Transformations and tribulations


SOCIETAL transition in India has generally been a slow process. And yet, remarkable changes for the better have taken place since independence, particularly from a welfare perspective, in a number of spheres. But then, similarly placed Asian societies, especially those outside South Asia, have been able to attain much greater heights and add value to their people at large.

Within India, Kerala has long been viewed as an exception, given its greater pace of transition, especially from a social welfare as well as human development points of view. I am not one who subscribes to the notion of ‘Kerala exceptionalism’ being used as a pretext to not learn any lessons from other parts of the country or vice-versa. Those who are familiar with this record of Kerala’s development experience, often referred to as Kerala model of development, have generally understood it as a feasible route to achieving relatively high levels of human and social development even with low levels of per capita income. Others though have used it more critically to portray the lopsidedness of Kerala’s development characterized by low economic development with high social/human development.

Much water has flowed down the Ganga and the Kaveri during the last three-and-a-half decades since the ‘Kerala model’ gained currency. Yet, this old song of lopsided development persists. Kerala has gone through remarkable transformations during the last couple of decades, some of which have come as a surprise to people there, not to speak of elsewhere. Aggregate economic growth has been equal to the national average and, currently, continues at nine per cent per annum even when the national economy is sliding back to a lower rate. The continuing lead in human development indicators, along with a high rate of economic growth, is a notable characteristic of contemporary Kerala.1 

Before I flag the major transformations, I must admit that an otherwise active public domain in Kerala is yet to absorb the full significance of the overarching changes so as to prepare itself for meeting what may be called the second generation challenges of ‘development’ whose meaning and content are also undergoing deep changes. Often, Kerala is obsessed with the ‘present’ that is partly a function of the keen party-political contestation of every conceivable public issue, including those that demand a measure of societal consensus, as for example, in waste management. In fact, this is an issue that ought to be the primary responsibility of government but has instead been allowed to assume the proportions of open social conflict. In the medley of present concerns and consequent contestations ranging from the high incidence of road accidents, the middle class’ paranoia over admission of their wards to professional courses, mostly medical or engineering, to the latest controversy over political murders, Kerala seems to have forgotten the long road it has traversed to attain a decent level of human development and social welfare. That is why issues such as extreme poverty, child survival and welfare, gender discrimination, lack of access to quality schooling, absence of a functioning public health care system, social security to the labouring poor and so on, are no longer issues of public concern, if only because achievements on those fronts have been taken for granted.


In fact, Kerala has gone ‘beyond the basics’, signifying its transcendence of the first threshold of the development challenge. It now has to grapple with the second generation challenges, but in a national and international context that is radically different from the earlier one. Some of the public discourse in Kerala points to the unanticipated and adverse consequences of a fast globalizing regional economy under a national dispensation of a neo-liberal policy regime that has elevated ‘growth at any cost’ as a paramount national objective. Instead of graduating to an expected higher threshold of social welfare and human development with equity as a core value, the developments of an economically fast growing Kerala present a picture of uninhibited prosperity for some, resulting in sharply rising economic inequality with its expected social correlates. Such a situation has indeed thrown up formidable challenges for public action for which Kerala has justly been well known.


But what are the transformations that Kerala has undergone? Let me list here, for the sake of brevity, four important transitions that have contributed to the overall socio-economic transformation of Kerala society.

A demographic transition: At the time of its formation as a state in 1956, Kerala was not in an enviable position, as far as population was concerned. It had the highest density in the country, along with a heavy dependence on agriculture and related primary economic activities. Yet, despite very high incidence of absolute poverty, public policy backed by a historical legacy, continued to give priority to education and health. The result was a demographic transition that is now more or less complete. Kerala’s current population growth is less than half-a-per cent per annum, that is a sign of reaching a stable population (33 million as of 2011). The average number of children per couple (the Total Fertility Rate) is at 1.7, less than the replacement rate of around two. A significant, though less noticed, achievement of this demographic transition is the absence of any gender bias in the sex ratio. On the contrary, the number of women per thousand men has been on the rise, and women in Kerala, with a life expectancy of 76 years, live four years longer than men. Communities (e.g. Muslim) that were once lagging behind in this demographic transition are now catching up faster than before, thanks to enhanced levels of education, accompanied by a perceptible improvement in living standards. The challenge now is the care of an ageing population whose share is twice the national average.


