Purpose of religion is spiritual exploration

Religion stands for peace and harmony. Yet religion has been used to justify violence throughout human history [2, 3, 4, 5]

In the history of Kerala, warfare has been rare. However, religion has played a more subtle role in contributing to human misery. In Kerala, religion has been an oppressive factor by promoting communal forces, inhibiting social cohesion necessary for economic development.

The purpose of religion is spiritual exploration. However, religion has expanded its influence into cultural, social, political, commercial and educational activities historically. Religion operates with belief frameworks that require suspension of critical thinking. Unfortunately, this enables manipulation of religion by vested interests.

Kollam carnage [2] offers an opportunity for critical assessment of traditional practices in Kerala, many of which have evolved from ancient times. These customs and practices may have had valid reasons in the past, but are incompatible with present conditions. The smart approach will be to discard old customs that do not fit current conditions, instead of clinging to them in the name of tradition.

Malankara Orthodox church head Baselios Marthoma Paulose II calls to ban fireworks in religious festivals (“Call to ban fireworks in religious fests,” The Times of India, Apr. 12, 2016). The causes of the Kollam carnage are much broader and deeper, and a better approach will be to address the root causes.

Fireworks do not have any religious significance, but help enhance festivals and cultural programs associated with celebrations. Hence fireworks are a misfit for religious festivals. One approach to improve the situation is to bifurcate current festivals into two. One focused on spiritual aspects, and the other focusing on cultural and commercial activities. Fireworks (not fire crackers) may be made part of the cultural festivals.

It is a common practice in Kerala to parade elephants in celebrations, including religious festivals. These elephants are mistreated, resulting in frequent rampages and deaths. It is high time for Kerala to outgrow ancient traditions, and adopt practices that are compatible with high population density in cities and suburbs. Elephants are a safety hazard in crowded areas and small festival grounds. Besides, elephant parades are promoting animal cruelty (“These elephants suffer in silence,” The Times of India, Apr. 12, 2016 [2]). Since these are large and frequent occurrences, elephant parades have a negative impact on the social consciousness by desensitizing cruelty.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Ban use of fire crackers (those creating sound effects), instead use fireworks ( those creating light effects) in cultural festivals.
  2. Stop use of elephants in temple and other festivals.
  3. Religious practices, especially organized activities, need to be limited to promoting spirituality. Using religious justifications for social and political activities are conflict-enabling, and decreases social cohesion.
  4. Kerala government should divest itself from religious institutions.
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French standards have fallen

The Time of India reports about the Kochi Metro project: “French team happy with progress report” (Apr. 21, 2016). And adds, “A three-member team from Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the French development agency funding the project, visited the metro sites and expressed satisfaction over the progress of the work on Wednesday (Apr. 20).”

For the Kerala government, the Kochi Metro is more a political propaganda [2] tool than a transportation system. The metro trains are expected to be operational June this year. It seems unlikely that the deadlines [2, 3, 4] will be met. There were reports that even when the service starts, it will be partial as significant portions of the tracks and stations are still under construction. Actual areas served by the Kochi Metro will be less than originally planned. For example, when the current construction is completed, service will not reach the transportation hub in Tripunithura [2, 3] as originally planned. Lots of trees were cut to make way for the Kochi Metro, and there were promises that 10 trees will be planted for each tree cut. However, the actual trees planted were far less than promised, and forest department found that the saplings are not being cared for [2, 3]. (That said, it needs to be pointed out that the Kochi Metro is progressing better than many other development projects in Kerala.)

Yet, according to the report the French agency, AFD, is satisfied. France has a rich tradition of high standards, and, in fact, established the metric system of standards [2]. Besides, many scientific breakthroughs originated in France. For example, analytic geometry [2], calculus, chemistry, and high-speed rail [2, 3]. And, of course, modern democracy started in France [2, 3, 4, 5].

So the interesting question is: Have the French standards slipped? Or, perhaps, France does not want high standards for Kochi Metro?


Smart City Squabbling

From the report in The Times of India, “Mayor given the short shrift at SPV meeting” (Mar. 29, 2016), it seems the Cochin Smart Mission Ltd. (CSML) is low on planning, but high on squabbling.

