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close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

9. Helping workers

Among Kerala's most dramatic reforms have been programs to aid agricultural laborers, the poorest and most difficult third world groups to empower. Significantly, perhaps, the strength of Kerala's agricultural workers in winning wage and benefit concessions from landowners and government is the relatively low percent of workers in agriculture compared to nonagricultural rural workers. In 1971 Kerala ranked first among all Indian states with 45 percent of its rural work force in nonagricultural production. The state of Assam the nearest competitor, had only 27 percent. Only 34 percent of Kerala's rural laborers are listed as engaged in agricultural labor, ranking the state sixth in that category.107

The importance of this data is twofold. First, a high proportion of Kerala's nonagricultural workers have been in strategic sectors such as plantations, toddy tapping (production of a mildly al coholic coconut drink), coir (coconut fiber) production, and other locations such as the factories, where conditions favored the building of strong unions. These unions in turn became bases for the extension of radical labor activity into agriculture, which is more difficult to organize because of the dispersed nature of production. Kerala farm laborers have had organizational and political support from powerful and strategic unions in other sectors. A second factor has been the building of a strong Communist party organization in large part through the nonagricultural unions and the tenants who were struggling for the land reform described earlier. The several Communist and Left Front governments in Kerala, starting in 1957, have generally been sympathetic to agricultural workers although they took few direct measures to aid them before 1974.

The Kerala Agricultural Workers Act of 1974

The decades of organizing, strikes, support for nonagricultural laborer struggles, Communist party electoral victories, and the successful land reform finally led in 1974 to an attempt by Kerala's government to codify certain rights for agricultural laborers. The Kerala Agricultural Workers Act called for employment security, a provident fund for death payments, fixed working hours, a minimum wage, an arbitration board to settle disputes between workers and employers, and a clause removing interpretation of the act from the jurisdiction of the civil courts, which in the past have been hostile to the rights of tenants and workers.

Despite the high-sounding tone and content of the act, its implementation has met with extreme difficulty. It has come into full force only in areas such as Kuttanad, where agricultural workers' unions are strong enough to carry it out through confrontation with employers.108

Although the act may have done less than its most enthusiastic supporters hoped, its implementation is a potential organizing tool for farm labor unions. More immediately, the passage of the act in combination with the long years of agitation by agricultural laborers has led to increases in wages for these workers, who are generally Kerala's poorest. For Kerala as a whole, the first few years after passage of the act appear to have been those with the highest real wage gains for agricultural laborers in the past twenty-five years. Agricultural wages in Kerala now average about 17 percent of output, possibly the highest in India, although absolute wage rates in rupees were lower in 1974 than in Punjab State.109

Pensions

Two of Kerala's most remarkable reforms are unemployment in' surance, enacted in 1980-1981 and agricultural laborers' pensions, started in 1982. Both of these programs were severely curtailed when a conservative coalition came to power in 1982, but about 99,000 of the originally planned 240,000 beneficiaries were receiving their pensions of 45 rupees per month in 1982.110 By 1986, 200,000 of the originally planned 250,000 unemployment payments were being dispersed. In addition, small numbers of rural households receive widows' pensions and pensions for handicapped family members.111

The extension of modern welfare programs to rural households in a third world agrarian society means that Kerala's government has the political and economic power to redress some of the most severe hardships for the poorest groups. A pension of 45 rupees per month (about $39 per year) seems a pittance in the developed countries, but it amounted to 27 percent of the official Kerala per capita income in 1986. This means that the state government was paying about one-quarter of the per capita income for 178,000 elderly agricultural laborers who would otherwise have no support except from their essentially impoverished offspring. In 1988 the number of farm labor pensioners rose to nearly 287,000, and the pensions were increased by 33 percent to 60 rupees per month.112

At 1986 prices, the pensions would feed one adult for about one-third of the month. For the poorest households such payments constitute an important benefit even though the younger members must still provide two-thirds of the support for their aged relatives.

In addition to pensions and welfare programs, Kerala also provides a subsidy of thirty-five rupees per child per school year to members of designated (Scheduled) former untouchable castes, such as Pulayas, most of whom are agricultural laborers.

TABLE 10: Comparison of Unemployment, 1977-1978

Population

Karala (%)

India (%)

Rural

Male

26

8

Female

29

10

Urban

Male

25

10

Female

27

16

SOURCE: GOK 1984:128.

Unemployment: Kerala's Most Visible Failure

In contrast to the impressive programs to benefit workers, Kerala's economy suffers from a serious, and so far intractable, problem of high unemployment. In 1972-1973, Kerala's unemployment rate was 25 percent as compared with the official all-India figure of only 8 percent. Tamil Nadu, the state with the second-highest unemployment, had a rate of 12 percent, only half that of Kerala.113 By 1978, the latest year for which we have obtained figures, Kerala's unemployment versus the all-India average was as shown in table 10.

