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Tuesday, Dec 03, 2002

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Hardly working in Kerala

K.G. Kumar

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, the State capital, is, by most accounts, a sleepy, laidback place, home to such bureaucratic platitudes as the following from the Industrial Policy of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which aims to "accelerate the industrial growth in the State by attracting a steady stream of investment in industry, infrastructure and core strength sectors by creating a congenial investment climate in the State."

And the modus operandi? "...massive investment. Such investment cannot obviously come from the Government's budget, as it would involve an unbearable level of taxation. The solution lies in attracting private investment into the State by creating an environment that favours such investment."

Notice the operative words, `climate' and `environment', apt enough for Thiruvananthapuram, the barometer of political tendencies and intentions.

Any potential investor who arrived in the capital city last week could have witnessed first-hand two occasions when it performed its barometric function.

The first was when headload workers and assorted hangers-on owing allegiance to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) laid siege to the Secretariat, preventing several Government staff from entering their offices, abusing those who tried to, including women, and, for good measure, flinging stones at the Press Club nearby.

The next day was the turn of the Student's Federation of India to block traffic on the main road for nearly two hours, as it took out a march to protest against the educational policy of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF).

Both the events featured characters who bear the brunt of Kerala's economic backwardness.

The headload workers form part of the 83-lakh-strong workforce of the State, most of whom are in the informal or unorganised sector, and of whom 19 lakh are women.

The march by the SFI (whose slogan, incidentally, is `Study and Struggle') comprised ardent students, many of whom will troop into the 43-lakh strong ranks of Kerala's unemployed.

Both these happenings, to use a charitable word, only served to reinforce the widespread "perception of adversarial labour relations", to quote from the twin of the Industrial Policy, the UDF's Labour Policy.

Though not the outcome of any real industrial relations issues, the two events showed how uncomfortably steep a gradient the UDF Government of Chief Minister A.K. Antony will have to climb before it can hope to "tame", let alone "discipline", Kerala labour.

The UDF has always touted its industrial and labour policies as a double bait for investors. Expanding on the congeniality theme, its Labour Policy endeavours to promote "ideal employee-employer relationships" and "curb undesirable labour practices and adversarial labour relations through suitable legislation, through conscientisation, awareness raising and appropriate administrative interventions."

Accordingly, Antony's Government hopes to ensure that the entrepreneur enjoys rights to engage labour of his or her choice, without being inhibited by any claims from "sons of the soil, displaced persons from acquired land, construction, contract labour and dependents of employees."

It promises more: "All restrictive labour practices, including intimidation, gherao, harassment of managers and their families, and extortion of any kind will be treated as criminal offences and dealt with accordingly."

Further, "management will have the prerogative to deploy workers in any section of the unit as part of a multicraft approach."

As far as projects are concerned, the Government vows to "prevent stoppages of work on account of industrial disputes, especially during the first five years of the project. The Government will also severely discourage deleterious practices such as `go-slow'."

Given the signals of temperature, humidity and pressure that emanated from the Thiruvananthapuram political barometer last week, these promises will remain a mere wish-list.

This is not to imply that Kerala is doomed to be a labour nightmare. Islands of peaceful productivity - particularly in the spheres of information technology (IT), tourism and healthcare - show that the Keralite mindset can be made to accommodate the best of modern management and manufacturing practices.

Even so, one important caveat applies - only as long as the political ringmaster, he who so effortlessly gathers the unthinking masses to hold entire cities to ransom, is kept at bay.

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