“The meeting which concluded without taking any major decisions also discussed the memorandum and articles of association, recruiting key managerial personnel in urban planning, engineering, urban transport/mobility, energy and environment, urban finance, capacity building and social development, IT and e-governance, and general administration.”

The report increases the troubling concerns about the project. Smart City Mission is for the existing city, and not creating a new city. So what is the reason to build up an entire city organization? Many of these functions must be existing, or should be existing within the current city organizations. Duplicating these functions for Smart City Mission is likely to create conflicts with existing staff and new staff, limiting the potential that could be achieved. Incorporating Smart City Mission into the existing city organizations will help revive and increase their effectiveness and efficiency, which itself will generate many benefits and advantages. And may help achieve breakthrough results with the Smart City Mission project. Kochi [2] has the geographical advantages for being a world class economic center. It would be a shame if the opportunity presented by the Smart City Mission is squabbled away.

Instead of squabbling, Smart City Mission project is an opportunity to institutionalize regional economic development capability using modern metro development methodologies. For example, Robert Weissbourd, President, RW Ventures, LLC, and Mark Muro, Senior Fellow and Policy Director at Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution, describes a new approach to planning for economic development and growth in “Metropolitan Business Plans.” According to them:

Metropolitan business planning adapts the discipline of private-sector business planning to the task of revitalizing regional development.

Such planning provides a framework through which regional business, civic, and government leaders can rigorously analyze the market position of their region; identify strategies by which to capitalize on their unique assets; specify catalytic products, policies, and interventions; and establish detailed operational and financial plans.

These plans can then, in turn, be used to restructure federal, state, and philanthropic engagement in ways that invert the current top-down, highly siloed, and often ineffective approach to cities and metropolitan areas while bringing new efficiency to development activity.

Also clear from the report is a leadership deficit for the Smart City Mission. There was hardly any discussion of the vision for the Rs 2000-crore ($300m) Smart City Mission project. What the project hopes to achieve? How it will change Kochi? Smart City Mission leadership must be thinking how to use the Smart City Mission project to transform Kochi into a powerful center for economic activity.

Without thinking along these lines, most that can be achieved from the Smart City Mission project are some construction activities resulting in buildings and technology pockets without creating an institutionalized economic development capability in Kochi as a world-class metro region. A compelling vision also will help unify the existing staff, new staff and residents of the city behind the project and provide cohesion to the implementation team and effort. Without such leadership, there will be increasing squabbles, wasted resources and effort, along with a lost opportunity.


Climate change is here, now!

In response to a report in The Times of India, “Impact of climate change in state to worsen by 2050,” Mar. 23, 2016.

There is a typo in your tittle (“Impact of climate change in state to worsen by 2050”). The report title should read, “Impact of climate change in state is worsening now.”

“The temperature of Western Ghats will increase by 3-4 degrees by 2050, there by affecting biodiversity of the region,” says E J James, research council chairman, Center for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM.)

The temperatures in the towns and cities are already higher than normal, and outside temperatures during peak sunlight hours are increasingly unbearable. Adding to misery are decreasing air quality by indiscriminate cutting of trees, increasing traffic, and widespread water shortage. As if these are not enough troubles, there is large scale water pollution and environmental degradation. All these have been occurring for the past several years and decades, and seems to have reached a point of no return.

“James recommended precautionary measures like constant monitoring of climate changes and data collection, while asking the state to prepare a plan to meet various scenarios.”

First, monitoring and data collection will not do anything to make things better. What actions need to be taken to make things better? Who is responsible for taking necessary actions? “Asking the state to prepare a plan” seems like a bureaucratic cope out. As chairman of the CWRDM, James is “the state,” and workshop seems to be an effort to create an impression of doing something.

Unfortunately, shirking responsibility and inaction are two common traits found in Kerala government bureaucracy.


Kerala economy needs dashboards

The report in The Times of India, “Cash-strapped state govt knocks at Center’s doors” (Mar. 24, 2016), describes the logical result of the Kerala government engaging in publicity-seeking gimmicks [2, 3] and outright scams [2, 3, 4].

