There has been an overshelming response to the serial story in Madhyamam newspaper about the corruption in building permit practices in local self-administration, resulting in the suicide of a non-resident investor in Anthoor in Kerala. The reports drawn from various parts of Kerala, drew a picture of the crisis created by the corruption and rigid stances of officials concerned.
The experiences related by the respondents drive home the fact that Kerala has become a virtual graveyard of investor dreams – dreams that get shattered by technical snags and red tape. Many of them, who followed up the stories with their own bitter tales, appear to be afflicted by the pain and anguish building up to a similar tragic end as of NRI investor Sajan. If no end is brought to the the sad situation of entrepreneurship stumbling at the unyielding stance of officials and the greed of politicians, Kerala can never shed the disrepute of being anti-investor.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, it may be recalled, had assumed office with a declaration that he would rein in bureaucratic misrule. Still, over the last two years, entrepreneurs, when caught in red tape chose to commit suicide. Over ten thousand buildings are lying idle for want of Occupancy Certificates. The majority of the owners are fed up with waiting in the corridors of offices. Over a thousand projects remain blocked by the overlordship of bureaucracy-political leadership. Things have come to such a pass in pulic mentality that if any one sincerely wishes to start any industrial venture, many an eyebrow will be raised at him with the question why he did not explore other easier means of suicide!
Kerala has now come to recognize that decentralization of power, while opening new prospects of development, has also led to the decentralization of corruption. It is time to rethink if the systems and reforms that aimed at extending democracy to the maximum number of people, have resulted in creating a new elite power centre. The essence of the chief minister's pronouncement in the assembly the other day is that the outcome of decentralization has been concentration of excessive powers in the secretaries of local self-governments. All the same, the related reforms in law have no provision to rein the new local political elite that got entrenched through decentralization of authority.
What the outrage and protests of the people against local governments tell us is that it is high time for a thorough overhaul in the local government machinery. Most of the officials in government offices and local political leaders act and behave with a given that investors, especially non-residents, are by default black money holders and swindlers. Sajan and Sugathan, who both had put all their wealth earned abroad in enterprises in India, were victimised in the process. If this alarming message is sent to any prospective investor and non-residents, it is bound to become a death-knell of Kerala's development.
Majority of Indian expatriates earn their wealth and ascend the social ladder through hard work; and only if government servants and politicans become willing to accept this and to mesh with them on that basis, can the closed door of development be re-opened. In the absence of an enterprise-friendly attitude from officialdom and political leadership, every rule will become a tool for corruption. Then, laws will become the path of suicide for some and a licence for violation of law for some others on the other side. Kerala currently has tens of thousands of people whose construction works have been stalled due to the rigidity of building rules. But it is in the same state of Kerala that some skycrapers were ordered to be demolished by the Supreme Court for violating all rules and environment regulations.
It is laudable that following what is now called 'Anthoor incident', it has been decided to curtail the powers of local government secretaries, and to set up tribunals in Kochi and Kozhikode – in addition to Thiruvananthapuram alone at present – to receive appeals against the secretaries' decisions. Also helpful will be the planned complaints redressal tribunals, and the adalats to be held to dispose of cases involving buildings pending approvals till 31 May 2019 and those awaiting occupancy certificates and building numbers in spite of completion as per law. Those adalats to be conducted under the leadership of panchayat deputy directors, will give some relief in the complex issues and assuage popular ire against the current situation. But if the government is aiming at lasting solutions, it should be prepared to revisit the entire gamut of building rules and regulations and see if they are up-to-date and scientific. In this era with advances in technology, procedures can be modernized in such a way as to make it unnecessary for the public to physically approach the local government offices. Only when local bodies become people-friendly, can attractive local development models evolve.