When you try to visualise Kerala from outside the state, this is what invariably comes to mind: a rich green landscape, breathtaking beauty, snaking backwaters, high literacy, highest longevity, lowest infant mortality, best healthcare, best sex ratio, gender equality, robust media, and vibrant rural and urban markets. But is this the complete and entirely true picture of God’s own country? Not quite.

Kerala is a development model that is touted in various corners of the developing world. The debate however has been largely superficial as it eulogies the development parameters that Kerala has been able to achieve. However, here is a state caught in a web of paradoxes that has no parallel in any other Indian state. At one end are the firsts that Kerala has achieved. At the other end is a state caught in the trap of its political ideologies and narrow interests myopic to the dynamism of change. Politics in the state has focused largely on its survival and creation of vote banks. There is no intention to engineer a new model to cope with the modern challenges that globalisation brings.

Kuttanad in Alapuzha district. Women on a raft in search of drinking water. File pic: Quest Features.

Earlier the problem was low growth and high social welfare. Now, though growth has taken speed, social welfare is lagging behind. Till the 1990s, per capita income was behind the national average. Now it has an accelerated growth rate of over eight per cent and has crossed the national average as regards per capita income. Money, mainly from NRI remittances, is steadily flowing into Kerala. Real estate prices are booming as NRIs and their families are buying land as an investment or building houses as that is now being seen as a glittering status symbol.

But this is exactly where the irony lies.

Dr K P Kannan, research fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, points out that though remittances are helping many in Kerala to have liquid cash, the government is bankrupt and does not have the money to maintain and sustain a healthy social welfare system. Tourism is booming, but again, the government does not really gain from this, as the industry is largely in private hands and so the bulk of the money generated, which is around Rs.10,000 crores, goes to private players.

Industrial graveyard

In the last few years, there has been a growth in the per capita income as far as the service sector is concerned. The only silver lining is the IT industry making its presence felt, though not as dramatically as in the neighbouring states. Kerala has notched up Rs. 700 crore with IT exports, though this is merely a fraction compared to Karnataka. Apart from tourism, which rakes in Rs. 92 billion and attracts over 4.44 lakh foreign tourists, there is nothing to write home about.

Industry shies away from investing fearing labour unrest. Kerala is one of the most volatile labour controlled islands of India. Political parties have thrived on creating pockets of labour unions and using them as vote banks. The industries ministry wants to bring in “reforms” but that is on the backburner. Ironically, left party activists are stonewalling it as they see the ghost of capitalism in every reform. As there are no worthwhile job opportunities, the young migrate to far away lands.

Over 44,000 passports are issued every year, but many more are waiting to get one hoping to go abroad, especially the Gulf, in search of a livelihood. There are 35 lakh educated unemployed waiting and waiting. It is a tragedy of inexplicable proportions that in a state where even the daily wage labourer is educated, many youngsters are committing suicide as they see a bleak future. There is palpable anger and desperation as the state has been turned into an industrial graveyard.

On the other hand, Kerala has a splendid combination of educated talent, fertile land and vast human capital. It needs leadership and direction to steer it from complicated situations that have been thrown up by change.

Economic boom or bust?

Despite all this, an economic boom seems to be happening. The marketplaces are crowded; there is the kind of consumerism that you will not see anywhere; land prices are sky rocketing and gold jewellery shops are packed.

Kerala's march

 •  Literacy played a major role in Kerala’s development plan as it spread to all classes and castes, men and women.

 •  Ecology plays an important role in the Kerala economy by providing a diversified natural resource base.

 •  An active political society distinguishes it from rest of India.

 •  Modern systems of healthcare existed in the state during the early decades of the 19th century. Today, it has health centres in the remotest areas. It helped the state attain high health parameters.

 •  A good public distribution system is a landmark.

 •  The expanding network of social security and welfare measures like pension schemes for workers and the aged have helped many.

 •  About 81 per cent of rural and 92 per cent of urban households have toilet facilities. No state can match this.

 •  State of Muslim education
 •  Death of new-borns

Indeed, if you travel around Kerala, you may hardly ever see the kind of poverty that is seen in the northern states. Tourists often return with a feeling that this is a state that has been able to rein in poverty. Seemingly, there is wealth and abundance all around - both in the countryside and in the markets.

But let all this not fool you. Most of the money floating around is from remittances from Malayalees working their backs off. The figure is a staggering Rs.25,000 crores. It is not just the Gulf anymore that is a destination. In the last five years, as many as 25,000 nurses from Kerala have moved into the United States and United Kingdom. Kerala continues to limp as a ‘money order economy’. If the gold shops are full and real estate is exploding, it is because Malayalees abroad invest in little except gold and land.

NRIs, which include labourers in the Gulf, are heavily investing their savings in real estate. They are not just buying and selling, they are constructing palatial houses, as it is a veritable status symbol in Kerala. That is why they stay in terrible conditions in the Gulf for decades to keep that dream alive.

But as remittances keep increasing every year, inequality is growing. A 2007 study of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) shows that almost 75 per cent of the growth in assets is only benefiting the top 20 per cent. Prabhat Patnaik, the vice chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board, has warned that the gains that Kerala made with its development model is now under threat and poverty is a real problem that needs to be tackled though it might not seem obvious as remittances camouflage the actual reality. The glitz does hide the truth.

