Govt-Guv tussle, PFI ban and port stir kept Kerala in focus
An ongoing series of ugly spat between the government and governor, shocking twin human sacrifice, crackdown on Kerala-born fundamentalist Popular Front of India (PFI) and dramatic rescue of a youth trapped in a crevice in Palakkad meant the state was continuously making the national headlines
Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala that clocked the first reported case of Nipah and Covid-19 in the country has had its share of encounters with maladies in the last few years, with the latest coming in July, when the state reported India’s first case of Monkeypox. But unlike Covid-19, which wreaked havoc the world over, the state managed to isolate all contacts of the Monkeypox victim, who later succumbed, and reined in the disease.
Robust primary health system and proper investment in social sectors helped Kerala bounce back quickly. But the strains of the two-year pandemic can be seen everywhere. Its economy is still struggling and key sectors like tourism are yet to come out of its blues. The state’s public debt ballooned like never before and stood at ₹3,32,291 crore as on March 2022, prompting finance minister KN Balagopal to admit several times that the southern state was in indeed in an unprecedented crisis. It was forced to take another tranche of loan worth ₹1,500 crore in December to pay salary and pension of its employees. Little wonder that Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, at the height of his ongoing spat with the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, said: “It is a shame liquor and lottery tickets are main revenue earners of the state.”
At a time when people thought virus is part of history books, the surge of Covid-19 cases in China has once again created a sense of urgency. With high population density and a sizeable number from the state settled in or working abroad, it has more reasons to worry. There were suggestions to restrict year-end festivities, but the government rejected them albeit seeking extreme caution. “No need of restrictions now. But we have to be careful. We will overcome,” said health minister Veena George.
Experts also share her view but swear vigil is catchword. “Caution is always good but nothing is there to panic. Our vaccines were good unlike China’s. It is sad another year is heralding amid a low-key fear,” said public health expert Dr SS Lal.
Looking back as 2022 is set to say goodbye, the state true to its style witnessed noisy protests throughout the year. An ongoing series of ugly spat between the government and governor, shocking twin human sacrifice, crackdown on Kerala-born fundamentalist Popular Front of India (PFI) and dramatic rescue of a youth trapped in a crevice in Palakkad meant the state was continuously making the national headlines.
The ongoing spat between the LDF government and Raj Bhawan remained in news throughout the year, with chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and governor Arif Mohammad Khan taking it out in the open to discredit each other. Both flaunted their “glorious past” to belittle each other and in the process, the state’s higher education sector became the main battle ground.
It all started when Khan questioned appointments of people related to or closer to leaders of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) to key posts in higher educational institutions, allegedly flouting norms. The government, however, alleged he was “dancing to the tunes of his masters” sitting in Delhi. Khan hit back, challenging the chief minister to prove a single incident where he tried to enforce “saffron agenda”.
In October, Khan opened a new front by sending show-cause notices to 11 vice-chancellors, days after the Supreme Court quashed the appointment of MS Rahashree as the vice-chancellor of APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University for flouting the University Grants Commission guidelines.
The no-holds-barred fight between the head of the government and the head of the state over universities is now pending before the high court. Latest in the series of the ongoing tussle came last week when Vijayan refused to invite Khan to the Christmas celebrations. It seems more fireworks are in the offing as both refused to lower their barrels.
Dramatic rescue of youth
In February, the country waited with bated breath for the outcome of a two-day long mission to save a youth trapped in a deep crevice in Palakkad. Stuck without water and food for over 48 hours, R Babu was rescued by a team of special mountaineers of the army who crawled hours together on rocks to save the 24-year-old after attempts by helicopters to airlift him failed.
During a casual trekking with his friends in Karumbachi hills, Babu slipped into a cleft and got trapped. His friends immediately alerted police and forest officials. While efforts to rescue him by personnel from police and fire departments failed due to peculiar geographical condition, the state finally sought the help of army, which rushed its trained mountaineering team and hauled him up from the crevice.
Lt Col Hemanth Raj, who led the arduous operation, later told a news channel that the best moment for him during the gruelling operation came when the rescued trekker told him that “he wanted to join the army”. Something that is yet to materialise.