With almost no effort being directed towards productive activities in the economy, getting loans have become necessary source of revenue for Kerala government — from Japan, France, Germany, ADB, Central government [2, 3, 4, 5] and anybody else [2] willing to offer loans.

“To meet monthly expenditures, the state government had opted for raising money through the auction of 10-year state development loans (SDLs.) During January-March, 2016, the government had raised Rs 3,500 crore by auctioning securities.”

It seems Kerala government does not even know the distinction between “development” investment and monthly expenditures. Clearly, using development loans for monthly expenses is deception or illegal. Kerala economy seems to have reached “regulatory capture” [2, 3] by Kerala government.

Things can improve, but first Kerala government needs to change its misguided approach.

  1. Give full autonomy to all Kerala government agencies. Currently, the government occupies a disproportionate share of economic activities and creates “decision bottlenecks.”
  2. Transform the education system to develop a skilled workforce to operate the Kerala economy, so that full economic potential of Kerala can be achieved.
  3. Implement “performance monitoring dashboards” in all government departments, agencies and companies.

One of the current problems is many, if not all, Kerala government departments, agencies and companies are operating without proper financial controls. Performance dashboards, similar to the dashboard in a car, will help monitor revenue, expenses, goals, warnings, impending problems, etc. so that corrective actions can be taken before things turning into crisis.

Kerala economy ($59B, 2014-15) is like a boat without a compass, and Kerala government regularly conjures up ideas which way to go without meaningful goals. With functioning performance dashboards, programs can implemented to revive Kerala economy effectively.


Revive agriculture to promote tourism

The feature in The Times of India, “Ecoturism charts a revival course” (Mar. 22, 2016) is informative.

Kerala State Forest Development Agency (KSFDA) has the right approach for tourism development: “Bringing more destinations under community management is the way forward for the department to tap the state’s full potential in ecotourism.”

Finally, there is some sense in the tourism promotion activities by the Kerala government: “Tourism in forest areas brings in a lot of pressure, and to make it non-destructive and sustainable, the participation of dependent tribal communities is vital. We need to educate people on the conservation of nature,” said K. J. Varghese, additional principal chief conservator of forests.

However, the next report, “Unsound marketing means destinations remain unexplored,” contains misguided ideas. “We do have a significant number of domestic tourists thronging these destinations, but to lure foreigners, we need adequate marketing programs,” said ecotourism director Joseph Thomas.

First, efforts for “luring tourists” are misguided. It demonstrates lack of an intelligent economic perspective about tourism. A good starting point will be to think tourism development can also benefit “locals.” Well manicured roads and gardens surrounding charming castles of the Loire Valley [2, 3] in France is an example for developing tourism destinations, while preserving nature, culture and history.

Trying to market specific destinations will be counterproductive. There needs to be a unified marketing theme for all tourism promotion activities. For example, the caption could be “Destination Kerala.” Within this invitation, there can be several themes: 1) beaches, 2) mountains, 3) lakes, 4) forests, 5) wildlife, 6) human agriculture, 7) nature conservation, etc. Specific destinations may be highlighted within these themes. And all marketing efforts need to focus on “Destination Kerala.” Haphazard marketing activities aimed at specific spots will dilute overall marketing effect.

Agriculture by humans is rare or non-existent in developed economies. Reviving organic agriculture in fertile Kerala will provide multiple benefits, including pesticide free food available locally, provide a tourist attraction, and “nature renewal” of abandoned agriculture lands currently lying idle. Such coordinated efforts will help develop Kerala’s tourism potential, at the same time provide supplementary benefits in other areas.


Changing Kerala education system

In response to a feature in The Times of India, “Math, science or Eng, it’s girls all the way,” Mar. 21, 2016.

The feature highlights an absurdity with education in Kerala and in India.

“The national mean in English for boys was 248 and 252 for girls. In Kerala the figures were 245 and 254 respectively. While the national mean in maths, science and social sciences was 250, Kerala boys 252, 272 and 264, which was less compared to 258, 279 and 269 scored by the girls here. In modern Indian language, the national mean was 246 for boys and 254 for girls. In Kerala, boys scored 267 and girls 283.”

