Kerala was propelled to the present level of premodern economy in two stages. In the first stage, the elite of the society imbued with the ideas of liberal democracy, which had been introduced to them through English education and working in tandem with the forces of nationalism, fought to throw away the twin yokes of colonial rule and monarchic autocracy and then worked to establish a democratic polity based on individual freedom and dignity. In the second stage, a popular movement, inspired primarily by the ideals of communism and socialism, succeeded in ending the feudal pattern of land ownership and creating a more egalitarian society that provided everyone with free access to education and healthcare.
We tend to delude ourselves that Kerala is already a modern state with a modern economy and modern society. To prove our point, we mock at everybody else and beat our chests claiming that we are the best. We may be better than every other state in India and many other parts of the world on some parameter or other but that does not mean that Kerala has become a modern state in its totality.
In India itself there are many states where governance is more effective and infrastructure is of a superior standard. We boast that Kerala has the highest literacy spread in India, yet some of our matriculates cannot even read or write. We claim to have the highest intellectual quotient, yet our contribution to the world of science and technology is quite low compared to many other states. There is not even one educational institution that can claim to be the best in its category in the country. Look at Silicon Valley; how many Keralites are there in the top layer of the IT community? Even Bihar has produced more top Silicon Valley honchos. How much investment has Kerala attracted in areas other than tourism in the last half century? Yes, we have made greater progress than most other states in India in reducing poverty and we have made education and healthcare accessible to common man. These limited achievements do not make Kerala a modern state comparable to any of the developed countries.
With an ever increasing number of Keralites traveling overseas and TV channels beaming numerous programs showing life in the developed countries, many people are beginning to ask the question, "Will we ever be able to have such high standards of life?" Unfortunately, however, life goes on here as before with LDF and UDF blaming each other for everything under the sun that is wrong and even the smallest splinter party successfully bringing life to a complete halt with a call to hartal at the drop of a hat. Community organizations and unions of all sectors compete with each other to make life miserable for the common man. Community leaders and union leaders flourish in a corruption laden system. Nothing seems to change and those who are vested with the responsibility to ring in the change do not seem to care.
I am, however, an incurable optimist. Five years ago, I was hopeful that Oommen Chandy would transform Kerala after the wasted five years under the stewardship of the agitator Chief Minister who continued to act like an opposition leader even when his government was in power. Unfortunately, that was not to be because Mani and Panakkad Thangal, ably aided and abetted by Sudheeran in the later part, never allowed him to function with any degree of freedom. Within these limitations, Oommen Chandy did a good job of ensuring that at least some major developmental activities did not remain stalled. Yet, the big push was missing.
To an outsider, it might look strange that I am expecting a paradigm shift under the CPM's watch. Nevertheless, I believe that Pinarayi would like to be a Deng or Lee rather than a Kim or a Castro or a Mugabe. He is in a position to deliver if he wants to. He effectively controls the party at both state and national levels. Margadarshak Castro has been shown the chair in the corner where he can sit quietly for the rest of his life. Kanahiya Kumars of yore in the PB are fighting with each other and looking for his support. The Bengal unit that used to be Party's power base is now facing existential threat. Of course no Chief Minister or Party leader can drag the state in a direction that it does not want to take. Fortunately, Kerala is now ready to move forward toward modernity with genuine enthusiasm. The people of Kerala are very clear that the time has come for the state to dump the stupid developmental ideas of Achuthanandan, Antony, Sudheeran, et al. There is no need to fudge or move stealthily. If the leader moves forward boldly, he will have wholehearted public support. No doubt vested interests like some landowners will protest loudly but Pinarayi has the enviable track record of ignoring such selfish protests.
What the leader needs is clarity of vision and the realization that the existing structure needs drastic overhauling before the edifice of modernity can be built on it. He should remember the famous saying that you cannot make an omlette without breaking the egg! In my view, he should start with land. Manorama had carried a series showing how the land records of Kerala are full of confusion and untruths. We need to set right the land records with a super fast resurvey based on aerial photography and other tools of modern technology. The records should be in public domain so that mistakes can be corrected. The present scenario wherein the secrets of land records can be deciphered only by the chosen few needs to go. The land records should be clear enough for ordinary citizens to know what is there in the record and on the ground. The dictatorship of village officers, surveyors and deed writers should end.
The aerial photography and resurvey should also lead to drawing up a new environmental map of the state. Forget the legacy issues: this new environmental map should represent reality. Yet, those who have illegally altered the natural environment should be made to pay for their sins and the fear of God should be driven into the minds of those who dare to dream of environmental manipulation through corrupt means. Environmental issues need to be addressed scientifically, not emotionally.
We have been talking for a long time about the snail paced movement and traffic jams on our roads but done very little about it so far. A good transport and power infrastructure is the starting point for building a modern economy anywhere in the world. The mournful refrain that the habitat pattern of Kerala does not permit construction of wide roads is just arrant nonsense. This is the defensive plea of people who do not want to take tough decisions. Good governance is not possible without offending somebody or other. A good government should be a tough one without any hesitation to take decisions that may be unpopular with some in the short run. Innovative ways should be found, however, to compensate those who are likely to be losers. Not only do we need good wide roads without potholes but we should also put an end to the practice of frequent digging of roads. Road construction should incorporate a permanent solution for drawing various types of cable across the roads rather than allowing digging up every time this has to be done.
Equally urgent is the need for reforming the education and healthcare sectors. The widespread corruption prevailing in these sectors should be ended firmly. Education is not meant only for imparting knowledge and equipping young people to take up jobs and earning their livelihood but also for producing responsible citizens. We have to go a long way in both.
Can the new Kerala government take the state forward towards modernity? Let us hope it will. The election manifesto of LDF is a promising document but it has to be fleshed out with details before implementation. Government should be vigilant against the possibility of manipulation and sabotage by vested interests in this process. The new government should move fast before it loses momentum and popular goodwill. If Pinarayi Vijayan can modernize and make the sluggish government machinery deliver, he will be remembered as the best Chief Minister that Kerala ever had.
(The author is a former civil aviation secretary and former member, Union Public Service Commission. The views expressed are personal.)