A health transition: Researchers have underlined the central role of education, especially that of women, in Kerala’s demographic transition that, of course, got accelerated with supply side policies and programmes of family planning. The same can be said of the health transition which has a longer history of public policy dating from the mid-19th century in the princely state of Travancore, now forming part of southern Kerala. Apart from the remarkable improvements in basic health indicators, it is also marked by the absence of any sharp bias against the girl child and women. In fact, if one goes by the findings of the National Family Health Survey of 2007, the incidence of anaemia among women is the least in Kerala among the states in the country. If one were to classify these women along four broad social groups reflecting the deeply entrenched hierarchy (say, SC/ST, OBC, Muslim and Others), Muslim women in Kerala emerge as the least anaemic group across the states and across the social groups in the country. This, in my view, sends out a powerful social message. But Kerala’s success in crossing the first threshold of health development has been accompanied, rather quickly, with a second generation challenge discussed elsewhere in this issue.

The educational transition: If education, understood as literacy and a minimum of schooling to all, has been a causative factor in the two transitions listed above, it has also given rise to, what I would like to call, a transformation that goes beyond the meaning of transition. Such a transformation is manifested in the size and structure of the student population, the prominent role of girls in the new system, the demand for higher education, the migration of students in search of quality education and the impact of education. The basic point is that all children in the relevant age groups are now in school. Simultaneously, given the steady process of the demographic transition, there has been a secular decline in the number of children born since the early 1990s.

Consequently, from a peak of 59 lakh students in schools (from class one to ten) in 1991, the number declined to 51 lakh in 2001 and to 43 lakh in 2011. Going by the current enrolment in class one, the total number of students in the school system will further decline to a stable level of 33 lakh by 2021. Such a steady and significant reduction in the school going student population has bestowed a quantitative advantage in terms of higher per capita expenditure and vastly improved facilities that in the event brought down the teacher-pupil ratio. Simultaneously, the number of students seeking admission to higher education has steadily increased as a result of both improved economic conditions as well as rising aspirations for ‘better’ employment opportunities. The annual enrolment at the Plus two level increased four times, from a mere 88,000 in 1975 to 3.58 lakh in 2011. Similarly, the undergraduate level enrolment increased from 61,000 to 2.3 lakh during the same period.


A similar trend can be seen for technical education as well where the problem is an overemphasis on engineering degrees at the cost of an expansion of diploma level education that would have helped cater to a large number of students otherwise not eligible for degree level technical education. An interesting feature of this educational transformation is the relatively better performance of girls viz-a-viz boys, both in dropout rates as well as pass percentages. A more interesting development, in my view, is the increasing feminization of higher education, with girls currently constituting 52 per cent at the Plus two level, 76 per cent at the undergraduate level and 74 per cent at the postgraduate level. They are certainly catching up with boys in technical education with 62 per cent in industrial training institutions, 27 per cent in polytechnics and 32 per cent in engineering degree courses.

Does this mean boys are being left behind? That would be too simplistic an explanation because we need to know what the boys are doing. Indeed, young boys have a greater compulsion to work at an early stage, going by available evidence. In 2007, one-third of the boys in the age group of 15-19 were in the labour force, while it was only two per cent for girls; for the age group of 20-24, it was 85 per cent for young men and only five per cent for young women. Obviously this applies to the economically poorer households.

There is also evidence from a survey on migration conducted by the Centre for Development Studies, that 3.11 lakh students from Kerala were studying outside the state in 2011, mostly in undergraduate and graduate courses, of which 40 per cent were girls. Contrast this with the total number of students at the higher education level (undergraduate and above) in Kerala at around 2.5 lakh, including all general and professional courses. It is a one-way flow with few students from other parts of the country coming to Kerala for higher education and that illustrates the nature of the challenge ahead.


The transition from an agrarian to a non-agrarian economy: An economy is characterized as having gone through a structural transformation when major parts of its annual output as well as employment are generated outside agriculture and related primary activities. In that sense Kerala is no more an agrarian economy. As in the rest of India, the share of agriculture has declined in the state but, unlike the all-India picture, employment share has also come down.

