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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

3. Kerala's achievements

Kerala is more than a tiny exotic subtropical segment of the world's second-most-populous country. It is a region in which radical reforms over the past several decades have brought about some of the world's highest levels of health, education, and social justice. Kerala is an experiment in radical reform as a modern development strategy.

Kerala is overwhelmingly poor. If it were a separate country, it would be the ninth poorest in the world, with a per capita income of only $182 in 1986. Despite its poverty, Kerala displays a set of unusually high development indicators, as shown in table 1, and stands out among low-income countries and in comparison with the rest of India. These particular indicators are so important because except for GNP-they all measure things that must be available to wide sections of the population to show up statistically. The GNP per capita is an average of all income divided by the number of persons. If wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a few, the average could be high while most people have little. But the literacy rate can only improve as more and more people learn to read and write. Average life expectancy will also not go up much if only the elite live longer, because even they can only live about 75 to 80 years no matter how rich they may be. Similarly, infant mortality and birth rates change little unless large numbers have received the benefits of modern medicine. Thus, these four indicators reliably measure the impact of social and economic development as it spreads to large sections of the population.

Kerala's achievements are not limited only to a general expansion of education and health care. One of the striking features of the state is that quality of life benefits are fairly equally distributed among men and women, urban and rural areas, and low and high castes, as can be seen in table 2.

TABLE 1: Comparison of Quality of Life Indicators, 1986

Indicator

Kerala

India

Low-locome Countriesa

United States

Per capita GNP (in $)

182b

290

200

17,480

Adult literacy rate (%)

78

43

na

96c

Life expectancy (in years)

68

57

52

75

Infant mortality (per 1,000)

27

86

106

10d

Birth rate (per 1,000)

22

32

43

16

SOURCES: Kerala adult literacy rate, 1981 data from Government of Kerala (GOK) 1985; and GOK 1984:28. India and United States adult literacy rate, 1985 data from Grant 1988:64 and 71. All other data from World Bank 1988:222-223, 27-277, 28-287; 60K 1988; GOK 1989:82; and Nag 1989:417.

(a) Low-income countries refers to the average of 37 countries so designated by the World Bank and excluding China and India.

(b)Kerala's per capita GNP was calculated at the rate of 13rupees per US dollar, the approximate rate of exchange in 1986 1987.

(c) Effective literacy in the United States may be far below the official figure. Education critic Jonathan Kozel cites an illiteracy rate of 33 percent, making the US 49th of 158 UN member nations (Kozol 1985:5; see also New York Times, 7 September 1988).

(d) With in the United States there are major discrepancies among various populations. Infant mortality for whites in 1985 was 9.3, while for blacks it was 15.8 (Boone 1989:47)

na Not available

Literacy, for example, exhibits a 9 point spread between males and females in Kerala, while for India as a whole the difference is 22 points in favor of males. Urban India is nearly twice as literate as the rural areas, while in Kerala the disparity is only 76 percent vs. 69 percent. Kerala's low caste population is now as literate as India's urban people, while low castes in the nation as a whole are still nearly 80 percent illiterate. Even for tribal groups living mostly in the mountains, literacy is nearly twice the all-India average, although it remains far below the level of Kerala's other groups. In Kerala tribal groups account for 1 percent of the state's population, while for India as a whole they make up nearly 8 percent.9 Thus, Kerala's shortcoming in this category has less absolute impact than in the country as a whole.

TABLE 2: Quality of Life Indicators, Distribution across Various Social Groups, 1981-1982

Indicator

Kerala

India

Literacy all ages

Males

75

47

Females

66

25

Urban

76

57

Rural

69

30

Low caste

56

21

Tribals groups

32

16

Life expectancy (in years)

Males

64

57

Females

68

56

Infant mortality rate (per 1,000)

Urban

34

65

Rural

41

124

Birth rate (per 1,000)

Urban

23

27

Rural

26

36

SOURCES: Government of India, Census of India 1981, Primary Census Abstract, General Population, series-1, part II B [i]:xxv; Government of Kerala 1984, Women in Kerala (Trivandrum: Department of Economics and Statistics), tables 1.12,1.13,2.1.2,2.1.4; World Bank 1988: table 33; GOK 1985: 1-2. Average figures in this table will not coincide precisely with those from table 1 because of variation in years for which different kinds of data are available.

