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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Kerala Model: Gone with the Wind?

Sunday 29 December 2013, by K Saradamoni


Kerala, a tiny strip of land in the extreme south-west of the Indian subcontinent, became a state on October 1, 1956 following the dictates of the States Reorganisation Commission. This area, renowned for the spices grown there, especially pepper, was known in countries, East and West. Its fame increased when the very next year, that is, in 1957 the people voted to power a Communist Government, the first in India. This attracted lots of people, from other States and outside the country, as they were keen to see the place and meet with the people. In due course the State‘s other attributes, which included women outnumbering men in census, high literacy rate, political awareness, high life expectancy, low infant mortality rate also became noted and known. In all these, Kerala stood at a much higher plane than the rest of India. In some cases, Kerala was nearer to the developed countries. Even before the formation of the new State, the region, particularly the princely states, were advanced in sectors like literacy and education, primarily for women, primary health care etc.

A place which could attain all the above without significant economic growth naturally got much publicity. Curious researchers and academics, politicians and tourists came to see this “wonderland”. Small girls and boys walking towards schools very early in the morning even in faraway villages, men sitting on benches sipping tea and reading newspapers or listening to what is read aloud and engaging in discussion —all became big news. These were photographed and written about. The term “Kerala Model” emerged and received wide publicity. Such personalities like Prof. Amartya Sen’s approval raised it to a higher level. These gave the educated Keralites, including the political elite class, a sense of achievement. The ordinary people by and large did not hear about it.

The first Communist Government was thrown out by the vested interests mainly because of their attempt to bring about “radical” reforms in education and land relations. Over the years the political situation in the State got changed and assumed a pattern. The Communist Party was split and the major national party, the Indian National Congress, also faced changes. Many groups were formed. Still they remained with the Congress. They together formed the United Democratic Front (UDF). The others formed the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The history of these formations and functioning are not dwelt here. But these impacted on the socio-political process more deeply than is recognised. The integration of the State within the federal system of the Republic of India has also to be understood. This brought many Central Government offices to the State. A number of women and men, who had college education and degrees, were absorbed in them. At the same time, the number of job-seekers, with and without much education, went on increasing.

Something which has not been seen as part of the Kerala Model was the poor women’s acceptance of the small family norms sponsored by the government. In most other parts of India women favoured a large number of children as they saw in them a support to their life and livelihood. Kerala women’s hope was that some amount of education would help their children in their upward mobility. A serious development of the same period was the dwindling of the traditional occupations including agriculture. The young girls and boys in these families also developed aversion to their parents’ attitude and hopes.

All these coincided with major changes in the Central Government’s vision of development itself. The category called Class IV workers was converted to contract workers. That meant that they lost even the minimum security which they had hitherto. The little self-esteem they had was also lost. The government had, even earlier, started sending out ideas on self-employment in a big way. At the same time eradication of poverty and reduction in income and wealth which were seen together and given high priority from the beginning of the Five Year Plans were given a back seat. Today, I am not sure whether anyone remembers all this.

All these coincided with India entering the “neo-liberal” world. Though we did not write a new Constitution or delete the word Socialism from it, reduction in inequality ceased to be our goal. Visible inequality and all that it displays got acceptability and even respect. How did these affect Kerala? Educated people, including some employed, began to go outside Kerala and outside India in a big way. While the educated went mainly to the developed capitalist countries, the less educated, skilled and even non-skilled, went primarily to the Gulf countries. The State Government, whoever ruled, I don’t think, was overly concerned. It is now when the Gulf countries have created strict rules regarding foreign workers and are sending them back in large numbers that our politicians and rulers are waking up. Money coming into the State from these people—all of them did not have a decent life or high enough income—was welcome. The authorities have not spent time, even at this stage, to find out ways and means to find jobs which will provide sufficient income and a tolerably satisfying life for these people.

We have to link the above with the growth of a rich upper class whose demands and affordability set the norms for development. Footpaths became highways. Public transport gave way to private cars. Every government began acquiring newer brand cars. Construction of multistoreyed buildings, shopping complexes, resorts and tourist centres—seldom keeping with the topography, climate, and traditional simplicity—came up everywhere. Often paddy fields and other cultivating land were used for these. It is said that most of the flats are owned by people who are not living there or even in the State. There is a big tug-of-war going on in the State between environmentalists supported by local people and a group which wants to build a private airport in a very sensitive area. The latter, is said to have the support at least of a section of the ruling party. It has to be remembered that this tiny State already has four international airports.

Kerala, seen as a mini-tropical forest, is slowly becoming a forest of ultra-modern buildings, a large section of these being private educational buildings, private hospitals, centres of religious groups, bars and restaurants, apart from those mentioned earlier. Trees are cut and many poor people evicted from their dwellings for the above purpose. Already many places are suffocated with jewellery shops, stuffed with gold and diamond. Every month a newer silk shop is opened by a popular film star. These inaugurations and thereafter what materials are available in the shops are telecast several times a day over a large number of TV channels. Gold and silk are not the only items for sale. Dress materials, cosmetics, furniture, household goods, electronics goods, ...list goes on endlessly. An ever-buying consumer class has emerged.

What about those who cannot afford to buy all these? There has emerged mafias in all spheres—water, sand, trees, illegal mining and quarrying and several other fields. This year will remain etched in the history of Kerala as a time of fraudulent ways of acquiring wealth by cheating innocent people, the clever ways used to hook people in authority to promote the above games and the lack of earnestness on the part of the government in tackling the above developments. Innocent people may mistake the above “stories” as the script for a thriller movie.

Coming to the health scene, doctors in Kerala talk about life-style diseases. People are in a rush. No regularity in anything including food, sleep, rest or exercise. Diabetes, heart problems etc. are becoming quits common, Cancer is a big killer. True, despite all this the number of the elderly is increasing. There are senior citizens’ associations, but I doubt whether that reduces their loneliness. Violence in the society has increased enormously. It is there inside the house and outside, women and children being the principal victims.

The society is in turmoil. The people are distressed. The average person, well-to-do and educated as well as the poor and ill-educated, says: “Times have changed, we cannot do anything, One or two cannot change anything .....:” I cannot say how the political class views all this. Of course, there are individuals and groups who are concerned and active.

From the Kerala Model to the present turmoil needs a thorough, perhaps difficult and painful, inquiry. The Kerala Model emerged out of a series of developments, mainly social and political. An atmosphere filled with genuine concern to create a fair, equal, honest, caring society was there. We should dare to bring back the lost values. If that becomes possible, others will follow.

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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