‘If we improve infrastructure, investment will come’

    Rasheeda Bhagat
    T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan
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Education and health are our strengths, but we have neglected infrastructure development.— OOMMEN CHANDY, KERALA CHIEF MINISTER

Oommen Chandy, Kerala Chief Minister
Oommen Chandy, Kerala Chief Minister

While education is a huge plus point that has opened up the rest of the world to Kerala, “we have missed out on many opportunities in the past because of lack of will power,” Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told Business Line and The Hindu in an interview on Monday. One such opportunity was building adequate infrastructure and attracting investment for the right kind of industries. But things are changing and the Emerging Kerala (EK) event will showcase the opportunities that Kerala has to offer.

Excerpts from the interview:

What are the expectations from the Emerging Kerala event?

Along with Sam Pitroda, mentor of the Kerala Government, we have identified 10 areas of development. First is coastal transport. We have 560 acres of coastal area and three important ports; one of which is already commissioned. When the other two are ready, we will have three major ports in south, central and north Kerala. In between these, we plan 14 smaller ports so we can double our transport through sea, reduce congestion on our roads and reduce transport costs by 40 per cent.

Two, our national waterway system between Kovalam and Kasaragod is going to be completed; it has been delayed by 10 years. Money is not a problem, Central funds are available but the delay is for small issues and objections from fishermen. When completed, this will be a big boon for internal transport and tourism.

Third on Pitroda’s agenda is development of the Kerala model of Ayurveda systems.

Then there is IT and high-quality education. Our chances are very high, but we have failed to utilise them. We want to build some of our educational institutions to international standards along with tourism and also health care.

You’ve been here for 18 months. How will you solve Kerala’s biggest problem — employment?

This is a long-time problem. There is a huge shortage of unskilled workers. And workers in this category come from Bihar, West Bengal, etc. For other categories, lot of opportunities are there. Today, money is not a problem and good human resource is available here, but we lack the will power. That is why from EK we have high expectations … the chances and opportunities are great. In Kerala, for everything objections are raised because of literacy and high social status … everything becomes a controversy.

Such as?

When I was CM earlier and the plantations were facing serious crisis, all the labour unions approached me. They wanted estate owners to divert 5 per cent of the unutilised land for other purposes. The Land Ceiling Act covered only four kinds of plantations — rubber, tea, coffee and cardamom. Those changing plantation crops would lose tax benefits, so they wanted exemption. We sent this to the Centre, but the Government changed before clearance could come. Later the LDF Government committee, too, unanimously decided this should be done.

We have now decided to implement this, but there are objections we are destroying the Land Ceiling Act. They say 24,000 acres would get into the hands of the “tourism mafia”.

So I decided only 5 per cent of the 10 per cent of such plantation land — and that too unutilised land which has not been planted earlier — will be available for tourism, subject to a maximum of 10 acres. So in a 2,000-acre estate, only 10 acres will be available for tourism. And the construction should be traditional and not concrete, multi-storeyed buildings. We know our strengths and weaknesses. Education and health are our strengths, but we have neglected infrastructure development. If infrastructure is there, investment will naturally come and create job opportunities. So now we are concentrating on infra development.

Other States complain that Kerala is piggybacking on the rest of the country. You don’t have “dirty industries” — manufacturing and power generation, other than hydel power. Are there plans for bringing manufacturing and power generation into Kerala?

We know we are far behind in manufacturing. Kerala is a thickly populated State and we don’t have large areas of vacant land. We depend and enjoy hydro-power which is cheap. But during the Indira Gandhi era it was decided not to clear any more hydro-projects. This was a big blow to the State. The whole country went for thermal power; we couldn’t do so for environmental reasons. We had 600 acres of available land in Kasaragod and GoI gave adequate funds for the generation of 1,000 MW. So we tried to have a plant in Orissa in collaboration with the Orissa Government and bring the electricity from there to Kerala.

People outside Kerala get very annoyed with that …

But there are so many thermal power projects there and half the power would have gone to Orissa. At first, Orissa was very enthusiastic but not now. People here protest for everything; we have a bomb under the water.

We are trying our best to offer a liberal package. For the Kochi metro, we acquired land paying Rs 52 lakh for a cent. We are now concentrating on mini-hydro-projects for which it is easy to get clearance.

Do you think high education and awareness of rights has been a double-edged sword for Kerala?

I don’t think so; our education is our plus point, it opened the rest of the world to us. But now we’re facing limitations and lost our chance because of lack of will power. When people make allegations, we’ve backed out. Now we won’t and are ready to move ahead. If people raise issues, such as the 5 per cent land issue, we’ll note all their objections and find ways/solutions to satisfy all sides.

Twenty years ago, some people agitated against computers and destroyed them, today the leaders of that agitation have computers in their homes and carry laptops. But we lost 20 years. Gujarat uses its coastal areas optimally, we can’t even do 5 per cent of that.

What do you think of the Congress party’s chances in the next General elections?

We have to improve in some States; we hope the national leadership will work towards this.

But Rahul Gandhi seems to have disappeared!

No, no, right now he is talking to 20 leaders from Kerala.

Do you think the UPA will form the next government?

Who else?

The NDA?

The NDA is a divided house. Today, there is a difficult situation for the UPA in many of the States, I admit, but there is no alternative to the Congress. And I think the Congress will improve its position in some of the States.

What about Kerala?

We [are] expecting a good result from Kerala; the last two Assembly by-elections we captured from the LDF, and one of them in the LDF heartland.

In Andhra, the Congress has a huge problem.

I am confident we will solve the issue in Andhra before the election.

Which means you will bring back Jagan?

(Smiles) We will solve the issue. We will improve in Karnataka. And also UP …

What is your vision/priority for the rest of your term?

My main aim is to develop the infrastructure. The only problem I face is land acquisition; money is not a problem.

(Photo by Rasheeda Bhagat)

(This article was published on September 6, 2012)
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