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Mainstream, VOL LV No 38 New Delhi September 9, 2017

Kerala: Democracy, Society, People

Saturday 9 September 2017, by K Saradamoni


It is sixty years since the State of Kerala was formed and one year since the present Left Democratic Front Government came to power. People were fed up by the never-ending stories of corruption and nepotism of the previous Congress-led government. The first election to the new State, which brought a Communist Government to power in 1957, created big news within and outside the country. It was the first time that a non-Congress government came to power anywhere in free India.

The first twenty years after the formation of the new State was a shaky period. More than once the elected government was dismissed and the State brought under President’s Rule. The following forty years were relatively stable. The governments were headed either by the Congress or by the Communists who had split into the CPI-M and CPI. CPI leader C. Achyutha Menon was the Chief Minister for the longest period. The narrow stretch of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats was filled with paddy fields and trees of all kinds. One could see coconut, mango, jack fruit and plenty of other trees practically everywhere. This relatively small area had more than forty rivers, and several lakes, big and small, ponds and wells. Twice a year the rains came and kept the people unaware of water shortage or drought.

With the birth of the new State, Travancore lost part of the southern areas to Tamil Nadu. These included the paddy lands called Nanjinad. The new State, however, had two large tracts, Kuttanad and Palghat. The landowners were small in number. They were not engaged in actual work in the field. Paddy cultivation gave employment to large numbers of women and men belonging to the three major religions in the area, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. But this large section of people, who worked as tenants and agricultural labourers, did not have security in work or earnings. Most of these poor people did not have a home of their own. Some lived in huts made in a corner of the property of their masters.

Life in general when the State of Kerala was formed was simple. It was reflected in the people’s living standards, from housing, dress, food and festivals including marriage. Even the rich did not show off their wealth.

How did people live? After harvest paddy had to be converted to rice. This created work mainly for a large number of women in the locality. Coconut climbers to cut the nuts also did odd jobs in the compound like harvesting mangoes, jack fruit etc. Those who had a slightly bigger plot used to cultivate vegetables in the property around the house. Often the same men and women tended these gardens for select families. They got daily wages and also gifts for festivals. There were artisans like carpenters, blacksmiths, and goldsmiths. Coir, cashew, bidi factories gave jobs for a large number of people in select areas. So also pottery and handloom weaving. Most houses had tiled roofs and there were a few tile factories in different places. Of course, there were traders of various sorts. Printing presses located in different places enabled the publication of newspapers, weeklies and books. Plantations, mainly tea, were started by the British and this gave work to a large number of women. Toddy tapping and running toddy shops kept a section of the people engaged.

A number of women and men were in government service as teachers, clerks, peons and at higher levels. Though salary at that time was much less, the security these jobs offered was welcomed. A section of the women and men, especially from the northern districts which were part of the Madras Government, got transferred to the new State.

Many measures taken by the government came to be widely known and seen as pro-gressive. They included agrarian reforms, fixing relatively higher minimum wages, pension scheme for widows and elderly agricultural workers who could no more go out to work etc. While the Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act 1969 was widely acclaimed, it did not result in the realisation of the slogan “land to the tiller”. Paddy cultivation began to fall. The traditional owners of paddy fields might have been an exploiting class. But cultivation and related jobs generated work for a large number of women and men. The much-publicised land reforms in the State did not create a sturdy peasantry. Land ownership slowly lost its social prestige. Land steadily went into the hands of non-cultivating owners. It became a marketable commodity.

During the period employment generation in the State was not enough to absorb either the increasing number of educated youngsters or the less qualified seeking work. The former in large numbers began to move to other parts of India and even outside the country. Women trained as nurses found the USA a welcoming place. Soon came the exodus to the Middle Eastern countries. Both groups, highly educated, and others with no special qualification left in large numbers to those places. Though it was not a success story to all, it offered relief to the authorities here. The Gulf boom, I cannot believe, helped the small tenants, agricultural and other labourers. Recently I came to know that many young girls and boys are learning French by spending huge amounts of money to go as nurses to some European countries and Canada. Strangely this happens in a place about which Nagam Aiya, the author of the State Manual of Travancore, wrote more than a hundred years back that a Travancorean is a stay-at-home person. It is not the time for us to forget the Kuwait war and the return of the Malayali migrants. In the early years following the formation of the State some people continued to have large areas of non-paddy land. This allowed men in particular to continue as agricultural labourers. A small number of women got work in and around the house, like cleaning the yard, drawing water, cleaning vessels and tending vegetables and other plants in the compound. Some made different kinds of eatables and went around selling them in middle class homes. Some became vegetable sellers. There were also men, parti-cularly from select communities, who came to sell items like pappad, beaten rice and similar things.

