Accidents and Ministers Thursday, Dec 31 2009 

The manner in which our Ministers react to major accidents is pathetic. Their usual reaction is that the collector has been asked to take urgent relief measures. (Do our officers from the Indian Administrative service wait for directives from the Ministers to take relief measures? If so, something is seriously wrong with our administration. Rescue and relief is something that should move without directives from the Minister after the accident.) This time (gas tanker accident at Karungappally), they went overboard in exposing themselves and their departments.

The Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran said in an official release that he had even given directives for rehabiltiation. He did not stop with that. He immediately called a meeting of oil company and other officials at Karunagappally for consultations on “how to prevent such accidents in future, and if such accidents occur, what should done to mitigate them.” Definitely the right time and venue to think of solutions!
He also congratulated the officials including police, who are suspected to have triggered the explosion by starting their jeep close to the leaking tanker, for their good work.

Not to be left behind, the Revenue Minister K. P. Rajendran immediately rang up the Central Disaster Management Authority and asked for advice and as to how to handle the situation in Karunagappally and protective equipment for relief workers. The fun of this is that the Revenue Department was preparing for disaster management for the past three years. However, disaster managements plans are not ready in most of the districts and preparedness is still lacking.

However, it seems that the school teacher did better this time. P. K. Sreemathy (Health Minister), who has miserably failed to contain contagious diseases in the State, this time quietly rushed to the medical college hospital in Thiruvananthapuram and reached there even before the victims arrived. Owing to her presence or not, the college was well-prepared to receive the victims, reports said. Whether it was because she chose to be silent or because the media ignored here, Sreemathy has made no statements and there is no press releases in her name on the official Web site.

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Suspended from service for not being guilty Tuesday, Dec 11 2007 

Forests at Maruthuamala near PonmudiAll who stand for protection of environment and rule of law should condemn the suspension of Kerala Forest Officer Balakrishna Pillai from service.

The guilt of Mr. Pillai, who was divisional forest officer of Trivandrum Forest Division, is that he had reported that the land proposed to be given to Indian Space Research Organisation for developing the campus of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology is forest.

As about two dozen environmental activists and journalists, who visited the spot today, would confirm, the area is indeed forest. Mr. Pillai was only reporting the truth when he said that the area was forest with endemic trees such as chenkurinji (Gluta travancorica) and jewel orchid, though it might not have suited the machinations of those in power.

As a forest officer, Mr. Pillai is duty bound to report any event that would lead to destruction and alienation of forests.

Section 3B (Offences by the Authorities and Government Departments) of the Forest (Conservation) Act says that if any forest is assigned, diverted for non-forest purposes or otherwise destroyed officials in charge of shall be deemed guilty, proceeded and punished. The punishment specified is simple imprisonment for a period, which may extend to fifteen days.

Mr. Pillai acted in accordance with the law by reporting the situation to his superiors and avoided violation of the Act. He should have been punished if he had connived with higher ups in the State Government in their plan to clear the area and cut the trees, terming the area as revenue land for IIST campus.

Action is actually due against officials who issued orders diverting the forests for non-forestry purposes without clearance from the Central Government under the provisions of the Act.

CPI takes on retail chains Sunday, Nov 25 2007 

Spplyco outlets- can they take on retail chains?

The agitation by feeder organisations of the Communist Party of India (CPI) against retail chains is to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Local bodies controlled by the Left Democratic Front, to which the CPI is a constituent, had allowed several retails chains to set up shops in the cities. Then, they reversed the policy and prevented others from entering. Thus, the Government and local bodies is actually limiting competition in the field and encouraging monopolies. The agitations are probably a cover for those aiding the monopolies.

It may be recalled that the Food and Civil Supplies Minister C. Divakaran had announced one and a half years ago that State owned Civil Supplies Corporation (Supplyco) would start retail chains to take on the retail giants. This was a contradiction of sorts. The Minister was proposing to create a retail chain to compete with the retail chains instead of disallowing them, if the policy was to discourage them.

Anyway, that has not materialised so far. One cannot expect the Supplyco chains to actually take on the retail chains. Instead, one can expect more demonstrations from the CPI stable as its Minister rules the Supplyco.

The prices are soaring and they have to keep public attention away from the failures of the Government.