TABLE 3 Provision of Basic Services. Late 1970sa

Feature

Rank of of Kerala among All Indian States

%Villages with Service in Kerala

% of Villages
with Service
in All-lndia

Within 2 kilometers

All-weather roads

1

98

46

Bus stops

1

98

40

Post offices

1

100

53

Primary schools

1

100

90

Secondary schools

1

99

44

Fair price (ration) shops

1

99

35

Health dispensaries

1

91

25

Health centers

1

47

12

Within 5 kilometers

Higher education facilities

1

97

12

Hospitals

1

78

35

Fertilizer depots

1

93

44

Agricultural pump repair shops

1

65

19

Veterinary dispensaries

1

82

45

Credit cooperative banks

1

96

61

Other banks

1

96

40

Seed stores

2

63

40

Storage and warehouses

4

34

21

Railway stations

8

23

18

In the village

Drinking water

5

96

33

Electricity

3

97

33

SOURCES: For per capita income, GOK 1985C:24; for other data, Kannan 1988:18-21, based on surveys of the Government of India Central Statistical Organizaton.

(a) At the 1981 census, India had 22 states, 9 Union Territories including the capital
city, New Delhi, some island groups, and other small units. Villages surveyed:
558, 519 of which 974 where in Kerala Number of States compared 22

Looking at infant mortality and birth rates, we see that rural areas in Kerala are only slightly behind the urban centers, where medical care is easier to provide. For India as a whole, urban-rural differences are especially severe in mortality, with the incredibly high figure of 124 (more than one in ten) infants dying before they reach the age of one year. In fact, Kerala's rural infant mortality rate is about one third less than India's overall urban rate, a remarkable achievement.

A different way of looking at Kerala's development achievements, comes from a series of studies done by various Indian agencies on productivity and basic services. In agriculture, Kerala ranks first among all Indian states in the rupees value of output per unit of land area. In addition, the state is first in India on fifteen of twenty measures of basic services within two or five kilometers of villages and very high on five others as shown in table 3. In short, Kerala stands above other Indian states in providing basic services to its people, despite the fact that in 1980-81, it ranked seventh among 22 Indian states with a per capita income of 1,421 rupees versus the all-India average of 1,559 rupees.

Kerala in the Development Debate

Why are all these figures so important? Of course, their foremost meaning is to the people of Kerala, who benefit from them. But the data have implications also at the level of international development studies, where Kerala's achievements assume a great importance. Let us briefly summarize the leading points of view on how third world countries can develop, so that we can look both more closely and more broadly at the complex reality that underlies Kerala's statistical profile.

In the forty-year history of development theory, numerous ideas have been suggested. The various writings seem to boil down to four major approaches: growth and modernization theory, basic needs theory, appropriate technology theories, and radical and revolutionary theories. Each of these approaches has several variants. We shall therefore summarize only the main features along with the most important subtheories.

Growth and Modernization Theory. The earliest and still most widely accepted theory of development in the United States is based on the success of Western industrial capitalism. If only the poor countries can get their economies to grow and modernize, they will become like us, wealthy and developed. One group of modernizers has looked for cultural or psychological reasons for the continuing poverty in the third world. Are peasants economically irrational? Do non-Western peoples lack the individualistic, achievement orientation that helped produce modern capitalism? Are third world cultures sufficiently rationalist and scientific to create modern economies?10

