Ministers as mourners Saturday, Dec 6 2008 

Perumon train accident

Perumon train accident

Very tragic events happen in the State, and it is only natural for people to expect the Ministers and others in the Executive to respond to them. But, how should they do that? Should ministers rush to the spot?

When the Perumon train tragedy occurred in Kollam district (in 1988), hardly any Minister rushed to the spot. But fire force, police and revenue officials did. Because people downed in minutes, they could not do much by way of saving lives. The locals did. They even saved people trapped in partly submerged compartments. But the bureaucrats managed the recovery of bodies well. Later, they congratulated themselves with good service entries.

If Ministers had rushed there, they could have nothing other than hindering the fire engines and ambulances moving through the narrow roads. (Though Ministers visited the place later on, that never became a media event).

The enquiry commission, appointed by the Railways, reported that the accident was caused by a tornado, some thing never heard of in Kerala. Hence, none could be held accountable for the tragedy.

In recent years, Ministers have started issuing statements that they had directed collectors to do the relief work, government hospitals to provide treatment to the victims and so on. Reading those statements, it would appear that no system is in place in the State that would take charge of the situation without the directives from the ministers. Of late, it has become mandatory for Ministers to visit the location.

When terror struck Mumbai, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Opposition Leader L. K. Advani visited the city, necessitating the deployment of about 2000 policemen and other security personal for their security. This was when the police should be fighting the terrorists and the Prime Minister pondering over how to coordinate the country’s response and diplomacy.

When nine school children were killed in a road accident at Irikkur (Kannur district) on December 5, the Chief Minister, Revenue Minister, Education Minister and the Health Minister and Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy rushed to the spot. This is a record. Fewer Ministers had gone to Kothamangalam when 15 schoolchildren and 3 teachers died in the Thattekkad boat tragedy.

The difference between now and then is that the coming year is an election year. More than that, the public demand that the Ministers should visit the spot keep on increasing. The public have come to believe that it is the duty of the ministers to do so. However, the Ministers do not face enough pressure to ensure accountability. Most of the recommendations of the commission that enquired into the boat tragedy remain unimplemented. The same can be said about enquiries into several other tragedies also.

Theoretically, the visits of several ministers to accident spots should affect the governance. However, the governance is not hit seriously, as most of the Ministers are on travel most of the time. Still, it would be a good idea to arrive at a consensus that only one Minister need represent the Cabinet. However, collective responsibility of the Cabinet is thing of the past with Minister operating with opposing interests. So, everyone connected to the departments concerned should be there. However, they hardly even do any follow other than issuing the ‘directives’ and announcing the solatia. The underlying problems that caused the tragedy are never addressed.

While the ministers undertake their tours at government expenses, the plight of the members of the Assembly are unenviable. The norm now is that they should attend every funeral and marriage in their constituency. They will get only their normal constituency allowance. And the visits become more demanding in an election year. Under such circumstances, even sincere members would not find time to do their real work as legislators.

Should IT companies get more concessions? Thursday, Nov 13 2008 

Technopark in Trivandrum

Technopark in Trivandrum

The IT companies in the State has demanded concessions in rentals on space leased from the Government at Technopark and other facilities and reduction of power tariffs to face the impending impact of global economic crisis. The Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan has responded to them positively.

The IT companies are demanding their pound of flesh for Mr. Achuthanandan’s crusade for the employees of the IT industry to succeed. If the industry is to retain excess workforce, the Government should pay for it. The deal is just not worth it.

The IT industry is already receiving many concessions. There were tax waivers and investment subsidies (up to 40 per cent). The Technopark in Trivandrum has cost the Government about 100 crores (excluding the recently added facilities). It is also spending considerable sums for the maintenance of infrastructure. Considering the real estates costs and administrative expenses, the rentals being collected from the industry is low.

All businesses face ups and downs. There is no reason why Government should be there in advance to fend off troughs. When the farmers faced trouble because of globalisation, the government was late in stepping in. The IT units, which reaped the benefits of globalizations, are not in a worse position than the farmers are. (Now that the rubber prices are coming down, will the government step in to support their high income-levels?)

