Last month, the Kerala government banned its own lottery which had been running for the last 35 years. On-line lotteries had made their entry into the state just three years ago. Allegations of foul play in the conduct of on-line lottery, evasion of huge amounts of sales tax, milking away of large volumes of monies from the lower income group of lottery addicts followed. Cases and counter cases were filed in various state courts. The government responded by banning on-line lotteries and other state lotteries.
When the matters reached the Supreme Court, the apex body asked the state government to apologize for contempt of court. The very next day, the government banned all lotteries including its own. The state lottery had been earning the government a modest income all through the years. But more than that, nearly three lakh lottery vendors were eking out their livelihood selling state lottery tickets. The list of lottery vendors is a virtual who is who of the weakest and the poorest: physically handicapped, widows, old people, indigent students, the unemployed and former beggars. The ban was a guillotine for them.
The inevitable agitations and protests followed. There was a suicide and a couple of attempted suicides. Within a fortnight, government reversed its decision and decided to lift the self-imposed ban. But permission from the central government and new legislation will now be required; the assembly meets on the 1st of March.
On 10 February, the Kerala High Court ordered the government to allow the sale of other state lotteries from whom it had collected advance sales tax up to 31st of March. So the lottery scenario is this: Assam, Sikkim, Nagaland and other state lottery are sold in Kerala where as its own are not. The lottery department itself had been wound up along with the ban. Hence there is no one to sell Kerala lottery tickets and worse, there is no one to monitor whether the other-state tickets being sold are genuine or not.
In the meantime, the Ommen Chandy government has completed five months in power.
In the very first month, the government had come up with wholesale amendments to the Abkari Act favouring the liquor lobby and had to hastily withdraw them on the face of massive protests from all corners. But the government has not given up offering pelf to the liquor big guns. License fees worth Rs 236 crores (1 crore = 10 million) are overdue from contractors running the liquor shops. Barons have amassed enough wealth, but they do not pay up. So what does the government do? It is setting up a commission for arbitrage, and that may mean huge concessions.
The same government expresses its helplessness in mitigating debt-trapped conditions of farmers. Debts have become death-traps for farmers and some had committed suicide.
Soon after assuming power, the Chief Minister announced a 100-day action plan. The main agenda was the hearing of petitions and complaints from the general public directly by the CM. Mega events were arranged in all the 14 districts. The expenses for these extravaganzas came to Rs 2.5 crores, the government admitted in the assembly. This is not inclusive of the daily bata, traveling expenses of a big contingent of officials and fuel charges of the numerous government vehicles that were put into use.
During the 100-day action plan period, a massive agitation gathered strength on a different controversy. It was for the resignation of Kunhalikkutty, the Muslim League minister who was named by the victim of a sex scandal. The minister was firm on sticking on. The agitation took several ugly turns and even media persons were targeted by ministers men and the police. Finally, Kunhalikkutty decided to quit.
Now it is the turn of another minister to quit on the sandalwood controversy. The minister in charge of the forest department, K P Viswanathan. This time, there was no public agitation or media pressure. The Kerala High Court passed a stricture against the minister and a damning one to boot. V. Mustapha of the Walayar Rural Industries and five others (sandalwood mafia) had gone to the court seeking anticipatory bail. The court rejected the bail plea, saying that the minister has links to the mafia.
On the first day of the courts stricture, the minister refused to resign. But the next morning, he dramatically announced in the assembly of his decision to quit and the CM accepted it on the spot. Instead of their pleasant aroma, Kerala's sandalwood trees have been emitting foul stench for the last few years. Corruption, collusion and callous indifference is beginning to hurt. The forest department recently released the following data.
EARLIER Recruiting debt
Kunhalikkutty and media
|Year||Number of sandalwood trees|
The release also said that only 68% of the trees remain when compared to the year 2000. In the last two months alone, 700 trees have gone missing from the sanctuary, officials have admitted. Even at a conservative valuation, a kilo of the wood fetches Rs 2000. A mature tree invariably produces around 100 kg of wood. That puts the the worth of produce smuggled out of the forest reserves in the last two months at a whopping Rs.34 crores.
The sandalwood wealth of Kerala is being steadily eroded. Forest officials and the police have been totally ineffective in preventing this. There are many among these two forces who are aiding and abetting the mafia. This mafia has deeply entrenched roots and has a strong nexus with the politicians.
The day the forest minister resigned, there were two vicious attacks on forest officials in the vicinity of the sandalwood reserves. The same night, 30 trees each weighing approximately 150 kg were cut and smuggled away. Over the last few years, more than 100 criminal cases have been registered and there are more than 450 accused. Only 10 of them have been apprehended and even they have been let off on bail.
Post-resignation, Mr. KP Viswanathan is approaching the Supreme Court for getting the High Court strictures quashed. Surprisingly enough, Chief Minister Chandy announced that the state government itself is going to the highest court in the country to clear the name of the minister. Some experts have pointed out that this is an unprecedented step. The cabinet vacancy too has been kept open for the safe return of the minister.
One cannot but recall the fate of the 'Suryanelli' case. A sixteen year-old girl was kept under duress for forty odd days and subjected to sexual molestation and torture. A trial court had sentenced all 36 accused, most of them belonging to the higher echelons of the society. They went to the high court in appeal. The high court acquitted all but one of them on the grounds that the girl was three months past her 16th birthday and the sexual relations were with her consent, as it has not been proved otherwise. The court also accused the hapless girl of not protesting and if protesting, not loud enough.
The verdict sent shockwaves throughout the state. Almost every political party worth its name and innumerable social, women and feminist organizations have demanded the state government appeal the High Courts decision in the Supreme Court. But this time, the same enthusiasm the government showed to exonerate minister Viswanathan does not seem to exist.
35 accused released, the victim accused. Gangmen's bail plea rejected, minister accused. To mitigate the agony of whom does the state government say it will appeal at the Supreme Court? Chief minister Chandy has no doubts or second thoughts on the 'Suryanelli' case. He was not even willing to give an assurance at least as a mollifying gesture; he said 'the law will take its own course'.
The Kerala state government appears to be vacillating and perhaps even blundering with regularity. Decisions are being rescinded, mauled and restored, causing more problems. The state's tourism department in the meantime continues to use the cliché 'Gods Own Country'! (Quest Features and Footage)