A second and more influential group of modernizers rejects the idea of cultural limitations. According to this subgroup, third world people are as rational and can become as individualistic and achievement oriented as anyone else. What is needed is sufficient capital, infrastructure, and management education to stimulate their economies. Growth and modernization theories have been popular among establishment economists and other social scienfists in the United States and Western Europe.11

But what about the poor? According to the mainstream of modernization theory, the underdeveloped nations can follow the approximate path of the already wealthy. This means that in the earliest stages of economic growth, inequality and poverty might actually increase (as happened in nineteenth-century Europe), but as growth continues, distribution will become more just. This is the subtheory of equitable growth. Advocates of this approach view Taiwan and South Korea as examples of the success of their theories.12From Kerala's low per capita GNP figure (see table 1) we can see that it does not conform to any of these approaches.

Basic Needs and Special Targeting. Many experts have demanded a response to the glaring fact that despite a lot of economic growth in the poor countries in the past forty years, enormous segments of their populations have remained in abysmal poverty. Basic needs theory is the response. According to this theory, we need to focus on "first things first"13 by targeting certain assistance to the very poorest to "relieve as quickly as is possible absolute poverty...[and]...to meet the needs of all in terms...such as food, clothing, shelter and fuel."14 Basic needs theory has become popular among international lending agencies such as the World Bank and AID, the Agency for International Development, as a supplement, but not an alternative, to growth and modernization theory.

A recent further modification of basic needs is the theory of the "ultrapoor." Here it is argued that development is proceeding rather well in the poor countries in general, but certain groups are being bypassed and could be left out entirely. Because of urban bias in development strategies, nearly all of the very poorest are found in the vast rural areas of the third world. They are so poor and so deprived of basic productive assets that special targeting efforts are required to reach them. Thus, normal growth and modernization should continue, but extra programs should be initiated to reach those who are not benefiting from the growth.15 Basic needs experts see themselves as the agents of the redistribution that growth and modernization theory await in the future.

From table 3, we might conclude that Kerala supports the basic needs theory. However, Kerala's achievements result not primarily from a few enlightened policy makers with humane ideas and a lot of foreign aid. Instead, its achievements have been produced by a redistribution of wealth brought about by the organized strength and militant activity of poor people allied with committed and often self-sacrificing radicals from higher-income groups.

Appropriate Technology. "Small is beautiful" theories the need to give development aid that can be used directly by the people most in need. China's barefoot doctors and inexpensive biogas plants using animal waste to produce methane gas and fertilizer are seen as more effective in the short run and more environmentally sound in the long run than high-tech medical centers or huge hydroelectric plants to generate industrial power. Appropriate technology appeals to wealthy country ecology advocates, but many in the poor countries argue that large-scale industrial development is the only real means to the higher standards of living they desire.16 Although Kerala's reformers are ex perimenting with some appropriate technologies such as low-cost smokeless ovens to reduce health risks from rural kitchens, the state is not a major center of this development approach.

Radical and Revolutionary Theories. These have developed largely in response to the apparent failures of growth and modernization theory. According to these approaches, capitalism itself, though once a source of development for today's rich countries, now stands in the way of that very development for third world nations. One variation is called dependency theory or world systems theory. Its advocates argue that the heavy dependency of the poor countries on the rich for technology and investment distorts their economies so that they are always kept behind the wealthy. A more directly Marxist version is the theory of imperialism in which it is argued that the wealthy countries actually extract income and resources from underdeveloped countries through repatriating profits to the wealthy countries and maintaining repressive military regimes in the poor countries to keep workers and peasants from exercising political power. This relationship is the original cause of rich country wealth built on the exploitation of small farmers and workers in the third world According to this view, socialist revolution and a fundamental break with the international capitalist world is the main prerequisitc to effective development. Such theorists point to nations such as Cuba and China where substantial quality-of-life improve meets have taken place without the large-scale growth in per capita GNP advocated by the modernization school. A modified version in the Soviet Union is called noncapitalist development. It emphasizes the need to develop the public sector in the poor countries without necessarily having a socialist revolution. Like the more revolutionary versions, this perspective also supports radical reforms in the distribution of wealth and power where possible.17 Kerala has not had a socialist revolution, but its large and well-organized peasant and worker movements make it an example of the radical-revolutionary approach.

