We will promote inclusive growth (Sunday Guardian)
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy spoke to Madhav Nalapat in Thiruvananthapuram about his vision for his state.
MADHAV NALAPAT Thiruvananthapuram | 15th Apr
My vision for Kerala is to see it becomes one of the most economically developed states in the region: Oommen Chandy
Q: You have been in politics for nearly half a century, and a legislator for more than 40 years. In what way has your vision for Kerala evolved during this time? What kind of society would you like to see Kerala develop into?
A: Over the last 50 years, governments in Kerala have introduced a series of reforms in terms of public service delivery, local governance and development that enabled Kerala to achieve high levels of human development, in fact the highest in India. Kerala has one of the highest density and penetration of print and visual media in India. This has also resulted in more empowered and politically active citizens (the percentage of voting in Kerala has been one of the highest in the world). Given the political and social empowerment of people and vibrant and competitive party politics, there has been a consistent pattern of different alliances ruling the state every five years. And in the recent past there has been no political party or a political alliance that governed Kerala more than one electoral term.
This has also led to the emergence of a system of governance that is responsive and capable of formulating policies and programmes, especially in the social sectors including education and health. Kerala Development has been possible as an outcome of varied institutional innovations, especially in the sphere of governance, along with social innovations as manifested in the various social reform movements. Kerala Development, in a sense, has been characterised by local initiatives, capacity and proactive leadership. This is in contrast to the development experience of many of today's developed world, wherein technological innovations have been shown as the key contributor in development.
My vision for Kerala, which has evolved over the last several decades of constant contact with the people of Kerala and learnings from all sections of society, is to see a Kerala that becomes one of the most economically developed states in the region through a model that ensures development and care for all. We will need to achieve this without breaking the delicate fabric of social security and cohesiveness that we have at present. I would also like to see consensus in all areas of development.
Q: Kerala has shown that a strong attachment to religion can coexist with secularism. How do you explain this seeming paradox? How have religious bodies in Kerala managed to avoid the squabbles with others that are so common elsewhere? What makes Kerala unique?
A: I do not think there is any paradox in religion and secularism going together. In fact, Kerala is the champion of secularism. There have been very rare communal clashes in the history of the state. Kerala is different from other states because all the major religions (Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) have grown together and worked in a secular environment. In Kerala, all persons from all religions are seen in various positions of power, politics, bureaucracy, business and social sector. We also have educational institutions set up by various religious institutions where the majority of teachers and students may be from other religions.
Kerala has become a model state for growing without ignoring anyone or favouring anyone. We should also remember that the oldest mosque in India, the oldest church and the oldest synagogue are all in Kerala. For centuries, we have welcomed people from around the world and have respected other religions. Gandhiji's influence still continues in Kerala as everywhere else. The Gandhian model is deeply religious and has genuine respect for all other religions.
Q: How do you explain the immense strides that Kerala has made in social indicators over the years? Why has it done so much better even than its neighbours? What needs to be done to continue the good work?
A: As I had mentioned earlier, the impact of social reform movements and responsible political leadership have had a major impact on our model of development. I would give credit to the people of Kerala for this. Our focus on the education of women and empowerment of women has had a major impact on our health and other social development indices. For centuries we have had contacts with the rest of the world and the aspirations of our people have been high. Backed by a large number of skilled and semi-skilled workforce, Kerala witnessed large scale national and international level migrations in the 1960s and '70s, resulting in a substantial increase in the inflow of remittances. The massive inflow of remittances along with the aspiration of our people was manifested in the inflow of "ideas and objects". These factors have emerged as driving forces of the Kerala economy, contributing to employment opportunities in the service sector and poverty reduction.
To bring overall gender justice, we have introduced a new programme, NIRBHAYA, to curb the exploitation of women and children.
Q: In what way can administration be brought closer to the people? Has this happened in Kerala? What are the examples? What has been your experience?
A: Since Kerala Development has primarily been an outcome of institutional innovations including those in governance and in the social sector, addressing the deficits and bringing about further economic and social transformation calls for harnessing technological innovations, especially in the sphere of ICT.
Recently, the Government of Kerala has undertaken concerted efforts to strengthen people's access to governance. In order to achieve our objectives, we have to move fast. It was in this context my government conducted mass contact programmes in all districts and I personally listened to the grievances of the people, ensuring that the poor and the marginalised get access to government. The unprecedented success of this programme shows a new possibility of effective grievance redressal at the grassroots level.
