New on my other blogs

"Gandhi is dead, Who is now Mahatmaji?"
Solar scam reveals decadent polity and sociery
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen


27 July, 2007

Haneef is a free man!

Indian doctor, Mohammed Haneef, arrested in Australia on a charge of aiding terrorism, is free after 25 days -- thanks to the support human rights defenders in that country extended to him.

The Australian police picked up the doctor apparently after receiving a report from Britain that he had supplied a SIM card to the prime suspect in the Glasgow suicide bomb attack. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International deplored the action. As the Australian police tried to press the charge, many fair-minded people in the country raised their voice against his prosecution on a flimsy ground. Some of them demonstrated wearing placards bearing the legend: "I have given my SIM card. Arrest me!"

Eventually the Australian authorities admitted they had erred, and said there would be an investigation to find out how the mistake occurred.

The Government of India did not act promptly to protect the interests of Dr. Haneef, an Indian citizen. Indian human rights organizations, too, did precious little. The young man's Muslim name was apparently all that the Sangh Parivar needed to believe that he was a terrorist.

I shudder to think what Dr. Haneef's fate would have been if he were in Gujarat, and not Australia when the Glasgow bombing took place.

The Haneef case reminds us of the pitfalls of accepting terrorist labels unquestioningly. Even those accused of being terrorists have human rights: their rights include the rights to fair investigation and fair trial.

12 July, 2007

Television in Kerala’s life

The print media made its own contribution to the social advance that earned for Kerala quality-of-life indices comparable to those of the developed nations of the world. This social progress, arguably, was possible even without the help of the media. It is, however, doubtful if the Munnar operation, which held the State in thrall for a while and raised high hopes of a break with the past, would have been possible without the presence of the electronic media.

Kerala witnessed a proliferation of the media in the 20th century. The arrival of television intensified competition. Now there is vigorous competition not only between the print media and the electronic media but also within these media systems. In theory, competition benefits the consumer by improving quality and lowering prices. This theory does not hold good in the case of the media, at least in Kerala. Malayalam newspapers are among the costliest in the country. Since all Malayalam channels are free on air, there is no question of television viewers benefiting from price cut. Media leaders believe that flippant, low-quality programs attract more readers and viewers than serious, high-quality programs. Thus the theory of competition collapses completely.

The first private satellite channel in Malayalam, Asianet, set out with the proclaimed objective of combining information and entertainment. Although severely handicapped by shortage of capital, it was able to command the services of well-known personalities from the fields of cinema, theatre and literature. It evolved a program mix that took into account Kerala’s unique cultural milieu, enabling viewers to relate television to good cinema, good theatre and good literature. Serials were not a major item on its schedule.

Surya, the second channel, was a part of the Sun network of Tamil Nadu. Instead of replicating the Sun format, which had been a success in Tamil, Surya made its appearance with clones of all Asianet programs except one. (The exception was a media watch program, presented by Zacharia and this writer.) Bracing up to face the competitor from Tamil country, Asianet went in for a mega serial. It also decided to launch a Tamil channel.

Asianet’s strategy misfired. Its Tamil channel did not succeed. While the Sun network came to Kerala ready to compete with Asianet on terms set by it, Asianet altered the terms of competition to Surya’s advantage. The information component steadily lost ground to the entertainment component. The quality of the programs declined continuously until both channels ended up as purveyors of low-brow entertainment. Private channels that came up subsequently stayed within the Asianet-Surya framework. Doordarshan, too, found it necessary to come to terms with it. Amrita TV, after a feeble attempt to break out of it, limited its innovative skills to providing better quality entertainment within the established framework.

Malayalam satellite television, in its short history, has exposed the artistic and intellectual limitations of its leadership. When viewers grew weary of mega serials, which were stretched beyond reasonable limits merely because sponsors were available, the channels went in for still cheaper programs to bring back the deserters. They now rely heavily on imitations. Very often even the names of programs are borrowed. As in the case of early cinema, English originals generally reach Malayalam through Hindi and Tamil. The latest examples of this trend are the so-called reality shows.

01 July, 2007

KERALA: from poverty to affluence

In 60 years of freedom, Kerala galloped from the depth of poverty to the height of affluence. Although all States developed during this period, Kerala’s achievements deserve special attention. For, to begin with, in per capita income it stood below the national average. Today it is competing with Punjab for the first rank in both per capita income and per capita expenditure. Punjab prospered doing farming and running industries. Kerala has become rich, destroying agriculture and neglecting industries.
The children of those who had queued up before ration shops to buy rotten rice are today buying costly rice from the open market. Progeny of those who had sought admission in charitable government hospitals with diseases associated with poverty are now entering private five-star hospitals with ailments of the rich. Where petty thieves remained under the cover of darkness, mafias are operating in broad daylight.

