Thursday, May 25, 2017

Exclusive Interview with Kadakampally Surendran, Tourism Minister, Kerala

Kadakampally Surendran assumed the helm of affairs at Kerala Tourism, when it was already hit by the issue of alcohol ban by the previous government. A few months into his job, more was to follow as the Central Government unleashed its controversial demonetization program that took the lakhs of Kerala bound overseas tourists by surprise. Making matters worse was the fact that another Ministry that Surendran heads, Co-operation, especially its Cooperative Banks taking massive impact from the cash crunch. 

But under Surendran’s able guidance, both the Tourism and Cooperation Ministries have weathered the storms, and are getting back to normal. Challenges continue to arise randomly as the recent Supreme Court order banning bar hotels on all highways have further affected the prospects of the high-value international MICE tourism in the state. Also adding to Brand Kerala’s woes is the new annual cleanliness index where Kerala cities fared poorly due to a technical issue. However, Surendran epitomizes the new generation of younger leaders in CPI(M) who won’t give up without a fight. 

Under his leadership, the Tourism Ministry and Department are consolidating the strengths of Brand Kerala in international tourism circuits. These initiatives include a brand new Tourism Policy hinging on Responsible Tourism and creation of basic infrastructure. Hitherto unattended but breathtaking Malabar or North Kerala is getting its well deserved attention as a cluster of high potential tourism magnets. Shedding LDF’s previous aversion to private investments, Surendran is spearheading efforts to facilitate PPP projects and even private investments in public infrastructure. Around 100 new projects have been given permission, while the government is focusing its energies also on growing pilgrim circuits, forest circuits, adventure tourism, river tourism, lake tourism etc. At the heart of his philosophy is that tourism should ultimately benefit the local populations.

Seasonal Magazine recently met Kadakampally Surendran, Kerala’s Minister for Tourism, Co-operation, & Devasom, for this exclusive interview:

When the Government completes its first year, what would you consider the main achievements of the Tourism Ministry?

We have created several new projects during this past year, in the tourism sector. Special focus has been given to developing the Malabar or North Kerala region. This is in synergy with the upcoming commissioning of the Kannur International Airport. A new River Tourism project costing Rs.300 crore has been given permission. The Thalassery Heritage project which was started by the previous LDF Government, but which went stagnant during the UDF rule, has been revived. This project will benefit the whole of North Malabar. Some of the great beaches in Malabar like Muzhappilangadu and Dharmadom have been allowed expansion plans, including a ropeway. All these projects will increase the inflow of tourists into Malabar by tenfold or more in the long run. Currently, not even 1% of tourists visiting Kerala are visiting the Malabar region. Only pilgrim tourists come there to visit some renowned temples. The potential of Malabar is immense especially with possibilities like River Tourism.

What about other regions of Kerala like Central and Southern Districts?

All districts are getting optimum focus. The first stage of Muziris Heritage Project is over and is a reasonable success despite some deficiencies that the Government will address soon. The second stage of this project has been started now. A similar heritage project has been given permission in Alleppey. An IAS officer is being appointed as its Special Officer. A new Ashtamudi Lake Project is being pursued. Since there is a dearth of International Convention Centres in the southern districts, the proposal for Aakkulam International Convention Centre has been revived. Its foundation stone was laid during Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s tenure, in tie-up with Raheja Group. But nothing happened during the past 5 years of UDF, and the re-negotiation has now made fruitful progress. Altogether, around 100 new tourism projects have been given permission all over the state.

You had recently mooted a project for a new forest eco-tourism circuit? What are its specifics?

Forest based eco-tourism is mainly to promote adventure tourism in the state which attracts young travelers from all over India and abroad. But it can be attempted successfully only with the help of Forest Department. This is what is being attempted now. Tourism department will spend and Forest Department will build the basic infrastructure according to their norms. As a first stage of this program, existing adventure tourism infrastructure in destinations like Ponmudi and Thenmala would be expanded and modernized.

Is the Government open to the PPP model?

Definitely. We will consider PPP on a case-by-case manner. The upcoming Jatayu Para project is a recent example. We are spending Rs.50 crore for this project, and providing all basic infrastructure and facilities like excellent road connectivity, electricity, ropeway etc. This project is likely to be opened for visitors this September.

Is the Government planning to announce a new Tourism Policy?

We are working on it, and while still not launched, I can share you the broad themes. The new policy will focus on responsible tourism and the basic infrastructure development. Our people should benefit from tourist inflow, the ecology and heritage should be protected, and the government will take the lead in providing basic infrastructure.

How far has the ban on alcoholic beverages affected tourist inflows?

The scarcity of alcohol has seriously affected some segments of tourist inflows, especially in the MICE segment. We have lost out many international meetings and conventions. Even an international convention of top academics and professors we couldn’t host due to this issue. Some people foolishly think that they come here to booze. Rather, a social drink in the evening after meetings is a norm across the Western world. Instead, if our rules and regulations say that even wine and beer should stop by 10 PM, and by if you don’t stop by 11 PM you would be arrested, won’t it scare away the tourists? That is what has happened unfortunately. Now, we are trying to get permission for alcoholic beverages to at least tourists staying in the better hotels.

