The ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign held in Kochi on 2 November certainly got Kerala considerable footage on national news. This novel form of protest was against moral policing which is becoming more prevalent in the state of late. The latest was the devastation of a restaurant in Kozhikode allegedly for facilitating young people to indulge in intimacy at the restaurant.
‘Jaihind’ a cable TV channel sponsored by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) had telecast a clandestine footage of a young couple kissing and hugging in the parking lot of the restaurant. It was an ordinary incident that could have been taking place in any town in India, but just that it caught the fancy of the pseudo moralists. Led by the state secretary of Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), they ransacked the restaurant and also beat up the owners.
The protest gathered strength in social media and culminated in the ‘kiss and hug’ get-together at the Marine Drive, Kochi. The participants, less than five hundred, were overwhelmed by more than double that number of those opposed to the movement. Most of the latter gathered under the labels of extreme right wing groups like the Yuv Morcha, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, SDPI and strangely enough KSU, the students wing of the Congress party.
The police not only did not stop cane-wielding Shiv Sainiks from attacking the young women and men, or other groups using pepper sprays, but also abetted the cause of the moral police by arresting the youngsters. More damaging was the presence of at least 5000 ‘spectators’ who waited for hours to watch juicy scenes.
The politics of morality
Even though Kerala has had a reputation of being an advanced society, it has been quite conservative when it comes to man-woman relationship. Voyeuristic tendencies and a penchant for grabbing the ‘moral high’ has become more accentuated in the recent past, and it is not just the right-wing Muslim and Hindu fringe groups who have taken such a stance.
It could be said with certainty that this urge to be on the moral high terrain is what led to the ‘bar closure’ and ‘prohibition’ decision as well. No one is able to cite any immediate crises which provoked this drastic move. Not only was there no public debate, there was not even a discussion in the co-ordination committee of the ruling UDF led by the Congress party.
This government had appointed retired Justice R Ramachandran at the head of a commission in January 2013 for studying the liquor scenario in the state and framing recommendations for formulating the liquor policy of the government. He submitted his report in April 2014, which was against the imposition of prohibition, and in favour of permission to three-star (or above) hotels to have bars. He also wanted the working hours of bars and liquor shops to be shortened and consumption of liquor to be restricted to only those above the age of 21.
The government neither acted on the recommendations, nor did it publish the report. The details were brought to the public domain by an RTI application made by Advocate AG Basil. It is clear, therefrom, that there were no compelling or immediate reasons to go for prohibition or bar closure.
However, a comment made by the CAG in 2010 became a handle in the hands of certain interested parties. 418 bars were found to be below standard. The LDF coalition, then in power, allowed those bars to function on the condition that they would spruce up and reach the desired standards by the time licenses were issued next year.
Next year, when the UDF came to power, it did not bother about standards and all these 418 bars were allowed to cater liquor. But when it was time for the next renewal of licences, these bars were told to close down and comply with the sanitary/hygienic norms. All these bars got busy with refurbishing and renovation, mostly with the aid of bank finance.
In the interim period, the KPCC president changed. V M Sudheeran took over from Ramesh Chennithala who had been appointed the home minister. Sudheeran, who was known to be a notch above his party colleagues as an idealist, saw the temporary closure of 418 bars as an opportunity to push in his agenda of restricting the sale of alcohol. He got the backing of the slim but vociferous anti-liquor campaigners and came out with the suggestion that those 418 bars should remain closed; it would not harm the state but for the loss of a little revenue.
Most of the media and the church celebrated Sudheeran’s approach, making the chief minister Oommen Chandy appear an apologist of the liquor lobby. In the next UDF meeting convened to discuss the issue, every party and leader frantically positioned themselves with the KPCC president so as not to be branded as liquor lobbyists. Oommen Chandy, the last to speak, dramatically turned the tables by announcing that not only will the 418 remain closed, the other 312 which had been open till then would also be closed.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Pic: Indiavision (from India Together files)
Chandy also announced that total prohibition will be implemented in the state within the next ten years, closing 10 per cent of liquor outlets every year. The shell shocked KPCC president and others could only clap in agreement at the performance of the chief minister that smacked of one-upmanship. No one in the meeting had the gumption to point out that total prohibition had not even been discussed in any forum; obviously afraid that they would be accused of moral deprivation.
So, the state was faced with the ridiculous proposition of all 730 bars being closed eventually, with a 20 odd five-star bars remaining open. It was a see-saw ride thereafter: 312 were proposed to be opened the next day upon a court stay, with the division bench closing them down in a few days; this was again overturned by the Supreme Court after a few days. In all this while, nearly 500 retail outlets owned by the government went on doing roaring business across the state.
The story, however, does not end there. Another character appeared on centre stage shortly afterward: Biju Ramesh, Working President of the Kerala Bar Owners’ Association. In a TV channel discussion on the 30 October, Ramesh revealed that the Bar Owners’ Association had paid Rs 1 crore as bribe to KM Mani, the Finance Minister for not hampering their business this financial year.
He also claimed that the amount demanded was five crores and the closure of bars was an indirect consequence of not paying the full amount asked for. He subsequently confirmed that as much as Rs 10 crore had been collected from the bar owners and that other ministers had also been paid, the details of which would be revealed later on. Kerala politics is stunned by the allegations/revelations and is yet to react in a coherent manner.