New age problems

Even so, in the last few months, thousands of NRIs have returned as they were forced out, as they had no legal work permits. The effects of their jobless reality back home will now taper into myriad psychological and sociological complexities.

Now, as urbanisation races ahead, newer problems are cropping up – waste disposal, for example. Earlier each household recycled biodegradable waste in their own backyard. But as high rises prop up, there is no backyard anymore dotted with coconut and areca nut trees. The recent outbreak of chikungunya was a direct result of waste not being disposed.

Public health is in shambles. The facilities are poorly maintained due to lack of funds. Government health centres and hospitals are plagued with shortage of medicines, equipment and health staff. While the public healthcare system is in a state of decay, people still rely on it heavily because private hospitals are expensive. The 2007 Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad study says people in Kerala are spending high amounts on healthcare. These private hi-tech hospitals are attracting doctors and nurses with their lucrative opportunities, leaving government centres without adequate staff. Even in the rural hinterland of Perinthalmanna in Mallapuram district, there are as many as 45 private hospitals. The space for reasonable public health centres is being crowded out.

A recent study done by the health department of Kerala shows that domestic violence is the reality in 61 per cent of the homes, a statistic that has shocked many outside the state. Depression among women is also high and so are suicides. Another study by SAKHI, an NGO, and the Kerala Institute of Local Level Administration in 50 panchayats showed that dowry was the new malaise with property or gold being mortgaged to pay dowry. Dowry was not a serious problem in Kerala until recently, thanks to increasing consumerism and materialism. Weddings earlier were comparatively simpler. Now, the accent is on a huge amount of gold jewellery that literally weighs down the bride.

Says Nandkumar, a resident of Irinjalakuda, “The overtly aggressive advertising campaigns of jewellery companies plastered all over Kerala almost make one feel guilty if jewellery is not purchased at every minor excuse.” Both dowry and purchases of gold for weddings is a social phenomenon that is worrying the middle class. The KSSP study had also highlighted that weddings were among the highest expenditure areas for Keralites today.

Another worrying fact is the rise of alcohol consumption. The per capita consumption of alcohol has increased from one in 300 to one in 20 in recent years. It has made Kerala the number one state in the per capita consumption of liquor at 8.3 litres. Punjab is next with 7.9 litres. Alcohol-related diseases are growing leading to high occupancy of hospital beds, according to the Human Development Report, 2005 of Kerala.

Gender inequality

Though it is a matrilineal society, women hold only 15 per cent of the jobs and these are not the decision-making ones, but clerical and secretarial ones. Technical education among women of Kerala is lower than those in neighbouring states. It is a pity that the enrollment of women in courses that are vocational in nature like electronics, computers and engineering is very low, says Seema Bhaskaran, Project Director of the Kerala Mahila Samakya Society, which does grassroot work with women.

The Human Development Report of Kerala, 2005, points out that the state’s record in achieving high human development even at low levels of income is commendable from the point of its gender dimension. In many respects, girls and women perform better than their male counterparts. Women played a stellar role in making the state literate, sending children to school and giving priority to their healthcare requirements. But the high levels of development among women have not translated into comprehensive gender freedom, the report says.

Record of governance

In areas of human development, Kerala has done better than the rest of India. The state has done a swell job with land reforms, panchayati raj and protection of the poorer sections of society. But if critical infrastructure development is to be a parameter, then the graph dips low.

There is a lot of apprehension about public-private partnership but the soaring success of the Cochin International Airport Limited is there for all to see, as it is one of the best airports in the country. Last year, it posted a profit of over Rs.50 crore. The planned Smartcity in Cochin and the Technocity in Thiruvananthapuram could be the new models that emerge that might teach cynics a thing or two. Bureaucrats could use this to remove some ideological cobwebs that politicians are clinging to.

Some pluses

The civil society in Kerala is extremely active. This is a state where people stopped buying Eveready batteries after the Bhopal tragedy and stopped drinking Coca-Cola after its plant started destroying the water table in Plachimada. There have been instances where the populace has gathered money to help a righteous bureaucrat fight court cases that rich vested interests slapped on him.

K Suresh Kumar, Special Secretary to the Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan, was sent to the tourist destination Munnar to deal with illegal constructions. He went about his job with utmost sincerity and in the process incurred the wrath of many leaders. When the demolitions began, these leaders went public, demanding his removal. The Chief Minister had no choice but to comply. Umpteen cases were filed against Suresh Kumar by those whose lands had been confiscated or buildings demolished. He is currently on leave but has the people’s support to back him.

If Kerala today is seen as God’s own country, it is because a determined bureaucracy induced political forces over a decade ago to open up the state for tourism. Internationally, Kerala is the tourist hotspot in India. The tourism sector in Kerala appears to be doing well with 19.43 per cent increase in foreign tourist arrivals and 17.94 per cent growth in revenue. Up to November 2007, 443,594 foreign tourists arrived here, which is a record, and the total revenue generated also grew to a staggering Rs.91.26 billion during 2006.

Kerala has the kind of potential that no Indian state has, but it has to take that leap which only the people can force as active catalysts of change in such a dynamic situation. Kerala cannot be left to its blinker-wearing politicians. It is for Keralites to work in tandem to whip up political will to make Kerala the kind of state it deserves to be.