Newly-appointed Minister of State for Tourism and the only Keralite in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, former IAS officer and MLA Alphons Kannanthanam speaks to Kumar Vikram about achievements of the Central government, his belief in out-of-the-box ideas and his plans to make India an inviting destination for tourists from overseas. Excerpts:
You’re back in the government after nearly a decade. Earlier you were an administrator and now you’re a minister. How do you view the change?
It's exciting. I quit the IAS in 2006 and became an MLA. I’ve been in politics for 11 years. That’s enough time to make the transition from bureaucracy to politics. I was a workaholic as a bureaucrat, and a minister has to work 10 times harder. Being a politician is a very tough job, if you want to work with people at the grassroot level. I’m going to love it.
Is working for the Modi government tough?
PM Modi expects things to get done. You’re not supposed to fool around. He expects everyone to share his dream, which means every child gets to go to school, there’s food on every table and there’s a house and job for everyone. Everyone, everywhere in India has access to good roads, power and water. The prime minister expects every minister in his Cabinet to share this dream and make it possible.
Ministers they find it difficult to deal with bureaucracy sometimes. Will your experience as
a bureaucrat help you as a minister?
I think so. I understand the constraints and the possibilities and potential of IAS officers. I’m sure I’ll get along very well them.
Will this result in quick delivery of tourism projects on the ground?
Yes. The Prime Minister wants things to be done on the ground. He constantly strives to change human lives, especially of people at the bottom of society. He wants governance to reach the lowest level.
What’s your idea of Incredible India?
We’ll go beyond the ‘incredible’. India is an absolutely amazing country. We are a 5,000-year-old civilisation. I’ve travelled to about 60 countries, but we have much more. We have a philosophy, which is unparalleled in the world. There’s so much to be explored here, and we are going to market the best of India. We want the whole world to come and say, ‘Wow, this is a great country’.
Security and cleanliness are major concerns among foreign tourists.
Security is a major concern, but the issue is overblown compared to the situation in other countries. Take for example, the Nirbhaya case. It was very unfortunate. Such shocking things should never happen anywhere. But many more such incidents occur in New York. Shootings happen in American cities. I believe no Nirbhaya should take place ever. Our cities should become much more safer. We get only 8 million tourists, which is nothing. I want to raise it to 80 million, or more.
We’ll provide clean toilets at all tourist destinations. This is essential. In Agra, for example, the moment you come out of the Taj Mahal premises, the dirt and the stench hits you. We want tourists to stay on in the city and not just visit the Taj. This will generate more money. Previous governments have done little for the city. Though I’ve visited Agra many times, I’ve never stayed there. We’re going to change this. We’re going to clean up the city.
You’re known for ‘out of the box’ ideas. Any such plans for your ministry?
I’ve asked officials to come to me with a new idea every morning. Something out of the box and edgy. How do we show others that we love India? Only through our actions. By preserving and protecting what we have. Knowledge is an important equity. Indians need to know more about their own history, philosophy and spiritual visionaries like Shankaracharya. People should be informed about the philosophy of yoga, and not as an energising exercise. Your love for India should permeate all your actions, which will reflect in your voice when you tell visitors from abroad, ‘Look here, my country is beautiful’.
BJP has been trying to make inroads in Kerala. Will your status as a Christian help the party?
Certainly. I’m the only Christian in the Cabinet. I’m sure his idea of inclusive governance by inducting a Christian is a symbol of what he stands for. Christians are an important community, particularly in Kerala and Goa. They have contributed greatly to the education and health sectors and the care of the oppressed. The Church needs to share the PM’s dream. There’s absolutely no conflict between the Church and the government.
You are from Kerala. Your plans to take tourism forward in your state?
Kerala is the most beautiful place on earth. The tourism sector alone is enough to create jobs for the entire employable population of the state. We need to think afresh and come out with new ideas. Every district is unique. There are many fantastic locations in Kottayam, Alleppey, Idukki and Wayanad districts, which can be promoted more. Every district has its unique charm.
Are you going to give more funds to Kerala tourism?
Certainly. Kerala is one of the prime tourist destinations in India. We’d like to promote high-end tourism more. We have to develop more such upscale destinations. But I’m also the Minister for Tourism for entire India. I need to look at India holistically. We need to examine how religious tourism can be promoted in all relevant destinations across the country. This has to happen on the ground, which I’m sure it will.