Kerala: The Paradoxes
of Public Action and Development
The Kerala Model of Development, as it came to be known, was celebrated by a section of planners as something that could be emulated in other parts of the country. It is no longer the case. There are, however, many who still argue in favour of some aspects of the "model" even while rejecting the larger framework. But then, there is no such thing as the framework. In other words, the development experience in Kerala did not follow a framework at any stage.
What does one mean by the Kerala model. Kerala ranks pretty high in the Human Development Index despite the low levels of achievement in terms of economic indicators. This was achieved, thanks to measures initiated by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin, over a period. This was an unintended consequence of the steps in the area of education, health, etc. This model came to be rejected because the achievements were unsustainable due to the expenditure on the part of the state and the narrow base for revenue generation by the state in Kerala. Instead, the "model" as it came to be identified had evolved, in bits and pieces, over a period of time. In this sense, the state of the economy and the society in Kerala today is the culmination of a series of events and responses to this.
While it is possible to establish connections between some of this, the fact is that these were more the outcome of attempts by theorists and practitioners to place segments into a larger framework after they happened. The Kerala Model of Development, hence, is a formulation based on experience rather than a concept by itself.
Joseph Tharamangalam’s effort, putting together a set of papers presented at a two-day workshop in Thiruvananthapuram in 1999, makes interesting reading for those familiar with the subject matter and to those who continue to celebrate the model. There is, however, a shortcoming with the book. And this is due to two distinct reasons. One is that some of the issues raised and discussed in the papers have turned irrelevant in a sense. George Mathew’s presentation on the People’s Plan Campaign is a case in point. Mathew suggests that the campaign cannot be reversed and holds that the UDF, which came to power in May 2001 has had to persist with it (despite its criticism of it when the LDF initiated the idea) is proof of its inherent strength.
The fact is that the campaign ceased and things have not changed even after the LDF is back in power and T.M. Thomas Issac, the brain behind the campaign has become the State’s Finance Minister. Mathew, for some reason, had refused to record the opposition to this idea from inside the CPM and the various instances of sabotage even when the LDF was ruling Kerala. The point is that the People’s Plan Campaign, like many other aspects of the Kerala Model was an isolated response to a given situation rather than being a part of a larger socio-economic framework.
This is true of the transformations in the social realm too. While the reforms movement in the Malabar, Travancore and the Cochin regions confronted and negotiated such issues as caste and gender-based discrimination in a manner that can be emulated, these were steered by individuals and groups from within the social categories; these were internalised by the political leadership at various stages. And this indeed led to a situation where the agenda of social reforms came to be placed in the larger context of public action. And in such a setting, it was obvious that groups that were on the margins – the adivasis in particular – were left out of the agenda by the political class.
Gail Omvedt’s article in the book seems to miss out on this historical factor. But then, it is important that the status of the socially marginalized in Kerala is presented and Omvedt does this in the book.
Some of this is taken care in the long introduction to the collection by Tharamangalam. Most other articles in the book are essentially empirical in nature and are useful to those wanting to tackle the paradoxes that mark the social and the economic reality in Kerala. K.J. Joseph and K.N. Harilal, for instance have discussed the implications of the globalisation experience in Kerala. The fact that the state does not have large-scale industry and investments despite the cash flow of overseas affects consumer culture.
This article, particularly, could be of immense use in an effort to understand the problem not just in Kerala but elsewhere too. M.A. Oomen’s article, dealing with the Amartya Sen-Jean Dreze theory is once again interesting to read and raises a set of questions that may be useful in developing a critique of the ‘model’. In the Sen-Dreze theory, Dreze argues that even while the capability of the people differ from each other and it is not the ideal case to achieve equality and hence it is proper to factor in different levels of access for different people. Even the least of the HDI level in Kerala is higher than the least in terms of the national average.