Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on his relationship with NDA regime, revisiting the Kerala model of growth and land acquisition for development projects
New Delhi: In the just concluded elections to the Kerala assembly, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) won with a convincing majority. Shortly thereafter, the LDF appointed Pinarayi Vijayan as the state’s chief minister. A Communist Party of India (Marxist) Politburo member, Vijayan spoke candidly about his relationship with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, revisiting the Kerala model of growth and the plan to acquire land to develop roads in an interview conducted at Kerala House in New Delhi. Edited excerpts:
Pinarayi Vijayan, 72Vijayan is the 12th chief minister of Kerala. He served as the state committee secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for 17 years till 2015 and has been elected to the state assembly four times. Vijayan has previously been a minister for electricity and cooperation.
Can you elaborate on the code of conduct for ministers that you have put in place?
People of Kerala have great expectations of the new government. There are many pressing issues that need resolution in different walks of life. A new government ought to devote a lot of time to those issues, for which ministers have to be in office. We have decided that all ministers will be in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, five days a week so that all departments can function well.
You have made similar rules for bureaucrats too?
It has been the experience of people that getting their legitimate work done by government agencies is too time consuming. Inordinate delays force people to resort to inappropriate means. Government officials should recognize that the files in front of them represent very important issues in the lives of people. These cannot remain undecided forever.
We have told officials that files need to be decided upon within a specified period. We will discuss the finer aspects of improving government-to-people services with employee organizations and unions.
There is a perception at the national level that there is a breath of fresh air in centre-state relations with the election of a new government in Kerala. In this context, are you looking at a new phase in the political equations with the Union government?
After assuming office, we approached the central government to seek support in addressing some of the issues confronting the state’s development and human resources. On my first visit to Delhi, I met Prime Minister Modi, finance minister Arun Jaitley and home minister Rajnath Singh. They understand the needs of a state and are very supportive. During this visit, I met the Union health minister J.P. Nadda, road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Their approach was very positive.
Gadkari promised that funds will not be a constraint as far as road development in Kerala is concerned. We were told that the centre will provide funds if we are able to acquire land for highway development. If we are able to do more, the centre will support the effort.
What is the new understanding between Kerala and the centre on highway development?
The National Highways Authority of India and the state had earlier arrived at an understanding that considering paucity of land in our state, the width of national highways could be 45 metres against a standard of 60 metres. Also, political consensus was reached on this issue at an all-party meeting during the previous UDF government. However, the state could not go ahead then with land acquisition due to the assembly polls.
There is no way out but acquiring land for 45-metre-wide highways. Our government is determined to go ahead with the highway development programme.
Today, travelling from one end of Kerala to the other involves getting stuck on the road for many hours. Also, roads are prone to accidents, most of which are head-on collisions. To avoid this, we need four-lane highways, for which a 45-metre width is essential.
We recognize that those who have to give up land for development will face some difficulty; we need to address that with an appropriate rehabilitation and compensation package. The Union government is ready to support us in the matter of compensation.
The previous UDF government had brought in a prohibition plan in stages. What is your position on this?
We are for abstinence, not prohibition. Prohibition leads to many socio-legal problems. Wherever liquor has been prohibited, there is a tendency to consume through illegal means. That leads to large-scale loss of life. We are for strengthening awareness campaigns towards abstinence. We believe dependence on liquor is not good.
But prohibition is not the solution. We believe in encouraging abstinence.
When arrack was banned in Kerala (in 1996 by the A.K. Antony-led UDF government ahead of assembly polls in the same year), the government assumed it will get re-elected. That did not happen. At that time also, we had brought public attention to the livelihood and rehabilitation of workers in this sector.
When the LDF government came to power that year, we dropped the prohibition plan.
How do you plan to deal with reduced remittances and return of workers from the Gulf region, where many companies have cut down their workforce due to the fall in oil prices?
It is a painful situation. It is not just because of the decline in oil prices. There is a strong trend in the Gulf region towards preferring locals for employment. That has led to thousands of workers returning to Kerala. We need to rehabilitate them and provide employment.
We discussed the issue with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on Saturday. We are informed that her ministry does not have the resources to deal with this problem.
