduce the bill.
Is it because the image of Kerala has been tarnished badly by the frequent hartals that your government has decided to introduce the Hartal Regulation Bill?
The situation in Kerala is such that anybody can declare a hartal without any notice. Even a splinter group of a political party can call a hartal and the state stops functioning on that day. Hundreds and thousands of people are inconvenienced.
In each hartal, enormous amount of public money is wasted. The entire state comes to a standstill. How long can this go on?
How long has the government been thinking about introducing such a bill? This is the first time that a political party is thinking on these lines.
For the last so many months, we had been contemplating such a bill to control hartals as we felt it was going out of control.
In our bill, we have proposed that any political party has to take permission from the government at least three days before the hartal they are planning. Without prior permission, nobody will be allowed to call a hartal. The previous notice is to make people prepare for such a day.
We have no plan to restrict the liberty to protest in a democratic set-up, but at the same time, there is another side to all this. Every individual has the right to live peacefully in the state.
What about the loss of property on the hartal day? Who is accountable?
There is already an act in Kerala, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, which says that if anyone destroys public property, they have to pay for it.
Was it because you got a lot of complaints from the people that hartals are disrupting their day-to-day lives that you decided to come out with this bill?
We have received so many complaints from people and we could gauge the sentiments of the people. It is a kind of atrocity that is thrust upon them and they feel this can't go on forever.
Your government has been talking about development and bringing in industries to Kerala. How much has this affected the image of Kerala, and prevented industries from coming to Kerala?
It has been affecting the development activities in Kerala. Investors do not want to come to Kerala because of the frequent hartals. So the government has to take a decision for the betterment of the state.
First, we decided to take the opinion of the people. I posted the draft bill on my Facebook page and lakhs of people commented on it. I have made a note of all the comments. Now, we are planning to go to people to get their opinion on the bill.
Do you expect the people of Kerala to support the bill wholeheartedly?
Not only the people of Kerala, even those who come to Kerala as tourists will compliment us for the bill, I am sure.
Every Keralite must have had at least one bad experience due to the flash hartal inconveniencing their normal life, travel and other plans.
I am sure even the investors will look at Kerala from a different perspective after this. They will have more confidence in the state.
The home minister expects all the political parties to support the Hartal Regulation Bill, but when I spoke to former finance minister Dr Thomas Isaac, he said there was no question of his party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, supporting the bill.
Many people in Kerala are of the opinion that hartal affects their normal lives. Do you agree?
If you take the recent years, you cannot say that there were too many hartals so that the daily life of a person is affected.
Hartal is a form of protest, and yes, it should be used with extreme caution and guard. If people feel disturbed, political parties should introspect and make regulation on their own.
If some political party behaves irresponsibly, people will punish them in the elections. We have a democratic process functioning.
As a party, we have not resorted to hartals unnecessarily.
So the government should not come out with a bill to regulate hartals?
I view this as part of a larger measure to curb democratic rights. We cannot accept any such move from the government of Kerala.
Is it not true that for the last several years, many man days are lost in Kerala due to hartals?
I do not think so. It is a different matter that some fringe elements call for hartals in Kerala, but the major political parties in Kerala are extremely cautious.
The number of hartals called by the CPI-M in the last four years, has been less than five. I don't think the freedom to protest should be curbed.
The situation is such that anybody can call for a hartal and disrupt normal life.
For that, all political parties should come together and stop such incidents. I am for that.
What about the loss of property? Who is accountable for that?
There are existing laws to take care of the destruction of public property.
So, the CPI-M will not support the bill?
Never. We will oppose the bill tooth and nail. I don't think the government has any mandate to do this as they are at the fag end of their rule. It is not possible for them to pass such a bill.
Don't you feel the people of Kerala will support such a bill?
Definitely, there will be a section of people who will support the bill. It is a political stunt by the ruling party to get support from them in an election year. But we will argue with the people that we use extreme restraint in protesting and it is necessary to have such means to protest in a democracy.
The general atmosphere in the country is that ways to protest have been stifled, and we do not want anything of that sort happening in Kerala.
Say No to Hartal is a movement started by Raju P Nair, an entrepreneur and a member of the Congress party.
As the UDF government gets ready to introduce the Hartal Regulation Bill in the state assembly, Say NO to Hartal movement has issued a citizen's bill
Why did you decide to present a citizen's bill to the government? Are you unhappy with the Bill prepared by the government?
We decided to draft the bill when the government announced its decision to come with a Hartal Regulation Bill. The intention is to reflect the people's voice and help the government to come out with a strong bill. We felt there would be pressure on the home minister not only from the Opposition, but from within his party too.
We listened to the ideas put forward by people, interacted with many and formed a panel with Justice Shamsuddin as the chairman and Constitutional experts and advocates as members. We released the citizen's bill on October 30 in Ernakulam.
How do you plan to take it to the people?
We are conducting programmes in 50 towns from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram seeking support from the people. We have printed around 50,000 leaflets with the highlight of the bill in Malayalam and circulating this among the people. We have given our e-mail id and phone number so that people can make their suggestions.
How has the response been so far?
After we put up the draft of the citizen's bill on our Facebook page, there are thousands of shares and likes, and people are discussing it.
Many people tell us there should be a total ban on hartal and not just a regulation. But we are not asking for a total ban of hartals. We want to ban coercive hartals.
We want people to decide whether they want to be a part of the hartal or not. There should not be any violence associated with it.
We are not saying the government should implement the citizen's bill as it is. Let them take the best of both bills.
What are your objections to the bill prepared by the government?
They say those who declare a hartal should give three days' notice. We say there should be at least 15 days notice so that people will know why it is happening and how they can prepare.
The government is silent on the hartals that happen at the local level. The state level hartals have come down, but look at the number of hartals that happen at the panchayat, taluk and district levels. There are more than 400 local hartals every year.
The government's bill talks only about public property, but more than public property, private property is getting destroyed now. These days, they destroy small shops, hotels etc. We say it should be a non-bailable offence. Also, compensation to the loss of property should be paid by those who call a hartal.
Those who are convicted should be included in the goonda list.
The government bill does not talk about fining police officers who refuse to file a case against those indulge in violence on hartal day.
These are some of the suggestions we have made.
When I spoke to Dr Thomas Isaac, he said the CPI-M would oppose the bill tooth and nail.
If the government has the conviction to pass the bill, they can as they have the numbers. I believe the government has taken this initiative with very good intentions.
Our campaign is to make the bill strong so that it benefits the people. Let the politicians realise that it is an out dated form of protest.
I am sure if any party opposes the bill, they are going to face the wrath of the people as the majority of people in Kerala welcome the move by the government.
When I started the movement, even my party members attacked me. Though I am an office-bearer of the Congress party, when the UDF declared a hartal, I called a press conference and spoke against the hartal. I was out on the roads on the hartal day helping people. Now young politicians like Hibi Eden have joined our movement.
Today's Kerala is different. With so many young entrepreneurs coming up in the state, they want an atmosphere that helps them in their enterprise. They are the sufferers because of hartal and 90 per cent of youngsters are against hartal in any form.
The 3 crore (30 million) people of Kerala sit at home not because they support hartals, but because they are forced to do so.
If the bill gets passed...
If the bill gets passed, it will be a landmark bill and the image of Kerala will change forever.