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A bridge too far, and other vignettes of contemporary Kerala life

Here is a set of perhaps emblematic vignettes from Kerala that go to show the state of the State, through the eyes of a visitor, albeit a native one.

The Pannikkuzhi bridge: This anchovy (nee netholi) of a bridge has been creating orca-size headaches for road-travellers in the central Travancore region of Kerala. The traffic bottleneck at the never-ending construction site of the bridge has backed up vehicles for hours between Changanassery and Thiruvalla on the Main Central Road. En route my village from the Kochi airport, we were stuck in a traffic jam for about an hour before we could take a detour.

Indeed, these days, every town and city is experiencing traffic chaos caused by lack of infrastructure, poor maintenance of existing roads, absence of new highways and byways, proliferation of vehicles, and poor traffic law enforcement. Even simple construction projects are seldom delivered on time or within the budget. They drag on possibly because of incompetence, ineptness and corruption. Money is never enough to complete a project with quality outcomes.

Competing government agencies, politicians without a common vision, contractors lacking ethics, and common people with little interest all contribute to the failures of public-interest endeavours.

Postscript: The day before we left India, the bridge was hastily opened for one-way traffic following a demand from the public, the media, and dignitaries who suffered long delays, only to be closed after an hour or so as a truck created a sinkhole as the ground gave in, exposing shoddy construction.

The e-toilet: There was a news report that summed up the state of many government initiatives in Kerala. The e-toilet was the topic du jour. The government at all levels spent much money to install e-toilets across towns and villages. These modern comfort stations, after a few months in operation, became items of discomfort as they malfunctioned because of neglect and poor maintenance. This is true with respect to most government undertakings and endeavours from toilets to incinerators and garbage removal. As the initial enthusiasm, interest wanes, funding stops, and finally the initiative fails. Amazingly, no one takes responsibility. Definitely, this e in e-toilet represents a huge white elephant!

Migrant workers: I have seen this in U.S. cities. As you drive through certain areas early in the morning, usually you see migrant workers congregating in certain high-demand areas looking for work. People who need casual workers for a day come and escort them to their home, farm or workplace. During the recent visit, I see the same happening in towns and cities in Kerala.

The only difference is that they are not Mexicans, Cubans or Haitians; they are mostly Bengalis.

They find Kerala a lucrative place for casual, odds-and-ends and handyman jobs. They are willing to work hard while native Keralites shrug away those mundane jobs. For the migrants, Kerala is the new Middle East.

Beer on a light note: As I squeezed through the barricades in front of the nondescript, stinky and garbage-piled-up front of the government-owned consumer liquor store, I gently asked the person on the other side of the small window for a case of beer. As my brother and I waited for the response, I saw the line behind us growing. From the dimly lit inside, I saw the head shaking and came the verdict: only five bottles allowed per head. I agreed, and asked for five bottles for my brother and five for me. The person inside agreed and I paid money. Another person shoved 10 bottles towards the window and threw the empty carton behind him. I asked him for a box or bag so that we can carry them to our car that was parked a few hundred metres away. The response was pretty brief and negative.

Sometimes there is no logic behind certain laws, and how they are implemented. Well, we had no choice but to corral the bottles in our hands to the car.

Downturn of the bar: The policies on liquor licensing has been mired in controversies. It is confusing for bar owners and people alike. Till a few years ago, bars in Kerala were doing brisk business. Now, the new law restricts full bar availability to five-star hotels.

The restaurant menus are a different story. Many of the restaurants have no menu cards, not many staff, and very limited food choices. In a few of these places during lunch and dinner hours, there were no patrons other than a few of us. The menu is another story. As I found at most of the restaurants, they offer certain ubiquitous Chinese fare such as Gobi Manchurian, Chicken 69, and fried rice. Typical Kerala dishes were invariably absent. Perhaps, for the New-Gen they are passé.

As business shrinks, so does the quality of service. I would assume the same goes with food-handling practices, food safety, cleanliness and hygiene.

se.kumars@gmail.com

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 10:48:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-bridge-too-far-and-other-vignettes-of-contemporary-kerala-life/article8210210.ece

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