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|February 15, 2002||
T V R Shenoy
The economic blackhole they call Kerala
We all know Lincoln's classic definition of a democratic government -- by the people, of the people, for the people. Kerala's public servants -- there's an oxymoron for you! -- have come up with a twist on that phrase -- changing the last part of the phrase to read "for the unions"!
There was no small irony in the strike, which began on February 6, 2002. Because it came hard on the heels of a new initiative to take liberalisation forward.
On February 5, Union Divestment Minister Arun Shourie announced that the Government of India was prepared to sell off shares in several public-sector undertakings. The government, the minister added, was prepared even for the transfer of management, even in firms such as Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (a cash cow milked by previous administrations).
The interesting thing is that there were several trade union representatives present when Arun Shourie met the media. Far from opposing the government's moves, they welcomed the new initiatives, saying they eagerly awaited working with the new managers.
Physics tell us north and south are poles apart, but the difference between Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram verges on the absurd. If there was complete harmony in Delhi, the level of bitterness had to be heard to be believed down south.
Well, there was a certain amount of agreement. The trade union wing of every single major party -- INTUC, AITUC, CITU, BMS, whatever -- was spouting the same rhetoric about workers' rights. The gates of the state secretariat were shut. The courts couldn't function. Teachers walked away from schools and colleges. Even medical services took a hit.
This is stupidity incarnate. Kerala is bankrupt. According to Chief Minister A K Antony, the state has an overdraft of Rs 344 crore with the Reserve Bank, though the limit is Rs 215 crore. The Government of Kerala is desperately trying to arrange a loan of Rs 200 crore from the Life Insurance Corporation (The loan was sanctioned on Thursday, February 14 - Editor). The last thing Kerala needs at such a time is a hit in productivity caused by a strike.
This is not a crisis that sprang up overnight, but is one that has been in the making for decades. No government -- whether dominated by the Congress or the CPI-M -- can plead innocence.
The saddest thing about the mess is that neither party is even thinking about taking responsibility. Instead, they are egging on their respective trade union wings to confront the government. (And to settle some old intra-party scores too, judging by what some senior Congressmen are saying!) This is juvenile behaviour at par with that of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi when he tried to prevent the BALCO sale -- until the Supreme Court itself threw out his stupid allegations.
The trade unions themselves appear to have lost touch with ground reality. Even if they can force the Government of Kerala to accept their demands at gunpoint, there is simply no money to have those demands fulfilled. But decades of intellectual laziness are bound to have an effect...
Judging by what I have heard, the much-tried citizens of Kerala have finally been roused by the utter selfishness of the trade unions. There are some reports of parents forcing teachers back to their jobs, or even of holding classes on their own. Government employees -- that army of teachers, clerks, and what-have-you -- happen to be a mere 1.25 per cent of the population of Kerala. The fact that they are trying to hold the other 98.75 per cent hostage proves just how arrogant they have become.
May I add that I am surprised at the stance adopted by the Bharatiya Janata Party, specifically by its trade union wing? While campaigning in the last assembly election, the BJP tried to send the message that there was, essentially, no distinction between the Congress and the CPI-M. In the case of the strike called by the government employee trade unions, this happens to be perfectly correct. But one is forced to ask whether there is, in fact, any difference between the two established parties and the BJP itself!
This was a grand opportunity to send a message to the voters of Kerala that the BJP was truly 'a party with a difference'. It should have seized the chance to tell people that it was concerned for the people at large rather than for the pampered section of unionised government employees. It has blown this chance. Do not be surprised if cynical voters sneer at any claim of 'difference' in the next polls!
The Marxists will undoubtedly try to pass off the strike as a 'class struggle'. This thesis is acceptable only if you think of politicians -- most of them anyway -- as a 'class'. Because this is really a struggle where the interests of the political class are clashing with those of the people at large.
I can understand, to a limited extent, why the unions have chosen to go on strike. They are looking for something tangible in the form of money. (Even if, for reasons given above, they won't get it.)
But the behaviour of the politicians has been utterly despicable from first to last. Rather than assume true leadership and explain just how bad the fiscal situation is, they have, as a class, deliberately chosen to fan the flames. Irresponsible and malicious, Kerala's politicians seem hell-bent on ensuring that the state remains a poor cousin to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
It is axiomatic that when one hits rock bottom, one can only go upwards. If it takes a painful strike to make India's most literate state learn how to do its sums, then so be it! I can only pray that this is, in fact, rock bottom -- and that the idiot politicians have no further horrors to unleash on my home state!
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