Did demonetization affect Kerala Tourism?

It affected because the cash crunch happened during the peak tourism season of November and December. There were incidents of tourists getting stranded without Indian currency, and this news got spread in the international tourism circuit.

Religious circuits are quite popular in the state. What are your plans to augment the inflows?

Four major projects are being planned. First is the development and modernization of infrastructure and facilities in the temple township of Guruvayoor. We had submitted a Rs.100 crore proposal for the same to Centre, but they have trimmed it and made it a Rs.46 crore one. This plan will also include installation of modern monitoring systems like cameras for added security. Similar projects are being created for Sabarimala and Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. A project to develop the Malayatoor-Kalady pilgrim circuit at a cost of Rs.300 crore has also been submitted to the Central Government, in discussion with the region’s MP.

How do you view Kerala Cities falling sharply in the Cleanliness Index by the Central Government?

It is a technical issue, as this year the Central Government made their decision based on whether a large waste management project in available in a city. Unfortunately, after some of our large waste management plans were shut down due to local resistance, Kerala was resorting to decentralized waste management including managing waste at source. This is the more holistic approach and the better option suitable for a state like Kerala with high population density. We feel that Central Government used these norms to tarnish Kerala and the LDF Government. But all Keralites and the tourists know the ground situation. They travel all over India and know which are its big cities that stink. You yourself travel, and you can judge. 

How are you leveraging the new KIIFB funding for your projects?

Many of our projects are KIIFB funded. These include some beach modernizations like at Chethy in Alappuzha. Then there is the Sargalaya at Iringal that will benefit regions like Vadakara and Payyoli. It is a Rs.81 crore project funded by KIIFB. Also some dam modifications like at Kanjirappuzha and Thenmala are through this new fund route. We have given permission for all these projects.

What are the new innovations being planned by Tourism Ministry?

A key innovation being planned is accessibility to differently abled visitors. No new project that is not friendly to the differently abled will be given permission. A new arrangement of Destination Monotoring Committees are being set up, chaired by the region’s MLA and having all concerned officers. Similarly, a new Technical Sanctioning Committee has been formed that will make various technical clearances including environmental clearance faster. We have also launched a new Mission for Responsible Tourism.

How far was tourism growth affected during the past year?

There was no decline in absolute number of tourists. But the growth rate was affected. It was not up to expectations, especially considering the huge efforts the tourism department and private players had put in. More than footfalls, growth in value too was affected as high value products like MICE got hit.

How far will the new Kerala Bank formed by amalgamation of Cooperative Banks be practically useful?

The Kerala public now feels that it is essential, especially after the demonetization issue and the merger of SBT into SBI which has raised the user charges. The Expert Committee Report for the formation of Kerala Bank has already been received and Special Officer approved. We hope to make it a reality within the next 21 months. It will not only help Keralites due to its proposed low charges, but the development of Kerala as a whole.

Apart from Kerala Bank, what are the initiatives under the Cooperation Ministry?

During the last year, the cooperative banks in Kerala were hit massively by the Central Government’s demonetization drive. The very fact that we have survived this onslaught, and come out unscathed has been the greatest achievement. I heard recently from some top private sources that at RBI headquarters they are studying how Kerala cooperatives could survive this issue. We not only survived but grew our deposit base from Rs.1.5 lakh crore to Rs.1.75 lakh crore. A new software is being planned for taking banking services beyond core banking. We have also taken up a major fight with corrupt forces in the cooperative sector. Corrupt officers have been identified and sidelined from responsible posts. Even a few cooperative banks following corruption have been pulled up and reined in. The government won’t keep a shut eye towards corrupt practices in the cooperative sector. Profitable cooperative societies that are more than 1000 in number have been advised to contribute more to society. Recently a project for gifting 1000 LP & UP schools in the state with Smart Classrooms have been taken by these societies. They are also contributing to tourism initiatives like beach beautifications.

How far has your plans in the Devasom Ministry been fruitful?

There are 5 Devasom Boards in Kerala, and most of them are doing rampant corruption. There are numerous complaints against them. For the past one year, we have started a big war against this corruption. A new Devasom Recruitment Board has been set up, just like PSC. I would say some progress has been made, and more will follow.

What is your prime objective for the tourism ministry for the full term of this government?

The number one aim is that tourism should generate at least 5 lakh new job opportunities. Tourism development should benefit Keralites, not the visitors. Especially, our poor people who are the inhabitants of these destinations should benefit economically. We have given greater focus to the upliftment of families providing supplies and services to hotels and resorts, and as a result their incomes are improving.,

Don’t you think the various controversies like the Senkumar affair and Jishnu Prannoy probe should have been better handled?

I don’t agree with that view. We did everything possible. Appointing a DGP is well understood to be a Government prerogative. We only did that and when our move was questioned, two courts agreed with our stand. But Supreme Court didn’t agree unfortunately, and we complied with the apex court order and that is all to it. Regarding Jishnu Prannoy probe, we did everything possible and even attracted the ire of the courts for being hyper-active in pinning down the accused. But some media houses carried out an organized campaign against us and that is behind all these noise. It is an organized attempt to destabilize the LDF government. When people realize the truth, all these will die down.

(Interview by John Antony & Jaison D)

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