What’s Kerala’s Secret?

In a recent academic roundtable on From Poverty to Power in Canberra, Robin Jeffrey, professor at the Australian National University and dean of its College of Asia and the Pacific, had a stab at applying the ‘how change happens’ framework to the cause celebre of Kerala in South India. Here are my notes on his initial effort, augmented with quotes from his book on the subject. 

Since independence, Kerala has achieved rapid social improvements in areas such as infant mortality and literacy without significant industrialization or economic growth. This has prompted discussion of a ‘Kerala Model’, a sort of South Asian Cuba in which high levels of state investment in social services can achieve real progress, even in the absence of economic growth.

Using the How Change Happens framework of Context, Institutions, Agents and Events, Jeffrey argued that Kerala offers some general lessons on development, but is too path dependent to provide a very specific model (alas, this usually proves to be the case when any particular historical change is put under the microscope). He points to the following:

Migration: High educational levels, poverty and tradition have led hundreds of thousands of Keralans to seek work in the Gulf and elsewhere. By the 1980s their remittances contributed an average of 30% of rural household income. They provided a buffer for poor economic performance at home.

The most powerful and influential elite castes in Kerala historically had matrilineal societies, i.e. land ownership passed from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son. This led to greater status for women, including sending girls to school. The matrilineal system disintegrated in the early 20th Century, leading to high levels of social and political conflict, but this did not drag down women – they retained far more access to education than elsewhere in India. The result was high levels of female participation in the labour force, although little involvement by women in public politics, where chauvinism continues to reign.

Caste: Kerala entered the 20th Century with a particularly rigid caste system, which nationalists, Communists, Christian missionaries and newly-educated lower-caste people all played a part in destroying.

Popular organization: The disintegration of the caste and matrilineal systems led to an increasingly raucous (‘clamorous Kerala’) public politics in which ‘assertion slowly but steadily supplanted obsequiousness in the 20th century’. Teachers, their numbers boosted by the ever-growing education budget, played a central role in this culture of agitation, for example in the Kerala Communist Party.

Depression and near famine in the Second World War prompted a unique combination of popular agitation and state rationing schemes that averted the horrors of the Bengal Famine and established a tradition of state provision that continued after independence.

Dynamics of Change
Keralan politics revolves around active citizens placing ever greater demands on the state, especially for healthcare and education. This produced the ‘Keralan miracle’. By 1981, female literacy in Kerala was well over twice and infant mortality less than a third of the rate for India as a whole. Partial land reform at least guaranteed 90% of the rural population ownership of the land on which their houses stood (if not much else).

But this has not produced a particularly effective state, certainly when it comes to creating the conditions for economic take off, where investment in infrastructure has been squeezed out by social spending. In consequence, social progress coincides with economic stagnation – per capita income is less than two thirds the Indian average. Moreover even in public services, the state is better at quantity than quality: state spending takes place through a chaotic system of church and other non-state providers, which are often highly inefficient. Attempts at reform have invariably been repelled by the various interest groups involved.

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What emerges is a picture of an educated population, able to use whatever they can extract from the state to further the welfare of their families. What is lacking is the long term economic capacity to underpin this. In Jeffrey’s words:

‘Democratic politics, involving large sections of a population, can be made to provide services that people need and, consequently, use. Literate, confident women will, as domestic managers, turn such services into better health for men and women alike. Birth rates will fall. What one yearns for is a further stage in which enough wealth is produced – and politics guarantees its fair distribution – to ensure far higher measures of well-being for all.’

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7 Responses to “What’s Kerala’s Secret?”
  1. Wayne

    WWhat has Kerala to offer but strikes and coconuts?”

    What you neglect to mention with respect to the “Kerala model” is that labour militancy and persitent high level of industrial action means that deters both domestic industries and FDI.

    For a different view of the ‘Kerala Miracle’ take a look at the India Together article on “Kerala’s development paradox” By Ramesh Menon.


    Selective Quotes:
    “Industry shies away from investing fearing labour unrest. Kerala is one of the most volatile labour controlled islands of India. Political parties have thrived on creating pockets of labour unions and using them as vote banks. The industries ministry wants to bring in “reforms” but that is on the backburner. Ironically, left party activists are stonewalling it as they see the ghost of capitalism in every reform. As there are no worthwhile job opportunities, the young migrate to far away lands.”

    “…as remittances keep increasing every year, inequality is growing. A 2007 study of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) shows that almost 75 per cent of the growth in assets is only benefiting the top 20 per cent.”

    Recent growth has been on the back of a tourism boom that has benefited only an elite few, at the cost of widespread environmental destruction, pollution and declining state revenues.

    Lunch beckons!

  2. Having lived in Kerala for nearly a year in 1993-94 (when Kerala was already being touted as a model of sustainable development), and just recently re-visiting for the first time after 15 years (yes, there was a state-wide transport strike that affected my visit), I have to say I relate to Menon’s sense of a yawning gap between current realities and the bold leadership required to renew Kerala’s commitment to greater equality and well-being.

    Migration to the Gulf countries is now becoming the norm for the majority, and as in countless other examples, I’m dubious of the benefits. There are few if any opportunities for migrants to deploy skills acquired abroad into productive economic opportunities at home, and money is plowed into private consumption: massive houses (why build indoor castles, when with Kerala’s balmy climate most people live outdoors?), dowries and marriage celebrations… Lebanon provides an important example of what not to do with remittances.

    Women Kerala have certainly had a leg up relative to other states in India for decades, but a serious conservative trend seems to be in place that frustrates greater freedoms and opportunities.

    Already in the early 1990s, Kerala was dependent on rice imported from Punjab and elsewhere. Now, with a rubber boom underway, there’s clearly cash around but no evidence of an effort to consolidate food security in the state.

    To sum-up, disappointingly little evidence of citizen activity leading to a more effective state!

  3. R.Sajan

    Health care in the State has been in shambles during the last 10 years due to mindless unionisation of government hospital employees; and total corruption. Epidemics like Chikun guniya and Rat fever rage in the State now and nobody cares. The private sector hospitals are beyond the reach of the common man because of high costs. HIV infection figures are larger than bigger States; but rigged statistics hide them.

    From 2008, the non-resident Keralites have begun to return jobless, in large numbers. This would wreck all areas of civil life.

    Avaricious money-making without quality by private educational institutions led by the Catholic Church has been tolling the death knell of higher education, from the last decade.

  4. Duncan Green’s notes and 3 sincere responses provide an FMRI like view on Kerala! But to move this state towards achieving its potential two points have to be stressed. Consumer education of their rights and financial Education to masses to save and Invest. This consumer state is full of dubious products and services including Higher education and foreign Money squandared!! The Model needs to be revamped before it can be a Prototype! Regards to all!

  5. Sheeba

    Kerala is not a total success nor a total failure. One thing I can agree, Kerala can be proud of its High literacy, women’s education ,not so bad healthcare system and irradication of poverty. But its sad that the educated people here are unable to find job, crime against women increasing and corruption and political interference in development activities.

  6. Ian Gordon

    If you are producing a workforce able to take their skills to the Gulf for higher pay, then kudos to you. Scots have traditionally done this for centuries.

    If a Keralan woman has one child as opposed to the five elsewhere in India, why the need for large infrastructure spending. Surely a declining population will mean less infrastructure not more.

    Also as I understand it Kerala is relatively equitable. Something which is to be applauded.