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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

What is Happening in Kerala?

Thursday 3 January 2013, by K Saradamoni


More than fifty years back people in the newly formed State of Kerala created history by voting to power, through the democratic election process, a Ministry led by the Communist Party. For the first time the hegemony of the Indian National Congress was challenged in the country.

In the first Lok Sabha, the Communist Party—undivided at that time—was the major Opposition and A.K. Gopalan, from North Malabar which at that time was part of the Madras Presidency, was the Leader of the Opposition. Communists were politically active not only in Kerala. They were there everywhere, in the west, north, east and south. The Gandhians and Communists had their activities even in the Himalayan region at a time when they could cross the hills and valleys only on foot. People looked towards them as their party and the leaders as their kith and kin. The distance between the people and leaders was extremely thin. Whether called ‘serving the people’, ‘improving their lot’, ‘reduction in poverty and disparities’, the ruling party and the Opposition were committed to them.
Over the decades that followed many things changed. In 1964, the Communist Party of India split and the Communist Party of India-Marxist—CPI-M—and Communist Party of India (CPI) emerged as the two major communist groups. There were other smaller communist/ socialist formations. Today they together do not form a significant political force in India. In fact the Communists are not there in many of their old strongholds. To many like me, it is that what should bother the Communists most, especially at a time when the Left voice should be loud and clear to the people. However, that is not what we see around us. Let us come to Kerala.

For some time, the newspapers in Kerala, especially those which are called the ‘syndicate’, had a gala time exposing the ‘factions’ within the Left, and especially within the CPI-M. News. caricatures and articles about the differences or fights between Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI-M State Secretary, and V.S. Achuthanandan, the former Chief Minister (the only proletariat CM Kerala had) and currently the Leader of the Opposition in the State Legislature, became a regular feature. Nobody who followed the political developments in the State could ignore this, whether one endorsed it or not. If we take the recent four or five months, the brutal killing of a young ex-CPI-M activist shook the State. The ruling Front—comprising the Congress, which has groups within, and the various Kerala Congress groups who had left the parent organisation at various points and also some parties which had left the Left Front and joined the Congress-led Front—showed unusual interest in this case. They declared that it was the CPI-M which masterminded the killing. While VS called the young man a brave, daring Communist, Pinarayi called him a betrayer of the ancestry. The dead man, when he left the CPI-M, did not make a new party and join the Congress-led Front, but dared to organise a new Marxist party. His family members and party comrades believe that the CPI-M was behind the killing. But doubts arise in many impartial observers why the enquiry is getting delayed. And with many other problems coming to the forefront practically every day, the above killing appears to have lost its earlier news value.

An important issue that has emerged to capture the media and the public is related to land. Here we have to examine the land question in Kerala in a slightly detailed manner. This almost southern tip of India is among the smaller States in the country. This narrow strip between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, with more than forty rivers, a large number of lakes and canals that connect them, perhaps got it the title “god’s own country”. Even to us, that is, those who live here, the sight below—the waves embracing the coconut trees—is ever welcoming when the plane lands. There was a time when even while travelling by road, rail or water one could not escape the paddy fields, many more trees and vegetables. There is sufficient data available, which is not being reproduced here, to show that the land under cultivation, of especially the two major crops, paddy and coconut, has fallen significantly. In fact I would rather say that, unlike other parts of India or perhaps other parts of the world, agriculture in general and paddy cultivation in particular lost its respectability as a way of life in the State. It has to be underlined that this happened in a place where the much applauded “land reforms” took place particularly under the aegis of the Communist Party. Even today both the Communist Parties consider the said act as their major achievement. It is not sure whether they have taken note of the fact that this act of theirs did not result in increase in production and productivity as has happened in other parts of the world. In addition to the land reforms, the Communist Ministry passed another legislation to safeguard the welfare of the agricultural labourers. This was hailed even by the Congress Government at the Centre. What happened to them? The land reforms fixed ceilings on the land for the owner cultivators. Neither they nor the tenants of various categories, who got ownership rights over the land they had taken on lease, were a homogeneous category in terms of the land cultivated or size of the family. The worst sufferers were the female-headed households with limited land, and often without any other regular income. Here we have to stop for a while and examine some complex realities of Kerala.

Unemployment: Like any agrarian economy in Kerala too land kept the people occupied in cultivation and allied jobs. Life was simple and the aspirations low. Of course, there were socio-economic differences and life was easier for the well-to-do. Education came to those parts of the present Kerala which were then under the princely states of Cochin and Travancore and some women and men used the opportunity which got them teaching, or other relatively low level jobs. A small number of men went to other parts of the world to serve in the Army during both the world wars. That did not have any marked impact on their households or the region. Hardship and deprivation continued.

