People watching the performance of Kerala’s newly elected Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in its first three weeks are confused with ministers sending conflicting signals.
While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his cabinet colleagues in the CPI (M) batted for development, the ministers belonging to Communist Party of India (CPI), the second largest constituent of the LDF, focused on ‘sustainable development’ with emphasis on environmental protection.
The discord came to the fore within a week of LDF assuming power. What touched off the discord was Electricity Minister Kadakampally Surendran’s suggestion to revive the controversial 163 MW Athirapally hydroelectric project, proposed across the Chalakudy River more than three decades ago, for meeting the rising gap between power supply and demand.
It snowballed into a conflict with Pinarayi backing the project and its key ally opposing it. While CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran pointed out the impropriety in the CPM move to push the project which was not included in the ruling front’s election manifesto without discussing it in the LDF, his colleague and Agriculture Minister V S Sunilkumar went a step further and said that his party would not change its stand against the project under any circumstances.
While this forced Surendran to backtrack on his statement saying that he will not pursue any project that the people did not want, the Chief Minister warned his CPI colleague to confine strictly to issues relating to his department and added that matters to be discussed at the LDF will be done so.
However, the Greens opposing the project joined the issue reviving the old development vs environment debate. Stating that it will not only kill the natural Athirapally waterfall but also wreak ecological havoc around the region, the environmentalists have vowed to oppose the project at all costs.
A nonchalant Pinarayi said he will not compromise with “blind, extreme and unscientific environmental fundamentalism that the state has been witnessing over the years. He said that his government’s objective was to ensure “environment conservation without hurting the development of the state.”
However, the CPI has termed it as a “right wing development approach” which was not in tune with the Marxist ideology. The Agriculture Minister demonstrated his party’s commitment to environmental conservation by ordering farming in two wetland sites identified for setting up an international airport and an eco-tourism project.
Though the farmers and the environmentalists have hailed the decision to grow paddy in 500 acres of land acquired for the airport project at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district and 378 acres of land at Kumarakom in Kottayam district for the eco-tourism project, the CPM or even the captains of industry have not taken the move seriously.
This is perhaps because they think that farming in land held in the possession of the promoters of the two projects will not be possible without recovering the land or forcing the owners of the land to do the cultivation. The current laws allow neither, says peasant activist Fr Thomas Peelianickal.
But does this not send a wrong signal to the investors? Curiously leaders of the industry bodies are not overly concerned about the brewing conflict between the two major allies in the ruling front as it is a common feature whenever the LDF comes to power. The rift between the two had led to even open confrontation many times.
Raja Sethunath, chairman of the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the chief minister this time was strong and he would deal with these issues firmly. He told the Firstpost that they were confident that Pinarayi would steer the state to the path of development.
“The chief minister’s warning against environmental fundamentalism is a clear message to the investors that the state government would strike a balance between development and environmental protection. Development in a land scarce state like Kerala is not possible without certain compromises. We are sure that the new government would ensure it without upsetting the ecological balance,” Raja said.
He said that the Chamber would soon submit a vision document to the government for the industrial development of the state. He said that they were hopeful that the new government would give a big boost to the industrial development.
The chamber views the Chief Minister’s decision to go ahead with many mega projects like the Vizhinjam multipurpose port at Thiruvananthapuram, SmartCity project at Kochi, industrial corridor between Kochi and Coimbatore and the electronic park at Amballoor initiated by the previous United Democratic Front (UDF) government as positive signals.
Many of these projects were opposed by the LDF while in opposition. Pinarayi himself had alleged graft in the award of contract for constructing the port at Vizhinjam to Adani Ports and SEZ while party veteran V S Achuthanandan had termed many conditions in the agreement between the detrimental to the interests of the state.
However, the Chief Minister gave a go-ahead to the project without seeking any change in the conditions when Adani Ports CEO Karan Adani called on him in the state capital on June 9. Similarly, his decision to speed up land acquisition for laying the LNG gas pipe line and widening of national highways is in variation with the stand LDF took while in opposition.
Former Labour Commissioner and Chamber of Commerce and Industry Secretary, A J Rajan views this as a sign of pragmatism driving the new Chief Minister. He said that Pinarayi’s decision to resolve the Mullapperiyar dispute with Tamil Nadu through talks was an example of his pragmatic approach.
“There is no point in continuing with decades-long legal battle after the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Tamil Nadu over raising the height of the century-old dam. The only course open to the state is to find a solution to the issue by taking the neighbouring state into confidence. Pinarayi has taken the right step,” says Rajan.
The retired IAS officer, who has held many important positions in the government, feels that the stagnant industrial sector would witness a revival if Pinarayi continues as the Chief Minister for the next five years.