Rather the government should turn this into an opportunity. If the companies are going jobless, the government should hire them for its programmes for e-governance and IT infrastructure development. Naturally, that would and should come cheaper and the profitability of IT companies would suffer. However, that should be taken as inevitable when the times are bad. After all, they were the ones who made the big money until now. Now let them contribute to the State’s development. Give them work, but no monetary concessions.

The Government should not directly force them to retain excess staff. However, it could restrain them from over-working its so-called executives (software engineers). If a stop were put 18-hour working days, the companies would need more employees.

Let us also look at what would happen if the lease rentals are lowered. They would remain static for years to come. There would always a reason for not increasing it.

Take the instance of the plantation industry. The lease rentals, fixed before independence, remain at Rs. 5 a hectare or lower. Though the Assembly passed a legislation to increase it 28 years ago, it remains unimplemented. Corruption is alleged to be the reason. The revision proposed in the law was linked to profitability, and that provision attracted the bitterest opposition from the industry!

Terrorism: Kerala could be a sitting duck Monday, Nov 3 2008 

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi at bomb blast site at Guwahati, Assam last month

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi at a bomb blast site in Guwahati, Assam, last month -- PIB

The bomb blasts in different parts of the country should be a wake up call for Kerala and several other States. Intelligence and security arrangements remain inadequate in Kerala that it is impossible for extremists to target any place in Kerala. Security is lax even at important establishments and locations.

Kerala has several factors that would act as a protective net terrorism from within. The first and foremost is perhaps the support for communist ideologies among the populace. Second is the presence of significant population of Christians and large majority of Hindus and Muslims who are not sympathisers of any extremist activity. (Extremists flourish only when they have roots in the communities and get sympathy and support.) The absence of Cosmopolitan cities and limited population of those from Northern States was another advantage. That made it easy for the police to track outsiders. However, this advantage is being lost with the influx of migrant workers from States such as Bihar, West Bengal  and  recruitment of criminal gangs by extremist organisations. However, it is to the credit of the Muslim community that hardly anyone could be recruited from Kerala by ideological brainwashing.

Despite all this favourable factors, it should concern the State that large sums are flowing into the State from foreign sources. There could be sleeping cells across the State that could be called into action by outside forces any time. In a subtle way, there are also moves to open up channels for public communication by several quarters. These have to be watched carefully as they could be used for subtle communal and ideological propaganda. This applies to both majority and minority communities.

Kerala ran into this situation because of the vote bank politics and resultant communal appeasement policies. Even mainstream political parties courted communal parties with extremist views to secure votes. As a result, deeper investigation into incidents such as the Marad massacre, burning of cinema theatres in Malappuram district and Tamil Nadu transport bus in Kochi, bomb blasts at Kadalundi and Thrissur , hawala, money laundering cases and dubious land transactions were undermined. Telltale developments at places like Kottackal and neighbouring areas, training camp at Vagamon and functioning of dozens of organisations with dubious agenda were ignored.

As the Malayalam saying goes, Kerala is now in a situation that it now would have use a spade to take out what could have been removed with a needle (Soochikondedukedathu, Thoombakondu Edukkuka).

Terrorist threat against Sonia Gandhi and quality of education. Sunday, Nov 2 2008 

Congress president Sonia Gandhi

Congress president Sonia Gandhi

The police recently arrested an engineering student from Kochi (Kerala) for sending an email message to President of India  threatening Congress president Sonia Gandhi and bomb blasts in Kochi and Delhi.

The accused was a B. Tech. student of Cochin University of Science and Technology, and the incident points to poor quality of education in our universities not to speak of colleges.

The boy had sent the email not with the intention of killing anybody but to take revenge on a girl who had rejected his love.