The Redistribution Debate

Within the broad development debate a single issue has come to dominate most writings: which is more effective, growth or redistribution? Although in a perfect world one might wish to have both, it seems to many that the two goals are usually incompatible. Governments must choose whether to proceed with generating more economic output through stimulating capitalist enterprise or to dampen growth by redistributing wealth and then undertaking some form of government-sponsored investment.

Advocates of both positions can find strong support in the data. Research shows overwhelmingly that higher levels of income generally produce longer life, more education, fewer infant deaths, and the like. This seems to close the debate in favor of growth. But studies also show that for any given level of average per capita income countries choosing redistribution (mostly socialist) provide substantially better education, longer life, lower infant mortality, etc., than do those choosing growth alone. The advantages of redistribution are relatively greater in countries with the lowest per capita incomes.18

In the redistribution debate, Kerala's experience takes on special significance. Little growth has occurred and per capita income is very low. The state has not had a socialist revolution, but Kerala's people have organized and struggled for basic reform policies that resemble many of the socialist countries. Kerala's place in the growth versus redistribution debate is summarized in table 4.


Table 4: Kerala in the Development Debate (a)

What can we learn from table 4? Only three underdeveloped countries have succeeded in achieving both growth and redistribution (box 1). Many, including the countries of Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, have achieved considerable growth, but have had little or no redistribution (box 2). Several, including some of the world's least developed countries, have failed on both counts (box 4). Of the small number of cases representing substantial redistribution with little growth in per capita GNP (box 3), two-China and Cuba-have experienced large-scale revolutions and require separate consideration. This leaves only Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and Kerala to represent the effects of choosing redistribution as a primary means to development, while remaining broadly within the capitalist world system.

Kerala's Special Political Circumstances

While development theory usually focuses on the nation-state as its unit of analysis, Kerala is one of twenty-two states within the Indian federal system. States in India have substantial administrative powers, but they are ultimately under the control of the powerholders in New Delhi. India has so far not had a Communist or Left Front government and many of Kerala's reforms have been blunted by policies from the center. The most important of these was the 1959 dismissal by the president of India of Kerala's first Communist government, elected in 1957.19 This delayed and undermined the radical land reform described in chapter 8. On at least three occasions the central government manipulated food supplies to undercut left-wing governments.20 During Indira Gandhi's "Emergency" of the mid-1970s, hundreds of leftist activists were arrested despite their decades-long commitment to democratic and parliamentary politics.21

Most recently, Kerala may have been subjected to manipulations of its finances and development budget by the antileft government of Rajiv Gandhi.22 Kerala's achievements have thus been accomplished without the state power usually associated with revolutionary governments. This makes Kerala especially relevant to local organizers and reformers in third world countries where they cannot hope for an immediate opportunity to hold state power.

What Is Redistribution?

Redistribution can include many types of programs and policies. The most radical and far-reaching involve government seizure of private assets such as land and factories and the redistribution of surplus through wage controls and strict limits on private accumulation of wealth. Less profound reorganization involves massive public health and welfare schemes to benefit the poorest groups. The typical package of redistribution policies includes land reform, price controls on food and other necessities, public housing, free or inexpensive medical care, expanded educational services, and any number of special programs to increase social and economic mobility among the poorest groups. Kerala has undertaken virtually all of there policies as keystones of its approach to development.

How successful has Kerala been? The state's people live longer, are better educated, and have better access to health care than almost any population in boxes 2 and 4, which include the majority of the world's people. How did Kerala achieve its development? Are Kerala's redistribution policies the reason for the successes? What are the limitations of the Kerala approach ? These are the subjects of the rest of this report.