It was the mid 1970s. The wage rate for labour in Coimbatore Tamil Nadu was Rs. 2 per day. Across the border, in Kerala it was five times at Rs. 10 per day. As industries migrated to Tamil Nadu, doomsday was declared for Kerala’s industry and its population. That was not to be.
There was something remarkable which was happening in the state of Kerala which was defying conventional economics. The all India average for life expectancy in 1976 – 1980 was just 52 years. Kerala during this period had leapfrogged to 66 years. This phenomenon of high life expectancy at birth, low death rate, well balanced male-female ratio, high literacy rate, low incidence of poverty would soon earn its name in developmental economics as the ‘Kerala growth model’.
The UNICEF study conducted in 1985 found while China had a literacy rate was 56 % for females and 82% for males, Kerala had overtaken China with a literacy rate of 71% of females and 86% for males. With an extensive medical coverage, public health system and public food distribution system in place, the life expectancy for women was 67.6% in Kerala, while China was trailing behind at 64. 1%.
By the mid-90s, Amartya Sen took note of this economic phenomenon in his book ‘India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity’. He found many parts of India were in positions worse than sub-Saharan Africa, and in stark contrast, Kerala was ahead of Indonesia, Thailand and even South Korea in many of the significant human development index parameters. The Nobel Laureate was to remark, which is a truism even today, “Kerala’s success can be traced to the role of public action in promoting a range of social opportunities relating to elementary education, land reform, the role of women in society, and the widespread equitable provision of health care and other public services.
Interestingly Uttar Pradesh’s failures can be plausibly be attributed to the public neglect of the very same opportunities”
At the heart of Kerala’s egalitarian politics was also the transformational message of its great religious leaders and the reformists especially of Shri Narayana Guru. His message of social and economic inclusion still continues to translate into the State’s economic and political policy making.
The religions of Kerala which has a long and unblemished record of communal harmony, made dedicated efforts towards education and health care. This peace among religions has a lot to do with the region’s unique history. It is an allegory of our times that this port of Muzhiris at Pattanam (which conducted trade from 1 st century BC to 14 th century AD with Arabs, Europe, the Mediterranean and China), the Azhikode jetty where St Thomas is believed to have landed, the 7 th century Cheraman Juma Madjid the oldest mosque in the country, and the spectacular 1800 hundred year old Kodungalur Bhagwathi temple are all within a 15 km radius in Kodungalur.
Along with the success came the discontents: those who lost excess land; those who lost their pre-eminent socio economic advantage; those who find social equality unpalatable; those not reconciled to the harmony in the society and for whom the sheer rapidity of economic mobility was unacceptable. These discontents are now unwittingly getting wedded to communal and sectarian temptations to derail the welfare state.
Meanwhile half way across the globe, in Chicago, over two hundred members of one particular Kerala family attend a wedding. They have all come from within the state of Illinois and its neighboring states. These malayalis were professionally qualified and well entrenched into middle class America. They are children of parents who voted successive social democratic formations which gave them affordable education, healthcare and nutrition. Little will they ever know, that they are the products of the most spectacular human index success stories in the world.
Discontents like Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, with a hazy knowledge of history or economics of Kerala, will continue to vent their infantile and wholly misguided rage against the biggest success stories in development economics. Keraliites know better, by discarding the perfect welfare state they have everything to lose.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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