New on my other blogs

A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel


01 July, 2007

KERALA: from poverty to affluence

In 60 years of freedom, Kerala galloped from the depth of poverty to the height of affluence. Although all States developed during this period, Kerala’s achievements deserve special attention. For, to begin with, in per capita income it stood below the national average. Today it is competing with Punjab for the first rank in both per capita income and per capita expenditure. Punjab prospered doing farming and running industries. Kerala has become rich, destroying agriculture and neglecting industries.
The children of those who had queued up before ration shops to buy rotten rice are today buying costly rice from the open market. Progeny of those who had sought admission in charitable government hospitals with diseases associated with poverty are now entering private five-star hospitals with ailments of the rich. Where petty thieves remained under the cover of darkness, mafias are operating in broad daylight.

It was political changes that first made Kerala the centre of attraction. Cochin and Travancore conducted elections on the basis of universal adult suffrage even before the Constitution of India was framed. Later Kerala put the Communist Party in power through the ballot box. That revealed the extent of our democracy. When political rivals joined hands with casteist and religious forces and ousted the Communist government, the limits of our democracy became clear. The Communists, who realized the possibilities of bourgeois democracy, resolutely stuck to the parliamentary path.

When parties that split came together to share power, the character of politics changed. After they shifted back and forth many times, two stable fronts came into existence. Parties that specialized in land grab and sale of schools and colleges sprang up on both sides. And then V. S. Achuthanandan happened. He won the first Battle of Munnar. In the second Battle of Munnar he suffered a setback. The outcome of the third Battle of Munnar is still awaited.

The Communist government under E. M. S. Namboodiripad took the first steps in agrarian reform. When the process was completed under another regime, the paddy-field did not go to the larks that harvested them. It went to the tenant who had taken it on lease from the landlord. His children who had acquired education and all that goes with it were not interested in the field. They abandoned paddy. Plantains, rubber and vanilla came up.

Businessmen could not modernize industries like coir, handloom and cashew that had developed before Independence. Trade unions under the control of political parties felled them. New industries did not come up. By the time the Centre, after much pressuring, set up a shipyard, the shipbuilding industry was in crisis worldwide. The rayon factory that Birla started in response to E.M.S.’s appeal earned huge profits for the industrialist, but Kerala suffered huge losses in terms of destruction of forests and pollution of the environment. In the meantime, some small-scale entrepreneurs succeeded with their products in the national market. Service industries also made their appearance. And the Smart City pact with Dubai now holds out the promise of a new era.

The big leap by Kerala’s economy was made possible neither by the State government nor by private industrialists, but by foreign smugglers who imported gold bars from London into Dubai and sent them to our coast in launches. Adventurous young men who scrambled on to their boats found work in the Gulf region. The oil-rich Gulf States made Kerala their main recruitment centre. The Gulf became the Malayalees’ dreamland. There are people who wonder how the Malayalee who is lazy at home became the foreign employer’s favourite. The answer is simple. He serves the Arab with the same loyalty that his grandfather had for the landlord and his father had for the party.

It was the social reform movements that placed before Kerala the ideal of a society based on equality and fraternity. With the advent of democracy, the responsibility of realizing that goal devolved on the political parties. Finding that to win and retain power they needed the supported vested interests, they abandoned this goal. To the extent that Gulf migration benefited the victims of the social system to a comparatively greater extent than the rest, the influx of foreign funds reduced inequalities somewhat. That phase, however, passed quickly. Now there has arisen a row of very affluent people, consisting of some who have made money through legitimate means and many who have accumulated wealth through illegitimate means. This has opened new chapters of inequality.

Kerala’s Gulf connection is the gift of globalization. Not realizing this, many are crying hoarse against globalization. Since they lack the strength to halt the process, Kerala, which depends upon foreign money, need not fear them. But an economy that is not based on domestic production is a soap bubble that can burst any time. Keralites do not seem to be bothered even about that. They remain optimistic about some new door opening in the event of closure of the Gulf door. Who knows, that may be the door to the moon itself! Meanwhile, they face some problems on their own soil. The Malayalee is buying up all that money can buy. To satisfy his thirst, jewelleries and luxury stores have come up all over the place. The one who spends money is not the one who earns it through the sweat of his brow. This situation gives a new dimension to Kerala's consumerist culture. Through deals of various kinds, Gulf money flows all over the State. For those who remain beyond the channels through which it flows, suicide is the only option.

What will Kerala be like in the next 60 years? Let us remember that we did not know in 1947 that this is where we will be today. One thing can be said about the future, though. If things go on as at present, by 2067 there will be one long urban agglomerate stretching from Kasergode to Kaliyikkavila on the Kerala coast. Already Kerala is where the most automobiles are sold in India. That urban agglomerate may be where the most automobiles are sold in the world. The language of that region may not be Malayalam. It may be a hybrid language popularized by television presenters.

What if the soap bubble bursts? Let us not entertain unpleasant thoughts on this pleasant occasion.
This is a rough English rendering of an article which has appeared in the special issue brought out by India Today (Malayalam) on June 27, 2007 to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s independence.


sajang said...

Sir I think that the jump from 57 to Vs has been unrealistic and without considering the mass movements that have come up. I have always thought that the strength of our society has been its social movements. I was a part of it when KSSP initiated the Grama sasthra jathas in 1982 and also for the literacy movement in 1991. This was followed by the people's plan which I consider to be of paramount importance in our social transformations. What is appealing to me in these movements is not just the physical or statistical achievemnets but the way in which people can be brought together for a common cause. it will be a tragedy if we miss this point while trying to understand our society.

B.R.P.BHASKAR said...

Sajan, I do not underrate the contribution of social movements. What bothers me is that other forces are able to negate the results of their endeavour. Why does it happen? How does it happen? A few years ago I was at a meeting where a KSSP activist gave a detailed account of the group's campaigns against superstition. Obviously it had done good work. But, then, superstition instead of going down, went up. That points to a problem we have to address. The most hopeful feature of the current Kerala scenario is that we still have social movements that are doing good work. How do we make sure that they succeed, and not those on the opposite side?

sajang said...

Dear Sir
This is where media can play a different role. I do not see anything positive getting reported in our media. The world is not that bad. Still there are good people doing good work which doesnt get any media attention. I know a lot of good teachers and good doctors who ultimately get demoralised due to the flood of negative reporting. I think that we shold also try to identify and strengthen some such movements and people and that is the only way to ensure that the negative currents do not get the upper hand.

RVG said...

I agree with BRP that superstitions etc have gone up, in spite of the significant work done by the social movements.
Then I wonder how worse the situation might have been if these were not there!
In fact, in several respects, the scientific outlook here is much better than what prevails in the advanced countries, for examokle the USA.

B.R.P.BHASKAR said...

Yes, RVG, things may have been worse but for the social movements. What is really worrying is that Kerala society was (or at least appeared to be) moving away from superstitions in the early part of the last century but is now travelling in the opposite direction. I think we have to look into the reasons for the change in direction and tackle them.