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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

People’s movement against corruption

An action plan to forge a unified platform for organisations and individuals fighting against corruption in public life was initiated in Kerala last month. The initiative, organised by a collective forum of people’s action councils and human rights organisations as well as individuals involved in struggles at the grassroots level, was quite novel, with a wide range of areas represented by the participants.

The first step towards this initiative was a state-level convention at Kalamassery, the industrial township around 21 km from Kochi, in August 2009. Inaugurated by K Sukumaran, former judge of the Kerala and Bombay high courts, the highlight of the event was the reading of a pledge by the well-known writer and social activist, Prof Sara Joseph. The participants included representatives of various people’s resistance groups from all over the state.

The presence of many dissidents of the CPI (M), the major constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala, was significant, especially in the background of the ongoing debate in Kerala on corruption in public life, following the Rs 300-crore SNC Lavalin Corruption Scandal, in which the CPI (M) state general secretary and former electricity minister, Pinarayi Vijayan was chargesheeted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the investigating agency. In this background, the presence of many individuals who were at loggerheads with the CPI (M) leadership on this issue was quite significant.

However, C P John, a former member of the State Planning Board and prominent leader of the Communist Marxist Party (CMP), an independent political party that was formed by a splinter group of the CPI (M) led by M V Raghavan, the veteran communist leader and former minister who was expelled from the CPI (M) in 1986, was perhaps the only dignitary present at the convention who had a clear-cut political affiliation.

The list of dignitaries present at the convention read like a veritable who’s who of activists and localised mass movements in different parts of Kerala.

The draft document presented by C R Neelakandan, an environmental and social activist, highlighted the need to fight against all sorts of corruption in society. “Corruption includes looting of natural resources like land, water, forest, sea etc, all types of man-made environmental disasters, onslaught on adivasis, dalits and women, all sorts of human rights violations, negative, anti-people and anti-nature development policies, destruction and looting of public assets and systems like health, education, public distribution and many others.”

The draft document pointed out that corruption has many dimensions other than the amassing of wealth. The roots of all corruption are in the political system. Many activist groups are fighting against corruption in their own way. But since they are not united it is very easy for those with vested interests and control of power to marginalise and suppress all these agitations.

The document went on to describe how globalisation and liberalisation has led to a manifold increase in the level of corruption. With the disillusionment of the people with the existing political system growing, it was time for all groups struggling for people’s rights and all progressive people to launch a common political struggle to rectify the system, it pointed out.

The students of Sal Sabeel Green School, an educational institution that focusses on an education system that fosters environmental awareness among the students, were also present with P T M Hussain, principal and founder of the school.

Participating in the discussions, activists described the environmental and human rights violations against which their struggles were launched. The anti-endosulfan activists from Kasargod described the horrifying aftermaths of the aerial spraying of the toxic pesticide endosulfan in the cashew plantations of Kasargod district. Aerial spraying of the deadly pesticide was common in the cashew plantations of the government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala at Pedre in Kasargod district during the 1980s. The spraying had continued unabated for two decades in the 30,000 acres of cashew plantations. The practice was banned two years ago, following a huge protest and public outcry. However, the sufferings of the victims who were living in three neighbouring panchayats are still continuing, with a high level of cancer, neurological disorders, failure of various organs, deformities and genetic disorders becoming common in these areas.

At Chakkamkandam, a village adjacent to the temple town of Guruvayur, where the Sree Krishna Temple is a famed pilgrimage centre, the people are fighting against a sewage treatment plant for the Guruvayur township. Though the proposal for a centralised sewage treatment plant, introduced in 1973, is not yet near implementation, the local people are already suffering from the informal dumping of waste in their fresh water bodies. Valiya Thodu, a natural canal that flows from Guruvayur towards Chakkamkandam, has already been turned into an open sewer. People allege that many establishments in Guruvayur release their septic tanks into this canal, polluting the major source of fresh water for the residents of Chakkamkandam and leading to the pollution of the Chakkamkandam backwaters that connect with the Arabian Sea. The stench of flowing sewage has made the environment unbearable. The livelihoods of the villagers, mainly fishing, coir-related works and collecting silt from the backwaters to be used as a natural fertiliser, have all been affected by the pollution.

Likewise, the people from Moolampilly in Ernakulam described the local residents’ struggle against the authorities’ move to evict them from their homes without ensuring proper rehabilitation measures as part of the ongoing road project for the International Container Transshipment Terminal, Vallarpadam. The coordination committee for the welfare of the evictees has alleged that the authorities have not provided basic facilities including drinking water and road connectivity to the land identified for rehabilitating the displaced. They also charge that no agreement was made on paper regarding the rehabilitation. The issue has been attracting public attention ever since the work for the Kalamassery-Vallarpadam road project started in Ernakulam. The State Human Rights Commission had intervened in the issue and the People’s Action Council had even fielded a candidate, Mary Francis Moolampilly, for the Ernakulam parliamentary constituency for the last Lok Sabha polls, to bring the issue to public attention.

Chakkamkandam in Thrissur and Moolampilly in Ernakulam are not isolated instances in Kerala. Other struggles like the agitation of the residents of the village of Plachimada in Palakkad district against the depletion of groundwater caused by the Coco Cola factory or the struggle of the landless to occupy the land of an industrial estate in Chengara in Pathanamthitta have already captured national attention. However, what would be the final outcome of the attempts to coordinate activists fighting against violations of various basic rights, remains to be seen.

The major deterrent to meaningful collective action could be the difference in points of view of the various action groups and individuals. Many of the local action councils have sprung up as an instinctive response from the local people against the situations that make their environments uninhabitable. Each group can be made up of individuals with different perspectives and political standpoints.

However, as an immediate follow-up, a district-level convention was convened for Ernakulam district and a three-pronged action plan chalked out. In the first phase, a seminar will be held at Karumaloor panchayat to focus attention on land-related issues in the district, including pollution, sand mining and others. Another seminar, to be held at Puthenkurissu, another village near Ernakulam, will focus on women-related issues.

A third plan drafted at the district-level convention is an awareness campaign on the recently introduced Right to Information Act (RTI). The Act ensures the right to obtain information on all unclassified information when and where required by an ordinary citizen of the country. Awareness on the part of citizens on when and where to exert this right judiciously is important for the successful implementation of this Act. Instances of misuse of the RTI Act, as have often been reported in recent times, contain the danger that the authorities might think of curtailing it. A seminar focusing on RTI is proposed to be held at Muvattupuzha, another part of the district. All the three centres where the follow-up events are planned are located in three different corners of the district, as a means to reach out to the entire district.

Plans are afoot to organise meetings in other districts as well. Discussions are still taking place on the name of the forum, whether a name is needed at all, how the organisational structure should be worked out, whether the forum should choose to play a role in electoral politics and if so, how such interventions need to be planned. A long road lies ahead for the organisers to reach an accord between the diverse groups, but a beginning has been made.

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