It was political changes that first made Kerala the centre of attraction. Cochin and Travancore conducted elections on the basis of universal adult suffrage even before the Constitution of India was framed. Later Kerala put the Communist Party in power through the ballot box. That revealed the extent of our democracy. When political rivals joined hands with casteist and religious forces and ousted the Communist government, the limits of our democracy became clear. The Communists, who realized the possibilities of bourgeois democracy, resolutely stuck to the parliamentary path.

When parties that split came together to share power, the character of politics changed. After they shifted back and forth many times, two stable fronts came into existence. Parties that specialized in land grab and sale of schools and colleges sprang up on both sides. And then V. S. Achuthanandan happened. He won the first Battle of Munnar. In the second Battle of Munnar he suffered a setback. The outcome of the third Battle of Munnar is still awaited.

The Communist government under E. M. S. Namboodiripad took the first steps in agrarian reform. When the process was completed under another regime, the paddy-field did not go to the larks that harvested them. It went to the tenant who had taken it on lease from the landlord. His children who had acquired education and all that goes with it were not interested in the field. They abandoned paddy. Plantains, rubber and vanilla came up.

Businessmen could not modernize industries like coir, handloom and cashew that had developed before Independence. Trade unions under the control of political parties felled them. New industries did not come up. By the time the Centre, after much pressuring, set up a shipyard, the shipbuilding industry was in crisis worldwide. The rayon factory that Birla started in response to E.M.S.’s appeal earned huge profits for the industrialist, but Kerala suffered huge losses in terms of destruction of forests and pollution of the environment. In the meantime, some small-scale entrepreneurs succeeded with their products in the national market. Service industries also made their appearance. And the Smart City pact with Dubai now holds out the promise of a new era.

The big leap by Kerala’s economy was made possible neither by the State government nor by private industrialists, but by foreign smugglers who imported gold bars from London into Dubai and sent them to our coast in launches. Adventurous young men who scrambled on to their boats found work in the Gulf region. The oil-rich Gulf States made Kerala their main recruitment centre. The Gulf became the Malayalees’ dreamland. There are people who wonder how the Malayalee who is lazy at home became the foreign employer’s favourite. The answer is simple. He serves the Arab with the same loyalty that his grandfather had for the landlord and his father had for the party.

It was the social reform movements that placed before Kerala the ideal of a society based on equality and fraternity. With the advent of democracy, the responsibility of realizing that goal devolved on the political parties. Finding that to win and retain power they needed the supported vested interests, they abandoned this goal. To the extent that Gulf migration benefited the victims of the social system to a comparatively greater extent than the rest, the influx of foreign funds reduced inequalities somewhat. That phase, however, passed quickly. Now there has arisen a row of very affluent people, consisting of some who have made money through legitimate means and many who have accumulated wealth through illegitimate means. This has opened new chapters of inequality.

Kerala’s Gulf connection is the gift of globalization. Not realizing this, many are crying hoarse against globalization. Since they lack the strength to halt the process, Kerala, which depends upon foreign money, need not fear them. But an economy that is not based on domestic production is a soap bubble that can burst any time. Keralites do not seem to be bothered even about that. They remain optimistic about some new door opening in the event of closure of the Gulf door. Who knows, that may be the door to the moon itself! Meanwhile, they face some problems on their own soil. The Malayalee is buying up all that money can buy. To satisfy his thirst, jewelleries and luxury stores have come up all over the place. The one who spends money is not the one who earns it through the sweat of his brow. This situation gives a new dimension to Kerala's consumerist culture. Through deals of various kinds, Gulf money flows all over the State. For those who remain beyond the channels through which it flows, suicide is the only option.

What will Kerala be like in the next 60 years? Let us remember that we did not know in 1947 that this is where we will be today. One thing can be said about the future, though. If things go on as at present, by 2067 there will be one long urban agglomerate stretching from Kasergode to Kaliyikkavila on the Kerala coast. Already Kerala is where the most automobiles are sold in India. That urban agglomerate may be where the most automobiles are sold in the world. The language of that region may not be Malayalam. It may be a hybrid language popularized by television presenters.

What if the soap bubble bursts? Let us not entertain unpleasant thoughts on this pleasant occasion.
This is a rough English rendering of an article which has appeared in the special issue brought out by India Today (Malayalam) on June 27, 2007 to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s independence.