Thursday, January 5, 2012

Salman Rushdie on Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair

Some brilliant excerpts:

"...he had been so publicly magnificent on such a privately dreadful day. He had shown more than stoicism. He had flung laughter and intelligence into the face of death."

"...our catechism of failures..."

"... being himself as he had always wished to be, the Hitch mighty and ample amongst the ones he loved, and not the diminishing Hitch having the life slowly squeezed out of him by the Destroyer of Days."


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Public sector revival in Kerala?

Kerala's Industries Minister, Mr Elamaram Karim, recently announced a working profit of Rs 239.75 crore in 2009-10 for public sector undertakings (PSUs) under the State Industries Department, up from the previous year's Rs 222 crore. The Minister also told a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram that the number of profit-making companies has risen from 28 to 32 between 2008-09 and 2009-10. All the 37 units under the State Industries Department would rake in working profits during the current financial year, the Minister asserted.

In 2005-06, only 12 PSUs were generating profits. But, under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the Minister pointed out, the number of profit-making units has grown steadily – 24 in 2006-07, 27 in 2007-08, 28 in 2008-09 and 32 in 2009-10. The total working profit also rose from Rs 56.38 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 239.75 crore in 2009-10.

The total turnover of Kerala's PSUs has also been burgeoning — Rs 868.13 crore in 2005-06, Rs 1,451.83 crore in 2006-07, Rs 1,533.66 crore in 2007-08, Rs 1,867.96 crore in 2008-09 and Rs 2,130.08 crore in 2009-10.

A day before the Minister's triumphant announcement, the State Cabinet sanctioned a capital investment of Rs 125 crore to start eight new public sector industrial units during the current financial year.
These are: Hightech Spinning Mill at Komalapuram (Rs 36 crore), Hightech Weaving Factory at Kannur (Rs 20 crore), a textile mill at Kasaragod (Rs 16 crore), a cable making unit at Kannur (Rs 12 crore), a tool room at Kozhikode (Rs 12 crore), a unit of Keltron at Kuttippuram (Rs 12 crore), a forging unit at Shoranur (Rs 12 crore) and a meter factory at Palakkad (Rs 5 crore).

Do these jubilant declarations of the Industries Minister indicate that the State's PSUs are finally finding their way out of the woods? Not quite. The State's own Planning Board admits: “Historically, the backbone of modern industry in Kerala was laid by PSUs. The performance of these PSUs has shown a fluctuating trend, some achieving a turnaround in recent years, while others running into recurring losses.”
And these losses – accumulated losses, resulting from high-interest loans – could well sound the death knell for Kerala's PSUs. The Draft Approach Paper to the Eleventh Five Year Plan of Kerala prepared by the State Planning Board admits as much: “Loss-making enterprises are ipso facto inefficient or constitute an economic millstone around the State's neck”.

And yet the solution, feels the LDF government, is not the customary one: “The State, which is already facing severe fiscal strain, cannot afford this loss for ever. At the same time, the State cannot simply close them down or sell their assets at whatever price they can fetch in the market, involving the neoliberal route of ‘privatising the PSUs'.

The Planning Board, therefore, believes in implementing a long-term plan for restructuring the loss-making PSUs on a case-by-case basis. Restructuring and revival packages have to be formulated for PSUs and for this we have provided funds for them.”

The State Planning Board's Economic Review 2009 adds: “The present government, in contrast to the previous government, has taken a very supportive stand, strongly backed by the State Planning Board, and had made financial provision in each year's budget. In the 2009-10 budget, Rs 50 crore has been provided for the rejuvenation and revival of viable PSUs.”

Thus, from what the Industries Minister has claimed, it can be inferred that the current improved performance of Kerala's PSUs – if unequivocally accountable to an honest auditor – can be sourced to some improved monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms.

But, the way ahead is clear. As the State Planning Board itself admits, the solutions are fundamental: “The performance of the PSUs can be improved by initiatives like imparting professional management skills to managerial staff, regular monitoring of performance, systematic and scientific annual budgeting, strengthening of auditing, harnessing the synergy of PSUs through organising their operations on terms of mutual benefits, combined sourcing of raw materials and components, business collaboration with Central PSUs/government, and, merger and amalgamation.”

