Vijayan said the state had drawn up a concrete plan to ensure returning NRKs’ rehabilitation and welfare.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who swept back into power for a record second term just recently, said his new government would “not leave any stone unturned” in its mission to repay non-resident Keralites for their inestimable contributions.
The veteran Communist Party leader, who led the Left Democratic Front to a landslide win on a rare pro-incumbency wave, described NRKs, whose remittances have been the backbone of the state’s economy, as an “integral part of our life and development”.
In an exclusive virtual interview with Khaleej Times, Vijayan said the state had drawn up a concrete plan to ensure returning NRKs’ rehabilitation and welfare. “We share their agonies and also their dreams.”
The immediate priorities of Pinarayi team 2.0 include mitigating the sufferings of the Covid-hit people, poverty alleviation, raising Keralites’ living standard to global standards, generating two million jobs and enhancing the state’s appeal to investors as a destination of choice.
The following are excerpts from the interview in which the leader, who has dramatically transformed his persona from a party strongman to a popular administrator, shares his thoughts about the state’s development goals and his aspirations for the welfare of its 35 million people.
Excerpts from the interview:
Taking charge as chief minister for an unprecedented second consecutive term, what are your government’s immediate priorities?
As you are aware, there is tremendous distress on account of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallouts. Our immediate goal is to mitigate the sufferings of the people. Various measures have been taken to restore normalcy. The pandemic has affected all sectors and we are taking appropriate steps to ensure that people are not left high and dry.
We have also drawn up an action plan on the basis of a 50-point programme and our election manifesto. The government is committed to giving solace and relief to the people during the pandemic as well as plan ahead to ensure that Kerala achieves the living standards on par with that of the developed countries in 25 years. Specific committees have been formed with key officials to ensure implementation of various programmes that have been drawn up.
Apart from poverty alleviation, a separate committee has been constituted under the chief secretary to formulate a scheme that will ease the workload of homemakers (housewives) through a ‘Smart Kitchen Project’ and also protect the women engaged in domestic work. Generating employment for two million educated persons is another task we have taken up on ourselves.
How do you envision the next round of economic growth in these difficult times while grappling with the challenges posed by the repatriation of tens of thousands of NRKs, a huge debt pile-up and slow growth?
It’s true that our state has been badly hit by calamities and pandemics. One of our major concerns is the return of NRKs, but we have drawn up a concrete plan to ensure their welfare.
Pravasis are an integral part of our life and development. We share their agonies and also dreams. The pandemic has prompted the rerun of thousands of pravasis but the LDF government has adopted various measures to mitigate their sufferings and also their rehabilitation. Our aim is to use NRKs’ knowledge, wealth, wisdom and experience to the benefit of the state. Also to ensure a decent livelihood to the pravasis and their families.
Last year, the LDF government implemented various schemes and services, amounting to more than Rs1.4 billion, an all-time high since the formation of the Norka (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs) Department in 1996. We have announced many measures as part of our new manifesto. Let me assure you, the government would take necessary steps to ensure that pravasis are repaid for their tremendous contribution to the development of our state.
In your first term, you have been quite proactive on NRK issues and made several commitments. Taking stock, how far have you succeeded in delivering those?
We have been requesting the Central Government to cooperate with us to provide necessary programmes and schemes to help the returnees. The resources of the state are limited. But we will not leave any stone unturned in order to help the NRKs. There are many welfare and service measures that we have initiated which includes financial assistance, medical assistance, loans for ventures, facilitation for new employment, etc. Rehabilitation, reintegration and resettlement are cardinal to our policy.
Your vision of a New Kerala remains a task unfinished. How do you plan to achieve this goal?
I would say that a strong beginning has been made. There was an impression that nothing happens in Kerala. This situation has changed completely. Major infrastructure projects held up for decades have been completed or are in the works. The GAIL Pipeline and Edamon-Kochi Power Highway are some of the projects which were revived and completed.
Semi-high speed railways, inland water way and water metro, along with the national highways development, will give much fillip to the investment scenario. We also have an ambitious plan to invigorate the higher education system so that students who pass out are employable.
Linking educational institutions with the industry is another goal. The overall environment in the state is suited for major improvements. As I said, Kerala should achieve the living standard of developed nations and our policies and programmes are aimed at achieving this goal.
Why did you decide to keep the portfolio of minorities’ welfare to yourself? There are allegations that it was meant to appease the Christian community.
The interpretations are wrong. We consider every department important. The government believes in being fair to everyone.
Aided schools have been a vexed problem for the state. Why are both LDF and UDF governments scared to “nationalise” them? The government pays salaries while the managements keeps the appointment rights, making millions out of the business.
