Friday, November 24, 2006

Welfare and banana leaf thalis - a foreign student’s take on Kerala, Part 2

…continued from Part 1.

Challenges for the future

Of course, none of all the positives I talked about in the first part means that Kerala is now on an arrow-straight path to prosperity. The state, just like the rest of India (or any developing country) is still facing some major challenges for the future. Some of them are common to the whole of the country – like combating poverty, or the rate of farmers' suicides – while others are more specific to Kerala, of which reducing the unemployment rate is the most pressing. The problem is actually more or less confined to the educated part of the population, with the educated unemployment rate being something like 21%. This has led to, as many of you have pointed out in the comments to my last post, a clear paradox in that workers are imported from as far away as Bihar and West Bengal to do menial jobs that the highly educated consider beneath them. There are no easy solutions to the unemployment crisis, but private investment in knowledge based industries, and public investment in infrastructure (more below) is probably most crucial.

Another challenge is the so-called 'second generation' of problems now facing the welfare sector, those of quality over quantity. For example, Kerala has already established universal schooling, but now the need is to improve the quality of the education by revising curriculums, raising teachers’ salaries, and more spending on higher education (80% of the state education budget today goes to school education). In terms of health care there is not only the need to improve the existing services, but also a future problem of old age care, since Kerala’s high levels of life expectancy means that the state will soon have a large older population. This also goes for infrastructure – while Kerala has the highest road density in India, there is a need to improve the quality of those roads (take the bus from Bangalore to Trivandrum and you’ll see what I mean, the ride gets bumpier as soon as you leave Karnataka), as well as to improve electricity supply, build new ports, and so on. The need to strengthen infrastructure is also directly linked to generating more employment – the poor availability of electric power, etc., is preventing larger industrial enterprises from happening in Kerala.

While in Kerala I heard much talk about the state’s reputation of being ‘investment-unfriendly’, with trade unions too strong for their own good blocking new technology or development from happening, loaders flat out refusing to work, or state-wide bandhs being a favourite pastime for some parts of the workforce (Chandy for instance talked about an ‘almost anti-work mentality’ in some places). These problems have undoubtedly harmed Kerala’s development, but there does seem to be a genuine effort to change this image from both politicians and workers. Most people I talked to said that the situation had improved considerably just over the past decade, something that places like Technopark and the new Smart City project are proof of. V.J. Jayakumar, the CEO of Technopark, told me that in the IT-park’s early days there was some initial apprehension from companies about moving to Kerala because of the state’s reputation, but that those doubts had significantly lessened now.

One place that struck me as the perfect symbol of how Kerala’s future could be a fusion of a developed welfare system and a progressive economy was actually Technopark. Fully owned by the government and taking advantage of Kerala’s huge pool of highly educated workers, it’s home to companies like Tata and American Software, and with 10,000 employees, 90% of whom are Keralites, it is also the single largest source of employment in the state.


It’s very easy for me to draw up a list of things I like about Kerala – the ‘Backwaters’, the incredibly friendly and welcoming people, or just those awesome banana leaf thalis. But what has always struck me the most is how present politics is everywhere in Kerala, and how tangible it is in the daily lives of people all across the state. There’s hardly a street that’s not covered in orange or red flags and posters; newspaper readership is the highest in India; and I found I could ask pretty much anybody I met about any given issue that was on the news agenda and I’d get an well-informed reply (one of the most surreal experiences I had was when a rickshaw driver started giving me a socio-political lecture – in flawless English - after I had asked him about some street protest we went by).

While this intense politicisation might have brought some negatives with it (like contributing to the ‘investment-unfriendly’ reputation, for instance), I also think it’s important to remember that there is another side to it, a sort of spirit of social justice and egalitarianism that runs throughout Kerala. The ‘Kerala Model’ was after all never really a ‘Model’ imposed from above by any government, it was more a natural response to the demands of the people. Kerala has been a centre for progressive politics in India since long before Independence, and ever since 1956 political parties have had little chance of getting elected if welfare and social policies have not been top of their agenda. As Dr Vijayamohan Pillai from the Centre for Development Studies told me: “The people in Kerala are far ahead of the politicians. They are the ones who make sure that health care and education are provided.” Where this particular Keralite spirit comes from is probably a topic for a whole new project, but it is what attracted me so much to the state in the first place, and has been the most direct explanation for Kerala's achievement over the past 50 years.

And those achievements are truly remarkable – you have used democracy and relatively meagre natural and financial resources to build up a society that is unlike anything else in India or the developing world, and that has made the lives of millions of people better in a very concrete way. The ‘Kerala Model’ has also arguably disproved the notion that a developed welfare system has to be preceded by economic growth – which in practice often means a long period of inequality between rich and poor while the economy is ‘developing’, before money can be spent on things like health care and education. If you look at India on a national level today, there is actually little evidence that the money derived from the last fifteen years’ economic boom is reaching the least privileged in society, and in this sense Kerala can really serve as a role model for the rest of the country.

