In conversation with the Chief Minister who just completed 1,000 days in office
Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala, just completed 1,000 days in office. During this time, his government faced some unprecedented challenges such as the floods in 2018 and the implementation of the Supreme Court order to allow young women to visit the Sabarimala temple. In this interview, Mr. Vijayan speaks of those challenges and his government’s development agenda.
Kerala has witnessed one of the worst floods in its history in 2018. What’s the present status of rebuilding activities? How long it will take to complete the rebuilding process?
The reconstruction bid is really a mammoth and unparalleled task. It will take two-three years to complete the task. During the floods, we gave priority for rescue operations and relief activities. We were able to rescue more than 163,000 people from August 17 to 20. Around 1.5 million were shifted to around 4,000 relief shelters across Kerala. The State government has provided, for 700,000 families, ₹10000 rupees each as immediate financial assistance.
Today, we are mainly focusing on the reconstruction of damaged houses and roads. A total of 13,362 houses were fully damaged in the floods. The first installment of financial assistance has been distributed for the reconstruction of 9,341 houses. The cooperative sector will rebuild 2,000 houses. The government has identified and sought support of sponsors for the construction of rest of the houses.
A total of 1,075 landless families have lost their houses in the flood. We have identified suitable land for them. In the flood 2,42,602 houses were partially damaged. Among these, 1,21,265 beneficiaries have got the first financial installment… I am hopeful that we will complete this process before the end of this financial year.
Did Kerala get necessary help from the Union government for the post-flood rebuilding?
The actual loss incurred by the State in the flood amounts to ₹31,000 crore. This is equal to the total amount of the annual plan of the State. But according to the criteria of the Union government, we are eligible to ask for just ₹5,000 crore. Even this amount is not allocated for us. It also remains that we are not allowed to accept the volunteer help offered by the foreign countries. Our Ministers are denied permission by the Union government from visiting non-resident Malayalees to raise fund for reconstruction. The State government also hasn’t got any written permission from the centre to raise our borrowing capacity.
The implementation of GST and other policies have really curbed the financial autonomy of State governments. The situation also doesn’t not exist to raise our own tax revenue. Today, we need a real rethinking of central-State economic relations in the direction of assuring enough resource allocation and economic assistance for the States. It is only then that our federal structure would work in a manner suiting the interests of both the Central and State governments.
How do you look at the whole Sabarimala agitation? There were allegations that the government failed to consider the sentiments of the devotees while implementing the Supreme Court order…
From the beginning itself the government’s position is that it would uphold the principles of the Constitution and protect the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The State has submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating that whatever may be the court verdict, the government would abide by that and would implement it. So it is the fundamental responsibility of the State government to implement the verdict. Look at the initial response when the verdict came; everybody including the AICC [All India Congress Committee], the Opposition leader [in Kerala], BJP State president and the RSS have all accepted it. Some people even called it a historical judgment. They also said, even before me, that the government has legal obligation to implement it.
Unfortunately, after this, the same people started openly challenging our Constitution. Their ultimate aim was to disturb and malign Kerala’s secular mind and orchestrate a religious riot. Even those who claim themselves as the champions of secularism fell in that trap. But the people of Kerala realised these things and stood firm in the spirit of secularism. People at large kept themselves restrained and resisted the efforts to orchestrate religious riot in the state.
A large number of devotees don’t favour the entry of women in the menstruation age into Sabarimala. Do you think your government has succeeded in communicating your position on this issue with the larger section of society?
Different Left governments holding office before the High Court verdict of 1991 never tried to prevent the entry of menstruating women into Sabarimala. In the same way, Left governments never acted in opposition against the High Court verdict of 1991, which restricted the women entry. The most important thing to remember is that the Communist party was never part of the legal discourse on this issue. It was actually the devotees themselves who approached the honourable judiciary to either ban the women entry or lift the restriction. After the Supreme Court verdict, we have consistently said that it is not the job of our party or the state government to ‘recruit’ women to Sabarimala.