Ponmudi: missing the woods for the trees Wednesday, Nov 21 2007 

Ponmudi– a birds eye view

The Kerala Government misses the woods for the exigencies of finding a site for the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) at Ponmudi. The State Cabinet has decided to hand over 100 acres of wooded forests on the Ponmudi hills, adjoining the Merchiston and Ponmudi estates, to the Indian Space Research Organisation.

This should be seen as a set back to environmental activists who wanted ecology of the hills to be protected. Moreover, the decision would play into the hands of those who seek development of real estate in the area. Questions would arise why construction works could not be taken up in the nearby estates.

The Revenue Department actually conducted a study and more than 40 officials examined the documents, according to the Revenue Minister K.P. Rajendran. However, it did not occur to them that any woodland that comes within the dictionary definition of forest would come under the purview of the Forest (Conversation) Act. Alienation of such land for non-forestry would require forest clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Why did the Revenue officials turn a Nelson’s eye to the status of the vegetation when they conducted their study? Was it because of keenness that the State should not lose the Institute?

An allegation has already appeared in the Press that the Forest Department had claimed the area as forests because they wanted to help the Merchiston estate in their sale of land to Indian Space Research Organisation for the Institute. The Government, it was argued, will be forced to allow the use of the estate area for the Institute if an alternate site is not available.

However, it is notable that allotment of a wooded area for development of a residential campus close to the Merchiston estate would take the bottom out of the government’s own stand before the courts that the estate is a notified environmentally fragile area. If a forested area is not fragile, how can a tea estate near it fall in a fragile area? So, the estate can easily win its case against the Government.

There are five estates in the area. As per a decision of the previous government, they are allowed to develop tourist facilities in a limited manner. Now, the Industries Department has mooted a proposal that the Land Reforms Act should be repealed. This would lead to conversion and fragmentation of estates throughout the State. (Plantations enjoyed exemption from land ceilings under the Act. So, their status could not be altered.)

The situation would have been different if the Government asked some logical questions.

Isn’t the whole of Ponmudi hills environmentally fragile?

How can the Institute be located anywhere on the Ponmudi hills since building activities on the hills will need environmental clearance?

Can’t the Institute have its main campus in the plains?

Won’t it suffice if the Institute has a small facility at Ponmudi Hill Resort or on another hill for astronomical observations, without harming the environment?

Earlier post:

ISRO and high attitudes

A different kind of Nandigram in Kerala– Part I Monday, Nov 12 2007 

Polders of Kuttanad (kayal land)

The CPI (M) is practicising Marxism in the reverse gear whether it is in West Bengal or Kerala. The original slogan of communists was land for the tillers. Now, it is tiller’s land for business houses.

There may be historical justifications for both the postures. The problem is that the communists are using the same method they advocated to take away land from the landlords- violence, to take away land from the tillers. In Nadigram (West Bengal) the party is fighting the peasants through the barrel of the gun. In Kuttanad in Kerala, they used trickery, instead.

The land in question in Kuttanad is part of hundreds of hectares of land reclaimed from backwaters (polders) by an enterprising farmer Joseph Muricken before independence for paddy cultivation. It was done on the basis of a call from the then Maharaja of Travancore for production of more food in the princely State (following food shortages during the second World War).

The Kerala Government took over the polders early in the seventies under the Defence of India Rules and subsequently distributed the land to agriculture workers. Though Muricken was successful in profitably cultivating paddy, neither the Government nor the collectives of agricultural workers organised by the Government thereafter succeeded in carrying forward cultivation profitably. (Because a polder is a single unit for dewatering and other purposes, no worker could cultivate fragmented units individually.)

Then, a cooperative controlled by the CPI (M) entered the scene with the promise of a scheme to ensure returns from the land  in one of the polders. (The polder in question—R block, was not the creation of Muricken. Its reclamation was a collective effort. The Murickens, however, had land there, which was taken over and distributed to the agriculture workers as excess land).  All titleholders pledged their land to fund the project. But, the project failed and the land was put up for auction without the knowledge of the former agriculture workers. The auction was allegedly not conducted properly and the land went into the hands of developers of tourism facilities at very low prices. Those behind the operation are alleged to have received large sums in commissions. Some enquiries are underway amidst allegations that the CPI (M) led Government is protecting them.

(Part II)