issue 241 - March 1993
Paradox in paradise
Vanessa Baird goes to Kerala in search of the radical
paradise she has been told exists there....
The plane takes a sudden dip. Then it follows the line where the thin band of amber sand meets the blue-brown waves of the Indian Ocean, lashed by the tail-end of the monsoon winds. Beyond the fringe of sand is a thick canopy of coconut trees that seems to stretch to infinity.
This is Kerala, the small state right down on the south-western tip of India. It’s known as ‘land of the coconuts’. But it has also been called ‘the red riddle’, the ‘problem state’ and the ‘Yenan of India’ (in reference to Mao’s Long March).
This was the first state in the world to actually elect a communist government. That was in 1957. What followed has been held up by many as a blueprint for Third World development.
Wealth was radically redistributed through land reform. Social programmes gave Keralites health, education and average life expectancy that is far better than that of any other Indians. Strong unions ensured better pay too.
Foreign aid agencies like Oxfam and Save the Children don’t have programmes in Kerala – it’s not necessary, they say. And yet, paradoxically, Kerala remains one of the poorest states in the world if you go by all the usual means of measuring wealth.
What is the secret of Kerala’s success? All the experts have their own pet theory: ‘Communism’; ‘the strong Christian influence’; ‘the position of women in society’; ‘a rich cultural mix’; ‘communal harmony between the various religious groups’; ‘a high level of political awareness’; ‘militant unions and grassroots organizations’; ‘natural resources’; and finally ‘the resourcefulness of Keralites’.
In 1991 the Communist-led Left coalition lost the Kerala state elections and a centrist coalition came to power. This may not be as significant as it seems – Kerala’s canny voters have the habit of alternating their vote so as not to allow any one group to remain in power for too long.
But I wonder what I will find during my five-week journey through the state. Has this socialist success story continued to develop in a world where socialism seems to have become a dirty word? Is the bedrock of radical ideas strong enough to withstand the right-wing winds of change in the world outside, in India or in Kerala itself? And the most important question of all: does Kerala really provide us with a model for development?
As the plane comes down over the magical trees – punctuated only by the odd church, mosque and temple spire – and touches ground at Trivandrum there is just one thing I feel sure about. It’s true what they all say about Kerala’s natural beauty.