Wednesday, July 9, 2014

10 Roles Kerala Can Play in Modi’s India Plans

Even as Kerala braces for an unfriendly Union Budget tomorrow, after the shocking sidelining of the state in the Railway Budget, KSR Menon, veteran journalist and former PTI correspondent in Dubai,  enumerates 10 roles Kerala can play in Modi’s grand development plans despite not sending a single BJP MP to parliament.

Narendra Modi has become the Prime Minister of India and it looks like he is here for the long haul. Having won absolute majority in the recent Lok Sabha elections on largely his own steam, he has an advantage and also a huge responsibility. He will not have to depend on any other party and thus make compromises as part of the so called ‘coalition dharma’. On the other hand, the expectations of people have been raised and Modi has to perform – and perform very well – or he stands the risk of losing power after the first term.

Kerala is the only major state that did not send a single BJP member to parliament. The ruling Congress party has been reduced to less than 50 seats at the centre which may cost them the position of the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha. The CPM, which split the seats with the Congress in Kerala, fared much worse, its tally dropping to less than 10 and they may lose the status of a national party.

Modi seems to have big plans for India. Looking at his track record, one can reasonably assume that he will take the country forward at least in three areas where Gujarat has done exceedingly well. Gujarat, once a power-short state, is now selling power big time. It has excellent transport infrastructure and has done well in promoting tourism. These are also critical areas for Kerala as for other states. 

There are at least ten areas where Kerala could be critical for Modi’s development plans.

1. Kerala can play a key role in Modi’s plans to make India an economic superpower.  Kerala can be to Asia what Dubai is to the Middle East or Singapore to the Far East, a major export and re-export centre for the world. Kerala’s location is ideally suited to be Asia’s most important hub for aviation and shipping, far exceeding the advantages of Dubai or Singapore. Kerala could be a hub for the Far East, the Middle East, all of Africa and South Asia including the Indian subcontinent. If Kerala can sell this idea to New Delhi, the Kerala airports will be one of the busiest international aviation hubs in the world. It can also give a fillip to expansion of development of ports like Kochi and Vizhinjam. 

2. Modi believes, and rightly so, in a militarily strong India. Only a militarily strong India can ensure an economically strong India. As India builds blue water navy, Kerala can be its nodal point. More ports can be developed in Kerala, say in Aalappuzha, for Indian Navy which will be called upon to secure our porous coastline to prevent incidents like the Mumbai terror attack, to protect our fishermen from adventurous foreign navies and also to fight piracy in the high seas. Kerala can also be a port of call for say, the US and other warships for bunkering and repairs which could be a major source of income in the long run.

3. One of the favourite ideas of Modi has been to conquer the world through the power of teaching. He has already opened a teachers’ university which will train and export qualified Indian teachers. This will help the less developed countries to grow and earn us immense goodwill; it can also result in strong partnerships and bonding with the developed countries, where academics play an important role in governance. Kerala has for many decades provided teachers to schools and universities in Africa and also to some extent in the Middle East where they cater mainly to the NRIs. Keralites also hold positions of eminence in the universities in the West. But so far this has been achieved with little state help and the educated young men and women of Kerala can immensely benefit by being part of Modi’s scheme.

4. Tourism is another area where Modi has focused his attention. Kerala, like Lebanon, has the hills, the plains and the beaches. Besides, Kerala also has many backwaters and some 45 rivers, all of which have been laid waste by poor governance. The beaches are rendered unusable by walls of boulders erected to protect the coastal areas from erosion. Had these walls been differently laid, creating endless coves for tourists, this ribbon of a state would have been miles and miles of a tourist paradise. Nature’s bounty which could fetch millions of dollars in tourism revenue has been left to suffer a slow death. If corrective measures are taken, as Modi has done on the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, Kerala could lead in tourist arrivals both domestic and foreign. Kerala could be a hub for tourism, including cruises, and all the other states could benefit from it. Interestingly, India’s share today is a dismal 0.64 per cent in world’s tourist arrivals.

5. As Modi belongs to very backward class, he is expected to do more for the uplift of those belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs), scheduled castes and tribes, and also dalits. According to various estimates 30 to 50 per cent of the Indian population is OBCs. It goes without saying that their lot has to be improved for any meaningful development of India at large. Unlike we are given to believe, what this segment of the population needs is opportunity and not just quota, as their DNA is as good as any other. To achieve this, for a beginning, all government schools should be made English medium. Initiatives to this effect have already been taken in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In today’s world English is the language of the powerful and well to do. More such schools should be opened in all backward areas. The NDA government has already declared that the allocation for education is being raised. Kerala should approach the centre with well thought out proposals in this regard.

6. Modi has already announced programs for cleansing the Ganga. In fact such cleansing programs should be announced for all water bodies in India. This is a very critical area for Kerala and the state should present well worked out projects to the Centre to restore our rivers, lakes and beaches. Kerala’s rivers, which have been the lifeline for state for hundreds of years, have become death-traps for youth because of unfettered sand mining and the major rivers have thick vegetation right in the center of the riverbed. The rivers are highly polluted and the fish wealth is drastically shrinking. The water is still used for drinking and bathing by the poorer sections of the society and this, along with lack of waste management on land, has created a severely sick society unable to meet the high medical costs. As Kerala needs to move from a curative health care system to a preventive regimen, it should also switch to CNG run vehicles on a large scale and announce tax free regime for electric buses, cars and scooters to reduce air pollution. The state can demand help from the Centre in these areas. The gas terminal in Kochi would come handy in this respect.

7. It is surprising that no trade bodies, employee organizations and NRI associations have welcomed the BJP move to abolish direct taxes. The current complicated and illogical taxation system criminalizes the society. Kerala should openly welcome the move to tax only the very rich. Tax can be collected unobtrusively and indirectly as in the Gulf States. Easy tax system is a great mover of economy.

8. Kerala can count on Modi for making it power surplus. It is unimaginable that a state that gets heavy monsoon showers is short of power. Power is an area of expertise for Modi and the state will have to work with him to solve its power problem and also its inefficient management of power.

9. Gujarat has conceived and executed mega projects like the largest solar farm in Asia. Such experiments can be replicated in the urban sector in Kerala. If we had better roads, the distance from Ernakulam to Trivandrum could be covered easily in just two hours. Kerala should ask to be included in the quadrilateral highway project. Since railways in South India is a top revenue earner, Kerala can get more and better trains.

10. Kerala can help the Centre in privatizing (the other option is shutting down) Air India which is losing Rs 5 crores daily. Airline is a symbol of national prestige or national shame depending upon how it is run. Since Kerala has a strong NRI segment, they can offer suggestions and even financial participation for any meaningful recovery plans for Air India. Remember, the Maharajah was one of the most recognized logos in aviation until a few years ago.

It remains to be seen whether the state government will have a positive approach to the BJP government at the centre to be part of Modi’s development initiatives. And after the railway budget, which was disastrous for Kerala, it remains to be seen whether Modi government will have a positive approach towards a state that didn't elect any BJP candidates. The only saving grace in this Centre-State relationship has been how Oommen Chandy and Sushma Swaraj recently worked together to bring Keralite nurses safely back from Iraq. It is for the business bodies, the intellectuals and other community organizations to impress upon Modi that Kerala should be given top billing in his priority list. Modi may be favorably inclined to do that as it may also help the BJP open its account in the next assembly elections.

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