Both government and aided schools have contributed much to the education sector. We don’t intend to disrupt the scheme. However, the government is focusing on a mission to revitalise public schooling. So many students have shifted from private institutions to government schools. The smart school concept has paved the way for modernising the facilities. During the pandemic, online digital classes helped our students to adhere to the syllabus schedule. There has been encouraging support from the civil society to get electronic and digital devices to those students who didn’t have it. I can very well say that schooling in our state is a model to our country.
V.D. Satheesan, representing a new generation in the Congress, has been appointed opposition leader in the state assembly. He has pledged a creative opposition, offering support to the good things your government would implement. Your comments.
I am glad that the opposition has understood the importance of rendering creative support to the government. When he took charge as the opposition leader, I greeted him and wished him the very best. Time and again, I have requested all parties to rise above partisan interests and be considerate to the larger interests of the state. Negative politics played by the opposition has been rejected by the people and I wish they see the writing on the wall.
K.K. Shailaja had risen to an indisputable stature with her tireless job as your health minister. Dropping her from your new cabinet has renewed the common belief that patriarchy runs deep in the CPM.
K.K. Shailaja was an able minister who handled the health department well. However, our party had taken two decisions — limiting two terms to each contestant and bringing fresh faces in the government — to equip the party to face future challenges. Shailaja is a senior member of our party, and her contributions will be important in future too. The so-called controversy about her is unwarranted. She herself has made it clear.
Will there be an attempt to solve the Sabarimala Temple issue amicably, or will your government go by a court decision?
The Sabarimala issue is under the consideration of the larger bench of the Supreme Court. Let us all wait for the verdict. Anyone who wants to whip up frenzy has only vested interest. I would request the media to understand the situation and not to become a tool in the hands of these people.
What is the secret of your overwhelming popularity vis-a-vis other populist former CMs despite your tough persona and refusal to play to the gallery?
I had predicted a massive mandate even before the election campaign started. Despite various obstacles, we tried our level best to reciprocate the aspirations of the people. The twin objective of welfare and development was appreciated by the people. The adjectives you have used for me don’t have any relevance. Media has a tendency to typecast and stereotype people. The mandate we have got is for the policies and programmes of the LDF. Individuals are not important.
Kerala now a ‘destination of choice’ for investors
Kerala is transforming into “a destination of choice” for global investors, says Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose government has rolled out a series of investor-friendly reforms soon after coming to power for the second time in a row.
In his interview with Khaleej Times, the Kerala chief minister said a string of pro-investor reforms the ruling LDF has initiated include the creation of a single-window system to address investors’ grievances and concerns and clearance and vetting of investor proposals in a time-bound manner.
On his government’s plans to woo new investors, Vijayan said the state has been relentlessly working to ensure that Kerala becomes a destination of choice for global investors. “I am happy to note that many top-line companies have come to Kerala, especially in the IT sector. There has been a boom in the startup ecosystem. It is true that we need to travel farther and faster. I am sure that the resilience that we have demonstrated in fighting the calamities and pandemic has caught the imagination of many.”
He said he had personally instructed officials to ensure that investor proposals need to be vetted and cleared in a time-bound manner. “The single-window system that we have introduced to address investors’ grievances and concerns, and other pro-investor friendly initiatives, including auto-clearance of projects below a stipulated investment size, have a positive impact among entrepreneurs. The government is initiating steps to create awareness so that genuine investments are facilitated. We would certainly see positive results in the coming months.”
On how the cash-strapped state planned to get the funding required for the ambitious welfare and development programmes, the minister said the government had relied on debt for various development schemes. The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board as an organisation has become a role model for the country. Taking loans for development is something that will help the state in the long run.
“It’s true that NRI remittances have come down. NRI contributions to the Indian GDP stood at 3.4 per cent in 2018. Each NRI money transfer adds to the state’s foreign exchange pool. Today we are very proud that Kerala has topped the list of states, accounting for about 19 per cent share, or $13.11 billion (approximately Rs950 billion) of the total remittances of $69 billion that India received last year,” he said.
Quoting the latest estimates published in the World Bank’s Migration and Development Brief, he said the amount of money migrant workers will send home is projected to decline by 14 per cent by 2021.
“These are data available in the formal channel. But I should say this should not deter us from tapping NRI investments. With the pandemic and the adverse social situation in many parts of the world, our people have realised the strength of the homeland. High human resource index, quality health system, harmonious living etc. will certainly make NRKs to look up to Kerala,” Vijayan said.