However, the early decades of the 20th century brought fresh winds of change. There were struggles by the upper layers of the tenant cultivators against the landlords for fixity of rent and non-eviction. Demands arose especially from educated young men in the traditional land-owning communities like the Nambudiris and the Nayars for changes in the structure of the family and inheritance laws. At this time thinkers and leaders arose from among those Communities who were called ‘avarnas’ and ‘untouchables’. Their voice was new, but firm. Their call to appropriate denied spaces was welcomed.

The very same period brought in ideas of freedom (which were being heard across the country), equality, democracy and socialism too.

We cannot be sure that these satisfied the employment starved poor. The starting of cashew and coir factories, though different from industrial factories, brought some relief in their lives. Poor women in large numbers came forward to work in such places. They created an atmosphere for the emergence of radical political thinking including trade unionism which to a large level helped the formation of the first Communist Government in the State. It was undoubtedly a period of great expectations. Plenty of people and families came forward to support, to sacrifice and do everything possible to see the dream come true. This was true of many other parts of India too.

What happened in the last sixty odd years? One of the important objectives of national reconstruction was reduction, and ultimately elimination, of poverty. Another equally important objective was to reduce the inequality in income and wealth between people as well as regions. Till the present UPA Government came to power at the Centre these goals, however faltering their progress might have been, had their place in the country’s development goals. The present government at the Centre had from the beginning no qualms in accepting the mantra of the neo-liberal agenda as far as development was concerned. The freedom struggle, its ideological moorings, self-sufficiency and non-acceptance of foreign aid with ‘strings attached’ did not bother them. The ailments of present Kerala cannot be attributed only to the policies of the UPA regime.

Even when Left politics was gaining strength and Left parties establishing their right to rule the State, unemployment was increasing, both of the educated and less educated. No political party seriously tried to understand and resolve this question. After the formation of the Kerala State and its integration within the Republic of India, there was a spurt in employment in the central and to some extent the State Government establishments. That could not resolve the serious unemployment problem in the State. It became worse when the present Central Government began to deregulate the lower levels of jobs in the government and semi government offices and convert them as contract jobs, This meant a section of the employed lost the minimum security they had enjoyed. ‘Self-employment’ became a much-heard word.

As far as Kerala is concerned, a breakthrough in unemployment came with the oil boom in the Middle Eastern countries. A virtual exodus to those countries happened, the majority being skilled and semiskilled workers. Those in authority would have felt a sense of relief though all was not that well for the job-seekers. When the job market opened in those countries, similar exodus happened from countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines etc. too. Naturally there was competition. In Kerala this new job market was painted as a success story which was far from true. Even now harrowing stories are heard about the migrant workers to the Gulf region. In the beginning, it was exploitation and cheating by the middlemen or agents who arranged passport and visa.

Many found that the situation was different from what was promised before leaving Kerala. In a public hearing I attended, even elderly women who went as domestic help broke down while narrating their stories. There are cases of persons about whom no information, where they are or whether they are alive or not is available. This does not mean that there were no Keralites who succeeded, that too in a big way in those countries. I am yet to see a comprehensive study of the impact on this migration on the various aspects of the Kerala society, including the family.
If such an exodus did not happen from many other parts of India, it was because agriculture and rural economy had not collapsed the way ‘educated, politically advanced’ Kerala had experienced. Studies have started coming stating that this migration to the Middle East may be ending in another five or six years. It is a frightening warning.

It was to the USA, Australia and Canada that the highly educated, middle class Kerala women and men moved for employment and ‘better life’. Unlike the Gulf migrants, most of them make those countries their home. All this coincided with the shift in the development agenda steadily put forth by the Central Government. The egalitarian dream melted away, self-sufficiency lost its respectability and the ruling class was eager to get rid of the public sector. Despite the presence of a strong section of the population voting for the Left parties, Kerala could not remain outside these changes. A visible consumer class emerged. The mushrooming of gold, silk and household goods shops emerged everywhere. Even small panchayats, far away from cities and towns, showcased brand, new shopping complexes as their achievements on the development front. The governments, both Left and Right, promoted the growth of a consumer class by organising, for the past several years, the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival. This was largely enabled by the hike in the salaries of the government and semi-government employees. The State governments in Kerala did not wish to lag behind in attracting the ‘IT‘ sector seen as the saviour in the emerging world. Though it was believed that the demand for land for this sector was small, the facilities they needed like residential buildings, sports and recreation complexes and swimming pools etc. took large areas of land. They also created a section, especially of young people, with large amounts of money in hand.