On the other hand, we have taken a clear stand that it is the duty of the State government to give necessary protection for anybody who visit Sabarimala based on the Supreme Court verdict and their individual faith. We have seen massive participation of general public, including women, in the LDF’s political meetings on the Sabarimala issue. We have also seen huge participation of women belonging to different faiths in the “women’s wall” for gender justice. All of this shows that we have been successful in communicating our stand with the common people.
How effective was your government’s response in maintaining law and order in the wake of protests and frequent hartals over the Sabarimala issue?
The government has taken strict action against the perpetrators of violence across the State. Protest has even reached to the level of throwing bomb at a police station. Media persons were also brutally attacked. Most of the culprits arrested in these cases are Sangh Parivar activists. The most bizarre thing that we see today is that the same Sangh Parivar organisations campaigning that devotees should not do any offering to temples including Sabarimala are on a fund collection drive to deal with their cases. In Kerala, they tried to use the same technique they practice in other parts of the country.
This is the technique of orchestrating religious enmity and riot in order to garner political gains. But Ayappa devotees themselves and the people of Kerala at large have realised their motive now. We should not forget the fact that the same time when these forces were engaged in violence in the name of Sabarimala, the pilgrimage was going on smoothly.
The BJP leadership has officially conceded and confirmed that they are winding up their protest due to lack of enough support. It means that they failed to achieve what they aimed at. This defeat of Sangh Parivar is a result of the collective resistance shown by the people of Kerala.
What is your take on the argument that the restriction on women’s entry in the Sabarimala temple is part of religious custom? How do you view the Supreme Court judgment?
The renaissance movement and social reformers have taught us that superstitious beliefs and customs should be challenged and opposed. Modern Kerala is a product of the selfless social service of great visionaries. The nation’s Constitution is supreme and above all, the customs and beliefs. In the verdict, the Supreme Court has clearly spelled out that any violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution can’t be allowed. All governments, come into power based on the constitutional principles, are obliged to uphold the constitution as supreme.
The Left government is into its third year. How do you assess the government’s performance?
We have actually announced a 35-point programme and succeeded in completing most of them in time. The basic emphasis was on the development of infrastructure. The GAIL pipeline project, the LNG terminal, Kochi Metro, Water Metro, National water way, Kannur International Airport, Vizhinjam port, Hill Highway and coastal highway projects are some of the major projects we have concentrated on.
Four flagship missions (Ardram, Life, Haritha Keralam, Public education protection drive) launched by this government are implementing with success. As part of this, we can see a major jump in educational and health sectors. Before we complete our term in office we will provide home for every family in Kerala. No one will remain homeless.
Our effort is to create enough jobs in our State itself for the qualified and educated youth. In order to achieve this goal, we are utilising the opportunities in the IT filed. The government is also taking measures to create new jobs by strengthening the public sector and the traditional sector. The amount of social welfare pensions increased as highest rate in the country level .This could be emulated by other States also.
In a historic move we have appointed, for the first time, Dalits and other backward caste people as priests in the Devaswom Board-owned temples. I would like to add that the Kerala government has done more than any government could do in 1,000 days. In the coming days our main focus will be on post-flood rebuilding and also on production and industrial sector.
The Left generally talks about and aim at an alternative development path. As Kerala is the only Left ruling State now, could you talk about the alternative policies you could introduce?
When the central government tries to disinvest the public sector enterprises, we try to empower them. We have been successful in making the public sector enterprises under Kerala government profitable within one year after coming into power. Along with this, we are taking over public enterprises which are disinvested by the Central government in Kerala. When the Central government try to privatise the education sector, the schools in Kerala have been upgraded as the best in the country.
When the central government withdraw from the social sector, the Kerala government actively intervened in social welfare measures and also provide social welfare pension at the highest rate in the country.
