Pinarayi Vijayan's ill-founded obsession with development in Kerala is uninformed and devoid of realism

Despite tall claims of long-lasting socio-political transformation, what has hurt the reputation of the ruling CPM in Kerala the most are the charges that the party is anti-development; but when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sets out to cleanse his party of this stigma, he ends up doing more harm than good.

Early this week, his government came under widespread public criticism, including from leaders of his own party and allies, for police excesses against the residents of Puthuvype — a small island in Kochi — who have been agitating against a massive LPG import terminal that the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) is building in their vicinity. The protestors fear that the facility, a few meters away from where they live, is a permanent threat to their lives and properties; but Vijayan says that it's safe and his government cannot allow people to stall "development".

Although he has called on the protesters for conciliatory talks, he was unequivocal that nothing would stop the project. "It would send wrong signals in terms of development in Kerala. If it is abandoned, it would encourage forces that want to halt development activities," he said.

The protesters, on the other hand, say that they are willing to lay down their lives, and have found support from sections within the ruling coalition itself. Political observers and left fellow-travellers fear that Puthuvype might turn out to be CPM's Singur or Nandigram in Kerala. It's a standoff that looks ominous.

Vijayan and IOC may be right that the terminal has adhered to the highest possible safety standards, that it's essential for a 2,200 crore LPG project in South India and could be quite valuable for Kerala; but his intransigence is counterproductive. If he is unable to take the protestors into confidence, the phantoms of Singur and Nandigram are certainly not misplaced.

Puthuvype is just a symptom of a "development" malaise that has affected Vijayan. Ever since he came to power, his message has been loud and clear — that he wants "development" at any cost.

In fact, in his reply to the motion of thanks to the Governor's address in March, he didn't speak like a communist or a left politician, but was categorical about a new "development" policy: "This government doesn't represent any particular section in the society. It's a government for and of all. Though we belong to different political parties, it's the public mandate that brought us all to this assembly. Hence, we all should stand together for programmes and projects aimed at the overall development of the state. At no point will the government succumb to pressure by certain organisations that always raise protest against development projects."

Vijayan, hailed by his supporters as a "double-hearted" man for his supposedly steely resolve, seemingly likes to live by his word and hasn't gone back on what he has said in the assembly or elsewhere. In fact, his intentions were clear when he appointed Harvard professor Gita Gopinath as his economic advisor, a move that was antithetical to left politics.

 Pinarayi Vijayans ill-founded obsession with development in Kerala is uninformed and devoid of realism

File image of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

In the last one year, since he came to power, he hasn't stopped supporting the previous government's Vizhinjam port project being built by Gautam Adani despite damaging findings by the Comptroller and Auditor General; has lifted the restrictions on quarries that are hazardous to the lives of people and the environment, has reiterated that his government would acquire land for wider highways across the state notwithstanding years of public opposition, clamped down on public demonstrations, and has even sided with encroachers of public land.

The problem with Vijayan's hardline development agenda and poster-boyish enthusiasm is that it's uninformed and is devoid of realism. Although the left had indeed been accused of "labour militancy" - including by the erstwhile Planning Commission - that had prevented industrial growth in the state, in the long run, it had turned out be a blessing in disguise. Its uniformly high population density (the third highest among Indian states) doesn't allow for polluting industries, and the early labour reforms and high wages don't make productive activities viable. This apparent adversity and lack of opportunities compelled people to migrate and remit cash that today accounts for about 30 per cent of the state's GDP. This income has been largely distributive and has even led to a second wave of (privately funded) land reforms.

More importantly, it kept the state clean and green with reasonable equality although consumption-led environmental degradation has become a recent challenge. Some limited industrial production, food processing, tourism, IT, services and cash crops accounted for the rest of Kerala's income, which has been good enough to maintain a large State and a comparatively high human development.

For no logical reasons Vijayan wants to change this paradigm and wants to invert the model that has worked. His party could indeed have played a more constructive role in wealth generation and infrastructure improvement when opportunities arose in the past, but they were happy being luddites and obsessive about rights than duties. Now, suddenly waking up to lost opportunities of the past and trying to retrofit the state with an unsuitable development model, that's not commensurate with the times or the state's capacity, will do more harm than good.

Why should Vijayan obsess with an off-key development image and end up being a Budhdeb Bhattacharya? The left has never been known for wealth generation in Kerala, except for the Technopark, the first of its kind in India, in Trivandrum, which incidentally was also nurtured and developed by the Congress-led UDF government. Almost all iconic institutions in the state have been set up by non-left governments, particularly by former chief ministers C. Achutha Menon and K Karunakaran. The left's only positive contribution has been the progressive policies that made Kerala different from the rest of India.

The flip-side of Vijayan's obsession with his notion of "development" is the rapid decline of the state's hard-earned human development gains. Government funded education and health, the pillars of the famed Kerala model of development, have been invaded by private capital. The state's investment on these sectors has rapidly declined over the years and the neglect of the social determinants of health has made the state sick (currently it's under the grip of a dengue epidemic) and morbid. Nearly half of the state's revenue expenditure is spent on salaries and pensions, but corruption and inefficiency have corroded the quality of governance. The influence of an unseemly party infrastructure (the cell-rule in popular parlance) has made people captive to a feudal patron-client ecosystem.

This is the "development" that needs a rejig in Kerala, not what Vijayan has conjured up.

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Updated Date: Jun 23, 2017 16:05:32 IST