Friday, September 15, 2006

How Hartals and Bandhs Hijacked our State

Recently, the Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said “a single day's shutdown costs the state a staggering 7 billion (or 700 crore) rupees”.

Put that estimate and Kerala’s population together and that translates to a cost of 233 rupees per Keralite for a single day’s shutdown. No, don’t look in your wallet; your pocket change is probably still there. The money in your bank vault is probably still there as well. And your house isn’t going anywhere. So, what’s the problem, you ask? Well, let’s suppose that you’re not a government employee and that’s fair to assume since only 3% of our labour force is employed in the government. Are you self-employed? Well, you’ve just lost your daily wages. Are you employed by a private firm? Well, you can be sure that in the long run, your job is in jeopardy as the firm loses money.

Wait, so what, you say? The average Keralite earns less than 150 rupees per day, you say? Ahh, but you ignore the potential that is Kerala. For every rupee that the average Keralite earns, he or she loses out at least another rupee in potential wage increases. Why? Because of the complete absence of any substantial manufacturing industry in our state. Because of the complete lack of any sizable investments in our infrastructure. Because of the 20% of our educated youth who walk around unemployed. Because of these simple frustrations that crop in our lives. All because bandhs and hartals have scared any sensible entrepreneur or investor from Kerala.

Bandhs and hartals have become everyday occurrences in Kerala in stark contrast to the rest of the country. In other parts of India, a call to strike rarely affects all sectors of the economy in the fashion that is afflicted on our state. When a party or trade union calls for a dharna or bandh in Kerala, life comes to a standstill and the average person stays at home. When the same happens in Delhi, Calcutta or Madras, people go to work, stores stay open and general life goes on. Why has our work culture reached this stage?

Most people can point quite readily to the source. Public employees are not required to keep attendance and the costs of cutting work are far lower for them as they are salaried employees. The opportunity cost is even lower for politicians. In fact, they actually gain voting lobbies in the form of government workers and trade union members through such stunts. In contrast, employees in private firms have much to lose by resorting to coercive forms of protest. That is why you see one or two private bus strikes every year. And even those do not lead to full-scale shutdowns. The power to paralyze life has come to define the life of the public sector.

But what a narrow section of society it is. According to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, government employees constitute 3% of the total working population. Political party workers constitute at most another 0.5%. How can such a narrow section intimidate the rest of society?

Well, they would not be anywhere without outright support by their unions. Most government employees are unionized and all political parties are by default, organized. The same cannot be said for Kerala’s self-employed businesses, which are affected most by these hartals. At last count, this sector constitutes 31% of Kerala’s labour force, a formidable voting bank that can turn the current state of stagnation on its head. Intimidation and apathy, however, have struck this section into inaction. No one wants to say no to bandhs or hartals as long as they are the lone voices in the wilderness.

The writing on the wall is clear. The need of the hour is a new social contract and a grassroots operation to back it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Kerala today: the home away from home

I wrote an essay for a competition in Kochi when I was nine. The topic was “My Home is my Heaven”. I won and I like to think it was because of my writing skills. But the truth of the matter is that it was an issue near and dear to my heart. Many expats have a very keen sense of what their home is and my family is no different. At home, my parents insisted that we speak Malayalam, irrespective of the fact that we lived in Germany. In hindsight, this was of great comfort to my brother and me, because the trials and tribulations of learning English and German in a completely new school cannot be understated. I had a very strong sense that my home lay at the nexus of my family and my culture and coming home from school was probably the best part of my day, just because it felt familiar. But I wonder how many of us romanticize our culture and ignore the society that hurts that culture.

“God’s own land”, a popular characterization of Kerala, is a misnomer. If God were to be reborn today in Kerala, he would grow up to either work as a government sector employee or migrate abroad to work. Migration is perhaps too harsh a word, since a large number of Malayalees work just outside the state border. In any case, God would visit Kerala once every year, meet his hypothetical family and return to work after a few weeks of some well-deserved rest. Because Kerala is the home away from home for most working Malayalees.

Our society is ailing and I can see the symptoms. With the exception of my parents and brother, most of my family lives in India. So that makes for a busy itenerary every time I go home. Every year I visit my relatives, I find their homes growing emptier and emptier. This is the normal course for nuclear families, but in most societies, nuclear families move away from their parent homes, much like birds growing out of their nests. What I see is a carving out, where the breadwinner in the family works for long periods away from their homes. This has bred the lack of role models and a stagnant culture in Keralian society. Today, the politics of our state are ruled by people whose vested interests lie in perpetuating the very conditions we should alleviate. We have generated a vicious circle of debt in our state that if left unchecked, could pose much more serious social problems than those that face us today. We have earned the label of a “consumer state” but underrate its implications for our generation and those to come.

The imperative to act lies on all of us, because the actions needed are both big and small. Malayalees, expats and residents, must push for reforms. So, let’s begin by forming a common agenda. Each week, I am going to highlight what I view as a particular problem with Kerala. And I am going to propose a solution. The nonsense carried on in our state in the name of politics is disheartening, but we should not underestimate the power of the word: the ability to bring people with common interests to organize to do good.

Next Topic >>
Bandhs and Hartals: the absence of a work culture in Kerala