Newspapers report that the number of jobs created has decreased in the country after [Narendra] Modi came to power. But in Kerala, our government gave appointment to 1 lakh youngsters through the public service commission. We also created 20,000 new posts in the same period.
Our government has also succeeded in increasing wage and other benefits in more than 80% of the labour sector. We could also implement a Bill giving employees the right to sit and work, intervened in raising the salary of nurses and also intervened in the plantation sector. The four missions that we have set up basically aim to bring structural changes with an alternative development outlook.
On January 1, Kerala saw a 627-km long Women’s Wall. What was the reason behind the government’s decision to have such an event?
It was not actually the government’s decision to organise the women wall. Instead, the idea emerged in a meeting of different community and progressive organisations convened by the State government. Immediately after the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala, there was a dangerous and regressive effort, in the name of custom and belief, to tarnish the progressive achievements of Kerala. Against the court verdict of upholding gender equality, there were efforts to bring in public women and claim themselves as impure. Gender and caste-based defamation reached into the level of violent attacks.
There took place incidences of attack, in public, against women. These events necessitated organised resistance against these forces. It was in this context that the State government initiated a meeting of progressive organisations. In this meeting, representatives of 170 organisations participated and the idea of women wall emerged. The basic objectives of women wall were the slogans of protecting renaissance values, ensuring gender equality, not allowing Kerala to become a lunatic asylum. Kerala wholeheartedly welcomed this initiative and around 5.5 million women joined in the wall from Kasaragode to Thiruvananthapuram.
The CPI(M) is in favour of reservation for economically backward classes among the forward castes. The other argument is that economic reservation is against the spirit of our Constitution. What’s your take?
Reservation is necessary in the Indian context in order to empower the historically marginalised castes. At the same time, there are thousands in the general category too who face economic difficulties. Reservation for the socially backward castes should be continued as such. But relief should be provided for economically backward sections of the upper castes.
The Supreme Court has maintained that reservation should not cross the 50% mark. We can’t accept any move from any quarter that would reverse the constitutionally guaranteed reservation. Such efforts would result in enmity between different communities or even result in clashes between communities.
Introducing reservation for economically weaker sections of the general category should not affect the existing reservation. In the appointments to the posts under Travancore Devaswom Board, we have ensured that it would not affect reservation of the existing communities or violate the 50% cap.
Aggressive right-wing nationalism registers significant growth in different parts of the world. In India too we see such an upsurge or emboldening of such forces. How the organised Left would resist this?
The Kerala society maintains a unique secular mindset. This secular social formation is a result of numerous struggles led by the communist movements and other progressive forces. Because of this historical legacy, Kerala still keeps away these right wing forces. Discredited with having no popular support in society, they try to show their might and influence people through their muscle power. We have seen violence and aggression in the Sabarimala protests. But unlike other States, the Hindu rightwing forces were not able to gain much influence in Kerala due to the strong resistance offered by the Left.
In a pan-Indian context, the communist movements and the Left pursue many folded battles against neo-liberalism and communalism. It is because of this strong stand on these two fronts that we are continuously targeted and attacked by the ruling classes in different parts of the country. In West Bengal and Tripura, you could see it in open eye. Recently, CPI(M) leader Brinda Sahni who was in the frontline of land struggles in Bihar was brutally killed by those who protect the interests of the landlord classes. All this shows that we pose a real political challenge to the communal forces in the country.
You talked about creating employment opportunities? Has your government succeeded in creating enough jobs for the State’s youth?
The principle aim and policy of this government is to create enough employment opportunities for the educated in Kerala itself. It is in tune with this aim that our government involves in IT and other sectors. As part of this, around 2,000 new start-ups have begun operation after this government came to power. We have a policy of using science and technology for social progress and human welfare. The prospects of health, tourism, etc. in job creation is also being explored.
