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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

2. The land of coconuts

Kerala is a state in the southwest corner of India. Because its name is so similar to the word kera, meaning coconut, many people consider Kerala the "land of coconuts." The name is well chosen.1 All along its beaches and village roads, on the edges of its rice paddies, in the house compounds of its farmers and workers, and extending into the foothills of its rugged mountains, Kerala is covered with coconut trees. They grow out to the cdge of the Arabian Sea, where largely Muslim fishing families eke a poor living from their catch. In central Kerala the coconut palms bend and sag gracefully over the inland back waterways. Small boats carry goods past crowded hamlets, past "resting" piles in the water where, for six to nine months, coconut fibers are rotted off the husk. On the nearby land, women beat and pull apart the rotted husks, spin the fibers into yarn, and weave them into the mats that were once a major export to Europe and the United States. The women in this rural coir (coconut fiber) industry work feverishly but are paid little.

Farther inland, in the north and central midlands, coconut trees seem to stand as sentinels around Kerala's rich rice fields where small landowners and hired agricultural laborers use intensive methods to coax precious calories from their irrigated soils. In the southern midlands, the trees look out on more reddish and drier soils that support mostly cassava instead of the tastier and more favored rice grain. And farthest inland on the steep slopes of the Western Ghat ("step") Mountains, the coconut trees finally give over to teak forest, pepper plants, ginger, and, at the highest altitudes, to tea bushes and coffee trees that once brought fortunes to their British colonial owners.

Coconut trees are not idle bystanders to Kerala's landscape or its hard-working people. Even a few trees on a small farmer's or laborer's house site can yield nutritious coconut meat, a rich cooking oil, sap to produce the mildly alcoholic and mineral-rich “toddy” to drink or sell, husks for the coir fiber industry, and leaves for roof thatching for the poor. In addition, most of Kerala's Hindu families still burn coconut oil in their vilaku, or religious lamps. People of all faiths thrill to stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics as gaudily clad Kathakali dancers twirl and gesture to rhythmic drum beats behind the flickering light of a large coconut oil lamp. When one considers all the benefits of the coconut tree, there is little wonder that Kerala has been called the land of coconuts.

In 1987 coconuts covered 28 percent of Kerala's cultivated area, surpassing even rice, which covered 26 percent.2 So bountiful are Kerala's coconut trees that three of them can produce enough food and cash products to feed one adult about half of the year. Along with its lush rice fields and coconut groves, Kerala is also a land of spices-cardamom, ginger, tamarind, and pepper, as well as rubber, tea, coffee, teak wood, cashew nuts, and many other garden and forest products.

This small strip of land along India's southwest coast contains 39,000 square kilometers-just 1.2 percent of that nation's area and about the size of Switzerland. The population of 27.2 million, 3.5 percent of the all-India total of 781 million in 1986, is comparable to that of Canada. With 655 persons per square kilometer, Kerala is one of the most densely populated regions in the world.3

Nearly all Kerala's people speak Malayalam, a non-Indo-European south Indian Dravidian language with major Sanskrit influences. Kerala's trade with ancient Babylonia may go back to 3000 B.C. By Roman times, the area was well known to international seafarers. Because of the antiquity and influence of Kerala's spice and lumber trade, Malayalam has given other languages such as English our words teak and ginger.4 The spice trade brought influences to Kerala also, so that today the traditional Hindus found throughout India live alongside large and ancient Muslim and Christian populations-Kerala's Christians claim their origins from the Apostle St. Thomas who is said to have come to the area in 52 A.D. where he founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Today 60 percent of Kerala's people espouse Hinduism, with 20 percent following the Moslem faith and 20 percent following Christianity. A small Jewish population lives in the port city of Cochin, a remnant of a larger community that once played a role in Kerala's substantial ancient trade in spices and teak wood. In recent years much of this community has emigrated to Israel in search of jobs, but there is no indigenous history of anti-Semitism in Kerala.

An Overview of Kerala's History

The earliest-known inhabitants of Kerala were hunters and farmers whose way of life is partly preserved in today's hill tribes. During the first five centuries after Christ, several kingdoms developed. Called the Sangam Age, this period was similar to that of European feudalism. Monarchs lived in fortified palaces on hilltops and prospered from trade and the exploitation of farmers. Kerala's royal courts followed one or the other of India's famous ancient religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism. Court life is described in part by the works of esteemed poets and scholars, but little is known of the lives of the common people.

After the eighth century A.D., Hinduism took hold as the major religion, but Buddhism maintained an important influence, especially in propagating education among the higher castes. The present-day Brahmin elite caste took hold about this time while the first Moslem traders began to appear off the Malabar coast, Kerala's best-known historical region.

