A couple of weeks ago, I was in God’s own country and met the new Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, reputed to be the “pragmatist” among his Communist comrades. As I waited, along with my Kerala editor, Vinod Mathew, in the lobby of his office, we noticed a long queue of people, all of them holding written representations, for an audience with the CM. “He is trying to outdo his predecessor,” Vinod said to me, and went on to recall how Oommen Chandy used to be trailed by a retinue of at least 100 people wherever he went. Pinarayi, on the other hand, allots three or four hours daily for people to have his darshan and place their grievances before him. Soon after we were ushered into his office and the exchange of pleasantries was done, the topic turned to more serious issues.
“You seem to have inherited a bad fiscal position,” I said to the chief minister, drawing from a discussion I had had earlier in the day with the state’s Chief Secretary, who is cast in the old mould of people-friendly bureaucrats. The Kerala government had failed to collect taxes amounting to Rs 30,000 crore in previous years, and now has hardly any money to meet its routine expenditure, leave alone funds for Plan schemes. “It’s okay,” the CM replied. “We have to find ways to overcome the crisis.” This is in line with the preface written by his Finance Minister to a white paper brought out by the new government on the fiscal crisis. In it, it is said, “We want to look forward and not dwell on exposing past misdeeds.”
I then complained about the roads in Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital. The drive from the airport to our office had been back-breaking. Pinarayi did not dispute this but had a prompt answer. “We are now planning to entrust maintenance of roads for at least five years to the contractors who built them. That should take care of the problem,” he said.
The Chief Minister is conversant with new technology as well. The government, according to him, is now planning to use rubber to enhance the life of roads. “It is proven scientifically that if concrete is laid over a layer of rubber, it lasts longer,” Pinarayi explained. If people still think Communist leaders are averse to technology, they are wrong. In fact, the white paper on finance blames “the sheer indifference of the previous government to updating technological systems which should have been the foundation of scientific data analysis needed for effective tax collection.”
Pinarayi also says his government’s relations with the Centre are “very good”. Most of the projects proposed by the State have been cleared by Delhi and he is quite happy about it. The Left Democratic Front government is contemplating to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the State on November 1 when it intends to officially declare that rural areas of Kerala are open defecation free. “Modi is the PM and heading the Union Government and I am here in the State. We will work together on issues concerning Centre-State relations. On political issues though we have our respective positions and will deal with them separately,” clarifies Pinarayi.
Pragmatist, right. Just the day before our meeting, four RSS workers had been hacked to death, allegedly by Communist activists in the Kannur belt, where violence between the saffron and red brigades has become almost routine.
Kerala watchers say Pinarayi is less likely to have trouble from the Opposition – the Congress is a divided house – than from the grand old Communist patriarch – V S Achuthanandan. Well past 90, he actively campaigned in the elections but Pinarayi pipped him to the CM’s post.
Puducherry: Spent & broke
Puducherry, the tiny Union Territory, is in no better shape when it comes to finances. Seemingly, this has nothing to do with the economic well-being of the people. What was once known as a bicycle town now teems with automobiles, often leading to traffic snarls. It is just that the State is getting poorer.
With an annual budget of just around Rs 7,000 crore, interest payments alone account for 10 per cent of it. The government does not have enough money even to pay salaries. The new Congress Chief Minister, Narayanaswamy, blames it on major blunders made by the previous regime: appointments to state undertakings/bodies made without any assessment of the need, and doles that were not need-based. Add to this the drama surrounding the tiff between the Chief Minister and the Lt Governor, Kiran Bedi. On the face of it, everything is fine between them. “I have no problem with the Lt Guv,” the CM says, “ We are very clear about each other’s role.” Ms Bedi, whom I met within a space of a few hours, echoed the same sentiment. It’s a different matter though that just a few days later, the former IPS officer threatened to go back to Delhi if elected reps do not participate in the weekly visits she makes to assess the situation on the ground, primarily in regard to cleanliness.
On a serious note, Narayanaswamy, has his hands full if the UT has to come out of the mess. Such was the profligacy that even our correspondent, Debjani Datta, was given a mixer and wet grinder before the recent election as a fulfillment of a promise by N Rangaswamy after he became CM in 2011. “I took it to check the quality and it is low. If you switch on the mixer, everyone in the neighbourhood would know about it because of the noise,” Debjani told me, adding that a majority of those who were given the gadget do not use it because they already have one. Some Rs 100 crore was spent from the treasury on this scheme. Narayanaswamy points out how Rs 62 crore out of the total Rs 70 crore annual budget of the government medical college at Puducherry goes towards salaries, leaving hardly any money for maintenance or upgradation.
Even as I write this, the Puducherry Assembly witnesses a ruckus over an allegation that those who had not cleared a road test were appointed drivers to run the state transport corporation buses! It transpired that of the 125 or so drivers appointed by the previous regime, only 30 had passed the test. “Are there any poor people still left in Puducherry?” Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, asked our correspondent during a review visit post-tsunami, when he was said to have been surprised by the number of schemes the government was implementing. Whether or not the people have become better off, the ‘State’ has surely become poorer.