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The maladministration of Kerala

By T V R Shenoy
July 21, 2009 11:48 IST
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Does anyone give two hoots whether V S Achuthanandan continued in the CPI-M Politburo or he was 'demoted' to the Central Committee? These questions may fascinate the party faithful but the man on the street has other concerns.

You know exactly what I mean if you are unfortunate enough to need to walk or drive on one of Kerala's wretched streets. It gives me very little pleasure to say so but honesty compels me to admit that my home state probably has the rottenest roads in South India. (Please spare me the comments about the highways in, say, Bihar; Kerala should be compared to its immediate neighbours.)

Arguably the most important road of them all in Kerala is National Highway 47, which runs from Thiruvananthapuram to Palakkad, connecting  Alathur, Thrissur, Ernakulam, and Kollam, among others, on the way. If I remember correctly it is the only national highway touching Kerala's capital, and as such it should be the best maintained highway in the state. As things stand however it is a monument to the Achuthanandan ministry's incompetence.

As we all know, governments in India -- central or state -- are basically bust, each having run up mountains of debt. There is very little money to spend on maintaining roads, leave alone improving them. Sheer desperation meant that a national consensus evolved around the Build-Operate-Transfer principle of toll roads. The Government of India duly gave the Government of Kerala the green signal to do the needful.

(It is always the state government that carries out the actual work. Widening roads invariably involves complicated negotiations with the owners of the land on either side, or all this is better done by men on the spot rather than bureaucrats in Delhi.)

The work was supposed to start on National Highway 47 at a cost of about Rs 300 crore. That was when the Achuthanandan ministry took office, and showed the red flag to the very idea of toll-based roads. The Left Democratic Front was reportedly comfortable with the concept of toll bridges but allergic to toll roads.

I have no idea what logic lay behind this thinking. Roads cannot be built by philanthropy, they need to be paid for either through taxes or through tolls. It makes more sense to ask the actual users to pay for the benefit of using the improved roads rather than spread the burden on non-users.

Be that as it may, three years passed before the Achuthanandan ministry saw the light and work has finally proceeded on National Highway 47. But there is a kick in the tale -- thanks to the delay the projected cost has risen from Rs 300 crore to a reported Rs 600 crore. Is any minister going to be held responsible for this waste?

May I point out that National Highway 47 is but one of the many roads in Kerala that are crying out for attention? The state has a total of roughly 1,525 km worth of national highways; in 2007 the Kerala public works department itself said that more than 1,000 km of that figure were single-lane roads and a further 400 km or so were two-lane roads. All of them need to be turned into four-lane operations, even six-lane in some cases.

And those are the national highways, I say nothing of the local roads! How much damage has the Achuthanandan ministry's procrastination caused?

The delay in highways modernisation is but one of the many stories that illustrate the incompetence of the current ministry. Another horror story is the mismanagement of the international container terminal project in the port of Vizhinjam.

Vizhinjam, near Thiruvananthapuram, could be one of the finest harbours not just in India but anywhere on the Indian Ocean. It can easily take huge container ships, those with a draught of 15 m or more, thanks to its natural depth. (According to the Cochin Port Trust, its new international container transshipment Terminal is designed for a 'permissible draught of 14.5 m.')

Potentially, then, Vizhinjam could rival the likes of even Singapore and Dubai ports.

The key word there is 'potentially'. Vizhinjam falls under the jurisdiction of the Government of Kerala and the Left Democratic Front ministry has messed it up. The bid to build the port facilities was won in part by Chinese firms. This was vetoed by the then Union Shipping Minister, T R Baalu, on grounds of security. The Left Democratic Front ministry wasted time trying to fight for the Chinese before grumpily agreeing to another round of tenders.

In June this year the Hyderabad-based Lanco Kondapalli, which won the bid, told the Achuthanandan ministry that it was withdrawing because of the delays and possible legal tangles. Three years after the Achuthanandan ministry took office there is nothing to show in Vizhinjam.

Just as little, in fact, as there is of the chief minister's attempt to claw back holdings from land-sharks (an attempt reportedly torpedoed because land was apparently illegally occupied even by the Left Democratic Front partners). And, believe it or not, it took a directive from the Kerala high court itself before a lackadaisical administration tackled the mountains of garbage in and around Kochi -- although it still doesn't smell particularly good.

The stench around the Kochi Smart City project however is nothing to do with garbage, it is the stink of lethargy. This information technology park was supposed to be built in collaboration with a Dubai-based developer and the chief minister laid the foundation stone in 2007 but things have obviously gone off the road.

Kerala's industry minister told the world in June that all issues would be resolved within a week. Unfortunately, Elamaram Kareem belongs to the Pinarayi Vijayan faction and his statement probably did more harm than good. "He has no role in this project!" snapped the chief minister (who is also the state's IT minister).

By this point, Kerala is getting as sick of the Achuthanandan-Vijayan squabbles as it was of the Antony-Karunakaran sniping earlier. Whether Pinarayi Vijayan is in the Politburo or out of it is really the CPI-M's internal matter, but Achuthanandan's performance as chief minister concerns all of Kerala.

The CPI-M bosses chose to punish V S Achuthanandan for indiscipline. Who is going to call him to account for maladministration?

Click here for more columns by TVR Shenoy

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T V R Shenoy