//In strike

In strike

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, JUNE 20:Desperate for an image makeover but shying clearly off Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-model solutions, the Left Government in Kerala today declared that it would banish, but not ban, hartals from both the state’s sunrise sectors—IT and tourism.

Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan announced in the State Assembly today that the Government aimed to do that through a ‘‘political consensus.’’ He said Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan would start the process. Kerala has about 2.5 lakh IT employees and over 8 lakh in its tourism sector. The Government has declared it would draw enough investment to open up over two lakh jobs in IT and biotechnology, while tourism is being touted as its biggest earner—the Assembly was told today that the revenue this year would cross Rs 9,000 crore.

In plain terms, the CPM does not want to allow anything to destabilise these sectors, but it cannot afford to be seen as banning strikes either— like Bhattacharjee did in Bengal, declaring IT as an ‘‘essential service.’’ Doing that in Kerala would be seen as ideological hara-kiri, and is virtually certain to be rejected by the hardline honchos, Achuthanandan included. The CITU, CPM’s trade union arm, and the AITUC of the CPI had always taken the posture that taking special economic zones where companies operate off the ambit of labour laws, was not tenable. Instead, the Left has now deftly shifted the onus to the Congress-led opposition, which it can’t hope to evade. When he was chief minister, opposition leader Oommen Chandy had tried to do a Buddhadeb, bringing IT under the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), but the Left raised a huge din and got him to backtrack. The two Left trade union leaders who led opposition to that aborted move, C Divakaran and P K Gurudasan, are both ministers in the state cabinet now.

The CPM had also made big protests in 1997 when the Kerala High Court banned bandhs for the first time in the country, and in 2000 when it ruled against hartals and said the two were one and the same. In the failed Special Leave Petition it moved in the Supreme Court challenging the Kerala HC’s bandh ban, the CPM had contended that calling a bandh or protest was a fundamental right of every political party, and any curbs on such right would amount to infringement of the fundamental rights under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution. Calling for a ban on bandhs (or hartals), the CPM had maintained, was not consistent with the right form an association besides the right to freedom of speech and expression.

The no-hartal idea mooted today follows discussions Achuthanandan had with delegations from several IT majors, including Infosys which had expressed its keenness to come to Kerala in a big way.

Kerala probably has had the highest number of illegal bandhs passing for crippling hartals, with an estimated 15 or more days lost every year to it. Wipro chairman Azim Premji had famously remarked sometime ago that Kerala can’t expect to draw much investment unless it got rid of its a hartal-a-month tradition.

Besides severely denting its investment-destination image, hartals have been proving very costly too. Last year, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) had estimated the cost of hartals here to include a 4 to 6 per cent hike in cost of production on account of advanced stocking of materials and demurrage, another 3 per cent increase in logistics and transit costs, a loss from 6 to 8 per cent in production volume, all translating to an average hartal day’s loss of production of around Rs 700 crore.

‘‘We thought it was absolutely important to prevent disruptions in IT and tourism and decided to take the opposition into confidence on that. There won’t be a formal ban on hartals in any sector,’’ Industries minister Elamaram Kareem told The Indian Express. Kareem said the Left has not considered replicating this idea in manufacturing industries or any other spheres, ‘‘but maybe we could think of that some time in the future,’’ he hoped.