Time is running out for Kerala and unless major steps are initiated, it is going to be very difficult to maintain even the existing poor standards.

Two weeks ago, as a member of the India Advisory Board of one of the largest car makers in Europe, I was invited by a Board member charged with the India investment plan of over a billion euros, to accompany him for high-level discussions in India. We had met in their Amsterdam office for preliminary discussions and then decided to drive to Frankfurt airport, covering the 437-km distance in less than four hours.

Driving across any of the 17 nations of EU is to be experienced to be believed. The best of single Europe — in letter and spirit – with no checkposts, no barriers, no passport verification.

For my investor friend, the substantive discussions were primarily in two southern Indian States, though not Kerala. But I persuaded him — much against his desire — to accompany me for a short week-end in God's own country, where I would host him before he started the official programme.

I too was carried away by the widely held perception that Kerala is, indeed, God's own country. So, some years ago, I even built a holiday home on the river bank in Palghat. For good reasons, I am beginning to wonder whether God lives there at all. And my reasons for this conclusion are the theme of this week's column.

Barriers Galore

My European friend and I landed in Bangalore just past midnight. Filling up the disembarkation card and spending no less than ten minutes at the immigration desk answering gratuitous questions were testing enough. To make matters worse, Bangalore airport had two flights to handle and one x-ray machine to check the hand baggage of 700 passengers. A good two hours lost.

We decided to drive off straight to Palakkad — a good 425 km. It was inconceivable for my investor-friend, but the drive took us 9 hours and 15 minutes. Why? At several points, the road was in a dreadful condition. There were long queues at the toll road stations. And the nastiest was the wait at the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border to buy an entry permit for our rented car. Need I mention about the thousands of lorries and cars waiting at the infamous Walayar checkpost as we entered Kerala, where it took us over an hour to get through?

Now, my investor-friend was not only bewildered and baffled but just gave up and had a good laugh. I was shocked when he asked me, “Is India really one nation?”

In Europe, cars can pay tolls and trucks can pass safety screening checks using video numberplate scanning, or RFID transponders in windshields – without stopping, at 80 km speed.

As we travelled through Kerala, I was embarrassed and had no choice but to shed tears.

Mounds of filth

At every corner lay loads of refuse that, with the tropical humidity and simmering heat, gave out a nauseating stench that permeated the thick, odious air.

We saw motorists avoiding the mounds of filth that had been placed on major highways. But what was most depressing was the fact that Keralites had come to accept this condition as a way of life. They seem to have resigned themselves to this calamitous failure of governance.

My investor-friend and I were shocked at the offensive sights and the evident threat of a health epidemic posed by this neglect. In fact, it was while we were there that we read the news that there was a cholera outbreak in Wayanad because of poor sanitation facilities. But must it be so?

I was reminded of the statement of our Environment Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh, known for making candid remarks, that “if there was a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India would win it, hands down”. Kerala definitely, is living up to this prospect.

Power interruptions

In Palghat, during the week-end, my investor-friend was my home guest and we had no supply of water during the entire day and part of the night. Similarly, there were at least five or six long, unscheduled interruptions in power supply, both during day and night — many of them lasting over one hour. The voltage was so low as to damage all electrical equipment.

As a business manager, I wonder how the water and electricity boards not only pay wages to their employees but also manage a periodical rise in salaries when their meters are not ticking. An enquiry is worth making into this aspect of the Kerala government's “non-sovereign functions”.

Attracting FDI

Kerala has not produced even one extra wattage of power during the last ten years. To the contrary, the State has connected over a million new households and commercial establishments to power supply. How many know that Kerala has over 40 rivers emptying their waters into the Arabian Sea?

Yet, it has perennial water shortage. How many know that the roads have dangerous potholes and that a major portion of foodgrains, fruits and vegetables comes from outside the State, thanks to the slapdash urbanisation.

I want to ask the Chief Minister, who is both sincere and honest, why this is happening and what he intends to do about it.

I am sure Mr Oommen Chandy would need to answer similar questions when he goes out again, pursuing investments for Kerala.

Time is running out for Kerala and, unless major steps are initiated in these areas, it is going to be very, very difficult to maintain even the existing poor standards.

And if cleanliness is indeed next to godliness, Kerala, at least in the European perception, is definitely is not God's plan.

(The author is former Europe Director, CII. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in).

(This article was published on July 10, 2011)
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