Kerala State, India: Radical Reform as Development

Article excerpt

Richard W. Franke is Professor of Anthropology and Barbara H. Chasin is Professor of Sociology at Montclair State College, New Jersey. Full documentation for this article is contained in the book from which it is adapted, Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1989). The book is available from the Institute, 145 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 for $6.00 plus 90 cents postage and handling. The authors are grateful to Marc Miller, senior editor of Technology Review, who assisted in the production of a similar article for that journal and to Indian researchers Thomas Isaac and Nata Duvvury who provided them with up-to-date Kerala government statistics.

Redistribution of wealth, provision of basic necessities, and popular involvement in the political process are the hallmarks of a remarkable radical attempt at social change in Kerala state on the southwest coast of India.

Kerala (pronounced Ker' uh luh) is particularly important for third world countries, where centuries of colonialism and decades of Western-sponsored development efforts have gone hand-in-hand with continuing high levels of inequality and misery for poor farmers and farm laborers. While most third world countries seek to advance primarily through boosting production and investing in expensive technology, Kerala has implemented a program of radical social reforms, with land reform at the center of its efforts. And although it suffers from overwhelming poverty and is one of the world's most densely populated regions, Kerala has achieved some of the third world's highest scores on important indicators of development.

The life expectancy in Kerala-68 years-is closer to the U.S. average of 75 years than to India's 57 years or the abysmally low 52 years in a World Bank sample of 37 low-income countries with 658 million people (excluding China and India). Kerala's infant mortality rate is 27 per thousand births, compared with 106 for the low-income countries and 86 for India. The birth rate, at 22 per thousand, is comparable to the U.S. rate of 16; the figures are 43 for the low-income countries and 32 for India. Almost three-quarters of Keralans can read or write; fewer than half are literate in the rest of India and the other poor countries (see Table 1).*

These indicators are especially important because they reveal the distribution of social and economic gains. If wealth is highly concentrated, per capita income can be high while most people have little. But, literacy rates improve only when a great number of people learn to read and write. The average life span rises minimally if only the elite live longer. Infant mortality and birth rates change little unless medical care is widespread.

Just as striking, Kerala's quality of life benefits are fairly evenly distributed among men and women, urban and rural areas, and low and high castes (see Table 2). Male literacy, for example, is just 9 percentage points higher than that of females, while the difference is 22 points for India as a whole. In India's urban areas, people are nearly twice as literate as they are in rural ones throughout India, while in Kerala the disparity is slight. For both infant mortality and birth rates, rural Kerala is only slightly behind the cities.

The results of studies Indian agencies have conducted on productivity and basic services are similarly impressive. Kerala ranks first among all Indian states in output per unit of area. The state is also first on 15 of 20 measures of basic services-including roads, post offices, and schools-and ranks very high on the five others (see Table 3).

Kerala's achievements are, of course, most meaningful to the people who live there, but the data also have implications for economic development strategies elsewhere. In every developing nation, the many possible paths follow from a fundamental issue: which is more effective, growth or redistribution? …