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Kerala's Silent Revolution

By Rajaji Mathew Thomas

18 March, 2005

The significance of the tiny Indian state of Kerala’s 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 it’s 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 it’s rapid transformation began) as Kerala has today. To achieve as much Kerala has done for a population of it’s size is no mean record in world history.

This is basically because Kerala has been fortunate with it’s 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 Bai’s 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 one’s history is not, however, a policy parameter that one can command. Those who see a unique and unrepeatable pattern in Kerala’s remarkable record of social progress can point to the very special nature of it’s past, and suggest that other states can learn rather little from it. This, however, would be quite the wrong conclusion to draw from Kerala’s 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 Kerala’s 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, it’s life expectancy at birth was 44 years vis-à-vis 74 now and it’s birth rate was 32 as opposed to 18 now. Kerala did have a good start, but the policies that have made it’s achievements so extraordinary today are, to a great extend, the products of post- independence political decisions and public action[1].

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 people’s 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 it’s social, political and economic life.

Peoples Plan Movement: An experiment in mass participation.

The much-debated 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 People’s Plan Movement was aimed at empowering people by allowing them the freedom of choice in the selection and formation of development projects in accordance with
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 people’s 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 people’s plan movement made it’s 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.

Participation : 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 group’s, 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 socio-political action.

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.

Mass Participation 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 it’s 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 worth mentioning.

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
Thenguvilayil House
Kannara.P.O, 680 652
Thrissur, Kerala.
Phone: 0487 2284207, Cell: 9895313696

[1] India: Development and Participation.

Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen (3.8 Kerala: Scrutiny and significance)

Copyright © Rajaji Mathew Thomas
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted
in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.











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