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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

12. Lessons from Kerala

What can we learn from Kerala's development experience so far? As we showed in chapter 4, Kerala has many unique ecological and historical features that do not exist or cannot be repeated in other places. A thorough set of lessons can only be gathered through a careful comparative study with special attention to the details and conditions under which each nation or region is attempting to bring the benefits of modern life to all its people. Kerala thus cannot offer a model to be copied. Rather it provides lessons that may be used to evaluate the development efforts of other societies or-for those directly involved in development work either from the developed or from within the developing countries themselves-to suggest strategies for improving their work. In this spirit, we offer the following tentative lessons from the Kerala experience.

1. Radical reforms deliver effective and mutually reinforcing benefits to the poor even when per capita incomes remain low. The information presented in this report demonstrates that Kerala's choice of radical reforms has produced benefits to all the state's people that no other Indian state and few other third world nations have accomplished. Many third world countries with far higher per capita incomes stand way below Kerala in education, life expectancy, infant mortality, and so on.

Kerala's achievements are more than the sum of a list of reforms however. The reforms are mutually reinforcing and thus produce greater overall effects than might appear from simply adding up the list we made in order to examine each in detail. The popular organizations and structures that have produced the reforms are themselves further strengthened by them. The land reform, for example, removed the threat of eviction of tenants, making possible their greater political participation without fear. Political organization and struggle, redistribution, democracy, participation, basic services, empowerment of the poor: these are the combined features of Kerala's recent history.

2. Popular movements and militant progressive organizations with dedicated leaders are necessary to initiate and sustain the process of reform. In terms of action, Kerala's most important lesson is that the poor must be organized to ensure that their needs are met. The poor cannot depend on benevolent rulers or outside development agencies. Just as in the developed countries, the poor need the strength of their numbers in organizations that truly represent them in legislative bodies and on the ground to press for their demands. They must be organized to agitate when necessary to protect themselves against the interests of the wealthy, whose power is built right into the daily workings of the social and political structure. The success of popular movements in Kerala has resulted in the following additional lessons, both positive and negative.

3. Despite their beneficial consequences in many areas, radical reforms cannot necessarily create employment or raise general levels of per capita income. Kerala's reforms have not raised agricultural production or alleviated unemployment-both chronic problems in many third world economies. Whether reforms can stimulate production and employment opportunities is hotly debated and must be studied in greater comparative detail. Kerala's experience in this regard, however, is sufficient to indicate that it is not a cheap alternative to the need for income growth and production increases.156

4. Local reformers are restricted by national politics. Kerala's reforms have been carried out despite frequent opposition from the more powerful Indian central government. We noted some of the problems in chapter 3. Kerala's minister for finance recently complained that the state is receiving 30 percent less than the all-India average in development funds. He has also charged the central government with freezing state bank funds and providing only about half the per capita investment in industry deserved by the state.157 If such allegations are correct, Kerala's left-wing governments face difficult challenges in administering their development approach.

5. Public distribution of food is a rational and highly effective policy choice in very poor agrarian economies. Kerala's school and nursery feeding programs and especially its thorough and full-coverage fair price shops ensure at least a minimum food package to nearly all people in the state. Although the shops do not offer credit during periods of greatest food shortage, through low prices they nonetheless help reduce the plight of the most potentially undernourished groups and help them remain free of private moneylenders whose practices are a source of exploitation and misery in many third world rural areas.

6. Devoting significant resources to public health and health care can bring about low infant mortality, high life expectancy, and low birth rates even when incomes are not high or increasing. Sanitation, safe water, housing, and regularly staffed and accessible health care facilities play a major role in reducing the incidence and effects of disease. Kerala proves there is no need to wait for economic growth before installing these crucial services even in the poorest parts of the world. Although some countries face greater costs in providing appropriate facilities, the rewards in terms of meeting basic needs and producing a population that can make use of other development programs is surely greater than the costs when measured against the cumulative benefits of health programs and other reforms.

7. Widespread literacy and expanding educational opportunities can help to break down traditional social barriers and create a more just and open social order. Despite widespread recognition of the need for education, many third world countries devote far too little to both basic literacy and raising the levels of education in rural areas. Illiterate people cannot compete for modern employment and may be intimidated into fear and passivity in the face of bureaucracies that demand they fill in forms or display awareness of laws they cannot read. Education can give people confidence as well as skills.

8. Meaningful land reform can reduce economic and social, political inequality and put important productive resources into the hands of a large portion of the poor. Each agrarian society has its own particular land ownership structure and Kerala's experience can only be seen in the most general terms. The kind of land reform needed will vary, but to the extent that wealth and income are derived from land, only the breaking of the hold of the landed elite over productive resources can liberate the poorest small farmers from the effects of highly unequal land ownership.

9. Protection of farm workers through laws covering wages and working conditions can help to distribute more widely the exist, ing resources of even a very poor economy. Many features of the Kerala Agricultural Workers Act would directly and immediately benefit millions of third world workers who would be left out of even the most thoroughgoing land reform. Mere passage of such laws will not ensure their enforcement, however, and would require organization and agitation as argued in lesson 2.

10. Greater social and economic equality combined with strong organizations representing the poorest groups can lead to lower levels of violence and a generally healthier social and political environment. The near absence of violence against lower castes in Kerala is one of the most valuable lessons the state has to offer other regions of India. Kerala's success in achieving peaceful intercaste relations may also be instructive in other parts of the third world where much routine violence is meted out to groups at the bottom of the society, even where no caste system is present.