The closing down of the bars has already affected and will affect the revenue of the government more substantially in the months to come. Even without the income loss from the liquor business, the state economy has been in the doldrums, the treasuries seriously strapped for cash and the government issuing bonds practically every month for payment of salaries and pension to its employees.
There was also an instance when the government asked all the beverage outlets (the sole purveyors of liquor in Kerala) to make an advance payment of the tax due to the government for meeting the day-to-day expenses. (The government charges as much as 135 percent as tax on liquor.)
What is shocking is the absolute lack of interest shown by the government in revenue collection. According to a CAG report submitted in mid-2014, as much as Rs 12000 crores in tax arrears are yet to be collected for the years 2008-09 to 2012-13. Instead of gearing up the tax collection machinery, the government has increased the taxes in various fields by issuing an ordinance.
Being cash strapped, however, has not prevented the government from committing itself to sanctioning new higher secondary schools and additional divisions in the aided sector, despite statistics which reveals that hundreds of seats at the ‘plus two’ level are vacant in the existing schools.
The aided sector in Kerala’s educational field constitutes a strange space. The colleges and schools are entirely privately owned. But the salaries are paid by the government and the bulk of maintenance expenditure is borne by the government. However, the appointment of teachers and lecturers are the prerogative of the management.
The passage of money from candidates to the management has become such a routine thing that no one raises an eyebrow at the mention of this. So a new a school or even a new division means money for the management, though there are of course exceptions to prove the general rule. Merit is thrown straight out of the window.
The ongoing rate for the appointment of a higher secondary teacher is about Rs 25 lakh and that of a college lecturer, Rs 30 lakh. Many deem it as a good investment. Where else would you get a salary and pension equivalent to that of government employees, without even appearing before a Public Service Commission interview panel, let alone having to appear for a test?
In the context of the education sector, the unprecedented conference of all vice chancellors of the universities in Kerala convened by Governor P Sathasivam in his capacity of the Chancellor also hit the headlines last month. The appointment of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court as governor had created a controversy earlier, and now his action.
Politicians belonging to the ruling front tried to colour the recent move as an attempt by the governor to interfere in the functioning of the varsities. But it did not impress the public, since almost all of the 13 universities in the state are in doldrums as they are.
Just three months ago, the VC of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam was dismissed on charges of submitting false information in order to meet qualification standards. Calicut University has ceased to function for months now, because of continuing battles between the VC and students as well as the VC and the Syndicate. Unfazed by protests, Kannur University is abandoning its buildings on 21 acres of land in Mangattuparamb, just 14 kilometres from the town, in which as much as Rs 300 crores had been invested, and moving to the town.
If student unrest was the reason behind the turmoil in universities 30 years ago, today it is corruption, maladministration and internecine wars between top officials and cheap politics. Maybe nothing better can be expected when the post of VC is distributed among the coalition partners. That A V George**, the dismissed Vice Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University, sat in the same chair once adorned by the illustrious U R Ananthamurthy tells the tale.
Declining human indices
Apart from literacy and education, high human development indices on other fronts were the hallmark of Kerala society. Maybe the statistics are ‘satisfactory’ even now. However, the welfare of a society is reflected more accurately in the living conditions of the weakest strata rather than in any statistics. And what do we have here?
In a recent survey of the Attapadi tribal belt done by the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) it was found that 500 kids below the age of six were suffering from malnutrition. It is to be noted that this is in a population of a mere 32000. During 2012-13, 63 infants died and 40 were stillborn. In the current year, 17 infants have died and there were 20 stillborns. And the mortality rate is likely to go up, as 108 out of 500 pregnant women were found to be anaemic.
A ray of hope
One has to look real hard to locate a silver streak in the rudderless drifting of Kerala society. It is ironic that this sliver of light is found in garbage, or garbage disposal to be precise. Over the past one decade, Kerala had become a cesspool of garbage; the entire range from domestic to e-waste. Almost every variety of waste management had been tried and had failed, centralized waste management being the biggest culprit. The pattern saw urban waste travelling to the rural landscape and the villagers rising up in arms.
But much before our Prime Minister-promoted ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ commenced, a silent revolution had started in Alappuzha. The aerobic composting system introduced in Alappuzha is an innovation by the Kerala Agricultural University. Dr Thomas Isaac, CPI(M) leader, economist, former minister and at present the MLA from Alappuzha is the driving force behind this initiative.
The MLA and the municipal corporation called upon every household to install pipe compost or a biogas plant to process its waste. Those who could not do that had to bring their waste to the street, where aerobic bins had been installed. Most often, the space chosen for these bins was the one where garbage was being dumped. The four feet cube concrete bin with holes for air circulation can process two tons of waste, producing quality compost in three months.
Community compost bins were set up in the locations which were once large dumping areas. They have now become parks. Municipal workers now manage community compost bins instead of operating as garbage collectors.
Inspired by the success of the Alappuzha innovation, Isaac has taken it to the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, with the cooperation of the city Municipal Corporation. Like the Literacy Movement and the Peoples Plan, this initiative envisages massive participation of people. It could perhaps turn out to be a model to replicate, and a much needed breather for a state increasingly sinking into depths of despair on various other fronts.
**Errata: The name had been mistakenly written as VA George and has since been corrected.