Apparently, managing – and even reviving – PSUs is no rocket science. Yet one caveat applies: interfere not politically, for that encumbrance has been the bane of Kerala's PSUs.Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from KeralaThe Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India (Hippocrene Cookbook Library)Curried Favors: Family Recipes from South IndiaKerala Society: Saint Thomas Christians, Syrian Malabar Nasrani, Bunt, Malayali, Ezhava, History of the Saint Thomas Christians, Nambu

Kerala's passion for government jobs

The recent news that the Kerala Public Service Commission (KPSC) received over 12 lakh applications for its advertisement for vacancies in the lowest rank in government service, namely, the last-grade peon post, reveals a mindset of Malayalees that seems to be pretty much fixed – globalisation, liberalisation, industrialisation, whatever.

The average Keralite – and surprisingly enough, a great portion of the youth of the State, supposedly disdainful of sarkari jobs in favour of more glamorous positions in new-fangled sectors like information technology (IT) – seems to still favour government jobs over those in the private sector.

And this, at a time when the State government is working overtime to promote Kerala as a favoured IT destination. Witness the recent brouhaha over the proposal to set up Technocity, an integrated complex of IT infrastructure, residential apartments, shopping malls, hospitals, hotels, educational institutions and other support facilities, a satellite adjacent to Thiruvananthapuram, the State capital and home to Technopark, Kerala's pioneering IT park. Billed as the largest IT township in India, the Technocity, the mega-project envisages an investment of over Rs 6,000 crore and is expected to provide direct employment to over one lakh persons and indirect jobs for another four lakh.

And yet, the recent KPSC advertisement managed to woo 12,31,499 applicants. According to a report by K P M Basheer in The Hindu, this is the largest number of applications the KPSC has ever received for a job advertisement. Not surprisingly, Thiruvananthapuram district – the quintessential abode of Kerala's babudom – produced nearly 1.75 lakh applicants; followed by Kozhikode (1.25 lakh) and Ernakulam (about 1.11 lakh). Behind them came Wayanad (35,000) and Kasaragod (40,000).

According to The Hindu report, the total number of applicants for the KPSC advertisement is roughly four per cent of Kerala's population. “If you consider the fact that the applicants are in the 18-40 age group, more than 10 per cent of the young population in the State have applied for the lowly peon's position, which is a relic of the British Raj,” writes Basheer.

And even more ironically, most of the applicants are overqualified. While the minimum educational qualification for the job advertised is the ability to read and write Malayalam, the majority of applicants are those who boast college and professional degrees; there are even some M Phil and Ph D researchers. According to the 2001 population census, 63.4 per cent of Kerala's population was in the age group of 15-59, who make up the labour force. The labour force projected for 2011 is 237.30 lakh. Keralites comprise 2.6 per of the country's total labour force.

Of Kerala's labour force of 102.91 lakh workers, 16.54 lakhare agricultural labourers and 3.65 lakhwork in household industries. The organised public and private sector together employ 11.33 lakh persons, with the private sector accounting for 46.33 per cent of the employment in the organised sector.

According to the Kerala State Planning Board, of the total of 6.07 lakh employed in the public sector during December 2008, 0.63 lakh were Central government employees, 2.66 lakh State government employees, 2.56 lakh quasi-government employees and 0.26 lakh local government employees.

According to the Kerala State Planning Board's Economic Review 2009, an analysis of the sector-wise growth of employment in public and private establishments in Kerala in 2009 revealed that the highest employment is in the community, social and personnel services (44.11 per cent), followed by manufacturing (23.24), financing and business services (9.02), transport (8.51), agriculture (7.03), electricity, gas, water and sanitary services (2.45), construction (1.9) and mining and quarrying (0.436).

If the recent deluge of applications for the peon's post indicates anything, it is that in the average Keralite's mind, there is still a special place for the hallowed government job. Not only does it offer assured security of tenure and attendant perks like pensions and travel allowances (not to mention the leisure time to pursue other interests !), it is also a source for securing loans from financial institutions and employee's co-operative societies.

It seems like all the ballyhoo of “new economy” and IT jobs has not made any significant dent in the Malayalee's penchant for a safe and secure government job.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ban the Blackboard

Blackboards may soon be history in Kerala schools

Looks like Kerala's schoolchildren will no longer have to stare at a blackboard. A PTI report, which appeared in The Hindu, talks of an experiment by Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan in Kozhikode to replace the traditional blackboards with digital boards.

The Bhavan is implementing what it calls the 'smart class' technology in all its three schools in the district in a bid to make education more interesting and also to enable the teachers to dedicate more time for teaching.

Bhavan's Kozhikode Kendra has entered into a five-year contract with Educomp Solutions, which provides a variety of digital teaching aids, including graphics and working models that promises to herald a new era in the field of education.

