With roots in democratic socialism, how the 'Kerala model' ranks well-being above wealth for its people

How did Kerala become a model for development and social reform? The answer lies in its several movements that worked in tandem over a period of time, slowly eroding the old unjust power structures, and working towards establishing a more equitable society.

Gita Aravamudan May 08, 2020 09:55:14 IST
With roots in democratic socialism, how the 'Kerala model' ranks well-being above wealth for its people

Three things about Kerala struck me when I landed there in 1970. The intense greenery, the uniform cleanliness, and the sight of my neighbourhood coconut-plucker sitting in the tea-shop every day, reading the newspaper and discussing politics.

For the next 20 years I lived in Trivandrum, which was a state capital like no other. A beautiful town that was not exactly a town because it had paddy fields running through it, interspersed with little rivulets, canals, and coconut groves. I soon realised that the houses, coconut groves and paddy fields were woven into the scenery of the state, and they stretched almost seamlessly right across, blurring the urban-rural divide. Also, like my neighbourhood coconut-plucker, everyone was politically aware and had a voice and an opinion. The Satyagraha gate at the Trivandrum Secretariat on the Main Road was testimony to that. Fishermen, coir factory workers, head-load workers…there was always a group agitating there. And many of them came from communities who were once marginalised.

It took me quite a while to understand the dynamics of this sliver of densely populated land at the very tip of the Indian peninsula. Winds from different countries had blown over it from times immemorial. Arabs and Jewish settlers, and an original Apostle of Christ had introduced Islam and Christianity and Judaism here long, long ago. All of them had coexisted peacefully with Hinduism for centuries.

Portuguese, French, Dutch and Chinese who came for trade had left their mark on the land.

There were, however, contradictions. On the one hand, the powerful and wealthy Nairs, who were a marital community, had matrilineal families, and on the other the Namboodiri Brahmins and the Syrian Christians were major land owners, following a patrilineal system. Even until the beginning of the 20th century it was a society with a most rigid and unjust caste system that denied lower castes basic rights. Power lay mostly in the hands of the landowners who were the feudal lords before whom the lower castes had to crouch out of sight.

So, how did such a society become a model for development and social reform? There were many movements that worked in tandem over a period of time, slowly eroding the old unjust power structures, and worked towards establishing a more equitable society. There were Communist governments that legislated radical reforms. Christian Missionaries preached equality, and set up schools and educational institutions in the state.  There were activists and social reformers who broke caste barriers and led their people out of bondage. There was also a benign royalty invested in the welfare of its people rather than its own pomp and grandeur.

With roots in democratic socialism how the Kerala model ranks wellbeing above wealth for its people

A free medical camp organised as part of the Public Information Campaign on Bharat Nirman, at Piravom, Kerala, in 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

Sri Narayana Guru, the Ezhava saint, was born in 1855 at a time when social discrimination against lower castes was at its peak in Kerala. He sought to break the stranglehold of upper castes over religion and social life. Ezhavas and Thiyas were considered lower caste and just one step above Pulayars and Parayars who were considered “untouchable”. Narayanan Guru preached unity of humanity irrespective of caste or religion. His saying: “One Caste, One Religion, One God for All" ("Oru Jathi, Oru Matham, Oru Daivam, Manushyanu") captures his philosophy. He established schools and worked as a teacher, managing to get the schools to open their doors to Ezhava children.

The famous Vaikom Satyagraha that paved the way for the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 issued by the young Travancor Maharaja, Sri Chitra Tirunal, is said to have been triggered when this much revered Guru was denied entry into one of the roads flanking the temple over of his caste.

Ayyankali, a contemporary of Narayana Guru, was a Pulayar rebel and reformer. In 1893, he dressed like an upper caste Nair and rode his own ox-cart through a public road, thus defying many of the bans related to clothing, ownership of property, and access to public spaces faced by Avarnas. This is celebrated as one of the major achievements in the history of Dalit movements in Kerala. Though Pulayars gained the right to access roads, temples and schools were still out of bounds. Ayyankali was himself illiterate, but he fought to get children from his caste admitted to schools, and even attempted to raise money and set up schools for these children.

The first chief minister of Kerala who took his oath in 1957 was the iconic Communist party leader EMS Namboodiripad, a Brahmin who had rejected his orthodox roots. It was the first time in India (and perhaps in the world) that a communist leader was democratically voted into power.

EMS, as he was popularly known, was an idealist. He had a short tenure of a little over two years during his first term. But within that period, he introduced many radical reforms. Soon after he was sworn in, he introduced the revolutionary Land Reforms Ordinance. This was, however, rejected by the Supreme Court; so was the education bill that sought to regulate the functioning of schools. The attempt to get these bills passed triggered off an anti-communist movement known as the 'Vimochana Samaram' or Liberation Movement, leading to the collapse of the first government.

It was only in 1970, under the government formed by another CPI leader, Achutha Menon, that the historic Agrarian Reforms Bill was finally passed. This served as a death knell for the existing exploitative feudal system. The Agrarian Reforms Bill conferred ownership rights on land to all tenants, including sharecroppers. A ceiling on land ownership was fixed. Surplus land taken from landlords was distributed to the landless poor. EMS himself gave away many acres of his inherited land. Though the education bill was never successfully passed, its suggestions were incorporated in other legislation pertaining to education. And the fire had been lit.

Achutha Menon was the best loved and longest serving chief minister of Kerala. Among other things, he established several centers of excellence, like the Centre for Development Studies, and the Sri Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Science and Technology. He also introduced some innovative projects like the One Lakh Housing Scheme, for which he roped in the renowned architect Laurie Baker, known for his low-cost, environment-friendly housing.

Another path-breaking project that came later was the Kerala Literacy Mission started in 1998. Its slogan was “Education for all and education forever”. The program, which is fully funded by the state government, goes beyond just providing teaching basic literacy skills. Its stated objectives include creating awareness about environmental concerns and women’s equality, and also disseminating information on development programs to deprived sections of society.

Healthcare is another area in which Kerala has shown remarkable success. The state has a better health standard than the rest of the country, with low birth and death rates. The sex ratio at birth is better than that in the the rest of India. The affordable healthcare system that was started in a small way after Kerala was formed has now become better organised. Also, a good network of private hospitals and schools have come up across the state built with remittances from NRIs.

All these seemingly disparate steps have merged over the years to create a society that is vibrant, politically and socially alive. The 'Kerala Model' has its roots in democratic socialism, where the focus is not on generating wealth, but on generating well-being for all.

Many years ago, I interviewed Mohamed Koya who was then briefly the Chief Minister of Kerala. Among other things, I asked him about the success of Kerala’s family planning program.

“It is simple,” he said. “It is because we have so many rivers and so much water.”

“So?” I asked, surprised.

“So everyone is very clean. We all have a bath twice daily. That keeps us very healthy. Children survive better even in poor families because we have good healthcare for all. So, we don’t need to have large families with more children. Everyone is satisfied with just two.”

What sounded naïve and simplistic in 1979 makes so much sense today in a coronavirus-struck world. Bathe regularly. Wash your hands and feet when you enter the house. Wear fresh clothes.

It is also a state with many political and social firsts — the first Indian state to have a coalition government; the first state in the world to have a democratically elected communist government; the first state in India to throw open temples to all castes. It is also one of the first states in the country where political parties with strong communal and religious roots formed coalitions to fight for a common cause.

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