We have taken this up with the finance minister as well. Kerala cannot single-handedly manage the situation of returning workers.
Among those who return, there could be many qualified technocrats. The state can utilize their services. We need to put in place a rehabilitation package for the returning workers.
What is your government’s strategy on job creation?
Agriculture is an important sector from a job-creation perspective. Non-farm sector alone cannot help in addressing the employment requirement. We need to declare support prices for farm produce and if market prices fall below that, there should be a centre-state combined mechanism for procurement. We will support cultivation of vegetables in 50,000 hectares. This will provide employment to many people.
We will try to have more industrial units in the electronics sector. There are many IT companies in Kerala, but we have not yet exploited the sector to its full potential. We have to develop this sector further. If we are able to take these programmes forward the way we are planning, we will be able to create several lakhs of jobs in each of these sectors.
We need to develop the tourism sector, too, to its full potential. Kerala is called ‘God’s own country’. We need to make sure it is really so, for which we should ensure the entire state, including rivers and backwaters, are clean. We also have to ensure that safe drinking water is available in every part of the state. These measures will help in meeting our target of creating 25 lakh jobs in five years.
When do you expect the Kannur airport project to be completed?
That project was initiated in 1996 when C.M. Ibrahim was the civil aviation minister. With his help, the E.K. Nayanar-led state government pursued the project. We acquired some land, too. But the UDF government which came in power in 2001 did not take it forward.
The project was revived when the LDF assumed office in 2006. In 2011, the UDF followed it up, though not very enthusiastically. I guess it might take another year to complete it.
Land acquisition is an integral part of your plan for development, which also banks on mineral exploration, IT parks and natural gas transportation. Has the need for development and job creation made your economic model more realistic?
Land acquisition is a problem in Kerala because the available land is limited. When that has to be used for infrastructure projects, those who have to give up should be adequately compensated and rehabilitated. If land is acquired for industrial purposes, people should be properly accommodated in the project. The rehabilitation package should be sufficient and attractive so that giving up land does not cause any hardship.
The LDF government has inherited a debt of ₹ 1.5 trillion. How do you plan to tackle that?
I have to admit, Kerala is fiscally weak. We are working on a white paper on our financial position. Once that is ready, we will have a clear picture. The paper will be presented in the budget session itself.
We believe you support GST. Can we expect the support of Left parties for the Constitution (122nd) Amendment Bill in Parliament?
Left parties’ view that states which stand to lose revenue should be compensated is still a matter of concern. If we take the example of Kerala, we can see benefits. The recent meeting of the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers has discussed this issue. I do not have the details of it at the moment.
Are you happy with the working of centrally supported welfare schemes?
One difficulty we face is that since central government funding for projects is based on certain parameters like, say, backwardness in education or health, we do not get those benefits because Kerala has made advancements on those parameters.
Are you looking at creating centres of excellence in the education sector?
We have proposed in our manifesto that educational institutions and universities should be elevated to centres of excellence. We plan to move ahead in this direction.
In the Opposition, LDF had criticized the ₹ 7,500 crore Vizhinjam port project for which work was started last December by the Adani Group. Would you seek any change in the terms of the project?
We had envisaged the project as a state government project, but the previous UDF government made it a private developer project. We had criticized that. Since the project agreement has already been signed, questioning it can only lead to legal complexities and adverse pronouncements from the judiciary. We have never been against the Vizhinjam project per se. We opposed only the way the project was changed.
Are you looking to revisit the Kerala model of development?
We have been able to achieve social development similar to that in many developed nations. We should have also made similar gains financially. Per capita income should go up, more jobs have to be created and there has to be progress in every sector.
There has been a perception that Kerala is not investor-friendly. But you are saying you are going to change that. Are you exploring a new phase in industry-labour relations?
That perception is actually misplaced. None of the institutions that invested in Kerala have ever said they faced any problem. They are able to function smoothly. There is no instance of any institution not being able to function in the state due to unions. However, as you said, there is a misplaced perception, which we will try to remove.
Considering the limited availability of land, we cannot afford to have large environmentally damaging industries. But we welcome and support all other industries that are suitable for our state.
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