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Industrial backwardness in Kerala due to obsolete technology: Expert

Our Bureau

Thiruvananthapuram, Jan. 16

BACKWARDNESS of industry in Kerala could be attributed to backwardness of industrial technology, according to a leading social scientist.

This line of reasoning emphasises technological backwardness as a crucial fact of Kerala's industrial life, according to Dr K.T. Rammohan, a former Fellow of the Centre of Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

For long, mainstream development discourse on Kerala has attributed the State's industrial backwardness to high wage and labour militancy. While it is possible that other variables such as efficiency of workers remaining the same, capital would prefer docile and cheap labour, the conclusion was rather impressionistic and had been reached without any concrete studies, Dr Rammohan said in a discussion paper series prepared for the Centre for Development Studies (CDS).

The proposition that high wage is a fetter on Kerala's industrialisation was challenged by a mid-1980s study which showed that the wages in the organised industrial sector in Kerala were in fact lower than in several other industrially developed Indian States.

The latest study was posited with the alternate hypothesis that it was the technologically backward structure of the Kerala industry, causing low labour productivity and minimal forward and backward linkages that retarded the industrial development of the region.

Indeed the major industries in the State, whether coir processing, handloom weaving or beedi-making, are marked by the use of low productive technologies.

Further development of industry in the State, among other factors, thus crucially hinges on technological upgradation.

Yet, given the fact that the level of technology in use is shaped by a host of factors, not merely economic, the shift to a higher technological frontier presents itself as a complicated move.

The new techniques may be ideal from the point of view of productivity but are inappropriate to the social economy where these are applied.

Moreover, it is important to consider the environmental implications of the new technology, Dr Rammohan said in the paper that relates to the question of technological change in Kerala industry by foregrounding the case of coir yarn spinning industry.

In terms of employment, coir industry is the most important among Kerala's technologically backward, low productive industries.

Workers in coir yarn processing are drawn from among the most disempowered social groups, mostly women of `lower' and `out' castes and to a much lesser extent men of `out' castes.

Despite intense trade unionisation, the wages in the industry used to be lower than even in agriculture. Statutory minimum wages were not paid even in the co-operative segment of the industry.

Further, days of employment in the industry has shrunk to less than six months a year in recent times.

The ongoing technological change in the industry thus has implications for vast sections of disempowered people in the State.

Further, the success or failure of technological change in this `sunset industry' has considerable significance from a growth perspective of the industry and the economy.

Given the fact that technological change currently under way comes after a gap of nearly a century-and-a-half, it holds a mirror to the issues of long-run technological change in Kerala industry.

At the very least, it may be expected to offer lessons regarding technological change in similar low productive industries such as handloom weaving and cashewnut processing that operate in a similar social environment.

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