VIEWPOINT - The New Indian Express (Kerala), 15 January 2003

Kerala society, pushed to the brink,
has taken a turn for the better

Amidst change, Kerala's intellectuals are riding towards irrelevance.

By ASHOK R CHANDRAN

Now, we are seeing signs of change. Our cautious and cynical nature may prevent us from exulting at such sparkle, but there are reasons to cheer for the public-spirited.

Not long ago, engulfed by the rot, we were quick to blame others, the 'system', and politicians. "Things will never change," we said. Today, the police policy and its implementation are guided by public interest. Political parties are veering towards a consensus on private investment. For its achievements, the government is willing to share credit with Opposition groups.

Within government, civil servants are monitored for their performance against targets. Anecdotal evidence backs the public perception that government officials are less corrupt and more helpful. Universities have embarked on critical introspection for ushering in industry-academia interaction. (The new spirit was evident at the interface organised by University of Kerala and Technopark on IT-enabled services).

Survey your city or panchayat and chances are that you will find some collective endeavour that is reaping socio-economic gains for the public. Things will never change?

Of course, in true Kerala spirit, we still hotly debate every issue from safety pins to satellites. But there is action taking place as well - some widely publicised, some less known.

Yes, we are wondering how to help people whose livelihood miseries have risen. And we are far away from achieving our idealised 'Maveli Naadu'. But it appears that Kerala society, pushed to the brink, has taken a U-turn for the better.

It is therefore a mystery, in such environs, to see one set of people - intellectuals - riding towards irrelevance.

Society looks up to intellectuals for clarity and deeper understanding of problems. In the 1950s and 1960s, academics, writers and activists developed new ideas and immersed themselves in constructive movements like library and science popularisation. Over time, as political groups captured some movements, and academics surrendered their independence to political masters, Kerala's intellectuals lost their worth.

Today, jumping from one seminar to the next, they mouth ill-informed inanities and play to the gallery. Kerala's intellectuals no longer lead the society in insightful thought or action; they are content in being led by wild cheers.

Barring a few who tear our facade, intellectuals add only nuisance value to the State GDP.

Barring a few who tear our facade, encourage us to think, and come up with innovative ideas, intellectuals add only nuisance value to the State GDP. Devoid of constructive attitude and shy of addressing contemporary concerns, they indulge in nitpicking government policies and chanting unimaginative slogans.

For instance, on the issue of trade, you find them wearing the "anti-globalisation" placard, without offering a positive programme. They are unable to recommend ways of using the WTO to our advantage. Nor do they have a cogent plan to dismantle the WTO. For practical solutions, we must turn to some civil servants ('agents of ADB'), dynamic entrepreneurs ('comprador capitalists'), and citizens who write letters to the editor ('masses with false consciousness').

Intellectuals need to accept new realities and craft responses to challenges - whether it is protecting Kerala culture or enhancing economic opportunities. It is also time for academics to rephrase questions. Instead of asking "is globalisation bad for democracy?", they need to ask "given the scenario that globalisation helps capitalists gain political influence, how can we protect legitimate interests of other sections?". Similarly, in the social sphere, we would gain more by jotting down steps to ensure communal harmony, than by merely penning diatribes against an individual or organisation.

Clearly, there is a role for intellectuals in Kerala. Now that different institutions - the government, political parties, the unions, the Universities, civil society groups - are finding their moorings to work towards progress, is it not time, I wonder, for our intellectuals to start using their intellect for social benefit?

Scan through your own list of welcome changes in recent times, and you will see the top guy in an organisation doing his job honestly, sincerely, and fearlessly. Critical of his surroundings, yet constructive, he would have adopted a problem-solving approach and chosen to lead his colleagues, rather than being led into negativism. There is a lesson in it for Kerala's intellectuals.

This week, as the State puts its new face forward during the Global Investor Meet at Kochi, it is also an opportune moment to Get the Intellectuals Moving (GIM).


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