By the end of the 20th century, Kerala’s state domestic product from the non-agricultural sector reached 74 per cent of the total and the employment share stood at 68 per cent of the total in contrast to 72 and 40 per cent respectively for all India. Given the low base and growth of modern industrial sector, such a transformation was basically an outcome of the rapid expansion of the non-traded sector, mostly construction and services, propelled primarily by remittances from an increasing flow of labour migration from Kerala to the outside world, predominantly to the Gulf countries. Such a large-scale migration, now equivalent to 17 per cent of the labour force in Kerala, resulted in a significant flow of outside money into the Kerala economy that was estimated to be equivalent to around 20-23 per cent of the state income by the end of the 20th century. Recent studies suggest that annual remittance income to Kerala could be around 30 per cent of the state income – historically unprecedented for any economy.


On the positive side, migration has hugely improved economic conditions, directly of the households receiving remittances and indirectly through the consumption multiplier effect of other households. Its impact on the labour market has also been felt in the steady increase in wages of casual labourers for manual work – currently ranging from Rs 350 to 600 per day depending on location – as well as through employment creation in the service sector, especially for those with a minimum of ten years of school education. Given that education of the masses has been a significant factor in their ability to search for jobs abroad and negotiate their passage to new destinations, even poorer households have begun to focus more on education of the second generation of their members as a route to further betterment of their conditions in which education of girls too has emerged as a central concern. The resulting shortage of labour in the casual labour market is understandable, especially viewed from a social status point of view. This paved the way for inmigration of labour from other parts of India, particularly from the eastern states. To an extent this has also contributed to a slower pace in the emergence of labour-saving technologies in manual work.

While flagging these four interrelated transformations, I must also point to an emerging transformation for which Kerala has not been accustomed and hence remains ill-prepared. And that is the rapid process of urbanization, with close to half the population living in urban areas (48 per cent as per the 2011 Census). The urban-rural continuum in Kerala has been well documented – urban areas were no more than large extended villages and rural areas were dispersed settlements with a number of basic urban facilities. However, recent trends suggest a rapid growth of the major three cities – Trivandrum, Kochi and Kozhikode, along with a few others – and the transformation of many small towns into large urban centres and the change-over of many rural panchayats into urban areas.


Along with these changes, one should also flag a significant development in the system of governance in Kerala that was made possible by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments mandating the creation of a three-tier local level government through elections. In Kerala, this agenda was earlier flagged by the Left Democratic Front, a move that gave it a decisive advantage over the Congress Party-led United Democratic Front. The People’s Plan Campaign was an innovative methodology to push this agenda as quickly as possible, although its logical and necessary extension and evolution was thwarted by opposition both from within and outside the LDF. However, an implicit political consensus existed and resulted in the formation of a panchayat raj system that has now come to be institutionalized. It is worth noting that the support and enthusiasm for this initiative came largely from the new people’s movements and organizations and the wider civil society, and not from traditional organizations affiliated to political parties, such as the unions of government employees or workers or even the youth.


The success of the decentralized system is more visible in the village panchayats compared to the urban bodies. New initiatives at the local level, such as in agriculture and related activities, school facilities, primary health care centres as well as in social security payments, have taken place. Housing schemes for the poor is another area that marked itself out in terms of better performance. Care of the elderly destitute and institutional arrangements such as special schools for the differently-abled children constitute yet another sphere of achievement by many panchayats. The role of Kudumbashree, parent-teacher associations, farmers’ organizations and civil society initiatives in the design and management of these schemes and programmes deserve special mention. The decision to devolve nearly 30 per cent of the state’s plan funds was a historic one, strengthening the financial capacity of local government bodies.

And yet, there are now new concerns, especially with the recent decision of the UDF government to trifurcate the ministerial responsibility and coordination system into rural panchayats, urban bodies and restoring the old rural development departments. These were earlier integrated with a lot of effort under a single department with a minister in charge. There are no ostensible reasons for such vivisection except internal group-based politics of the ruling parties. Whether this new governance system will push decentralization further on to a new development path or end up as a retrograde step needs to be watched. My own assessment is that the decentralized system has taken root in such a way that it cannot be easily pulled out of its moorings without giving rise to a major furore, although the absence of earlier political enthusiasm is ominous.

In sum, both societal and spatial transformations are characteristic of Kerala as it enters the 21st century. But these transformations have not come without, what may be called, tribulations.


