In a recent academic roundtable on From Poverty to Power in Canberra, Robin Jeffrey, professor at the Australian National University and dean of its College of Asia and the Pacific, had a stab at applying the ‘how change happens’ framework to the cause celebre of Kerala in South India. Here are my notes on his initial effort, augmented with quotes from his book on the subject.
Since independence, Kerala has achieved rapid social improvements in areas such as infant mortality and literacy without significant industrialization or economic growth. This has prompted discussion of a ‘Kerala Model’, a sort of South Asian Cuba in which high levels of state investment in social services can achieve real progress, even in the absence of economic growth.
Using the How Change Happens framework of Context, Institutions, Agents and Events, Jeffrey argued that Kerala offers some general lessons on development, but is too path dependent to provide a very specific model (alas, this usually proves to be the case when any particular historical change is put under the microscope). He points to the following:
Migration: High educational levels, poverty and tradition have led hundreds of thousands of Keralans to seek work in the Gulf and elsewhere. By the 1980s their remittances contributed an average of 30% of rural household income. They provided a buffer for poor economic performance at home.
The most powerful and influential elite castes in Kerala historically had matrilineal societies, i.e. land ownership passed from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son. This led to greater status for women, including sending girls to school. The matrilineal system disintegrated in the early 20th Century, leading to high levels of social and political conflict, but this did not drag down women – they retained far more access to education than elsewhere in India. The result was high levels of female participation in the labour force, although little involvement by women in public politics, where chauvinism continues to reign.
Caste: Kerala entered the 20th Century with a particularly rigid caste system, which nationalists, Communists, Christian missionaries and newly-educated lower-caste people all played a part in destroying.
Popular organization: The disintegration of the caste and matrilineal systems led to an increasingly raucous (‘clamorous Kerala’) public politics in which ‘assertion slowly but steadily supplanted obsequiousness in the 20th century’. Teachers, their numbers boosted by the ever-growing education budget, played a central role in this culture of agitation, for example in the Kerala Communist Party.
Depression and near famine in the Second World War prompted a unique combination of popular agitation and state rationing schemes that averted the horrors of the Bengal Famine and established a tradition of state provision that continued after independence.
Dynamics of Change
Keralan politics revolves around active citizens placing ever greater demands on the state, especially for healthcare and education. This produced the ‘Keralan miracle’. By 1981, female literacy in Kerala was well over twice and infant mortality less than a third of the rate for India as a whole. Partial land reform at least guaranteed 90% of the rural population ownership of the land on which their houses stood (if not much else).
But this has not produced a particularly effective state, certainly when it comes to creating the conditions for economic take off, where investment in infrastructure has been squeezed out by social spending. In consequence, social progress coincides with economic stagnation – per capita income is less than two thirds the Indian average. Moreover even in public services, the state is better at quantity than quality: state spending takes place through a chaotic system of church and other non-state providers, which are often highly inefficient. Attempts at reform have invariably been repelled by the various interest groups involved.
What emerges is a picture of an educated population, able to use whatever they can extract from the state to further the welfare of their families. What is lacking is the long term economic capacity to underpin this. In Jeffrey’s words:
‘Democratic politics, involving large sections of a population, can be made to provide services that people need and, consequently, use. Literate, confident women will, as domestic managers, turn such services into better health for men and women alike. Birth rates will fall. What one yearns for is a further stage in which enough wealth is produced – and politics guarantees its fair distribution – to ensure far higher measures of well-being for all.’