Thursday, August 21, 2014

Raging Controversies: Time for Kerala Government to Turn the Tables?

There are three controversies, currently raging, in Kerala. The first one has to do with a racket that blackmails powerful and rich persons, using video recordings of their sexual escapades with the women from the racket. Apart from the TRP conscious news channels, perverts and others starved of healthy sex, this issue is not of much importance. The other two issues are with far more social and financial implications for state and its people.
The first issue arose from the closure of 418 liquor Bars that failed to maintain certain standards, in the past. A large number of these Bars now claim to have created those necessary standards and, therefore, complain that their closure is not justified. The matter is before the High Court, and the Govt is required to make up its mind on whether to allow these Bars (or such of them that have created the necessary standards by now) or to revoke their licenses permanently.
There are various claims for and against the permanent closure of these Bars. Those who are against reopening any of these Bars (irrespective of their current status) is led by a powerful section of the ruling Congress party and its State President VM Sudheeran. Many of the coalition partners are also in favour of the closure, at least in their public posture. This group also draws power from the anti-liquor groups and religious leaderships. The other group that includes the Chief Minister and the concerned Minister argues that government cannot arbitrarily close these Bars without any rational differentiation. There are close to 400 other Bars operating in the state, some of them surely without necessary facilities. They argue that all the Bars that meet the necessary standards should be allowed to operate and the rest asked to close down, irrespective of whether the Bar belongs to the group of 418 or not.
The government currently caught between the devil and deep sea must try to become proactive and create a policy that seeks to get the population out of the vice grip of alcohol. As a beginning, it should consider closing down all the Bars and restrict liquor sale only to the government owned Beverages Corporation outlets. Let us not make it easy for the addicted, to obtain liquor.  No doubt, there might be a problem from the revenue that will have to be foregone in the process. A part of it might be offset by the increased revenue of Beverages Corporation. Even otherwise, the revenue earned at the cost of people’s health and so many other vices including ‘increasing crime rates,’ is not worth or sustainable for a democratic government.
Before I proceed to the remaining issue, let me clarify that I am not in favour of a forced prohibition, which only leads to the strengthening of liquor mafia and seller of spurious liquor. On principles, I also believe that government should not arbitrarily act against one set of Bars while allowing others to continue with their business. However, the government is not left with many options at this stage. It cannot easily go against the powerful ‘public opinion’ being created in favour of not opening the 418 Bars. Also, it cannot escape the accusations of supporting the Bar owners, for extraneous consideration, even if the Bars are eventually allowed to reopen through a court order. So, why not turn the tables and adopt a general policy of no Bars that is in consonance with the demand of a large proportion of the population?
The third controversy relates to the allocation of new Higher Secondary (Plus Two) Batches, to accommodate the surplus students who have passed the last year’s 10th standard examination. This issue is also before the High Court, where the Government has already been subjected to some severe criticism.  The controversy mainly stems from the fact that every management is putting pressure on the government to allocate more Batches to them. The Aided School lobby of Kerala remains one of the most powerful, with all the major religious / community leadership being so keen to increase their level of services to the students of Kerala. It is not a secret that this interest has to do more with their power to appoint teachers for the additional Batches, rather than any genuine desire to provide educational services. For each appointment in Higher Secondary school, the management usually take bribes to the tune of more than a million. These bribes are, of course, in cash, and not reflected in the accounts or tax returns. At the same time, the salary and other benefits of the teachers appointed by the management are paid by the state Government.
Government paying the salary to individuals who are appointed by management without giving any consideration to the merit or fair selection, is against all the principles of natural justice and the Constitution. The fact that no government has been able to correct this injustice until now is only a reflection on the power of the education lobby in the state.  It is said that the present allotment of additional batches alone will cost the state exchequer more than Rs.200 crores! Imagine the amount of black money that can be collected by the management while appointing teachers to these new posts. No wonder, they are willing to fight it out to the end!
Again, government is faced with allegations of kickbacks and corruption in allotting the new Batches. To overcome all these issues and turn the table on those who are challenging the government’s decision, let the government take a policy decision to make the appointments to aided schools, through the state Public Service Commission, just like in the case of government schools. Of course, there will be a backlash from the vested interests, but at least the Government can gain the goodwill of a large section of the population and break the power of the management lobby, once for all.
No doubt, there will be cries about the rights of minorities and communities to carry on educational activities. Let them continue to do so. There are a large number of unaided schools in the state. These organizations can also continue their educational services in the unaided sector. If and only if, they want government to pay the salaries, they must remain in the aided sector and allow the Government to appoint teachers through competitive selection. There is no justification for any discrimination between teachers of aided and unaided schools.
The effective leadership is in converting adversities into opportunities. These two decisions can not only break the efforts of the adversaries of the current government, but also positively impact the state’s governance in future. I am not too optimistic, but let us wait and see how the government headed by Chief Minister Mr. Oommen Chandy tackles these adversities.