Crackdown on PFI
On September 22, the Union government banned the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Kerala-born fundamentalist outfit mired in many controversies, and raided its offices and houses of its leaders throughout the country. A day later, the PFI called a state shutdown that witnessed unprecedented violence — many government buses were stoned and shops and business establishments were targeted as PFI workers took up the whole state in their hands. Later, police arrested 2,500 people and registered 364 cases in connection with violence.
Most of those arrested in connection with violence are still languishing in jail after the high court gave strict instructions to all courts not to give bail to them until they deposit damages incurred during the shutdown. Last week, the state government tendered an apology in the high court for delay in confiscating properties of arrested leaders to pay up damages.
The high court has also registered a suo motu (on its own) case for violation of one of its earlier orders banning flash shutdowns in the state. The PFI was formed in Kerala in 2006 and it also floated a political front — Social Democratic Party of India — in 2009 and majority of its jailed leaders are from Kerala. After tough action against the PFI for destroying public property, many outfits who often indulge in violent activities are subdued, said political observers.
Macabre human sacrifices
Kerala, which is proud of its high literacy rate and progressive outlook in the country, witnessed a shocking tale of two murders within a span of three months as part of human sacrifice for wealth. The cases came to light on October 11 after the state police arrested a 52-year-old hardened criminal, Mohammad Shafi alias Rasheed, and a couple Bhagaval Singh (68) and his wife Laila (59) and later retrieved remains of the victims, two poor lottery vendors.
Both victims, 49-year-old Roselin and 52-year-old Padma, were lured with money and taken to the sprawling farm of Singh, also a Hyku poet, at Elanthur in Pathanamthitta district. Both women were tied to a cot, tortured and murdered and their bodies were cut into many pieces and deposited in various parts as part of black magic, said investigating officers who pieced together two macabre murders while chasing a missing person’s case.
Shafi had given an advertisement in local dailies last year claiming there was special offering to attain wealth and prosperity and those interested should contact him. The advertisement was issued under name of a fictitious godwoman. Seeing the advertisement, Bhagaval Singh and Laila, contacted him and he offered to make them rich and convinced them best option was human sacrifice. Both shelled out money and finally Shafi lured two victims to his house for human sacrifice, said officers. Police are now investigating many missing cases in Pathanamthitta and surrounding areas to find out whether Shafi had trapped more victims like this.
Stir over Vizhinjam port
The 138-day-long strike against the upcoming multi-utility sea port in Vizhinjam near Thiruvananthapuram was called off on December 6 after several rounds of discussions. Strike called by fishermen and Latin Catholic church spewed communal sparks on several occasions after many inhabitants of the area, mainly Hindus, opposed the protests.
Fishermen disrupted the ongoing work of the project, being carried out by industrialist Gautam Adani-owned Adani Ports, alleging large-scale construction and breakwater projects affected their livelihood and earlier promises on rehabilitation were not met. They raised a six-point demand, including stopping of the ongoing work and a fresh impact study by an expert group. The government, however, insisted that the ongoing work could not be stopped and after three months’ pause, Adani Ports restarted its work.
A natural mother port, Vizhinjam is expected to change the maritime face of the country, experts say. During the reign of erstwhile Travancore dynasty, Divan C P Ramaswamy Iyer (1936- 1947) realised the potential of the deep seaport but failed to materialise. The idea was revived in 1990s when MV Raghavan was Port Minister but again failed to move ahead. Cases were filed one after the other when project tender was floated and an international conspiracy was also sniffed to delay the project. Local fishermen were also provoked regularly and there was a series of protests and litigation.
In 2014, a fresh tender was floated when Oommen Chandy was the chief minister and Adani Group was the sole bidder. In 2015, Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited entered into an agreement with the state government to construct and maintain the port for 40 years. Under the private-public-partnership agreement, the Adani Group will design, build, finance, operate and transfer the project after stipulated time. Deadline of the ₹7,525 crore-project was 2019, but delayed due to cyclone Ockhi in 2017 and Cyclone Taukatae last year. Later shortage of granite rocks for breakwater and Covid-19 pandemic further pushed back the deadline, which is now set for September 2023.