One of the tribulations that Kerala faces in the context of a significant socio-economic transformation is a generalized environmental disruption and destruction that was earlier confined to a few spots and specific projects. The high growth of the economy over three and a half decades is largely, if not wholly, rooted in the uninterrupted and increasing flow of remittances, making Kerala the state with the highest per capita income since the mid-1990s. This has assumed a more prominent role during the globalization process of the last two decades, a direct impact of which has been a boost in consumption.

Simultaneously, there has been an unprecedented growth in the construction and service sectors of the economy. With urbanization gaining speed during the last decade, a negative externality of these combined processes has been an increase in the quantity of solid waste for which the governing system, especially the municipal bodies, was ill-prepared. This has now assumed the proportions of social conflict in which the educated and highly conscious villagers openly revolt against the dumping of urban waste in their backyards. It is not uncommon to read about the imposition of curfew in localities where solid waste is transported! Citizens’ organizations, such as residents associations, are anguished by the out-break of diseases, especially during the monsoon because of an absence of a satisfactory system of waste management/disposal.

The government system is nowhere near offering any credible solution despite the many deliberations and recommendations of expert committees. The result has been a perceptible decline in the credibility of the political class which continues to wax eloquently, in and out of place, about their proposals for mega projects, as for example, building two more international airports in a state which already has three airports besides two on its borders.


But the issue of waste and its management is only one of the many dimensions of a generalized process of environmental degradation in a region which is supposed to be an ecologically fragile one, albeit camouflaged by a breathtaking green cover. The phenomenal growth in construction has given rise to an unprecedented demand for sand mining that has led to fractured and literally mutilated river beds all over the state. Given the high profit margins, a sand mafia has emerged to circumvent any minimal set of regulations, often in connivance with the local political and bureaucratic class.

Quarrying is another activity that has defaced many areas prone to landslides and slips. Digging for soil to fill up low lying areas, including rice fields that act as natural drains, has become a political hot potato. A number of mangroves have been filled up for constructing tourist resorts and ‘theme parks’ in the name of investment for boosting economic growth via private profit. In a trendsetting historic example, a local community of labouring poor thwarted the functioning of a multinational company manufacturing soft drinks at the cost of destroying and polluting their sources of drinking water and irrigation. The village of Plachimada in Palakkad district has become legendary for its environmental struggles.


Despite a vigilant civil society and its vocal organizations against the predatory nature of exploitation of environmental resources, the problem has not yet turned around for the better. Environment continues to be viewed by a large segment of bureaucracy, especially in the construction-oriented departments, as well as the political class, as an exotic luxury that the society can ill-afford in its quest for ‘development’. The pathological inability of political parties to internalize the ill-effects of environmental destruction – both through extraction and insertion – and re-evaluate their ideological predilections in the context of sustainable development, is certainly not a case of Kerala exceptionalism.

Some might even say that in the light of the struggles of the labouring poor against such predatory exploitation in many other parts of the country, the Kerala scenario appear like child’s play. However, the new environmental struggles with subaltern origins and attracting a broad-based support can arguably open up a window for ethical politics, because people in this case are challenging power without wanting to appropriate it.


In the area of basic health and education, Kerala no doubt continues to lead the rest of India. The state even looks like ‘another country’ and, given its pro-poor political legacy and socialistic propensity, a comparison with Cuba may not be out of place. Joe Tharamangalam brings out some aspects of this remarkable similarity as well as some striking contrasts without, of course, overlooking the multiparty democratic character of the polity in Kerala as opposed to a one-party system in Cuba. But here again the tribulations are no small issues for a society in transition.

The second generation problems have thrown up qualitatively different challenges, both in terms of morbidity as well as the ability of the public system to ensure decent health care at an affordable cost. The emergence of a commercialized private health care sector, as elsewhere, has posed serious questions about the Kerala ‘model’ of public delivery since preventive and public health issues continue to receive a step-motherly treatment in a system veering towards high-cost treatment facilities.

As in the case of the health sector, so too in education. An important point of concern is the emergence of a commercial higher education sector with an alarmingly poor record of quality. Of course, the problem of declining standards has been a long-standing one due to a culture of partisan politics where loyalty to the party in power takes precedence over everything else. Trade unionization of the academia, where mediocrity has a field day, and bureaucratic domination of university administration have a longer history. No wonder there is an exodus of students from Kerala to the outside world (including outside the country) for higher education. The argument that there is a much bigger and long-standing commercial sector in higher education in the neighbouring states, perhaps of even poorer quality, has not cut much ice in the ongoing public debate.