The Keralites, who had considered simplicity as a virtue, suddenly became the champions of extravaganza at all levels. The old-style Kerala houses gave way to flats which distorted the skyline and also new, stylised, visibly expensive houses. Land developers increased for both private as well as tourism purpose. Sea and lake shores were taken over for tourism driving away hundreds of poor people from their homes and work. Such people, the victims of the newly accepted ‘development’, are there everywhere. Their numbers at each place are small and they are far from each other. The land-grabbers and builders are strong and they have links to the ‘power-centres’ and can manipulate any law. I wonder whether government agencies who deal with regulations regarding construction have any idea of the number of flats and houses lying locked with the owners living anywhere in the world.

It is not only the developers and construction agencies who grab land. Even the government, in the name of development, either take over land for its own purpose or for private agencies for expansion in new universities, education-cum-research centres, medical colleges-cum-hospitals, etc. Widening of roads, introducing trains faster than the superfast ones, new airports etc. cannot happen without eating into the land people have lived and worked in for at least two or three generations. Strangely, the very same people, who are the rightful citizens in our democracy, are denied even burial space. It is not once or twice that reports about poor people digging up the kitchen floor to bury the dead body have appeared. However, that was not newsworthy for the ‘concerned authorities’ attention. They are the ‘wretched of the earth’. It is not poverty and ignorance alone that keep them away from revolting. They too have imbibed ideas about electricity, running water, tarred roads and shopping malls as development. It is mainly from among them that ‘mafias’ emerge to support the booming business around land-grabbing, and construction. There are mafias to make available water, sand, wood, and other items facing shortage. The young, not necessarily from their class alone, join the “quotation” gangs (paid killers). They can be from those who did not get employed. Robbery, cheating—all activities we used to call ‘anti-social’—are widely prevalent.
All this changed Kerala into a place where both wages (for those who have work) and cost of living have gone up. For example, each time the man who harvests coconut—normally once in fortyfive to sixty days—dictates and raises the amount charged per tree. It is true that the traditional caste of coconut climbers has vanished. One hears of government schemes to train new groups of such workers, but so far they have not become available for people at large.

Through all this, work ethics has almost disappeared. Inefficiency, lack of commitment and social concern are rampant. Again it is the poor, ignorant and invisible people who suffer the most. Almost everybody has the need to approach the panchayat/ corporation office, electricity board, water authority, secretariat or similar places with a grievance. To reach the correct person itself is a difficult task. Often the person they come to meet would be away from the seat leading to the trek being repeated, besides the need to resort to recommendation/ bribery. The days when we thought that the Left parties would be clean and efficient are forgotten.

The changes we have pointed out have come with the adjectives, modern, progressive and in tune with the times. Like everything else the typical food in Kerala is also simple. Of late a major change has happened in the food habit. This is part of the consumer culture that has invaded the State. Non-Kerala, especially North Indian and Chinese food, captured first the big restaurants and slowly the smaller ones too. Eating out has spread in a big way. A couple of months back a family of four or five people had to be taken to the hospital after eating an item called shavarma (originally Arab). It was seen as a case of food poisoning. Suddenly there was an uproar from the municipal health officers and hotels were searched and many closed. Cooking in unclean surroundings, serving stale food were the offences charged. Two weeks back a young boy is reported to have died in Kochi after eating the same shavarma.

In this connection, a very serious problem that has emerged and remains unresolved by the authorities cannot be left out. It is the question of garbage. It is also related to the abominable increase in consumerism and the use of plastic as packing material. Once upon a time we bought less and the packing materials were leaf, old newspaper, or cloth bags. Today even khadi and handloom products are given in plastic bags. To those who wish not to have it, the answer is: that is what most people want. The city dwellers think that it is their right to increase their waste, the municipal authorities consider it their right to dump them at the nearby village, leading to bitter battle between the two. I do not wish to say that the health hazards of garbage heaps everywhere is not known. The municipal/local level authorities and the successive State governments have failed to find an effective solution to this major problem. Already studies have established that water in most rivers and other sources are dangerously polluted. Water in Plachimada, where the coco cola company had started their plant, was turned not usable for any purpose—drinking, cooking, washing. The health hazards not only to the living beings, but to the yet-to-be-born—caused by spraying a deadly poisonous pesticide called endosulfan in Kasergode district and nearby areas are today known all over the world. People in and around began to have strange diseases. Babies were born with genetic disorders. It is heart breaking to see these people even on the television.

