Monday, February 11, 2013

Kerala Chief Minister turns a new page.

Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of the south Indian state of Kerala, is always on the move and has a 24/7 work schedule.

His tireless dynamism and energy were visible during the Janasamparkam 
(mass contact) programme which could earn him a place in the Guinness World Records. But, that’s no surprise given the fact that he received 23,000 petitions of which 17,000 were disposed of on the spot, in one single day. It was the success of this that led a Pravasi Bharathiya Divas participant to ask him if he would hold a similar one in the UAE, too.

Going by the large Malayalee expatriate community here, the question was not out of place.

Work on the SmartCity project, his baby, began in Kochi last June, and the chief minister is in a hurry to complete what he has begun. The Vizhinjam International Deep-Sea Container Terminal, Electronic Park, Mono Rail and the Kochi Metro Rail Project are just a few. But what does he have in store for the Malayalee diaspora? He spoke with Roopa Kurian in a candid interview.

Non-resident Indians (NRIs), especially from the Gulf, now expect action, not announcements…

Let me explain the attitude and approach of the (Kerala) government towards NRIs in the Gulf sector. We consider it an extension of Kerala. Unlike expatriates in Europe or America, those in the Gulf have a temporary arrangement — be it in the case of job or residence — and they are bound to come back to Kerala. A majority of them are workers earning an average income.

I have come across people who have not been able to come home in Kerala even once in four years. In fact, some of them are earning an income less than the average salary in Kerala. At the same time, there are a huge NRI remittances in banks which can be effectively used for the development of the state. There are currently more than 2.2 million Malayalees in the Middle East, and the foreign currency that flows into the state from this region is estimated at Rs600 billion (Dh41.4 billion) annually.

Most of the actions initiated by the government are based on these considerations. We have raised the upper age limit for joining the Pravasi Welfare Pension scheme from 55 to 60; earmarked Rs20 million for the rehabilitation of NRIs who have returned home, and successfully implemented the Swapna Saphalyam(realisation of dream) project by which free air tickets are provided for bringing back Malayalees who land up in jails in Saudi Arabia for minor offences and those affected by diseases of serious nature. We are in the process of implementing the same for other Gulf countries, too. Recently, we arranged assistance through Norka (Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department) to bring back around 15,000 Malayalees after availing of the amnesty proclaimed by the UAE. The government is also contemplating to start the Pravasi Development Bond for pooling the money from NRKs for the developmental programmes of the state.

With connectivity by Air India/Air India Express besieged with problems, what is the status of Air Kerala, especially with the central government raising hurdles?

We have constituted a new company to begin operations from Kerala. For international operations, the airline needs exemption from two stipulations of the Government of India. They pertain to operation of 20 aircraft and being in domestic operation for five years. If the central government grants us exemption from these stipulations, the airline will begin operations within the next one year. In case these exemptions are not granted, we will be in a very difficult situation. We are willing to begin with five aircraft on the international route, particularly the Gulf sector.

Surely, since Air India Express was allowed to fly abroad from its launch, it can strengthen the state government’s argument for exemption? How feasible would Air Kerala be?

Yes, we are banking on precedence in getting exemption. Air India Express operates through a separate subsidiary company without these two conditions. We are looking at getting a similar consideration for a state government-owned company. We are facing opposition from Air India but we expect the central government to back our proposal.

And we are still optimistic that the central government would provide us with the required approval and exemptions to make Air Kerala operational at the earliest.

The Detailed Project Report is ready and we are waiting for government clearance. Regarding feasibility, we have a very successful and feasible model in Cochin International Airport (CIAL).

Malayalees in the UAE are closely following the developments of SmartCity. With the Centre granting special economic zone status, the project seems to be taking off. Who would the beneficiaries be?

The Rs50-billion (Dh3.45-billion) SmartCity project at Kochi has crossed the last hurdle and soon would switch to top gear mode. In the first phase, it would have a 3.5-million-sq-ft building, which would be ready in the next 24 months.

SmartCity is a self-sustained industry township for knowledge-based companies. Once functional, SmartCity would offer employment opportunities to about 90,000 people. It is not merely an IT project, but a major initiative with unique features that can create substantial employment and take Kerala’s economy to the next level of growth. This should send an important message that Kerala is investor-friendly.

There is no ignoring the allegation that SmartCity is a land deal. What is your take
on this accusation?