At the moment I’m doing a masters degree in contemporary Indian politics and history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (also part of the University of London), and it has been really interesting to see how the phrase ‘with the exception of Kerala’ runs almost like a mantra through most of my textbooks, whether they are talking about India’s rural poverty, high levels of illiteracy, or the rise of Hindu nationalist politics. Kerala has the potential to become one India’s biggest success stories, and with the economy picking up, I’d say that the future of God’s Own Country is looking very hopeful.
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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Welfare and banana leaf thalis – a foreign student’s take on Kerala, Part 1

My name is Olof Blomqvist, and I’m originally from Sweden but have spent the last three years at the University of London, where I’ve just graduated from a BA in Journalism and Contemporary History. This August I visited Kerala on a scholarship from my university to carry out a project about what the future of the state might look like, and I especially wanted see if the ‘Kerala Model’ could lead to economic growth, something it in a lot of people’s opinion has failed to do. While researching the project I came across this blog, and after mailing back and forth with Mind Curry for a while, he asked me if I wanted to post something about my experiences, which I was more than happy to do. So, here it is – I’ve tried to sum up my project and my conclusions briefly, and also write something about my personal experiences in Kerala (apologies for all the numbers and stats in this part, but I need them to prove my point - the next part will be more about my personal experiences and opinions).

I arrived in Trivandrum in early August and stayed for about two weeks, and then moved north through Kollam, Kochi, and Calicut, until I flew home from Mumbai. I had done most of my research in advance, so while on site I spent my time doing interviews with everyone from politicians like Oommen Chandy, to V.J. Jayakumar, the CEO of Technopark, to academics, or just everyday Keralites; and visiting key places, like government institutions, the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, or the Malayala Manorama’s headquarters. I had an excellent time in Kerala, both because it's very hard to not like God's Own Country (how can you not love a place where you can have a beer by the Arabian Sea?), and because I was able to reach the conclusions I had hoped to, which I will try to present below. If you have any comments or criticism I'd love to hear it - it would be great to get some feedback from actual Keralites!

God’s Own Country rising – remittances, welfare and economic growth

Basically, the standard narrative about Kerala’s development process over the past decade and a half has been that even if the ‘Kerala Model’ has made some remarkable achievements in terms of human development, it is ultimately ‘unsustainable’ since it has not been able to stimulate enough economic growth. This has been dubbed as Kerala’s ‘lopsided development’, and has its roots in the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s, and the barren years in the 1970s-‘80s, and even into the ‘90s, when Kerala’s economy had stagnated and the state’s growth rate significantly lagged behind the rest of India’s. The first thing I realised when I started talking to people in Kerala was that this narrative had to be turned on its head – Kerala’s economy has since the mid-1990s not only caught up with the average growth rate in India, but even surpassed it, with the growth rate of 2005 being as high as 9.2 per cent. I’m sure this won’t come as news to any of you, you probably heard it repeated an endless number of times during the election campaign last May, but what was interesting to discover was what the actual causes for Kerala’s growth spurt had been.

While political leaders from both the LDF and the UDF have been quick to take credit – Chandy certainly did so when I interviewed him, claiming that the UDF’s pro-investment policies were to thank – the fact is that Kerala’s turnaround dates back much further than whatever short-term agenda any state government has been able to push through. As one of the people I talked to, Dr K.P. Kannan from the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, has shown in this EPW article, the upswing actually started as far back as 1987, even if it has mainly made itself felt from the mid-1990s. Some of it can be explained by the economic reforms Rajiv Gandhi pushed through over the whole of India, but in a state with an industrial sector as weak as Kerala’s this does not tell the full story. Instead, what new research points to is that what for years was thought to hold Kerala back – the peculiar economic model of ‘lopsided development’ – has actually been the spark for Kerala’s growth spurt. Kerala’s economy is growing because of – not in spite – the money that for decades has been spent building up India’s best welfare system. As Dr Kannan told me: “Kerala’s high levels of human development have become the state’s greatest asset. The old song about high levels of human development but no economic growth needs to change.”

How has this happened? A large part of the answer lies in how remittances have affected Kerala. The great exodus of Keralites to the Gulf Countries during the 1970s oil boom was to a large extent possible because of the benefits these workers had gained from growing up in Kerala (better health and education, and more awareness of opportunities beyond their state). The money they send back today makes up 25% of the state budget, and one third of all remittances to India. It has not only helped to stimulate consumption levels in Kerala, which are among the highest in country, but it has also kick-started the boom in the tertiary (or service) sector of industry –IT, tourism, banking, private health care, etc. – that has been the driving force behind Kerala’s economic growth spurt. While neither the manufacturing industry nor agriculture has experienced any significant growth over the past decade, the service sector now makes up something like 65% of the state economy, and has since 1986 until today gone from a growth rate of 3.25% to 7.5%. The remittances also probably served to underestimate Kerala’s economy throughout the financial dark ages, since they do not count directly towards the GDP.

