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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993


KERALA is a poor state in a poor country. Yet its people
have a quality of life that is better than the rest of India or
almost any other low-income state. In fact, the quality of
life in Kerala is closer to that in the West. But they have
achieved it in a most un-Western way.

Kerala, India Kerala is one of the most densely populated, culturally mixed and politically unusual states in the world.

[image, unknown] It's the size of Switzerland and supports a population of 29 million people. That's 747 people per square kilometre1 compared with 234 in the UK, 160 in Switzerland, 26 in the US, 21 in Canada, 12 in Aotearoa/New Zealand and 2 in Australia.2

[image, unknown] Of its population 60 per cent are Hindu, 20 per cent are Muslim and 20 per cent are Christian. A small Jewish community of 22 people remains.

[image, unknown] In 1957 Kerala was the first state in the world to bring to power a communist government via democratic elections rather than revolution.

[image, unknown] Over 90 per cent of people in Kerala own the land on which their home stands. Land ownership is limited to eight hectares per family.3

People in Kerala are more educated than in the rest of India and all Low-Income Countries (LICs).

Kerala's literacy rate is higher than that of any Low-Income Country. The only countries in the Third World to have higher literacy are Cuba, Chile and Costa Rica.

Increases in Kerala's literacy rate (%)

[image, unknown] 30 per cent of total state spending is on education.3

People in Kerala live longer - thanks to better nutrition and state health-care provision. Far fewer children die before they reach 12 months of age.

Life expectancy & Infant mortality.

[image, unknown] Fair-price shops and ration cards ensure that two-thirds of the subsidized basic foods go to the poorest 30 per cent. And 99 per cent of Kerala's villages have a fair-price shop within two kilometres.6

Electors tend to alternate their vote so that no party stays in power for more than one term. Coalition politics is the norm.

[image, unknown] Left Democratic Front (LDF)
Led by the Communist Party Marxist (CPM), it includes other broadly Left groups such as the Communist Party India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the breakaway Congress(S) Party and the anti-caste Janata Dal party. It held power from 1987 to 1991, losing to the United Democratic Front.

[image, unknown] United Democratic Front (UDF)
A loose-knit coalition consisting of centrist groups and communal interests led by the Congress(I) Party and including the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the pro-caste National Democratic Party (NDP), and the pro-Christian Kerala Congress (KC). Its term of office since June 1991 has been characterized by fierce infighting.

[image, unknown] Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
Seen as the Hindu fundamentalist party, neither the LDF or UDF are willing to include it in their coalition.

Kerala's quality of life is comparatively high.

Physical quality of life index.

But in conventional economic terms it is a poor state - lagging behind the rest of India.

GNP per capita ($) 1990

[image, unknown] Kerala manages to maintain high consumption and low productivity thanks to remittances from workers in the Gulf which equal 20 to 25 per cent of the state domestic product. Only two per cent of this is invested in commercial ventures. Most of it is spent on land, houses, cars or jewellery.8,3

The position of women is generally better than in other parts of India or other Low-Income Countries - because they are better educated and have fewer children.

Total fertility rate [image, unknown] 94 per cent of primary- age girls and 99 per cent of primary-age boys are in school.3

[image, unknown] There are more females than males enrolled in arts and sciences pre-degree, degree and graduated courses - a total of 82,538 women and 73,516 men in 1990-1.1

photo by VANESSA BAIRD [image, unknown] Coir (coconut fibre) accounts for 18 per cent of exports and supports 10 million people in Kerala.1

[image, unknown] Major exports include rubber, pepper, cardamom, ginger, coffee, tea, cashews.

[image, unknown] In 1986 women accounted for 28 per cent of Government employees and 36 per cent of employees in organized economic entities.3

[image, unknown] An estimated 150,000 Keralites are working in the Gulf. Many are skilled technicians and medical staff.

[image, unknown] Unemployment is the highest in India, with an estimated four million job seekers. 63.8 per cent of educated job-seekers were unemployed in 1991.7,1

1 Economic Review 1991, Government of Kerala State Planning Board.
2 The Economist Book of Vital World Statistics, (Hutchinson 1990).
3 Politics, Women and Wellbeing, Robin Jeffrey (Macmillan 1992).
4 'Kerala Elections, 1991: Lessons and Non-Lessons', Thomas Isaac and S Mohana Kumar, Economic and Political Weekly, 23 November 1991.
5 World Development Report 1992, World Bank.
6 Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State, Richard W Franke and Barbara H Chasin (Food First Books 1991).
7 Indian Express, 30 August 1992, quoting the Applied Research Department of the State Government.
8 Kerala figure supplied by the Institute of Development Studies in Trivandrum.

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New Internationalist issue 241 magazine cover This article is from the March 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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