"We first introduced the technology in our schools in Kochi last year and the overwhelming response from the parents to the scheme has prompted us to bring it to Kozhikode now," Bhavan's Kendra Secretary, Col (retd) M P Gopinath was quoted in the report. According to him, parents feel that the system has helped to better the overall education process in the schools. "Apart from improving the effectiveness of teaching, the technology is also expected to boost the performance of the students," says the Bhavan's principal Lalitha Nair.

The system is so designed that a single server will cater to plasma television sets in all the class rooms which the teachers can operate with a remote from any corner of the room. Besides graphics, animation and video clippings, diagrams and 3D images will also be processed by the server to make available all information as sought in the syllabus.

Read the full report at

Reviving the Nila river

A group of locals, led by Gopinath Parayil, launch a pioneering responsible travel company to try and save Kerala's Ganga, the Nila.

"In its own sphere, the Nila is as significant as any of the great rivers of our country: On its banks thrived the ancient astrologer Vararuchi and the mathematician Aryabhatta. In more recent years, the river has imbued the work of littérateurs such as Jnanpith awardee M.T. Vasudevan Nair and O.V. Vijayan. The river has watered paddy fields, sustained rural livelihoods of farmers and traditional healers.

"All that now stands threatened by the pressures of modernity. The state’s remittance economy has fostered a building boom; the source of sand—essential construction material—is the river. Forests in the catchment area, responsible for rainfall, are disappearing. Many of the Nila’s tributaries have been thoughtlessly dammed. But all is not lost yet..."

Read Gopi's account at

Sabarimala: A man-made myth?

In a stunning revelation the Sabarimala authorities admit that the mysterious fire, which gives the festival its name, and which flashes thrice in the forests of the Ponnambalamedu hill, across from the ancient Ayyappa temple, during the Makaravilakku festival, is a work of human hands.

Read K A Shaji's report in Tehelka at

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Not halcyon days any more

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word `halcyon' to a bird, usually identified with a species of kingfisher, which the wise elders in the ancient West believed to have bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea. The ancients thought that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was calm during the period.

By extension, the term `halcyon days' refers to 14 days of calm weather, believed to occur about the winter solstice when the halcyon was brooding.

From those fabled roots come the contemporary usage of `halcyon' to allude to a calm, quiet, peaceful and undisturbed period or time.

The need for such an atmosphere must have been the lure behind the move of Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bhai to construct in 1930 an imposing palace atop a hill overlooking the Kovalam bay near Thiruvananthapuram as a summer leisure retreat for the family members of the Travancore royalty.

That beautiful piece of property is now in the midst of a controversy over ownership. The Oman-based M Far Hotels of the M Far group, which purchased the Kovalam Ashok Hotel from the public-sector India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) for Rs 44 crore in July 2002, insists that the Halcyon Castle forms an integral part of the hotel complex.

However, local activists, egged on by leaders of the Opposition front, dispute the claim and maintain that it belongs to the State Government. Tourism Secretary T. Balakrishnan was quoted as saying that there were no records to show that the Halcyon Castle belonged to the State Government.

It is easy to see why the grand sea-facing granite castle has suddenly become everybody's interest. For the hotel industry, it is a rare property that will attract dozens of pricey customers. Already, the 188-room Le Meridien Kovalam Beach Resort & Spa, which is what the erstwhile Kovalam Ashok is now called, boasts that its "four royal suites in the castle are in the category of the most luxurious accommodation available in the handful of five-star hotels in the entire State." And their tariff ranges from $350 to $500 a day.

For politicians, it is an opportunity to shine in the limelight. For the Government, it is an embarrassment, another sign of ineffectiveness in policing prime property.

However, every one of these interested parties seems to be barking up the wrong tree. The government, while it does have a moral obligation to protect and preserve architectural and cultural monuments, has often failed to do so, not for want of intent but for sheer inefficiency and ineptness.

One has to only look at the dilapidated condition of most of Kerala's architectural heritage to realize this. Recently, the government looked on as a portion of the historic West Fort in the capital was destroyed.

It is not as if the government cannot be a good caretaker of heritage. Consider the impeccable and elegant manner in which the Department of Archaeology has maintained the Padmanabhapuram Palace, near Thuckalay in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the fact that it is in another State - and thus not so attractive to the local media - prevents government officialdom and sundry politicians from interfering in its functioning.

The fact is that private entrepreneurs can - and are often encouraged to - maintain heritage property in a responsible manner, especially today when the well-heeled traveller is in search of authentic historical and cultural experiences. Consider the many heritage hotels run by the Taj group, especially in Rajasthan.

The Halycon Castle deserves a caring and benevolent guardian. But whether that ought to be the State Government alone is a moot point.