Kerala's unemployment is far higher than India's across gender and rural-urban lines. Although one might question the accuracy of the other state and all-India figures (8 percent seems exceptionally low for a low income country), the data show consistently unique rates for Kerala. Many more of Kerala's youth are in school, but generally at all older age levels unemployment is far more severe in Kerala than elsewhere in India.

Is Kerala's unemployment a consequence of the reforms? Has a welfare mentality developed, in which people do not feel a need to work? One way to answer this question is to see whether Kerala's unemployment is recent. Another way is to see if it is getting worse faster than India's overall. Prior to independence, Indian data on unemployment appear in a different form, called the work participation rate. This statistic is approximately the opposite of unemployment, but cannot be directly translated into unemployment figures. The work participation rate is defined as the percentage of main workers to total population and is thus more influenced by the age structure and other demographic factors than is the more modern unemployment statistic. Nonetheless, if we examine available data, we can see that Kerala's unemployment problem seems to go back at least to the beginning of this century, as shown in table 11.

TABLE 11: Comparison of Work Participation, Selected Yars


Kerala

India

Year

Males

Females

Total

Males

Femalas

Total


(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

1901

57

33

45

na

na

na

1921

51

25

38

na

na

na

1961

47

20

34

na

na

43

1971

45

13

29

53

12

33

1981

41

13

27

52

14

33

SOURCES: UN 1975:75 (years 1901-1961); GOK 1984:1 (years 1971 and 1981) GOK 1985:16 (1981 totalsl) Rajeev 1983 :51 (1961 and 1971 India totals)

The work participation trend in Kerala has been gradually and consistently downward over the past eighty years. It is also worth noting that since 1961 Kerala's rate has dropped less rapidly than India's overall, so that Kerala appears to have improved its relative position in recent years. This may be a reflection of the tremendous migration of Kerala workers to the Gulf States of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Laborers' addition, many have gone to Bombay, New Delhi, and Western countries, including the United States, where their education and training enable them to obtain good jobs. A growing number of foreign nurses in the United States, for example, are from Kerala. By 1987 over 682,000 people from Kerala had gone outside the state looking for work, but the loss of oil revenues is starting to turn this blessing into a curse. Over 86,000 of these workers have now resumed to Kerala, mostly from the Gulf States and mostly for reasons of job loss.114 They may swell the numbers of unemployed even further, creating a major crisis for the state. Whatever the problems, the numbers indicate that Kerala's people actively seek work whenever possible, even at the cost of leaving their homes and families. Further proof of the hard-working nature of Kerala's people can be obtained, through observation, by any casual tourist in the state.

TABLE 12: Average Number of Working Days per Year for Agricultural Laborersa

Year

Males

Females

1964 1965

198

165

1974-1975

169

128

1983-1984

147

115

SOURCE: GOK 1985b:34

(a) This table refers only to households in 336 Kerala villages called “agricultural laborers." Those calling themselves "other rural laborers" did only marginally better.

Underemployment in Agriculture

As important as unemployment is the fact that many workers have too few days per year of paid employment. One of the hardest hit groups is agricultural laborers, one of the targets of Kerala's reforms. Recent surveys of 336 villages throughout the state indi care that work days for agricultural laborers have dropped alarmingly, as shown in table 12.

Many people who are working, and thus not listed as unemployed, cannot find nearly the 260 days per year (fifty-two weeks times five days per week) labor they would take. In fact, rural workers would probably work at least six days per week on the average if jobs were available.

Because the figures in table 12 are averages, they hide the worst conditions that may exist. A study by Joan Mencher in 1970-1971 found in two villages in the main rice-producing areas that the average days of work per year were only seventy-one and seventy-three, respectively, for agricultural laborers.115 Such persons are in effect out of work. But in poor agrarian economies such as Kerala's, the opportunity to gain wages even for one-third of the year is a soughtafter privilege.

What are the consequences of such serious unemployment and underemployment for Kerala's workers? First, they are cushioned by the wage gains of the radical unions. Loss of days of employment does not reduce income as much as might otherwise be the case. Although some analysts claim that union-sponsored wage gains are a major cause of Kerala's unemployment, we have seen no conclusive evidence for this. Second, of course, the various welfare programs compensate for some of the lost wages. Third, Kerala's rural workers obtain some income from the house-compound plots they won in the land reform.

Unemployment, however, can never be fully offset by such mechanisms. Lack of work or shortage of working days means lack of economic opportunities as well as lack of both production and productivity in the economy. No matter which development aptproach one adopts, unemployment is a sign of wasted human resources. It is the greatest challenge faced by Kerala's planners and politicians in both the short run and the long run.