By Rajaji Mathew
18 March, 2005
significance of the tiny Indian state of Keralas experience is
often underestimated in national and international discussions. One
reason for this is that Kerala, not being an independent country, is
often missed in policy analysis based on international comparisons.
Yet Kerala, with its 32 million people, has a larger population
than most countries in the world (even Canada), including many from
which comparative lessons are often drawn for India, such as Sri Lanka
(19 million) or Malaysia (23 million), not to speak of tiny Costa Rica
or Singapore (less than 4 million each). Even South Korea, which receives
a great deal of attention in the development literature, had about the
same population size in the early sixties (when its rapid transformation
began) as Kerala has today. To achieve as much Kerala has done for a
population of its size is no mean record in world history.
This is basically
because Kerala has been fortunate with its past. For one thing,
bulk of what is now Kerala used to consist of two native states-Travancore
and Cochin- formally outside British India.
They were not subjected to the general lack of interest of Whitehall
officialdom in Indian elementary education (as opposed to higher education).
When Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai, the young queen of Travancore, made her
pioneering statement in 1817 on the importance of basic education, there
was no need to bring that policy initiative in line with what was happening
in the rest of India, under the Raj. (The independence from general
British Indian policy applied not only to the princely rulers of these
states, but also to the British Residents in Trivandrum.
The Residents could consider independent initiatives, and indeed in
the big move in Travancore in the direction of elementary education
in the early nineteenth centaury, the Resident Mr. Munro played as extremely
supportive and possibly even catalytic role. There is some evidence
that he drafted Parvathi Bais 1817 statement, whether or not the
initiative was also his.)
Kerala has also
been fortunate in having strong social movements that concentrated on
educational advancement along with general emancipation
of the lower castes, and this has been a special feature of left-wing
and radical political movements in Kerala. It has also profiled from
a tradition of openness to the world, which has included welcoming early
Christians (at least from the fourth centaury), Jews (from shortly after
the fall of Jerusalem), and Muslims (from the day of early Arab trading,
with settlers coming as economic participants rather than as military
conquerors). Into this rather receptive environment, the extensive educational
efforts of Christian missionaries, particularly in the nineteenth centaury,
fitted comfortably. Kerala has also benefited from the matrilineal tradition
of property inheritance for an important part of the community in the
past. While the Nairs constitute about 20 percent of the total population,
and the practice has changed a good deal in recent years, nevertheless
the social and political influence of a long tradition of this kind,
which goes against the conventional Indian norms, must not be underestimated.
Having good luck
in ones history is not, however, a policy parameter that one can
command. Those who see a unique and unrepeatable pattern in Keralas
remarkable record of social progress can point to the very special nature
of its past, and suggest that other states can learn rather little
from it. This, however, would be quite the wrong conclusion to draw
from Keralas heterogeneous history. When the state of Kerala was
created in independent India, it included not only the erstwhile native
states of Travancore and Cochin, but also - on linguistic grounds
the region of Malabar from the old province of Madras in British India
(later Tamil Nadu). The Malabar region, transferred from the Raj, was
at that time very much behind Travancore and Cochin in terms of literacy,
life expectancy, and other achievements that make Kerala so special.
But by the eighties, Malabar had caught up with the rest
of Kerala to such an extend that it could no longer be seen in divergent
terms. The initiatives that the state government of Kerala took, under
different managements (led by the Communist Party as well
as by the Congress), succeeded in bringing Malabar rather at par with
the rest of Kerala over a short period of time. So there is a lesson
here that is not imprisoned in the fixity of history. Other past of
India can indeed learn a lot from Keralas experience on what can
be done here and now by determined public action.
It is also worth
noting that while Karala was already quite advanced compared with British
India at the time of independence, much of the great achievements of
Kerala that are so admired now are the results of post-independence
public policies. In fact, in the fifties Kerala adult literacy rate
was around 50 percent compared with over 90 percent now, its life
expectancy at birth was 44 years vis-à-vis 74 now and its
birth rate was 32 as opposed to 18 now. Kerala did have a good start,
but the policies that have made its achievements so extraordinary
today are, to a great extend, the products of post- independence political
decisions and public action.
Any student of history
can observe participation of huge masses in public action in determining
political decision that has been instrumental in transforming Kerala
to the present state. Let it be the mass movements, of late fifties,
sixties and early seventies, for radical land reforms or for liberating
the educational system from the clutches of powerful managements. This
has been proven true in the complete literacy programme, or in the peoples
science movement and in the political mobilization to guarantee eight-hour
working day and statutory minimum wage for agricultural labour. These
are the rich experiences of the Kerala society, which forms the foundation,
for moving ahead to the new era of participation in further developments
of its social, political and economic life.
Movement: An experiment in mass participation.
peoples plan movement stands tall among all experiments in Kerala in
the mobilization of masses in the process of participatory democracy
and decentralized planning. The enactment of 1994 Kerala Panchayathi
Raj Municipal act, in tune with the 73, 74 constitutional amendment
of 1992, opened up great opportunity for people to participate directly
in the process of governess at the local self-government level. Conceived
by the then Left Democratic Front government, of 1996-2001, the Peoples
Plan Movement was aimed at empowering people by allowing them the freedom
of choice in the selection and formation of development projects in
their concrete situations. By allocating about 40 percent of the state
budget and a considerable number of state government employs to the
local self governments, from different departments, significant efforts
were made by the state government to empower the system with resource,
powers and strength. Kerala, a highly political and open society, could
not save the movement from its share of controversy. Despite all genuine
criticism and reservations expressed by several quarters, it will be
impossible to reverse the process of mass participation in the decentralized
plan movement. Come whatever the change there may be, in its name, due
to political consideration, this form of participation shall remain
and strengthened in the days to come. Further it has already set in
motion a chain of action and reaction affecting the entire spectrum
of social, political and economic life of Kerala.
