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Development fix: to let ’em party or not

Kochi, Sept. 12: India’s development dilemma tailed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh all the way to the southern tip today, showcasing itself as multi-party protests against an investment promotion jamboree titled “Emerging Kerala”.

The BJP, not yet a predominant force in the southern state, enforced a hartal in a district while the Left, whose clout has survived repeated electoral setbacks, organised protests across the state against the investment meeting.

Like in Bengal, protest is part of the daily political diet in Kerala. But the extreme reactions “Emerging Kerala” has triggered have brought into sharp focus the challenges staring at the debt-stressed and investment-starved state — and possibly many others in the country — when they seek to “change”.

The three-day event — US ambassador Nancy Powell is the chief guest — that began today is expected to draw delegates from as many as 51countries and focus on the theme of transforming the state into a “premier global hub of economic activity”.

The Congress-led coalition government’s drive in itself is a gamble for a state where —again much like Bengal — private capital was once viewed with mistrust and militant trade unions held sway.

However, after decades of living through the irony of youths leaving for the Gulf to toil there without the protection of most of the rights guaranteed at home, the state that never tires of calling itself “God’s own country” has been showing signs of a change in the mindset.

Prime Minister Singh referred to the Gulf factor during his inaugural speech today. “More than 2 million Keralites work outside India, in the Gulf countries and elsewhere,” he said, adding that NRI remittances account for as much as 22 per cent of the state gross domestic product.

If the state government led by chief minister Oommen Chandy was hoping to tap a latent feeling that Kerala should be more than a manpower supplier to the Gulf, excessive focus on tourism or related projects appears to have generated a perception that the picturesque state is being carved up and “sold” to real estate players to build partying zones for the rich.

The BJP’s hartal was against the inclusion in the summit of a proposal to build an airport in the private sector in central Kerala. Fears have been expressed that the project will sink several hundreds of acres of wet land and wreck the fragile ecology.

Another reason for the opposition reflects the paradox stalking Kerala: why does the small state need a new airport when it already has three international airports (the much larger Bengal has only one international airport) and another one is coming up? But tour operators say the existing airports largely cater to the Gulf traffic and skirt Kerala’s famed backwater zone — one of the chief attractions for foreign tourists.

The furore broke out after 232 projects shortlisted for the meeting were publicised online. A lightning rod was a plan to turn a prestigious stadium in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital, into a modern convention centre. The proposal sparked outrage, although the stadium is used once in a while for superstar-spangled fund-raisers and award shows.

Another one that appears to have got activists’ and the Opposition’s goat was a plan for a Rs 200-crore “Night Life Zone” with discotheques and bars spread over 18 acres on the coastal outskirts of the capital.

The explosion of outrage stunned the government, which survives on revenue from selling liquor and spends 80 per cent of the total earnings on salaries and pension, and it scrambled to withdraw the projects from the shortlist.

Chief minister Chandy has been going out of his way to insist that “the government would support, hand-hold and provide speedy clearances to all such proposals that are people-friendly, environment-friendly and comply with the law of the land”.

“We would do so in the most transparent and timely manner, without taking any short-cuts on any of the critical issues such as environment, law or the quality of human life in Kerala,” he told the summit today.

“Not an inch of land will be sold. There will be no long-term lease either. Only those projects which protect the state’s interest will be entertained. Environment clearance will be made mandatory and no law will be bypassed but there will not be any delay because of red tape,” Chandy added.

The state industries department, the prime mover behind the initiative, feels these are only minor hiccups. “We are only promoting eco-friendly and non-polluting industries,” said Alkesh Kumar Sharma, the managing director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC), the nodal agency for the event.

Industries minister P.K. Kunjalikutty, a Muslim League leader who often finds himself at the centre of controversies, dismissed as “exaggerated and baseless” the “fears that all of the state’s land will be usurped by the proposed industries”.

The industries minister, however, pointed out that no memoranda of understanding will be signed — a departure from another ambitiously titled programme called GIM (Global Investors Meet) which was held in 2003 when A.K. Antony was chief minister.

GIM boasted MoUs for projects valued at Rs 26,000 crore but few materialised.

Antony, now defence minister, was at hand today, playing peacemaker. He said the Opposition’s “reasonable and logical” views would be taken into account. “Nowadays, there seems to be an unending debate on all issues. At times, it (such debates) is good and at other times, it is harmful for the interests of the state,” he said.

But Opposition leader and Marxist veteran V.S. Achuthanandan, who rarely misses a chance to align himself with popular causes, boycotted the event.

The opposition is by no means confined to the Opposition alone. A relatively young group of Congress leaders — known as the Green Brigade — has also expressed its reservations, not unusual in a state where environment awareness has struck deep roots and can make or mar reputations.

The posturing within the Congress, more than anything else, underscores the dilemma in a state in the throes of change: is it too early to join the pro-changers and risk tarring the image or is it safer to play critical observer and gauge which way the wind is blowing?