The e-governance initiatives to ensure transparency of the Chief Minister's Office and 24X7 call centre along with the whistle blower facility to alert the government on corrupt practices are some of the other innovative efforts introduced recently by harnessing information technology. Though it is too early to see how such initiatives can influence our systems, it deserves some special attention as innovations in governance for inclusive development.
Q: What has been the role of social, cultural and religious organisations in promoting literacy and health? Why has this been so much more visible in Kerala than in other states?
A: The role of social, cultural and religious organisations in the promotion of education and health sectors is clearly visible to all. In fact, they pioneered and still play a major role in these sectors. There is a competition among communities to excel. People have realised that good education is essential for the success and development of their families. One of the reasons why this has been more visible in Kerala than in other parts of the country is that we have always had a consensus among all the stake holders with regard to the need for education.
Q: Why does Kerala lag behind Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the Information Technology sector? How can Kerala reach the top in this sector?
A: It is a little known fact that India's first technology park for software companies was started in Trivandrum even before India opened up its economy. The Trivandrum Technopark can still be considered as one of the best technology parks in the country. Most of India's top players in the IT field and some global leaders operate from Kerala today. Even though our performance in the area of attracting investments in the IT field is not at the desired level, still our achievements in bridging the divide have been lauded across the world. Akshaya was a major programme launched by the previous UDF government with the objective of attaining total IT literacy. Today, Akshaya centres operate all over the state and they have become IT service delivery arms in rural as well as urban areas. Over the last one year we have been taking several steps to attract investments in the IT sector, and major players including TCS and Infosys have decided to set up their own campuses in Trivandrum. Oracle has already set up a facility centre, which we are sure they will expand further.
Q: How has communal harmony been maintained in Kerala? What are the risks that this record may get affected by negative developments? What should be done to ensure continued communal peace?
A: Kerala is very proud of its excellent track record in communal harmony. As I said earlier, this has been maintained because of the genuine respect each community has for the other. All communities share the benefits of Kerala's economic and social growth and they are participants in the political process. The coalition system of government has also ensured that no single group has a monopoly in the formulation of policies. When every community feels that they have a part and a very important stake in maintaining peace and harmony of the state, it is not difficult to achieve what we have done. In my opinion, we should not do anything to disturb this balance. I am aware of the risks that this communal harmony faces from some misguided elements. However, the mainstream organisations representing all these communities do not support such extreme elements and that is our best safeguard against them. We have to ensure that all the communities are able to get their reasonable demands and aspirations fulfilled through normal political channels, so that the fringe elements do not gather support.
Q: What are the main characteristics of Kerala? What makes the state unique?
A: Kerala is unique in its geography, climate and, of course, people. Kerala is a delightful strip of land lying on the south-western tip of the Indian peninsula with the Arabian Sea in the west, the Western Ghats towering 500-2,700 m in the east and networked by 44 rivers and canals. Vast stretches of green pastures, coconut palm groves, paddy fields, waterfalls, backwaters, virgin beaches, lush green forests, huge mountains and hill rocks make Kerala a real "God's Own Country".
People can work throughout the year because of the favourable climate conditions. The people of Kerala are unique in their receptiveness to ideas, willingness to experiment, spirit of scientific enquiry and almost ingrained antipathy towards all forces of dictatorial impositions, a deep sense of pride in their own culture and a high degree of competitiveness — a desire to do better than the rest.
Q: Is it time to re-model the education system in Kerala from "quantity" to "quality"? Why have educational standards in Kerala not kept pace with potential? Can Kerala become an international education hub?
A: I fully agree with you on this matter. We need to improve our quality of higher education. While we rank first in primary education, the standards of our higher education are much lower that even less-advanced states. This is one of the topmost priorities of my government. The reason why Kerala's higher education standards have not kept up with the rest is the resource crunch faced by the government in the past along with some opposition from political parties. Since a large quantity of our resources was spent on primary health and education, higher education took a backseat. Now the topmost priority of our government is to fill this gap and make Kerala the first in standards of higher education.
Q: What is the status of women in Kerala, and what are the ways in which gender justice is being achieved? Is it a question of better laws or better enforcement? How can the public get conscientised to ensure that justice becomes the priority of all, rather than just a few?
