Kerala is no model of development

MA Oommen | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on March 01, 2017

Living on the edge Those who are marginalised remain marginalised   -  H Vibhu


Its recent decline with respect to democratic politics, social equity and women’s agency suggests a change for the worse

Kerala’s social attainments, sometimes referred to as a ‘model’, brought to scholarly attention by the UN study Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy (1975), has occupied a prominent place in development literature. It is only a post facto generalisation of a historically evolved transformative experience in delivering broad-based healthcare (low infant mortality, high life expectancy, high female-male ratio etc), universal elementary education and social justice to a society once deeply divided by caste and class inequities of the worst order.

That this was achieved unsupported by high growth or industrialisation has baffled the received wisdom in economics. A pioneering paper in the International Journal of Health Services (1978) by John Ratcliffe on the demographic transition of the State from explosive population growth in the 1960s to low net birth rate within a span of 15 years, identified mass participation in development and equitable delivery of services (notably healthcare and education) as factors that clinched the process of change. To be sure, this was an unusual experience, a sort of ‘model’.

About semantics

Robin Jeffrey points out that the word was first used by Malcolm Adiseshiah in my book, Kerala Economy Since Independence (1979). Although Amartya Sen on his own and in several joint works with Jean Dreze popularised Kerala’s achievements through public action as an exemplar, they never used the term ‘model’. They even warned: “The rhetoric of ‘Kerala model’ is convenient for debunking purposes than for identifying what there is to learn from Kerala’s experience.”

Indeed, in their book, India’s Tryst with Destiny, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya did subject the ‘Kerala model’ to a ‘debunking’ exercise. By wrongly mixing non-comparable historical facts out of context, they come to the spurious conclusion that whatever human development achievements Kerala has, was due to the private sector, economic growth and globalisation. I do not propose to counter their arguments which do not mention, leave alone debate, democratic politics, justice and freedom, values that made Kerala a ‘model’.

Jeffrey, an acknowledged scholar on Kerala, never formalised it as a ‘model’. He subtitles his book, Politics, Women and Well-being (1992) with the tagline, How Kerala Became ‘a Model’. He captures Kerala’s transformation thus: politics + women = well-being. The politics he refers to emphasises the distribution of power and wealth from the 1880s and the 1950s. The period certainly cannot go beyond 1980s, by which time Gulf money begins to flow and coalition politics has already changed the development paradigm that made Kerala famous. The sharp shift towards neo-liberal policies since 1991 hastened the process.

Focusing on just three aspects of the ‘model’, namely, democratic politics, social equity and women’s agency, I argue that it has lost its ethos.

Impact on political discourse

One, the coalition politics of Kerala with innumerable small parties aligned on either side of two fronts, the United Democratic Front led by the Indian National Congress and the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party (Marxist) has vitiated the character of democratic politics in the State. The moves and counter-moves of coalition politics have rendered common development goals and collective efforts difficult if not irrelevant. The growing intolerance of dissent and disrespect for the rule of law has worsened matters — political murders appear to have become endemic today.

Kerala society is deeply fragmented on the basis of rent-seeking coalitions such as caste associations, liquor contractors, PWD contractors, quarry contractors and the like broaching opportunistic alliance with some political party or other for mutual gains. Hartals, a staple of Kerala’s everyday life, are no longer an instrument of people’s protest. It is difficult to endorse the claims of Patrick Heller (1999) and others who consider Kerala a radical social democracy.

Two, Kerala’s egalitarian quest has been lost. Scheduled castes, tribes, fisherfolk and plantation labour are outliers in the ‘model’. Despite radical land reforms the communist slogan, “Land to the tiller”, remains unrealised. A study in the Economic and Political Weekly based on NSSO 70th round data shows that in 2012-13, 93.2 per cent of scheduled tribes and 72.3 per cent of scheduled castes in Kerala are landless (owning no land other than the homestead). Kerala’s Gini coefficient, 0.83 (only Punjab and Bihar have higher numbers), shows that land distribution remains highly skewed.

Although in 1957 the revenue minister announced in the State assembly that 7.82 lakh ha of land would be available for redistribution, hardly 5 per cent of it was redistributed. The exemptions given to plantation crops and the series of amendments made to ratify mala fide transfers since 1957 and that too when land became a lucrative means of accumulation of wealth thanks to Gulf money, the egalitarian significance of the reform was lost.

Following the rapid commercialisation of health and education since 1991 the pricing out of the poor from these services has become the rule. While as a percentage of SDP, health expenditure expanded at the rate of 0.30 per cent per annum and that of education 0.91 per cent during the 1980s, in the last 15 years (2000-2015) there has been a decline of the order of (-)0.49 per cent and (-)1.85 per cent respectively.

Growing inequalities in the distribution of monthly per capita consumption expenditure (MPCE) over the last two decades as well as exemplified in the various household consumer expenditure surveys of NSSO are significant. The disparity ratio between the average MPCE in the bottom 10 per cent to the topmost decile has widened since 1993-94. Those belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes, fisherfolk, plantation workers, dhobis and others who constitute only a negligible proportion of Gulf migrants, continue to remain marginalised.

Gender mismatch

Three, the mounting evidence of crime against women, relatively high female suicide rate, the adverse female-male ratio of children in the age-group 0-6 years since 1991, and so on render it difficult for women to play their rightful role in the transformation of society. Macroeconomic factors and the social environment that shape gender relations in Kerala need serious re-examination. Indeed, Kerala is fast losing its credentials as a ‘model’.

The writer is an honorary fellow at CDS, Thiruvananthapuram

Published on March 01, 2017
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