Slowly these changed. People began to prefer smaller property to build houses. The old thatched and tiled houses gave way to concrete roof. The sandy yards around began to be reduced and the little space, if there was, was tiled. This prevented the seepage of water including rain from flowing down into the earth. The need for many types of workers became less. The vendors I mentioned above also began to disappear. I miss many of them, but there are at least two generations who know nothing about those days. The same happened to the old wayside and neighbourhood tea shops as well as others selling all the essential items for the home. They included rice, pulses to soap and match box. There was a personal relationship between these shopkeepers and the houses around.

That period marked the beginning of consu-merism in the State. Though unemployment still continued, salaries in the organised sector, including government service, began to rise. The well-to-do opted for a lavish life-style leaving behind the old simplicity. Those who could afford began to buy more starting with clothes. There too the old white, mill made or handloom gave way to synthetic. The reason given was that they could be easily dried after washing. Soon, the earlier dhoti or sari worn by women and shirt or juba by men got replaced by salwar and kurta by women and pants and shirt by men. Household goods, including furniture, crockery etc., began to flourish.

The sudden entry of shops selling gold and diamond ornaments was also welcomed by the section that amassed new wealth and enjoyed its display. Traditionally most Malayali women had very few gold ornaments. There were goldsmiths to make them. I was shocked to see rows of gold ornament shops within and outside the Fort area in Trivandrum adjacent to the Padmanabha Temple. The whole place is declared a Heritage Zone. There was a time when the place was quiet and the atmosphere filled with the smell of fresh flowers. People from the agraharams or Brahman households settled there and the pious visitors to the temple moved around silently. Today it is like a shopping complex with never-ending crowd and the sound of vehicles. This is true of almost all districts.

Around this time the Malayali, who used to walk long distances or use a cycle, got attracted to mobikes, auto-rickshaws and even cars. This demanded widening of roads by displacing the poor from their homes and very often livelihood also. I am intrigued and annoyed by another practice that has squeezed in. There were communities who did not give dowry at the time of a daughter’s marriage. This is changing. I was shocked to hear of an expensive car given as dowry in a marriage recently. This is becoming a practice among the ultra rich.

Along with consumerism came a new menace, namely, plastic, a non-degradable commodity. Heaps of the used plastic were thrown around. It took a long time for the government to realise the health hazards behind this. Of late the corporations are making efforts to tackle this. As this product came as a part of modernity, we would have to wait till the last person is convinced about the health hazards it causes. I am saying this because I see people even now bringing lunch packed in plastic paper. One television channel in Kerala showed in great detail how all the fortyfour rivers in Kerala are polluted.

We shall see one or two examples of the tragic results of the government’s attempts at wealth creation. One is the aerial spraying of the pesticide, endosulfan, on the cashew plantation in Kasergode. The harm it caused to generations continues and is beyond description.

In 2000 the Government of Kerala entered into an agreement with the Coca Cola Company in the US. The latter had found out about the abundant ground water resource of a little known place called Plachimada in Palghat district. The government might have expected a huge income from the American company. The poor people hoped to have some work and income. What happened was very different. The colour of water changed. People found it difficult to cook rice. Mailamma, an affected tribal woman, protested along with her neighbours. It continued and got national and international publicity. Mailamma became sick, moved to her son’s house in a nearby village and died on January 6. 2007. The government, I do not think, thought of the possible health hazards this project would generate. The attraction was the revenue it was expected to generate.

Employment generation continued to be a difficult issue before the governments of Kerala. Tuition classes and tutorial centres started by individuals or groups generated some employ-ment. Then came private centres equipping aspiring youngsters to sit for competitive examinations to enter medical and engineering colleges. Slowly such centres came up for preparing candidates for Civil Service, Banking examinations etc. This was followed by the starting of private Engineering and Medical colleges. Those who entered this area did not have any social commitments. They are mainly businessmen. These have come to be seen as “development“ but the authorities appear to have failed to see that this development is more exclusive than inclusive. Enough opportunities came to those who considered money-making as their goal. Land grabbing became a pre-occupation of more and more people. ‘Bhoo- mafias ‘became a common word in Malayalam. It was soon followed by quarry, water and several other kinds of mafias.

