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Model Or Muddle?


new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

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...

Kerala, India 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.

The 'red bishop' Paulos Mar Gregorios.

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. All these show India at its self-reliant best.

But a little further on are the luxury shops selling imported watches and gold jewellery at exorbitant prices. With India taking the IMF/World Bank route to development there are going to be a hell of a lot more of them. India aims to get a nine-billion-dollar loan from the IMF in exchange for dropping many import tariffs under a policy of ‘economic liberalization’, and imposing IMF-style ‘structural adjustment’. This means cutting public spending – especially on health and education.

For many Keralites it’s a final sell-out to neo-imperialism, to the New World Order dictated by the West, and a jettisoning of the last bits of Gandhism.

To grow or not to grow
Meanwhile Keralites are consuming a lot – helped by remittances from the Gulf – and producing very little. The economy is stagnating in crucial areas, growing only very slowly in others.

Does this matter? What’s so great about growth? After all, the usual lesson drawn from Kerala is that even with minimum economic growth redistribution of wealth can ensure that people’s basic needs are met.

But Left economists are beginning to rethink this. Thomas Isaac, at the Centre for Development Studies, reckons that: ‘In the absence of economic growth in Kerala today the maintenance of the gains of the past is becoming difficult.’

He sees a backlash developing, fuelled by theories that the Left is very good for redistribution but no good for growth. ‘These theories say that the Left in Kerala has done its historical duty and should now make way for new forces of growth.’

And what does the Left say to that?

‘We say that the organizations and institutions that have contributed to higher political consciousness and to the gains produced by redistribution can be used to activate economic growth itself,’ Isaac says.


‘Normally in a society where the means of production are owned by private interests there are limited options for peoples’s organizations to intervene in their production process. But in Kerala these captains of industry and agriculture have clearly failed to activate growth and therefore the people’s organizations are saying “you have failed – but let’s try doing it together”.’

What does this mean – people’s participation in aggressive industrialization? Big factories?

‘We are saying “yes” to large factories – but that does not mean any large factory. We want industry that links up with small industries – to create a more balanced kind of development.’

The kinds of industries the Left are looking to encourage are high-value and will provide work for an educated labour force – electronic engineering for example.

Kerala's peace activists use street theatre to mobilize the masses against sectarian violence.

And there is also strong emphasis on industry that is clean and green. As we have seen, the challenge of the past was equal distribution of the main resource, land. The challenge of today and the future is environmental protection of natural resources for the benefit of all.

In this respect Kerala is fortunate in having the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat (KSSP) – a ‘people’s science’ movement that not only spearheaded the literacy campaign but also led a successful mass mobilization against a big dam project in Kerala’s Silent Valley.

Combining red with green politics may be the greatest long-term challenge facing Kerala. But the greatest immediate concern – raised again and again by the people I meet during my stay – is combating the spread of sectarian violence, the clash of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists.

It’s an issue that is being addressed here in a typically Keralite, typically radical and imaginative way.

Social harmony
A man screams. He is surrounded by others who appear to be beating him. What we are witnessing is a scene of sectarian violence. The crowd – made up largely of children on their way to school – just looks on.

With reason. It’s what we are all supposed to do. This is the KSSP doing their usual thing – raising awareness on the burning issues of the day by use of jathas or street theatre.

We are in Poovachal, a village south of Trivandrum not far from where a clash between Muslims and Hindus recently claimed six lives. Clashes like that can be found all over India, especially in the wake of the Ayodhya incident in which Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a mosque. In Kerala, though, it’s a new phenomenon.

Kerala’s tradition of religious tolerance and social harmony is not a myth. ‘Incidents of communal violence were unheard of here up until a few months ago. You honestly did not know or care which community a person came from – whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish...,’ a Poovachal woman tells me as we watch the street drama unfold. ‘But now it’s a question people are beginning to ask.’

Why now? To some extent sectarianism is being imported from other parts of India, particularly the North, but there are also some specifically Keralite reasons for the upsurge.

‘We have a very high rate of unemployment and so a large section of disappointed youth,’ KSSP activist Dr B Ekbal explains. ‘Some of this disenchanted youth is being politically manipulated by political parties like the [Hindu nationalist] BJP. We – the secular forces – failed to see this happening. What we have to do now is mobilize this youth. We have to rally secular and peace-loving people.’

With the first signs of sectarian violence spreading to Kerala last year the KSSP launched their action, appealing to Kerala’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Started in the 1960s, the KSSP is the best kind of social movement. It is run entirely by volunteers, receives no foreign funding, is not connected to any political party and will launch campaigns on a broad range of issues. There are KSSP bases in the main towns of Kerala, and members and representatives in almost every village – like this one of Poovachal.

An old Muslim leader is sitting chatting with a old Hindu over a cup of tea inside a tailor’s shop as they watch the play. A barechested young man now takes the microphone and makes an impassioned speech to the crowd gathered in the street. He is linking the struggle against imperialism with the current struggle against sectarianism and calling for ‘integrity to check the forces of disintegration’.

‘Do you think you can combat sectarianism?’ I ask the local KSSP rep who is translating for me.

He ponders: ‘We have a great advantage in that our people are educated. But we cannot be complacent. We have to act now...’

A major disadvantage is that the current United Democratic Front state government includes a number of sectarian parties – Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

The prospect of Kerala’s atmosphere of tolerance breaking down is a sad one. I think of all the occasions that people have chatted warmly and easily to me and invited me into their homes without ever sounding me out on my religion – or my politics for that matter. I recall Mandikini’s comment about how her outlawed Naxalite family were always treated with tolerance and respect by their neighbours: ‘They were ordered to spy on us but most turned a blind eye’.

‘What has the future in store?’ I wonder as I climb up the steps of the plane that will take me out of Kerala. Will the dedicated KSSP activists be able to mobilize people against sectarian violence, setting an example for not only the rest of India but the rest of the world?

Will the pundits be proved right and the communist-led Left Democratic Front come back to power in the next elections? Will green politics join with the red? Will feminists like Nata or Ajitha lead feminism into a new, more radical phase? And will a new generation of activists be able to form a radical mass culture that is capable of challenging the ideologically bankrupt New World Order?

Catching the last glimpse of the coconut trees through the plane window I reckon that if the past is anything to go by, Kerala’s future is likely to be colourful, radical and unpredictable.

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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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