Major flaw of the
much-celebrated Peoples Plan Movement was that, due to several reasons
it could not attract middle and upper class sections, youth and students
people with higher education and those with expertise and skill who
could have been contributed to the process. This had its adverse impact
on the movements quality and vibrancy. The movement had been dumped
as one with the sole purpose of doling out benefits to individual political
supporters, though the fact is largely otherwise. Secondly, the experts
committees created in accordance with provisions of peoples plan,
mainly composed of retired government officials, instead of assisting
the elected local self governments, in several cases, usurped powers
and even succeeded in blocking the process of participatory democracy
and dwarfed the elected bodies.
Despite all those
flows mentioned, the peoples plan movement made its definitive
mark in improving grass root level participatory democracy, involving
masses in the planning and execution of developmental projects; and
improvement, in real terms, in the lives of a large number of marginalized.
It was instrumental in drawing huge number of masses, especially women,
who never had enjoyed in their life, meaningful participation in public
action other than routine ritual of voting once in five years.
With the change
in government, from Left Democratic Front to United Democratic Front,
the movement has been re-christened as Kerala Development Project.
Though, the basic character of the movement
remain unaltered, the improper flow of state funds to the local self
governments and the shift in priorities and perspective of the reigning
government has dampened the enthusiasm that has been
generated among the people of the state.
: Kerala Women in Focus.
In comparison, with
many other states, women in Kerala, are highly literate and educated.
According to the 2001 census they outnumber male population with 1058
per every 1000. Manipur is the only other state in India with a higher
female population than men. Female foeticide is almost unheard off.
Dowry system, though prevalent among almost all cast and religious communities,
dowry related murders and other atrocities are comparatively lower.
However this is no indication to the statues of women n the family or
in society. Neither it indicate absence of discrimination, elimination
of atrocious acts against women including sexual harassment and exploitation.
They still are economically underprivileged and prone to exploitation.
However, it is interesting
for a keen observer of Kerala scenario to notice the radical shift,
taking place, in the socio-economic and political status of women. And
it is no exaggeration to state that, it is a silent revolution in the
making. The women self-help groups, especially the state supported
Kudumbasree project that are basically aimed at micro credit
facility among women has become the main catalyst in the process. Their
participatory public action has almost effectively eliminated cutthroat
moneylenders from outside the state who had deep pen iteration in communities.
This act put an end to the unproductive outflow of hard earned money
from the state. They have provided women a new sense of self-respect,
put in place a voluntary but efficient organizational system and infused
new strength in them. This has been slowly being transformed in to determined
The new found economic
freedom, organizational strength and exposures to the outside world,
other than the traditional domain, is slowly leading them to micro enterprises-that
are caring the family, society, above all the fragile environment, without
forcing them to the migratory tendencies for bread winning jobs. With
in a short span of years the money accumulated in banks by the women
self-help groups have exceeded few hundred crores of rupees. Interestingly,
now public sector banks are coming forward to advance capital lending
for their enterprises and initiative with no collateral security. Further,
in the Kudumbasree project circles itself, there is a thinking of establishing
an exclusive bank catering entirely to the needs of women self-help
groups. The enthusiastic participation of women in the grass-root level
democratic process and their willingness to part-take
in public action is not only surpassing the traditional role of men
but also promise to change the stagnating socio-political and economic
scenario of the state.
It is worth noticing
the ongoing movement initiated by women groups, which mobilizes means
of women, to establish Vigilance Committees and Family Empowerment Forum
at each and every local self-government level. These committees empowered
with statutory powers, equivalent to a civil court, will have great
impact in ensuring gender equality, eliminating violence and atrocities
on women and ending their marginalized existence at home and society.
Further, if succeed, the movement will prove the power of public participation
of women in getting things done were the state fail.
in altering the decadent state policies: The Kerala Experience.
Kerala has been
witness to informed and voluntary public participation and action in
altering the state policies that are against the interest of people,
state and the nature and ecosystem itself. The mass opposition to the
exploitation of invaluable ground water by the profit hungry multi-national
Coco Cola; the use of deadly pesticides like Endosulphan; the move to
extract mineral wealth from the coastal sands of Kerala, with no regard
to grave consequences; the projects to build hydroelectric projects
disregarding its implication to the rarest of rare forests; the
proposal to build an Express Way dividing the narrow strip of land that
is Kerala with no thought of its social, economic and environmental
coast; the public pressure that is building up against polluting industries
which are destroying our land, water sources and the nature itself are
some resistance movement that have been witnessing mass participation
The scenario gives
a picture of public participation not only for the success of state
sponsored programmes but also critical to its rational in the larger
interest of people. Rational and informed participation in socio-political
and economic life in Kerala requires patient study and analysis in order
to understand an evolving society.
-Rajaji Mathew Thomas
Kannara.P.O, 680 652
Phone: 0487 2284207, Cell: 9895313696
 India: Development and Participation.
Jean Dreze, Amartya
Sen (3.8 Kerala: Scrutiny and significance)
Rajaji Mathew Thomas
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