In a significant judgement the Kerala High Court recently expressed its anguish and suggested that those higher education institutions which cannot guarantee quality should be closed down and the students transferred to better performing ones. This was in the light of the reported poor pass percentages in the new private engineering colleges. Researchers have shown that government colleges with nearly 80 per cent pass rates in the recent past now report around 66 per cent, whereas the self-financing colleges – a euphemism for commercial teaching shops – report a decline from around 60 per cent to 30 per cent.2 And more disturbingly, the pass percentage of students belonging to Scheduled Castes has not been more than 20 per cent, thus creating an increasingly large pool of dejected youth.3 


One may legitimately ask: What happened to ‘public action’ that has long been seen as a hallmark of the Kerala ‘model’? There is hardly any let-up in public action; in fact, it could be argued that this phenomenon has compelled the system to respond, albeit reluctantly. There are examples of public action that have created new models and examples to emulate and multiply, while there are others that help informed discussions and debate. More importantly, public action has challenged ossified political ideologies and practices.


In articulating the pitfalls of an earlier notion of development, many movements and groups such as the people’s science movement, women’s movement, the environmental groups, and the dalit and adivasi organizations are in the forefront. Given the intimate relationship between literature and society writers, artists and other cultural and social leaders and icons (e.g. the veteran judge, V.R. Krishna Iyer, social critic Sukumar Azhikode who passed away recently and, poet and social crusader Mahasweta Devi whose visits to Kerala have inspired the socially sensitive youth), have often played critical and crucial roles giving vent to the common people’s anxieties and concerns. Cinema and cartooning have also been powerful social media to express and articulate societal concerns and dilemmas.

New movements as diverse as the movements of dalits and adivasis for land, dignity and human rights, the free software movement propelled by the sagacity and capability of a tech-savvy younger generation, the investigative reporting of the new visual media where the presence of young women is conspicuous, the contributions of Kudumbashree are examples of the continuing search for alternatives in development in which social dignity, livelihood security, equity, participation and environmental sustainability are key concerns. But there is a fidgety cat in the Kerala cupboard when it comes to the question of attitude of the Kerala male to women in general and young women in particular.

Despite the presence of such ‘fidgety cats’, one cannot help noticing the presence of thousands of men and women moved by extreme conditions of human suffering. Mention should be made here of a rather unconventional or less talked about palliative care movement that has seen a remarkable progress spreading across the state in a short period of time, enlisting thousands of volunteers to care for the terminally ill and those in pain. These groups and movements stand apart from others owing allegiance to political parties who are compelled to act in consonance with party-political exigencies and interests. While it would indeed be wrong to characterize them being against the interests of the common people, since their base consists of ordinary people as peasants, workers, students, teachers, traders and so on, nevertheless, they have a greater compulsion to work for sectional interests, thus limiting their energies and the now forgotten larger social commitments cutting across sectional interests and benefits. This, of course, is a form of degeneration of the conventional political framework in an electoral democratic polity that increasingly gives undue weightage to lobbying and sectional interests over society-wide and long-term issues where the benefits cannot be measured, let alone partitioned.


The situation is often one of competing dilemmas and there is no easy way out. It calls for informed discussion in the public domain and a churning of thoughts and actual experimentation that could help develop a societal consensus on basic developmental issues. One such thought-experiment is what M.P. Parameswaran calls ‘daring to dream’. There is no Kerala exceptionalism here. The specificities of contemporary Kerala are nothing but a regional variation of a national dilemma.



1. I have characterized this as a case of ‘virtuous cycle of growth’ arising out of the initial focus on human development. See, K.P. Kannan, ‘From Human Development to Economic Growth: Kerala’s Turnaround in Growth Powered by Human Development, Remittances and Reform’, in A. Vaidyanathan, and K.L. Krishna (eds.), Institutions and Markets in India’s Development: Essays for K.N. Raj. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007.

2. See Sunil Mani and M. Arun, ‘Liberalisation of Technical Education in Kerala: Has Higher Enrolment Led to a Larger Supply of Engineers?’ Economic and Political Weekly 47(21), 26 May 2012.

3. Figure supplied by K. Pushpangadan from his ongoing work.