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Bus bungle mirrors election theme

Thiruvananthapuram, March 18: To see why the development bus has been sputtering in Kerala — a key theme of elections in the state — look no further than the new bus terminal that has come up in its capital.

When chief minister Oommen Chandy unveiled the 12-storey “landmark” on February 3, Congress supporters in the social media were quick to plug it as the state’s answer to a swank bus terminal that was coming up in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.

Modi inaugurated the Vadodara terminal a full 10 days later, but by then reality had checked in at Thiruvananthapuram.

As the residents quickly realised, the Thiruvananthapuram terminal was incomplete and its inauguration had been hastened to beat the Election Commission’s model code of conduct.

The biggest shock was that the parking bays in the Rs 65-crore complex were too narrow to accommodate buses. The bays have now been demolished and wider ones built, but the terminal is still incomplete and, therefore, not operational.

The story is just one of many tales of blunder that the ruling and Opposition fronts are using to taunt each other in poll season.

Shashi Tharoor, Union minister of state for human resource development, has been quick to distance himself from the project as he seeks re-election from the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary constituency.

“The terminal project was entirely a state government initiative and I had no role in it,’’ he has been telling voters. But political opponents have other weapons against him.

“He has failed to fulfil his promise of bringing a Kerala High Court bench here within 100 days of his election,’’ said M. Vijayakumar, a former MP from the CPM.

Thiruvananthapuram is among the few state capitals without a high court. The city was the seat of the high court of the former princely state of Travancore, but the court was shifted to Ernakulam after the reorganisation of states.

People here have long been demanding a high court bench, arguing it will at least save the government the Rs 50-100 crore it spends annually on its officials’ travels to Ernakulam. But opposition from the Ernakulam bar and lack of political will has prevented any headway.

Tharoor argues that he had made “sustained intervention’’ for the high court bench. He also claims success in getting the National Highways Authority of India to release Rs 1,170 crore for the four-laning of a stretch of National Highway 47 that connects the state capital with the Tamil Nadu border, passing through the tourism destination of Kovalam.

Conceived in 1974, the project has been stalled by land acquisition problems. Now it is proposed to be taken up piecemeal, with a tender to be floated for a 26km stretch, for which land was acquired more than two decades ago, if the poll panel allows the project to be approved.

But this is only a small part of the several hundreds of kilometres of national highways in the state that have been starved of development for decades.

In 2007, the highways authority had agreed to reduce the road-width requirement for Kerala from the standard 60 metres to 45 metres after the state cited land shortage because of its high population density.

Still, there has been no consensus within the administration, which appears unable to stand up to pressure from the religious and commercial establishments that have mushroomed along the highways and are demanding the width be reduced to 30 metres.

The Left Democratic Front has allotted the Thiruvananthapuram seat to the CPI, which has fielded a relatively unknown Bennet Abraham, director of a self-financing medical college run by the Church of South India. The CPI believes that the constituency’s 2.5 lakh Nadar Christians will tilt the scales.

The BJP has again fielded O. Rajagopal, who was junior railway minister in the Vajpayee government. The veteran has brought his party tantalisingly close to victory every time he has contested, and alleges that the two major fronts had traded off votes to ensure a BJP defeat.

He pooh-poohs Tharoor’s claims. “He says there is so much development happening at the Thiruvananthapuram railway station, but apart from some escalators being installed, there has been little progress since then railway minister Lalu Prasad promised in 2006 to elevate the station to international standards.”

Rajagopal wants to know how many big-ticket projects the state has got despite UPA II having “two cabinet ministers and six junior ministers from Kerala’’.

“There are many such projects,’’ said a source in the Congress-led United Democratic Front.

“Look at what defence minister A.K. Antony alone has done: a strategic electronics factory of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Kasargod where investment will go up to Rs 200 crore in the future, a Brahmos supersonic missile integration complex in Thiruvananthapuram, and BEML’s fourth manufacturing facility for Tartra trucks in Palakkad, to name a few.”

Antony, though, is not contesting the Lok Sabha election.

“What about proposals like the one about a railway coach factory in Palakkad?’’ Rajagopal hits back, claiming that Kerala is allotted leaky and rusty rakes despite being a major revenue earner for the railways.

The Aam Aadmi Party too is testing the waters in Thiruvananthapuram. It has fielded Ajith Joy, a former IPS officer.