Model or Muddle? Journey's End: Time to Ask If Kerala Really Is the Success Story It's Cracked Up to Be, and to Do a Bit of Star Gazing

By Baird, Vanessa | New Internationalist, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Model or Muddle? Journey's End: Time to Ask If Kerala Really Is the Success Story It's Cracked Up to Be, and to Do a Bit of Star Gazing


Baird, Vanessa, New Internationalist


IT'S easy to be critical in Kerala when you are there and listening to the criticisms of Keralites. It is outrageous that land reform has excluded so many native people. Women's liberation should mean a lot more than access to health, education and jobs. And workers' rights must include those of rural contract labour in the coir industry.

But if you stand back a bit and look at Kerala in the context of the rest of India -- or low - income countries worldwide -- its success in meeting the basic needs of its people is astounding. People here live much longer, are better educated and have more rights than anywhere else in India. Their expectations are high; so are the standards by which they judge success. Whatever their political allegiance most people will proudly regale the achievements of communism. When I ask a researcher at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum how I can get in touch with a self - avowed conservative, he looks perplexed and then explains that he does not think anybody in Kerala would describe themselves as a conservative. 'Everybody likes to think of themselves as "progressive".' There's hypocrisy, complacency, a reluctance to tackle remaining pockets of inequality -- but nowhere do I get even an inkling of the brutal New Right conviction found almost everywhere else these days that if some people are poor and marginalized then it's got to be their own fault. And you see more homelessness on the streets of London than in Trivandrum.

So the million - rupee question: is Kerala a model for development? Probably not in the sense that it provides a blueprint that can be applied anywhere; Kerala has too many historical and cultural peculiarities for that.

But I wonder whether it's really wise to think in terms of 'a model' anyway? A model suggests something rigid and I would have thought one of the lessons that can be learned from socialism this century is that rigidity is not a good thing.

Individual 'lessons', however, Kerala can definitely provide. The first is that good, radical land reform has to be the first step. Second, that literacy and popular participation are the way to set in motion and sustain radical social change. Kerala also teaches less obvious lessons -- that apparent paradoxes can live happily together, for example. New politics

But the political Left in Kerala faces a new challenge today. The changing world order, the collapse of Eastern Europe, have all taken their toll here too.

I think the leftist movement depended too much on official communism and it will take a few years before such a politics can take shape again,' says Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios. He's an oddball, labelled 'the red bishop' on the grounds of his commitment to social justice -- and a 'conservative' on the grounds of his commitment to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He goes on: 'The communist parties are suffering from having been patriarchal in their administration for so long. It has meant that they have been unable to renew their leadership. The older leaders made tremendous sacrifices, they were jailed, starved -- they threw themselves into communism. So whatever they say goes. The younger ones have had to do none of these things -- and they fail to inspire people.

Of course literacy and land reform have been great achievements. Leftist education has ensured that people know that there is injustice, they know the structures that create poverty and oppression. And today there is very little abject poverty in Kerala.

But there are still injustices. People know this but nothing much is being done. We are slipping into a kind of smugness. Political processes have become extremely cheap with people -- especially in the current government -- doing anything to come to power and to cling to power. I am afraid that the restless striving for a new society has almost gone... Now everything, including education, is seen in terms of climbing the economic ladder.'

I think of his words as I walk through the chaotic traffic - ridden streets of Trivandrum, past the bookshops, the tailors, the drapers selling homespun khadi, the watch - menders, the chemists selling traditional Ayurvedic herbal medicines. …

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