The new year dawned in Kerala with a first for the state—the creation of a Kerala Administrative Service modeled on the Indian Administrative Service—reflecting the changes being ushered in by Communist chief minister PinarayiVijayan. The service is expected to enable lateral entry, and infuse young blood and meritorious candidates into the top layers of the bureaucracy, where Vijayan has already introduced biometric attendance. It is the latest of such initiatives ushered in by Vijayan after a year that saw him swing into action over some of the promises he made before taking office in May 2016. Such initiatives straddle idealism and pragmatism, analysts said, and 2018 will show whether they will endure as his legacy.
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In 2017, Vijayan increased the corpus and the number of people eligible for welfare pension to the highest ever levels in the state’s history (to 5 million people and about Rs6,000crore respectively); ensured that accident victims get free treatment in the crucial first 48 hours; and promised power connection and toilets for every household.
The measures are in keeping with the aims of the Left Front which came to power promising welfare-oriented governance. Vijayan reopened some of the public sector units that were in a state of paralysis and made them profitable, started building multi-story apartments for the homeless, gave a face-lift to public schools and hospitals, strengthened agriculture, and ordered better management of natural resources such as water and forests.
Many of his plans to rebuild social and capital infrastructure are being funded by borrowing Rs. 50,000crore from the market. This expenditure is outside the government budget and rolled out through a newly reconstituted public sector company ‘Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board’. But the loan is likely to add financial stress to a state that already has one of the widest revenue deficits in India.
Vijayan’s initiatives have brought him great publicity—like a move to implement reservation norms in state-run temples to allow Dalits to work as priests. Or his occasional interventions in the market; increasing the number of special counters during the festival seasons to provide rice and vegetables at subsidized prices, especially after the Centre’s demonetization of high-value currency and roll out of the goods and services tax.
Under his watch, the newly commissioned Kochi Metro hiring about 23 transgenders, a first for a public office in India, was well noted even in the international press. In a highly literate state, his Rs900 crore education loan repayment scheme, meant to take the load off students, was received well, as was a scheme called ‘She Pad’ to provide free sanitary napkins for free in about half of public schools. Also popular are several schemes for Kerala’s 3.4 million migrant workers, focusing on improving their livelihood and education.
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“The year showed that there is awareness within the administration about the problems faced by the state. Vijayan’s efforts show a desire to tackle them. But whether they will achieve the results, we have to wait and see in the coming days,” said B.R.P. Bhaskar, a political analyst.
Bhaskar said the period reminds him of the 1990s, when the Left movement launched several programmes in Kerala, including a major campaign for decentralization of power. Those moves had attracted many people towards the Left in Kerala, he said, “but very soon (they) got disillusioned,” as they, “haven’t been able to deliver in full.”
“There is no doubt PinarayiVijayan is an efficient administrator,” said K.J. Jacob, a political analyst and executive editor of Deccan Chronicle newspaper in Kerala. But, he said, in reference to the continuing spate of notorious political killings between Left and Right wing cadres, “the home department is hanging like a stone over his neck.”
Jacob is doubtful of Vijayan’s performance so far as a politician. He points to the aftermath of the devastating cyclone Ockhi. Vijayan failed to visit one of the worst-hit areas just minutes away from his office, Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram, until four days after the disaster. But just after news came in that the opposition BJP leader and union defense minister NirmalaSitharaman will be visiting the place, he made a hurried visit on a Sunday night and found himself unwelcome among the locals. In the following days, his government devised a rehabilitation package that went much beyond the norm in its scope and extent of coverage.