Let me explore how the changes impacted my neighbourhood. When I came to live in Trivandrum, within the Corporation area there were far fewer houses than today. The entrance to the residential area was from a road along which buses and other vehicles plied. The paths within the colony were narrow. The houses were mostly single-storeyed, and perhaps there were one or two cars. Here and there one could find big plots where coconut, jackfruit, mango and other trees thrived. In many such grounds the original owners, who were mostly without regular employment, lived in old-fashioned houses with thatched or tiled roof and mud walls. Some women from these houses worked as domestic help in one or two nearby houses. Slowly these houses and people vanished. Now this is a colony mainly of working or retired employees of the government or semi-govern-ment offices.

At present the place is flooded with cars of various sizes and models. There are houses owning several vehicles. Huge vans, lorries, auto-rickshaws constantly ply inside the housing colony. Another big change is that many of the old houses were pulled down and ‘modern’, often two-storeyed buildings erected. The peace and silence of yesteryears, when one could read, watch the sky or take a walk, is fast disappearing.

Where do the present-day domestic help come from? Many come from the outskirts of the Corporation limits. Many have to take one or two buses to reach the workplace. Most of them are the only earning members of the family. They are also the victims of the consumer society we have created. During the period we are describing some major changes came about in the lifestyles in the State. Almost all the work, including drawing water from the well, preparing the batter for dosa,idli and also the batter for the dishes, both vegetarian and non- vegetarian were earlier done physically at home. The shopping complexes that are coming up everywhere and the increasing advertisements about household gadgets in newspapers, and television have succeeded in making these women feel that these are essential goods. One thing that must be added in this context is that the food habits of the Keralites, both rich and poor, have changed in a big way over these years. Like everything else food was simple and eating out rather unknown. Now hotels, big and small, invite you everywhere. An amusing observation is how soon the mobile phone became part of the life, of both the rich and the poor. Another thing I want to add is that the people here today are more prone to diseases than before. One reason is the change in food habits and havoc caused by contamination of water and environment and reduced physical exercise. Earlier people first went to the traditional system, Ayurveda. Often it was at the suggestion of the ayurvedic physician that the patient was taken to an Allopathic doctor. Many people had the necessary herbs and plants around their home and also the knowledge to treat common cold, headache etc. Those are forgotten and everybody rushes to the modern hospital. The rich go to the ultra-modern hospitals with the latest equipments, highly paid staff and impressive buildings. The poor first try the innumerable medical stores and nearby doctors practising at home. Then they resort to the government hospitals.

We have already seen the emergence of mafias of various hues in the State. There was petty theft, begging and visible poverty in the period before the Kerala State was formed. There was the rich-poor divide. Toddy tapping and toddy shops gave employment to a section of people. I am not sure that it generated huge revenue to the government. Recommendation and bribery were there. But the greed for wealth and its display as seen today was not there. The question that should bother us is: what sort of a society has emerged here? In this short essay I am not attempting an enquiry from 1956.

Large sections of the people celebrated the shift from the former UDF-led government. We also feel happy with our democratic set-up where this is possible. But it is high time to seriously think whether the people’s responsi-bility ends with the casting of the vote.

The people of Kerala voted the Communist Party to power in the very first election in the State. It was certainly because of the faith that the new government would help improve their life. That government did not stay in power for sufficiently long. But the Left governments came to power again and the Kerala described above is not the creation of the non-Left governments alone.

Let us briefly see what happened in the last one year. The murder of a poor Law college female student had happened just before the present government assumed office. There was a popular voice demanding a fresh enquiry into the case. It did not happen. Another was the death again of a student of a private Engineering college which, we are told, had a torture room. His parents, relatives and neighbours were waiting to see a successful engineer emerging from the college. Instead, it was his dead body that came out. The fool-proof enquiry many of us waited for is being delayed. News about sexual abuse of women, old and young including schoolgirls, are increasing. So are the sale of opium and other drugs. Friends in the excise department have interesting stories of women and men who smuggle gold and coins.

Illegal occupation of land and construction of guest houses, restaurants etc. make big news practically every day. The most coveted place is the environmentally fragile Western Ghats. High-rise buildings or flats started showing up in the State rather recently. The new Keralite was easily lured into its culture. True, they generated employment, but the wealth amassed by the builders is huge.

A very shocking incident took place in the heart of Trivandrum city a couple of months back. A young son burnt to death his elderly parents, both economically and socially highly placed, sister and his mother’s aunt. Like other news the newspapers and television channels featured the news prominently. I find it a serious example of the extent to which the present Kerala society can go.

The case against a prominent cine artist in connection with attacking a woman artist and his illegal occupation of land etc. are prolonging. The investigating agencies can say that they are doing a fool-proof job. Undue delay can also end up in haphazard findings.

The corruption charges against some BJP-RSS leaders in connection with private medical colleges got huge media attention.