For several centuries, Kerala continued to be ruled by monarchs who controlled different areas, conquering and reconquering each others' domains. One of the most famous of these was the Chera Empire of the ninth and tenth centuries, part of which coincided with the area of modern - day Kerala. It was followed by the twelfth century Venad Empire, which lasted until 1729 A.D.

In May of 1498, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in the Kerala trading city of Calicut to usher in the period of European colonial rule. Our word calico comes from the name Calicut. In 1604 the Dutch came, followed in 1615 by the British and then French traders. In 1792 the English effectively took power in what is now Kerala.5

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British governed Kerala as three separate units. In the south, Travancore was ruled indirectly through its long established monarch. The central region of Cochin was similarly administered. Like some other parts of India, Travancore and Cochin were known as princely states because of the retention of the local rulers who were beholden to the British but had some leeway to make their own policies.

Northem Kerala, or Malabar, came under direct British authority and was governed as a district of the Madras Presidency. British property laws and other features of direct colonialism penetrated to the villages of Malabar, causing more severe disruptions of local customs than in either Travancore or Cochin.

Many of Kerala's people joined in the Indian independence struggle. With Indian independence in 1947, Kerala's three major areas had developed a common linguistic and cultural heritage, and most people supported a movement to unify the area. This led in 1956 to the creation of a Malayalam speaking single state. The regions of Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar were joined together along with a small Malayalam-speaking portion of Karnataka State called South Canara.6 The Kerala of the old Chera Empire boundaries was thus reborn as a modern political unit within the Indian federal system.

Kerala's Radical Politics and Mobilizatidon of Peasants and Workers

As in other parts of India, Kerala in the twentieth century produced significant movements of peasants, workers, and low' caste people who wanted more than formal independence from the British empire. They saw in the independence struggle the promise of better incomes and expanded democratic rights. For reasons that we identify in chapter four, movements of the poor and oppressed were far more advanced in Kerala than in the rest of the country.

Kerala has had a complicated political history. In 1957 voters of the newly formed state of Kerala elected a Communist majority to the state Legislative Assembly. This Communist government immediately set out to enact a substantial land reform and to carry out other radical reforms. Following months of right-wing agitation, India's central government dismissed the Communist government in 1959, and Kerala was ruled first by presidential decree from New Delhi and then by a series of conservative coalitions until 1967, when a Communist-led coalition was voted into power.

In 1964 the Communist party of India had split into two major factions, and the Kerala branch followed suit. The United Left Front coalition elected in 1967 included both Communist parties and held office until 1969 when it again fell to internal and external pressures. During the 1970s, Kerala was governed by an unusual coalition made up of the smaller pro-Moscow Communist party of India (CPI) and several conservative parties including the Kerala branch of the Indian National Congress (Congress party) that held power nationally for most of the period. In 1980 another leftist coalition called the Left Democratic Front won control of the Legislative Assembly. It included both the CPI and the far larger Communist party-Marxist (CPM) that has taken an inde pendent international approach along with several small parties. This coalition ruled until 1982 when it was replaced again by a conservative coalition led by the Congress party. In 1987 Kerala voters once again returned the Left Democratic Front to power, a position it continues to hold at the writing of this report.7

The shifting sands of Kerala's electoral politics are one aspect of the state's radical political history. With left governments in power, major laws have been passed to redistribute income and income-producing assets, such as land, to the dispossessed. But even when conservative governments have held control of the state assembly, Kerala's workers and peasants have won some reforms. This has come about because the left parties, unlike the electoral parties familiar to people in the United States, are made up of highly organized, militant peasant associations and labor unions. These groups continue to agitate for change no matter who is holding formal power in the state.

Although other parts of India, such as the states of West Bengal and Tripura, have also elected Communist governments in recent years,8 Kerala's left-wing political traditions go back almost eighty years and are firmly entrenched in the state. In the past thirty years Kerala's voters have returned three solidly leftist governments that have held power for eight years. In addition, the left-right coalition that ruled for ten years in the 1970s was pressured to carry out many of the policies of its two leftist predecessor governments (those of 1957 to 1959 and 1967 to 1969). As we shall show, the strength of the left in Kerala is the combined strength of electoral victories and people's movements that have produced Kerala's remarkable reform strategy for development. Despite the many twists and turns of party coalitions and governments, these movements and organizations provide the constant element in Kerala's radical political culture. It is these movements, the organized strength of the poor, that we emphasize in this report.

We shall detail more of Kerala's fascinating history in later sections of this report as we describe the various popular movements that took hold and the reforms they brought about.