All procedures with regard to land acquisition for the SmartCity project have been done within the existing laws and policies of the government. And this allotment of land goes to the company formed to implement the SmartCity project in which the Government of Kerala has a share. There are strict terms and conditions for the utilisation of the land and the developer has to fulfil the requirements as per the agreement. The project got delayed by six years due to unwanted criticism and decelerating approaches.

I prefer to call this a deal that would herald unprecedented development and economic growth for Kerala.

Voting rights for NRKs (Non-Resident Keralites) is a step in the right direction. But unless provisions are made for online and postal voting, this is meaningless. Are there any moves in this direction?

The state election commission, heeding to the demand of NRKs for e-voting, is currently in talks with technical experts and would also seek the opinion of political parties on the matter. As things stand now, NRKs would be able to cast their votes in local self-government elections due in 2015.

The state lacks good higher education facilities forcing the cream of students to move to other states. This results in a brain as well as financial drain. Are any steps being taken to plug this?

It is true that we are lacking in facilities for higher education, while we are expected to surpass everyone. But, recently, we have been able to make some headway in this regard. IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Kozhikode; Asian School of Business at Thiruvananthapuram; Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram; Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology; and National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Ernakulam, have already caught the attention of those seeking higher education in the state. In the pipeline are Knowledge City and other institutions that would significantly enhance the potential of higher studies. Also, the number of self-financing colleges offering thousands of seats in engineering courses has also gone up substantially.  

Hartals (strikes), bandhs (shutdown) and lockouts plague Kerala, making investors think twice, despite promises of an investor-friendly atmosphere. Are efforts being made to make the state conducive for investment?

The pressure is mounting on political parties and other organisations to give up hartals and resort to other means of protest. The dreaded nokkukooli (gawking wages) of head-load workers has almost come to an end in Kerala and there are no lockouts or strikes in any form.  Emerging Kerala 2012 was an eye-opener. It unveiled the changing scenario in Kerala. Almost 4,000 delegates from all over the world attended the event in Kochi, enabling them to understand the changes as well as the opportunities in Kerala. It is now absolutely investor-friendly and labour issues are on the decline. Power scarcity is the only major problem we are facing now.

Will the state initiate some practical investment opportunities for NRKs?

The global connect event Emerging Kerala 2012 was held with the sole intention of making investors, including NRKs, to choose their best investment options in Kerala. For the purpose, we showcased the many avenues for investors. IT, Tourism, Healthcare and Green Technologies are some of the areas. And Emerging Kerala is not a one-time event, but a biennial one that would review, analyse and promote the investment scenario in Kerala.

Kerala is known as the Gulf for those from Bengal and Northeastern states in India, and the influx has become noticeable especially in the construction sector. Isn’t this a paradox as many Malayalees claim to be jobless?

It is not because Malayalees have become jobless. The influx of workers from north and northeastern parts of the country to Kerala have been triggered basically due to the difference in wage pattern and, to a certain extent, the psyche of Malayalees to undertake manual work.  

Squabble among various political factions in Kerala is frequent. Strangely, bickering is noticed within the party, too. Don’t you think these are deterrents to development and put investors off?

When we are in coalition politics, some problems are unavoidable. But I can challenge anyone that not a single decision, programme or policy has been affected because of that. Surely things will continue to move forward.

All Congress-run states have agreed to allow foreign direct investment in the retail sector except Kerala. Why?

As we have thousands of small-scale traders, it’s not the ripe time to open up. It may affect them.

A slew of development programmes have been planned Are they all on track?

All dream projects are on the right track and going on at the right pace. We will be inviting fresh global tender for Vizhinjam International Port. The Mono Rail project in Thiruvananthapuram would go ahead with the help of DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation). Kochi Metro rail has picked up momentum with the announcement of DMRC in early January that it will implement the Rs 50 billion (Dh 3.45 billion) project with E Sreedharan as the principal advisor. And SmartCity has been granted single SEZ status and work on the Kannur international airport has moved to the next level.

Bharat Petroleum Company Limited (BPCL) is implementing a Rs 200 billion (Dh13.79 billion) project in Kochi and the Prime Minister has laid the foundation stone. LNG terminal will be ready by April 2013. It can be widely used for power generation and industrial purpose. Relaxation of Cabotage law by the Central government will be a big boost for the Vallarpadam terminal.

Roopa Kurian (Exclusive Interview) - 11 February 2013 - United Arab Emirates

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