The problem is the current scoring system. Except for maths, large part of the score is based on recalling facts. There is no validity in saying the student who scored 252 is more knowledgeable than the one who scored 248, since the margin for error is larger than the difference. This is one reason why letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) is a better choice. By placing the measurements in bands, it is less error prone. For example, a particular C student may be better than a particular B student. But when taken in aggregate, a student who consistently scores B is very likely to be better than one who scores C consistently.

Another defect with the current scoring system is the focus on tutoring to gain high test scores, at the expense of critical thinking abilities. By collecting questions from past tests and memorizing possible answers, it is possible to get high test scores in the current system without subject matter comprehension or understanding. This impacts their job performance after graduation [2, 3].

Along with changing the scoring in schools, entrance examinations also need to be changed to de-emphasize test scoring and prioritize comprehension, understanding and critical thinking. Maybe one way is to integrate internship and job training in the education system. This will eliminate the current dependence on test scores for job placement, at the same time ameliorate the current job skills deficit. Adopting the best practices from the German job training system, while eliminating its deficiencies, would be good starting point.

In addition to changing the grading system, teaching methods also need change. Currently there is too much emphasis on facts and data. With availability of internet, facts and data are easily available. What is needed are skills for analyzing data to reach conclusions and make decisions. In sciences, applying knowledge gained in experiments to further understanding of the real world dynamics is important. But lab facilitates are grossly inadequate in schools, and must be upgraded.

To sum up, essential changes required for education in Kerala and India are:

  1. Replace scoring methodology
  2. Change entrance examination culture
  3. Changes in teaching methods
  4. Better lab and learning facilities
  5. Integrate job training and internship into the education system.

Without these changes, over analyzing scores with the current system provides no insights for improving the skills needed in a modern economy. more>


Of sand mining and vanishing rivers

In response to a report in The Times of India, “Of sand mining & vanishing rivers,” “Despite hurdles, river rejuvenation project moves ahead in capital,” Mar. 14, 2016.

“We have banned sand mining in six rivers. But, almost all rivers in Kerala are over exploited as far as sand mining is concerned. Sand is one element that contributes to the life of a river,” said Chalakudy River Research Center’s scientist Dr. A. Latha [2, 3].

The statement shows lack of understanding at many levels. All the construction activities going on in Kerala generates high demand for sand. Merely banning sand mining does nothing to address the underlying causes for illegal mining. Unless steps are taken to meet the demand for sand, banning just promotes illegal activities and bribery.

This is an example of a problem that requires holistic thinking. Instead viewing this an river problem, it needs to be viewed as a state level construction materials demand issue. Unless such an approach is taken, problems will only multiply.

“The plan was to recycle the waste water from dhobi ghats. But we did not get any response,” said Kerala State Council for Science Technology and Environment (KCSTE) advisor and chief project coordinator K.G. Pillai (“Despite hurdles, river rejuvenation project moves ahead in capital.”)

Waste water recycling is a complex public problem and the Kerala government is expecting private businesses to solve it! The purpose of a state government to take collective action on problems that are too big to tackle at local level. Unless Kerala government takes such a unified approach, problems will not get solved, but multiply.


Too many tourism spots will not bring more tourists

In response to a report in The Times of India, “Project to develop 40 micro tourism spots across state,” Mar. 3, 2016.

This project seems to be another publicity-seeking effort by the Kerala government.

As reported in recent news reports that biggest bottleneck for growth of tourism in Kerala is lack of direct flights [2] from potential tourists’ home countries. Hence, focus of any tourism development efforts need to address the lack of direct flights. Anything else is mere cosmetic effort for photo-ops.

Developing these 40 micro tourism spots is likely to be counterproductive. The biggest long term challenge to tourism in Kerala is environmental damage and nature-abusing construction activities.

Recently there were several news reports of dead fish floating in different rivers [2, 3, 4] due to pollution. However, there were no reports of any efforts to find causes of the pollution and take remedial actions. The likely result of these 40 micro tourism spots will be creation of 40 more pollution generating spots, leading to further degrading of the landscape and rivers.

Kerala has made enough tourism promotion efforts. What is required now is rigorous assessment of environmental costs of new tourism development before they are launched — Smart Tourism. Such long term thinking is a skill sorely lacking in the Kerala government.