Kerala State: A Social Justice Model

By Franke, Richard W.; Chasin, Barbara H. | Multinational Monitor, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview
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Kerala State: A Social Justice Model


Franke, Richard W., Chasin, Barbara H., Multinational Monitor


Kerala State, in southwest India, shows that Third World people can make their lives better in the absence of industrialization or large-scale economic growth. The key ingredients: active grassroots organizations, redistribution of wealth and democratic participation.

Despite low per capita incomes, Kerala's 31 million people have achieved nearly total literacy, long life expectancy, low infant mortality and birth rates and high access to medical care. Kerala's development indicators compare favorably with the rest of India, low-income countries in general and even rich nations such as the United States.

The main elements of the Kerala model are: a land reform initiative that abolished tenancy and landlord exploitation; effective public food distribution that provides subsidized rice to low-income households; protective laws for agricultural workers; pensions for retired agricultural laborers; and a high rate of government employment for members of formerly low-caste communities.

Kerala's peasant associations and unions have also fought for public health measures and access to health care. Kerala has the lowest rates of malaria, cholera and several other diseases in India, coupled with the highest access to doctors, health clinics, nursing care and hospitals. Kerala's child tuberculosis, polio and DPT (diphtheria-pertussistetanus) vaccination rates in 1992 were 100 percent, compared to national rates of 83 percent. For measles, the Kerala rate was 92 percent versus the national rate of 77 percent.

Women also benefited from the Kerala model: Kerala continues to be the only Indian state with no major statistical evidence of excess female mortality - a sign that female children in Kerala have equal life chances to those of males.

A new element in Kerala's development strategy is the New Democratic Initiatives campaign launched by the 1987 to 1991 leftist Democratic Front Administration. The New Democratic Initiatives were designed to involve people directly in development activities and to make extensive use of voluntary citizens' organizations.

Literacy campaign

One of the most important of the New Democratic Initiatives was a campaign to establish full literacy throughout Kerala, begun in December 1988. The Kerala People's Science Movement (KSSP) initiated the campaign in Ernakulum District, mobilizing nearly 22,000 volunteer activists. The volunteers organized jathas (processions), meetings, drama presentations and literacy classes in the neighborhoods where illiteracy was concentrated. The KSSP was founded in the 1960s as an organization of scientists who wanted to popularize scientific thinking among ordinary people. Over the years it has evolved into one of Kerala's most important voluntary, organizations and is especially active on environmental issues.

The KSSP created popular committees to energize and involve villagers in all 860 rural wards of the District as well as in the municipal wards. Five literacy jathas, beginning from five edges of the Ernakulum District in January 1989, inaugurated the campaign. Major political leaders, literary figures, religious scholars and academics led the jathas. Each jatha also had an artists' group. They traveled for six days on foot, giving street plays, folk performances, group songs and speeches at various stopping points. An average of 300 to 400 people gathered at these reception points.

The jathas and artistic performances helped create an atmosphere in which people felt they could come forward, admit their illiteracy and join the classes. After the classes began, literacy walls were set up in each ward to give news of the campaign. At some events, illiterates were encouraged to come forward and display any talents they had. Many could sing, dance or recite. The campaign encouraged these activities to promote the self-esteem and self-awareness of the learners. Thousands of prizes and certificates were awarded.

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