It’s well over 10 at night, but Oommen Chandy still has visitors lined up at Cliff House, his official residence in Thiruvananthapuram. The chief minister patiently listens to a group of party workers clad in the trademark white Khadi before calling us in. His daughter hands him over some tablets and a cup of water, as we settle down for the interview. Excerpts from the conversation.
Q) As you complete five years as chief minister, what do you think are the biggest challenges for Kerala?
While we are ahead of other states in areas such as education, social developments and healthcare, we are lagging behind in basic infrastructure. Investments will come to our state only when we have good, basic infrastructure in place. That is essential for economic growth.
So this government’s aim has been strengthening our infrastructure. We have had some significant achievements: During this government’s tenure, we started work on such landmark projects as the Kannur airport, Kochi metro, Vizhinjam port, Thiruvananthapuram-Kollam light metro etc.
The biggest challenge our state is facing is actually in healthcare. Hardly anyone starves in our state; but health is an issue. The best healthcare in India is available in Kerala, but a majority of our families can’t afford that. We are striving to change that situation.
That’s why we decided to start medical colleges in all districts. All children up to 18 years are now given free medical treatment. Of the 3.2 million people eligible for social welfare pension in the state, 1.8 million are already getting it. My government is taking steps to ensure that the rest too get the pension soon.
Q) What have been the learnings from your mass contact programs?
My biggest experiences about our people are through the mass contact program. People have problems that are unimaginable to most of us. I have received so many grievances, and the government has taken steps to resolve them. My colleagues often ask me what’s the need for lengthy conversations with people, but I get so many great ideas from such interactions. People are always watching me, and I am never alone. I generally meet people in groups. Anybody can meet me, but not in private.
Q) Can a state like Kerala afford the ban on alcohol?
The decision to shut down bars is a very bold step by this government. There is a general perception that this move is causing a big revenue loss to the government. I don’t really care about the revenue loss. The state exchequer gets about 70 billion rupees annually from liquor trade. I agree that it is a big amount for a state like Kerala. But we lose twice or thrice the 70 billion rupees we earn, on account of health issues, road accidents from drunken driving etc. And then, we have massive social issues caused by alcoholism. When you factor in these aspects, a loss of 70 billion rupees is not a loss at all.
The other issue is illicit liquor. We need to step up awareness about this trouble. We haven’t had the problem of illicit liquor so far, because we haven’t yet completely banned alcohol. Eighty percent of Beverages Corporation’s outlets are still open. I do have concerns about what will happen when complete prohibition takes place. I don’t think the present calm is permanent.
Now the usage of liquor has come down in the state. We still need to carry out more campaigns to make our youth stay away from alcohol.
When we take a step aimed at the larger interest of the society, we need to ensure that people don’t lose their livelihood. I have absolute sympathy with the people who have lost their jobs because of the ban on bars. We need to provide them compensation. We haven’t been able to do that yet, but we must.
Q) Are you hopeful of a solution to the Mullaperiyar dispute?
Disputes regarding water are common around the world. All those disputes are usually about the quantity of water and the conditions and timing related to its supply. Here there is no such problem: Tamil Nadu can take as much water as they want from Mullaperiyar. The dam is 120 years old and the agreement with Tamil Nadu is for 999 years. The dam won’t last that long.
The question is whether we need a new dam today or tomorrow. We are saying that we need the dam today to protect our people’s lives. The stance of the Tamil Nadu government in the matter is rather surprising. We have no intention to prevent them from taking water even for a day. We would like the central government to mediate in this matter.
Q) Are you going to lead the Congress party at the upcoming assembly elections?
As far as I am concerned, my aim is to complete the term of this assembly. After the elections, MLAs and the party high command will decide who should be the new chief minister. Congress Party traditionally never projects a leader in state elections. That trend will continue here as well.
(Photo by Mahesh Harilal)