A: The status of women in Kerala has always been a matter of pride for us and it is the only state having the sex ratio in their favour. The high number of women in Kerala is proof of the gender justice achieved by the state. It is true to some extent that women in India, including Kerala, have to bear a disproportionately higher burden in society. To bring overall gender justice, we have introduced a new programme, NIRBHAYA, to curb the exploitation of women and children. It is with the help of Mallika Sarabhai, Sunitha Krishnan, Sugathakumari, etc., that we have drafted a policy on it. We are also starting a gender park in Kozhikode.
Q: Since the 1970s, the state has been dependent on migration, especially to the GCC countries. Is there any plan to ensure work for the millions there, in case there is a crisis that necessitates their return?
A: It is true that migration, especially to the Gulf countries has provided a boost to Kerala's economy. We are aware of the fact that continued dependence on remittances cannot be a very desirable affair. We have seen two Gulf wars, which caused the return of a large number of migrants to the state. We want Kerala economy to grow fast enough to create jobs for all within the state and also to absorb those who want to come back. In the recent past, we have achieved faster economic growth. This has attracted migrant labour from other states. We would like the trend of creating jobs to continue and make it attractive for more and more white-collar workers to work in the state itself.
Q: What is your view on Centre-State relations? Also, should there be more devolution of money and powers to lower-level units, such as the district and panchayat? What are your plans in this regard?
A: We have an excellent relationship with the Union government. I believe that our Constitution has served us well in maintaining the balance between the Centre and the State. We are very thankful to the Union Government for making huge investments and granting many institutions in our state.
We would be happy to get more money and financial power and are in favour of further decentralization. We have been raising these issues in our meetings with the Centre. The Centre is quite receptive to our ideas and has been moulding these policies so that the states can benefit. One of our perpetual regrets has been the uniformity of specifications in the Centre's policies for devolution of its financial resources. Such uniform specifications across states under various stages of development have worked to the disadvantage of a state like Kerala. Our problems are not the same as those faced, perhaps, by Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.
Q: What can be done to give the poor better access to healthcare and education? What are the constraints in this regard? Is there a need for different political parties to work together in this effort?
A: Healthcare and quality higher education are our topmost priorities. We want universal healthcare. I have already introduced various schemes to ensure that all poor persons in the state have access to quality healthcare. The government is in the process of extending these healthcare facilities further to include tertiary healthcare. The biggest constraint in achieving this is the shortage of financial resources. We are working on various public-private-partnership models to overcome these constraints. We would also request the Centre to implement the Right-to-Health for all.
Q: Kerala has emerged as a leading international tourism destination. How can this success be added to? What are your plans?
A: Kerala has already become an international brand in tourism. Now we have to add to the facilities available to tourists. Our plans are to make viable investments in the tourism sector in the state. We are also mindful of the impact on ecology that unbridled tourism may have. We want to preserve the natural beauty of the state and have tourism activities within the limits of ecological sustainability. We have diversified our tourism package to include health tourism, pilgrim tourism, culture tourism, etc. We also have responsible tourism, whereby local people are also brought into the stream. We also have plans to ensure cleanliness to all our lakes like Vembanadu, Ashtamudi. This will not only ensure the maintenance of a proper tourism infrastructure, but will also ensure that we have the ecological balance.
Q: High technology is the wave of the future. In the 1970s, Kerala innovated in electronics and modern healthcare through KELTRON and Sri Chitra Medical Centre. How can a second wave of hi-tech excellence be created? What can be done to give 21st century governance to the state?
A: I agree that innovation is the key to achieving faster growth. We have launched an all out offensive to incubate innovations wherever possible. There are areas where Kerala holds some intrinsic advantages. IT, health, tourism, biotechnology and nanotechnology, inland and costal navigation are some of the sectors where Kerala can achieve faster and higher dividends. We are concentrating our efforts to create infrastructure for more investments and research in these sectors. We started our efforts based on the directions of the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam about six years back. Now I have created another think-tank under Sam Pitroda, who has set in motion a series of activities that will lead to such a second wave of hi-tech excellence.
Q: What is the importance of the Kerala Example? Can other states replicate this success? What kind of an India do you visualize in the 21st century?
A: As you know, all my efforts throughout my political career have been concentrated on Kerala. Hence, I would not like to venture upon what other states can replicate. If anything at all, I think Kerala stands tall in preserving secularism and social justice.
Yes, Kerala being a part of India is not insulated from what happens outside the state. A faster economic growth in the rest of the country certainly has its spinoffs. Kerala cannot be an island and is dependent on the rest of the country for many of its resources. I visualise a robust and inclusive all-round growth for India, which can make Kerala a healthy growing part of a fast growing India.