Interview with Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala
Kerala’s Chief Minister Oommen Chandy seems a man on a mission to transform the image of Kerala into an investment-friendly destination. In an hour-long interview over breakfast to The Hindu group of publications in Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. Chandy underlined efforts to improve the State’s infrastructure, which he said was the key to job creation. He described next week’s “Emerging Kerala” as an event to showcase investment opportunities and a platform for an “exchange of ideas.” Excerpts:
What is your plan to tackle Kerala’s biggest problem which is employment?
We have faced this problem seriously during the past. Now the situation has completely changed. Now we have a shortage of unskilled labour and have to depend on workers from other States. Today money is not a problem but the willpower of the government and implementing agency are important. The chances and opportunities are there. Very good quality of human resources is available.
What is your development agenda for Kerala?
Mr. Sam Pitroda is a mentor to the Kerala government. He has identified 10 areas of development. The first is coastal transport. We have three important ports — Vallarpadam, already constructed, Vizhinjam, which is soon to be built and Azhikkal in Kannur district. In between we have 14 small ports. Once developed, we can transport goods [by] sea. This will reduce traffic on the roads and also reduce expenditure by 40 per cent on transport cost. We are seeking investments on this.
The second is national waterways. In the central part, Kollam to Kottapuram is going to be complete but even that was delayed by 10 years. Money is not a problem as it is centrally funded but there were problems from fishermen. If we complete this national waterway up to Kasargod, the inland water transport will give a big boost to tourism.
The third is development of an ayurveda system, which is also linked to tourism. And then there are other areas like IT, high quality education and so on...
We want to build up our educational institutions to international standards, tourism and to some extent, our hospitals.
But isn’t creating jobs at home the most important issue now?
We have a definite vision on that. We know our strength and weaknesses. Education and health are our strengths.
But we have neglected infrastructure development. We have to concentrate on infrastructure development. We know that if infrastructure is there, investment will definitely come and job opportunities will open up. So now we are concentrating on infrastructure development.
Do you have any plans to attract the manufacturing sector to Kerala?
We know that we are far behind in the manufacturing sector and we know the limitations also. Kerala is a very thickly populated state. We have some land in Palakkad and some more land in Kasargod where we can bring in manufacturing companies. Otherwise we don’t have much wasteland.
So we cannot think of inviting the major polluting industries. Even so, we are thinking of a corridor from Kochi to Palakkad where we want to identify land and invite manufacturing companies to invest.
But you can get clean industries such as textiles or watches…
See, I’m not able to get labour for that here. In my constituency, there is a power loom and a spinning mill. They find it very difficult to get labour. Everybody is concerned about education here and even workers want to send their children to the best schools, as they should. So costs are high and labour is expensive.
No, no, that’s an old story. Now the entire working class and their leadership have changed. Kerala has the lowest figure in India for working days lost due to labour strikes. There may be many units closed but that is for various other reasons.
What kind of investments are you expecting ‘Emerging Kerala’ to yield?
We are not planning this as an investment meet. There are two aims of “Emerging Kerala.” We want to showcase the opportunities available here. And second, we want to send out the message to the world that Kerala has changed. Kerala is an investment-friendly state, we are welcoming investors and want investment. We also want an open discussion about Kerala’s chances and opportunities and want the other side’s point of view. There are representatives of 52 countries attending the event. This is a forum for an exchange of ideas.
Is Kerala’s high literacy level turning out to be a bane with unskilled labour turning scarce?
I don’t think so. The literacy rate and our achievement in education are plus points. That is what opened up the rest of the world to us. But now we have reached a stage where opportunities outside are receding. Yes, protests are there but we are trying to convince them. One thing we are sure about: we lost our chances because of a lack of willpower. When people raise allegations or say something, we backtracked. Now we are not ready to do that. We are ready to hear any complaints and convince anybody.
What is your vision for Kerala for the remainder of your term?
My main aim is to develop the infrastructure of the State with whatever possible method. There is only one problem, that of acquisition of land. Money is not an issue. We are ready to take care of the financial aspect of landowners. We are ready to give a good financial package for them at market value.