“Dear Chief Minister Sir, What do you think of Rs. 32/day?”

Whether it is Arab Spring, the Tea Party in the U.S., or the Jan Lokpal bill in India, there is no dearth of discontent with government and politicians around the world. Many citizens feel that inaction by our leaders are sending nations down the path of decline, leading some to question the viability of our political system. Against this back drop, it was refreshing to see democracy in action in Puthupally, near Kottayam, today. We saw a hexagenarian Chief Minister standing in his front yard, interacting with his constituents and hearing their grievances, on a muggy Sunday morning for more than two hours. We got to see the CM and ask his opinion on Rs. 32/day (yes!!); and, we got it on video! Let’s just say he doesn’t think 32 is quite the right number. While you salivate on that thought of watching it (link below), let’s recap all the fun we had in the 24 hours prior to our eventful interview with the CM…

Hitchhiking in lorries!

On Saturday morning, we left Karukachal for Kumarakom (35 Km away) to make real Tushar’s dream of seeing the famed backwaters of Kerala. The plan was to reach Kottayam (20km away) by foot – there is no way we can pay for anything that has an engine in it – then pick up two bicycles, which a friend of a friend (of course!) had arranged for us. However, the bicycle gods had other plans – due to a family emergency, the bike store wasn’t open for business. Although there was some initial disappointment, we decided to cover the 15 km to Kumarakom by foot. We had breakfast – idlis and chutney that we had packed – on the road, as we didn’t have much time, and more importantly money, to waste. We didn’t have to walk all the way, as we were able to flag down a couple of freight autorickshaws operating along our route. The drivers reaffirmed what others had said many times before – it is impossible to even imagine living on Rs. 32/day.

We reached Kumarakom around 11:30 am, 4.5 hours after we started. We were pretty exhausted and hungry from all the walking, but knew that if we ate our packed lunch – roasted dal and jaggery – then, we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves till dinner. So we improvised by dropping some roadside tea leaves and couple spoons sugar in our remaining water, gave it a good shake, and voila – the cheapest energy drink ever procured!

Walking around the backwaters, we realized that there is very little than one can do on Rs. 32/day there. The double digit prices for shuttle boats and the bird sanctuary were beyond our reach; let’s not even mention the resorts, oops. But walking through village road, taking in the natural beauty and watching the locals trying to secure fish for dinner from streams, was a tremendous delight. To top it all off, we took an hour long nap beside the lake, following our lunch. We left Kumarakom around 4 pm and got back to Kottayam two hours later – again, on a combination of feet and freight vehicles. Our evening was uneventful at Matt’s cousin’s place, where we stayed the night; well, except for convincing him to not serve us any of the delicious king fish his wife had prepared.

Meanwhile, we found out that the Chief Minister (CM) of the state, Mr. Oommen Chandy lives midway between Kottayam and Karukchal and on most Sunday mornings can be found at home for public access. We decided to attempt meeting him if possible, as common men in his constituency and requested our host Mathaikuttichayan to keep a lookout in the morning.

Waiting in line to meet the CM

Indeed, we were woken up at 6 am by Kuriakose, Mathaikuttichayan’s son, who called to inform us that CM was indeed at his house and planning to meet people. We left quickly after breakfast and were at the CM’s house by 7:45 am. There must have been around 200 people there – some waiting since the wee hours – to have their minute or two with Chandy Sir. There was no favoritism in access to the CM. People, often armed with written petitions, were in two lines, with the CM walking in the middle and alternating between the two lines to pick his conversation partner. Each chat lasted about two minutes, on average, following which he wrote on the petition and handed it off to one of his aides. There was no large media presence and no cameras rolling (until it got to us…). It was a surreal display of representative democracy in action.

While we waited in line, we chatted with a couple of petitioners. One of them had come there requesting a transfer for his government job, another two were there to prod the CM to enforce environmental regulations. Yet another woman was there to plead with him to give her some breathing room to take care of her household debt, as her husband had recently passed. It was painful to watch her in line, flustered and occasionally crying. Meeting the CM was her last best hope, as she had exhausted all other channels. You can get a better understanding here.

After waiting in line for about an hour, it was finally our turn. We think Chandy Sir hit it out of the park, but you can judge for yourself here. The Chief Minister of the state of Kerala confidently spoke on the behalf of his people that Rs. 32 is an unsustainable figure indeed and that according to him Rs. 75 is the minimum needed for survival and a life of dignity.

Pumped up from our interview, we walked, ran, and, towards the end, hobbled back to Karukachal (we had walked/ran over 35km in the last 28 hours!). It was a sweltering day, with the air filled the sounds of Sunday Mass from the four churches we passed on our 9 Km trek back. One more day to go. We are looking forward to the feast tomorrow, but not excited enough to lose sleep over it. Tomorrow will be another busy day with blood tests, cooking, and (hopefully) a few more interviews.

PS In case you have difficulty accessing the link for the CM’s interview, please copy paste this into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6bBWoOcrbU


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6 Responses to ““Dear Chief Minister Sir, What do you think of Rs. 32/day?””

  1. Never mind all that – did the widow get her debt relief?

  2. Dear Tushar and Mathew,
    Just came across an article in ToI regarding your efforts. Noble thing u tried to do.
    But Kerala is not the place to try it. I recently visited and stayed a night in a village in Bihar. Kerala is heaven compared to what i saw. The people there live on their agricultural produce and whatever income that brings in.
    Urge u people to visit UP or Bihar once if you have any time

    • Sure Anup – we have visited Bihar and UP Bihar including the economically backward villages. I guess our point was that even if with the best conditions it’s difficult to live on Rs. 32, then it must be impossible in other places.

  3. Kudos to you ! Really !

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