We are making a new jump in the production of electrical vehicles. Materialisation of the Virology Institute and Life Science Park opens up new possibilities based on knowledge. Making profitable the public enterprises and reviving the traditional industrial sectors have increased job opportunities in the State. We have also got a strong cooperative sector. The possibilities of increasing the productivity of agriculture and fisheries sector also offer opportunities for the State.
The agriculture sector was one of the main areas to focus on post-flood rebuilding. How do you deal with the challenges agriculture faces?
Our objective is to attain self sufficiency in agriculture. We have launched Harita Keralam mission as part of this. We were moving into self-sufficiency in the field of milk, vegetable and egg production. Unfortunately, the havoc caused by the flood stalled our efforts in this direction. Heavy rainfall and flood caused structural changes in the soil character. So we need detailed a study of these issues before beginning cultivation. We have launched an action plan to protect the biodiversity. Flood level is also digitally marked.
On the basis of this, we could start production activities suitable for our environment. Along with the objective of increasing agricultural production, we also aim to increase the scope for agricultural related business activities in the State. We have great scope for value addition and processing of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish etc. This will ensure more income for the farmer.
It is the wrong trade policies of the central government which cause for price collapse and international competition. Removing import restrictions on rubber caused for huge slash in its price for domestic farmers. The Union government didn’t take any action in the direction of creating price stability fund for rubber. But in our State, we have created such a fund worth of ₹500 crore. The fall in pepper price is also a result of such wrong policies pursued by the Central government.
The Lok Sabha election is on the door step. How do you analyse the political situation? What is your party’s main agenda in this election?
We have a situation in the country where the BJP and the RSS try to crumble the basic edifice of our country. The assault on constitutional bodies and autonomous institutions is unprecedented. We have a situation where four senior judges of the Supreme Court came out against interventions in the functioning of the apex court.
We also know what is happening with the CBI. It is a serious matter that an autonomous body like the Central Vigilance Commission played a part in the Central government’s intervention in matters of the CBI. In higher education institutions and research institutes, people without enough qualification and people with complete obedience to the ruling establishment are appointed.
Myths are being presented as science and facts become causality. Even the right to privacy of the individuals is breached. So in this context, the coming election assumes much significance in protecting the basic idea of India.
The current government is one of the most anti-people governments in the history of this country. Minorities, Dalits, peasants, students, writers, working class have suffered the worst consequences of the Modi government. They have turned into active protest against this government. The general sentiment in the country is now against the BJP and the RSS. Recent assembly elections and bye-elections in different States show that. The same will be reflected in the coming election too.
As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, our primary aim is to defeat the BJP. Both the BJP and the Congress are equally enthusiastic about implementing neoliberal policies in the country. If you look in this way, then we could understand that two parties are both sides of the same coin. Both these parties also use communal sentiments in different ways and degrees. The BJP pursues communal politics more aggressively and also, as they are led by the RSS, there is great danger of fascism involved in their politics. Because of this, our primary aim is to defeat the BJP. For which we will adopt political tactics according to the prevailing political situation in each State.
For the Left, politics is a way of conducting ideological struggles. We could build a better world only through such struggles. Our political activities have been oriented towards this objective. It is the communist parties and Left movements which have led the struggles of peasants, workers and students in the last years.
These struggles have really influenced in shaping popular mood against the RSS and the BJP. We have also registered electoral success in places where we are able to widen and consolidate our support base through these struggles. So we are very confident about the future.
Don’t you think that the coming general election will also be a test of your government in Kerala?
The Lok Sabha election is an opportunity to evaluate the Union government and also the national politics. I have already explained what the State government has done for the people of Kerala. The people have realised from their experience the difference between present Kerala and what was the situation two and a half years ago.
In the same period, we have also actively involved in checking regressive efforts aimed at backtracking the achievements of the State. Along with maintaining the progressive nature of society, we have also succeeded in maintaining people’s unity. So the people of Kerala know well about which political force is leading Kerala towards progress. Because of this, we are confident and hopeful about the election result.