He did not know that his email could easily be traced to him. Though he is a B. Tech student, he seems not to have even preliminary knowledge of how the Internet works- the system of protocols and things like header information and logs. If he had known that, he would not have taken the risk of sending an email in such a silly manner. It is also clear that he does not know anything about proxy servers and the like which makes tracing of messages difficult. (In this case, use of proxy servers would have only delayed the investigation. As the threat is against a VIP, even those running proxy servers abroad would disclose the logs. )

mailThe student had used an email id he had created with personal information about his girl friend. He thought that the police would go after the girl when they find out the name and account details.  Apparently, he did not have a good appreciation of timestamps appearing on the emails. (The headers have information about the path taken by the message from server to server with time stamp). Otherwise, he would have known the police would check where the girl was at the time of sending the message. (And probably where he was; even if they had not traced him using the Internet protocol address of the sending machine).

All these point to the fact that the students are not learning even basics of Internet technology in their classes. Even if they do, it is only theory that they fail to connect to their applications. It is high time that we revamped our education system. Not only engineering students, but other students too should have basic knowledge about the working of the Internet. This would save them from committing foolish crimes. (Unless the courts are lenient, the student could attract a sentence of up to ten years in prison.) More than that, it could help to save them from identity thieves, scamsters behind the Nigerian email scam and other scams, spoofing and much more. And the police would not have to go after inconsequential threats.

Space: India-US Cooperation or Competition in the offing? Monday, Oct 27 2008 

Orbital paths of mission to Moon (Chandrayaan)

Orbital paths of mission to Moon (Chandrayaan)

While the present U. S. administration and U. S. Space agency NASA are for cooperation with India in space exploration, the U. S. Presidential candidate Barack Obama is for competition.

While the White House and the U. S. suppliers hailed India’s entry into the Lunar Orbit, Mr. Obama told a public gathering that the U. S. should take increasing competence of India and China in space exploration seriously and spur up its space programme to keep the lead.

“As President, I will lead our space programme boldly into the 21st century – so when my daughters, and all our children, look up to the skies, they see Americans leading the way into the deepest reaches of our solar system,” Mr. Obama said stressing the need to revitalise U. S. space programme.

Whether this is election rhetoric and a position that would yield to business interests, once he is in power, is a million dollar question. In any case, a space deal with the United States after nuclear deal would be more difficult if Mr. Obama comes to power. Besides, India has signed up with Russia for supply of some crucial equipment for Chandrayaan II. (My earlier post on the subject stands amended thus.)

It is notable that while the White House described the successful launch of the Moon mission as exciting and encouraging for India, the United States India Business Council celebrated India’s debut on a Moon mission that carries two US instruments on board. The Council, representing 280 of the largest US companies investing in India, described the mission as the beginning of long “relationship promoting the opening of the frontier of outer space.”

American supplier of defence and space equipments Raytheon supplied some of the instrumentation for Chandrayaan.

After the nuclear deal, a space deal? Wednesday, Oct 15 2008 

After the nuclear deal, India appears to be heading for a space deal with the United States.

India and the United States are already collaborating in prospecting for water in the Moon as part of the Chandrayaan I Mission. It is significant that the focus of the  Mission is on the South pole of the Moon where the United States plans to set up a base by 2020.

Four instruments on the Chandrayaan satellite—two from the United States and one from Germany, are aimed at detecting water in the craters of the Lunar South Pole, among other things. The Moon impact probe, developed by the Vikram Sabarabhai Space Centre in Kerala, will also be colliding with the rim of the Shackleton crater on the South Pole.

Detection of water in the South Pole could be tremendous boost for plans to set up an outpost on the Moon as space agencies would not have to look elsewhere for drinking water and oxygen and hydrogen (which can be produced through electrolysis of water and can be used as fuel.) The South Pole is also blessed with almost round the clock perennial sunlight, which could power the camps.

As both the United States and India are prospecting the rim of Shackleton crater, it could be only for two things— collaboration or competition. The former is more likely and India could actually be catering to the United States.