That all is not well on the health front in Kerala began to be noticed for sometime. One also began to hear the term ‘life-style’-related diseases. In recent decades, diseases relating to heart, cancer, obesity, HIV, rise in infertility, and others not heard of earlier have become wides-pread. Hospitalisation has become common even for small ailments. The government used to claim that we have eradicated measles, smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis etc. Today some of those diseases are coming back; also new varieties of fever, cholera, mental ailments including depression, suspicion etc. are widely prevalent. Though Western medicine came to this part rather early, we had a well-advanced ayurvedic system which was widely prevalent. Today the cost of treatment and medicines have gone up; at the same time faith in the super speciality hospitals with their awe-generating equipments and endless tests attract a stream of patients including many who cannot afford the expenses. Whether they get cured or not, their finances would be drained by the time they leave the hospital.

Another frightening news that got the headlines recently was that a number of hospitals and medical research centres, mainly private, are using the poor patients as guinea pigs for clinical trials for the big multinational drug companies. The patients are unaware of what is happening. Promises like life-long free treatment etc. keep them silent.

Besides all that have been described above, crimes of all sorts too have increased in the State. Murders and suicides are common. There is a common belief that increased consumption of alcohol is a major cause of the above. Then the question arises: why has that increase come about? Earlier too a section of Malayalis used to drink, mainly toddy taken from coconut and other palms and its fermented variety called charayam. There were, of course, drinkers among the rich who might have resorted to the ‘imported’ variety’. The situation at present is that Kerala tops among the States in the consumption of alcohol. Both the Left and Right governments are generally silent on this issue because the government-owned beverages corporation is a main source of revenue for the sarkar. Recently one of the Malayalam TV channels sent a few students in their uniform to buy liquor bottles from a retail sales depot of the above corporation. They got it easily and took the same to the class in their school bags. Another story in a newspaper showed that students bring liquor bottles from home where the father or guardian has stored them.

The Kerala women’s situation, in the midst of all this has fallen beyond words. To understand the gravity of this we have to remember that there was a time when this region was referred to as the ‘land where women rule’. Today also we find girls and women going to schools and colleges as well as employment in sufficiently large numbers. At the same time, going by the news that come from all around, there is no place where they are safe including the home. Hawks are there even when she is a baby. The society thinks that marriage would resolve the issue. No, it has not. Divorce is on the increase. More than thirty years back, dowry death was a front-page news in the North Indian newspapers. At that time, dowry was practised only among some communities in Kerala. With our conversion into a glittering consumer State we have ‘developed’ on that front also. This has to be seen along with the weakening of bonds within the family and outside. True, many new bodies like the residents’ associations, senior citizens’ associations, pensioners’ associations, school/college alumni associations etc. have come up in a big way. It is generally agreed that they lack the virtues of the old-time human bonds.

The painful conclusion to which I come is that we as individuals and as a society have lost the inner stability, peace and strength. This may sound absurd to all those who count development in terms of GDP, the volume of foreign funds that have come in, or the ‘projects’ that have come up for consideration. I would not say that the changes described earlier are not a matter of concern in the State. Perhaps not for the mainstream political parties. But there are groups of people, young and old, seriously concerned about the damage caused to the environment, pollution, pro-organic farming against GM seeds, inefficiency and corruption, and general apathy in the society coming out of the complex situations surrounding them and from which they receive the message: “we cannot do anything”. However a loud enough demand for alternative forms of development is yet to come.

Where should one begin? I think it should be from Nature, especially Land, Water and People’s basic needs including safe and sufficient food. These can be achieved only by people’s commitment and spontaneous participation and not by government orders, PPP or foreign funds. There are enough funds within the country if our aim is not to make the rich richer. The government has to acknowledge that widening disparity will ultimately spell doom. The government cannot pretend not to see or hear the anger, distrust and disrespect the people have towards them. The country’s future lies in a contented, self-confident, self-respecting people with no malice towards the rulers or neighbours.

Today is the 56th anniversary of the formation of the State of Kerala. Let us hope that what is happening here is a palazhi madhanam and that the people of Kerala will come forward with a vision for the India our Constitution-makers had conceived.

The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram. She is the former President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

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