There are also other, more indirect ways that the welfare system has contributed to the turnaround. There are many studies that show a direct link between a developed welfare system and economic growth – well-educated and healthy people are able to work harder, are more creative, and generally more productive members of society. Especially in an economy as dependent on the modern service sector of industry as Kerala’s is, well educated workers are indispensable. The ‘Kerala Model’ has also provided an excellent base for the future, with low birth rates, increasing per capita incomes, and easy access to health care and education meaning that the new generation of Keralites growing up now will be of better quality than any before. Thanks to the low rate of population growth, there has also been a demographic shift that has bumped up the working population’s (15 to 59 years) share of the population to 60% - meaning that Kerala has an abundance of human resources in terms of educated workers. In short, Kerala has entered into what in development economics is called a ‘virtuous circle’, where the earlier investments in welfare is leading to economic growth, which in its turn is leading to more money spent on human development, and so on. (If you’re interested in more details about how the welfare system has led to economic growth, I really recommend the 2005 Kerala Human Development Report, which outlines the state’s whole development experience, or this article by Achin Chakraborty).

I’ll post the second part (on the challenges Kerala faces in the future, and some of my personal experiences/thoughts) during the week, thanks for reading this far!
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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The "Save Kerala" Initiative - SitRep

Its been over 2 years since this initiative was created, and over 1 year since this blog took the shape of its current form and design. The first one year, almost, there was only one author, and we posted only one article. And we had just one comment from a teenage girl from some corner of Kerala (I think) about how difficult she finds being a girl in Kerala, and how she whole-heartedly supported the intiative. In 2005, we revamped the site and began posting articles more regularly and the readership grew ever since.

As some really energetic, enthusiastic and focussed Keralite bloggers have now joined hands, and we have set about discussing how we can really make this initiative a success, I thought it might be wise to bring out some of our observations as a post..

As always, first things first: The kind of support (and the resistance!) has been tremendous over the last few months.. We are so happy to see the kind of support we have received from the blogging community, and to some extend from the media and even officials in Kerala. Presently, wonderful ideas are being discussed, and some great minds are applying thoughts, on how we can fastforward our initiatives..on how we can make the general population understand that we have an objective, and we are not just passing our time with this blog.

The very idea of putting together this blog was to have a common platform where likeminded people could join hands towards the common goal of a developed and better Kerala. Where we could develop a base to reassure people that collectively we will be able to make good changes..Where we could create awareness..Where we could break-away from the mentality that has kept Kerala in the dark and has brought in stagnation.

Over the last couple of months, one important feedback I got is the level of fear shared by a lot of the people from the government and public..There was a general sense of fear to come out in support of such an initiative in public..especially since this process would at some point entail going against politicians, parties, govt babus and even individuals who shared different views. After all we are not a political party ourselves with goons and thugs on board to greet violence with violence or abuse with abuse. (perhaps having such a team is an idea to consider!). I realized that this is a very genuine concern, especially when I looked back and recollected the amount of abusive and threatening emails I get already from "anonymous" readers - which I never respond to or bother about.

But when you think of including more people, this becomes a stark reality - that we have to figure out how to deal with. A blog is safe for most of the readers as they can comment in a pen-name or as an anonymous person... if we plan to make a more proactive platform, how far can we manage to include people without them "fearing" the untoward? After all, some of the malayalis have a tendency to protest violently against what they dont like. Or simply put: Will an IAS officer support any initiative, however progressive or people centric it is, if it was against the interests of the ruling party?

Another important observation: ultimately we will have to include the people IN kerala..otherwise we are risking ourselves of getting branded as a whimsical or fancy idea of a few people "sitting in some comfortable location" "out of kerala" and "yapping about development without doing anything concrete".. I have put these in quotes based on the general feedback from people within kerala. ofcourse, in most of our cases we are living our lives in kerala, but what I mean to convey is the cunning way some people are already discounting our efforts..making statements like these will harbour doubt in the minds of the masses as to how much we may be able to achieve..and this concern along with the fear-factor I mentioned above will ensure not too many people JOIN us..but will continue to be apathetic and silent spectators.

This is also brought out by the fact that for each new article, we have currently about 5k-10k "viewers", but at the maximum only 10-50 people comment..and even out of the 50, most are anonymous.

So as much as there is an excitement in me seeing the collective efforts and the enthusiasm from fellow bloggers..i can also see the amount of resistance, and practical difficulties in making the initiative more INCLUSIVE...thats the challenge we will face..whether by including the people living outside kerala and only the others who share the same sense of progress within Kerala, will we succeed? or do we need the masses within kerala also to join hands? If its the latter, we will have to wait until the urge to change sweeps into the local minds..which at the state of current affairs, will take a long while. Especially given the fact that polarization into a political mindset begins right at the school-level in Kerala. (we can see most of the entrances to schools and colleges covered with banners of political parties and their youth outfits)

So after all this while, we have not still received those three-lakh supporting emails we mentioned in our vision statement, but with the current level of enthusiasm we are sure we are not far away. For some, this post may have a sense of victory..But no, this is not a give-up post..not at all..but just putting across some of the challenges we see as we begin to move we poise ourselves to take this initiative to the next level.

(This is the modified version of an email written to some of the other authors of this blog as part of our discussions)
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