The United States has in the past thwarted India’s attempt to obtain cryogenic technology from the Soviet Union and an order for launching a Taiwanese satellite. However, current political milieu points towards collaboration in space. It is also not easy for nations to compete in space exploration and prospecting for minerals because of the costs involved. So, it is likely that nations with some capability for space exploration would prefer to have an agreement for sharing of resources as in the case of Antarctica.

Related: Chandrayaan looking to help establish lunar bases

Ommen Chandy’s disappointment or Smart City Wednesday, Oct 8 2008 

Kerala Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy

Kerala Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy

Opposition Leader of Kerala Oommen Chandy has once again raised allegations directed against Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan that undue concessions had been made for the Smart City Project, jointly promoted by Dubai based TECOM Investments and the Government. This time, he is saying that the Smart City had been given higher concessions than those provided for in the SEZ policy adopted by the Government last week.

Mr. Chandy’s disappointment is understandable. He could not ink his dream project in 2006 because of protests from Achuthanandan who was then the Opposition Leader. When Mr. Achuthanandan became the Chief Minister, he could strike a deal which was far better than one contemplated by the Chandy Government.

Just to cite a few examples, the Government did not have to part with the Infopark or guarantee exclusivity to the Smart City in development IT infrastructure in Ernakulam district. Higher share was also specified for the Government in the company implementing the project.

Ever since Mr. Achuthanandan signed the deal, Mr. Chandy was trying to belittle Mr. Achuthanandan’s achievement by repeatedly making allegations. Thus he is hoping that he could divert public attention from his failure to strike a better deal and allegations that the UDF leaders were bargaining for kickbacks.

This is not to say that Mr. Achuthanandan had not conceded any benefits to the Smart City project. In fact, the promoters stand to benefit in terms of land prices and other concessions. However, one cannot say for sure that Mr. Achuthanandan could have struck a better deal under the given circumstances.

Some people in the Government opposed to Mr. Achuthanandan is now trying to create confusion that the terms of the new SEZ policy applied to Smart City. Even if the policy statement says so, it cannot override the terms of the agreement signed by the Government. Otherwise, the Government has to do so through legislation. Such a retrospective application of legislation to nullify benefits promised to entrepreneurs, that too within a short period, will send the wrong signals to investors.

There is indeed the need to bring down concessions being offered to the industry under the Information Technology policy. The concessions are often higher than what the State would get in return, especially when tax breaks are offered in addition to subsidy. So, the SEZ policy is a step in the right direction.

Smart City Project area

Smart City Project area


Government’s arguements

Oomen Chandy’s arguments

Kerala Cabinet to stage dharna in Delhi Tuesday, Oct 7 2008 

Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan with a few of his Cabinet colleagues

V. S. Achuthanandan with a few of his Cabinet colleagues

Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan is proud of his plan to go to Delhi and stage a dharna there on October 17. He says that it is because he would be expounding people’s cause. His protest is against the Centre neglecting the States demands for better quotas of grain, power and other concessions.

However, he would be striking a blow to Indian federalism. Such actions reflect weakening of our institutional systems. One need not doubt that the Chief Minister has genuine grievances when he leads his Cabinet and State legislatures to Delhi in protest. But it is also to be observed that both the State and Central governments have failed to deal with each other in an effective and fair manner. The Members of Parliament, representing the State, have failed to play their role effectively in Parliament. Why could not they represent the State properly? All 20 of them were supporting the UPA Government until recently.

There is also little doubt the Chief Minister has other compulsions in rushing tot the Centre at this juncture. It is part of his strategy for winning seats for his Front in the coming Lok Sabha elections. So, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should take the matter seriously and deal with it in a statesman like manner. It is in the country’s interest that the two leaders settle their differences, if any, over the table rather than on the streets. Petty politics should not come in the way of settlement. For the Indian Union shall not become a wonderland of an emperor, empress and satraps.

The UDF response is typical. It will stage a dharna and disrupt traffic before the Secretariat on the same day (October 17) against tariff hikes. Well, they can easily forget that prices have risen all over India.

Related: Power crisis in Kerala

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