11. Women can benefit substantially from radical reforms even when these are not aimed directly at their problems, but such reforms must eventually be supplemented by special attention to women's needs. Land reform, education, health improvements, and the like, when widely distributed across all groups, are bound to help women in the process. Kerala's achievements for women show this. Each society, however, has its own special forms of gender oppression, and for Kerala, certain forms of violence and unemployment are still substantial problems. Kerala's militant organizations and leftist governing parties now face the difficult task of mobilizing support for types of reforms that have not been on the social agenda for very long.

12. Progressive forces including Communists and Communist parties can play a major and positive role in bringing benefits of development to very poor third world farmers and workers. Many people in the developed countries regard Communist organizers and Communist parties primarily as outside agents of the Soviet Union or some other antagonistic power. The stereotype of third world Communists in the United States is that they are corrupt puppets engaging in an international conspiracy against more "democratic" regimes. Members of the CPM in Kerala, the party currently in power along with its coalition partners, and the party with the widest or second-widest following, are independent of any other country. While they try to learn from the experiences of the socialist countries, they do not follow an agenda set in Moscow, Peking, or any other Communist capital. CPM leaders and cadres in Kerala have a reputation, even among their opponents, for being relatively honest and noncorrupt. This means they are not involved in politics for their own immediate political gains, but are trying to implement their vision of a more just society. Although communism and Communists are far more acceptable in Kerala than in the United States, there has been and could again be repression against them, including brutal beatings and killings. There are many risks and few material rewards for choosing the life of the radical organizer.

Communists in Kerala follow the electoral rules. They run candidates in elections, and when they win, they do not institute undemocratic practices such as censorship of the media or repression of their opponents. An election won by the CPM has not meant an end to the Kerala electoral process. When voted out of office, they have continued to play by the official rules of Indian democracy as spelled out in that country's constitution. Anticommunism is particularly strong in the United States. Kerala offers an excellent opportunity for us to rethink our outmoded and harmful approach. Kerala does not threaten perceived United States interests even in the wildest geopolitical imagination. Kerala's history and development experiment allow us to examine thoughtfully the role of Communist organizers and structures in bringing many of the very benefits that most Americans would favor to people who might not otherwise have been able to get them. Kerala dramatically suggests the need for a reevaluation of our ingrained hostility to Communists.

13. Radical reforms can shield the poor against recessions. As we were drafting this report, an international news item drew our attention to one of Kerala's most important lessons and one that is easily hidden from view. This is the capacity of radical reforms to shield the poor from recessions.

During the 1980s we in the United States have all witnessed the spectacle of feverish growth and collapse on the stock market, rising and falling interest rates, luxury living and homelessness. In the third world, the effects of the capitalist economic roller coaster have been far greater. Since 1983 the underdeveloped countries have transferred a net of over $30 billion in wealth to the alreadyrich countries. This antidevelopment flow of funds comes from the combination of interest payments on the staggering third world debt along with a decline in rich-country support for development efforts and a drop in the prices of the major goods sold by the third world.158 Many countries have suffered zero or negative economic growth in the l980s. These countries represent over 700 million people, most of whom have seen their standards of living deteriorate. Of all the population groups, young children of poor parents are the most vulnerable to economic decline.159 In Brazil, one study estimates that 60,000 "extra" child deaths occurred because of the recession of the 1980s.160 In the third world generally, malnutrition is rising and more than 500,000 more children died in 1988 alone than might have been expected. War-related deaths are not included in the estimate.161

What do all these grim statistics have in common? They are all consequences of the market system, of capitalism's ability to provide a stunning array of products to those who can afford them, along with its dramatic inability to distribute resources and products equitably among the peoples of the world.

It is precisely this contradictory nature of capitalism and the market that Kerala's reforms help to overcome. Land redistribution, effective food rationing, pensions, and the like, insulate the poorest groups from the negative consequences of the capital business cycle, in particular, from dropping through the bottom during recessions. Certainly Kerala's people, like people everywhere, are affected by the world recession. But the reforms already in place give them protection that many others do not have. As we noted earlier in this report, the Left Front government elected in Kerala in 1987 has actually expanded access to school lunches and pensions. In addition, the government increased per capita expenditures on education by 16 percent in 1987 and 5 percent in 1988 and it increased expenditures on health by 20 percent in 1987 and 10 percent in 1988-thus continuing its tradition of expanding public services as the comer stone of its development strategy.162 While many third world governments are cutting education and medical services in order to make payments on their debts to rich country banks-including the World Bank, which is supposed to be supporting development- Kerala has structures and policies in place to buffer its people against the worst effects of this situation.

More importantly, Kerala's government, more so than most national or local governments in the third world, is directly responsible to political parties, labor unions, women's groups, and peasant associations that are militant, well organized, well led, and ready if necessary to go into action if their members' interests are threatened. Because of the strength of the people's organizations, many of the reforms are continued and expanded even under conservative governments, though they prosper more when leftist parties are in power.

At the press conference announcing its 1989 report, UNICEF Director James Grant stated: "In the 60s and 70s, tremendous emphasis was put on how you get better GNP growth rates. But GNP growth rates can hide mass maldistribution of income." He continued: "In the 90s, the target ought to be meeting more tangible human targets: assuring safe water, assuring access to health services, assuring basic education."163

Kerala State, India, he might have added, offers us lessons in how to meet the target.