Besides all this, endless stories of malpractices in the administrative set-up, including the police, reach us.

Amassing wealth by any means has become acceptable to a section of the society. Two stories which got media attention involved a Minister in the present Cabinet and an MLA also from the CPI-M. Violation of environmental norms and the support received from the adminis-trative set-up got wide publicity. But no action has been taken so far.

For the last several years the government has come to see tourism as a business. And the private sector has entered the area in a big way. This without doubt has done great damage to several places. Kovalam was a beautiful, peaceful beach. Now the place is full of buildings, huge crowd and endless noise.

The same thing has happened in many other places too. A recent news item bothered me. It is about the possibility of a new airport near Sabarimala where the Ayyappa temple in the Western Ghats stands. An earlier attempt to have an airport at a place not far away met with strong popular protest and was cancelled. Already the small State has four airports. The claim of the authorities may be that the airport would enable more pilgrims to come to the temple. Naturally more concrete roads, rest houses and hotels would come up in this fragile ecosystem. I can remember the time when pilgrims walked across dense forests, where all kinds of trees and wild animals thrived, to reach the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala.

True, there are examples of ‘modernising‘ temples. In Tirupati the temple of Lord Venka-desa was above seven hills and most people walked the whole way up. At some point the mountains were demolished and a helipad was constructed. With that the silence and sanctity of the place vanished. People walked through difficult terrain seeking blessings from the deities they adored. The modern pilgrim, who may also be a tourist, can offer much money or even gold. But the damage to the environment cannot be measured.

Before concluding let me remind ourselves about some uncomfortable realities. How have the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes fared in Kerala? SCs and STs are composed of distinct groups following different occupations, housing pattern and other customary practices. The different tribes had their own language. Much before the idea of Kerala was even heard, there arose leaders from some of the ‘untouchable’ communities who in loud and clear voice demanded their right to walk along public roads, get their children admitted to schools etc. Regarding the latter, castes like the numerically large Pulayas succeeded to some extent. Graduates and post-graduates came out from these groups. But that has not been the reality as far as all the old ‘untouchables’ are concerned. Many live in exclusive ‘colonies’. We should not be surprised if some of these groups have become extinct. This is an area in which the political parties should do some serious soul-searching. In the freedom struggle and later the agitations of the Communist Parties, the support of these people was great.

Some days back there was a shocking news that a large number of young women and men in a tribal area near Trivandrum committed suicide. One or two days later a Minister visited the place. I have not heard anything more of the incident.

I am sure that there would be people here who think that this is not the State they expected to see after sixty years. I also know that there are people here who are comfortable with the present. In fact many among them would like the place to become a Singapore or Dubai. These are happening in a State which had proclaimed itself to be a model. It got international acclaim. We boasted of many social indicators. The important among them were a sex-ratio in favour of women in the population, high rate of literacy, education, longevity etc. again among women. Acceptance of small family by limiting the number of pregnancies to two was also widely publicised. We proudly placed before the world the progressive literary and cultural movements and people’s planning.

Many things said above are true. But during the same period the traditional joint families gave way to nuclear families. Women who live long have no one to care for them. Stories of elderly mothers left by the wayside by children started becoming news at least two decades back.

We often hear words like Neoliberalism, Corporate etc. in the context of development. Let me remind ourselves what EMS wrote two decades back. In the Kerala Journal of Social Science it was: ”I am sharply opposed to the New Economic Policy formulated by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo.......” The world and India witnessed worse upheavals in the decades that followed. At the same time from many parts of the world voices of protests and suggestions for alternatives are constantly heard.

A democracy depends on the people. They bring governments to power. Unless something drastic happens and the government is dissolved, the people wait till the next elections. The debates we see on the TV channels and articles we read may make us aware of what is happening in the State. There are people who are active in the social media. The government always uses the word Janapaksham or For the People. Let us list the major decisions taken or not taken in the last one year.

How many are for the jobless, homeless, lonely and others like them? How many are for the crorepatis and aspirants to that category? We don’t hear words like Justice, Peace, and Collective Wellbeing of People and Environment.

In another ten days, the State will celebrate its most important festival, Onam. New clothes, mostly khadi and handloom, were bought during Onam in the past. Now the newspapers and TV are filled with advertisements of flats, cars and every possible household item.

The people’s voice should be heard non-stop for a government that stands for the deprived, the lonely and the voiceless.....

Let us not forget the legendary story that Parasurama threw his battle-axe into the sea and there arose Kerala, extending up to Gokarna in Karnataka. A place where there was no theft, deceit, not an iota of lies... If Parasurama comes back to have a look...?

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

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