Poor but Prosperous

Poor but Prosperous

SOURCE: The Atlantic, September 1998


A FIFTH of the world’s people live on a dollar a day. More than a third are illiterate, and more than a hundred million have no access to basic health care, sanitation, or education. They make up a worldwide underclass whose continued deprivation defies the global rush toward prosperity that has otherwise defined much of this century. Today in the West and in parts of Asia living standards are at unprecedentedly high levels, but for 80 percent of the world’s people, that prosperity remains elusive: they continue to earn less than 20 percent of the world’s income.

Paradoxically, if there is hope for these people, perhaps it is to be found in a sliver of a state, 24,000 square miles, on the southwest coast of India — one of the poorest countries in the world. That state, Kerala, is poor even by Indian standards. The gross domestic product per capita is just $1,000 a year — some $200 less than the Indian average, and about one twenty-sixth of the American figure. Houses in Kerala are small; clothes are simple and unadorned. For most of Kerala’s 33 million citizens life appears to be governed by the narrow circumscriptions of agriculture. Yet consider the following:

  • Life expectancy in Kerala is seventy-two years, which is closer to the American average of seventy-six than to the Indian average of sixty-one.
  • The infant-mortality rate in Kerala is among the lowest in the developing world — roughly half that in China, and lower than that in far richer countries such as Argentina and Bahrain.
  • Population, too, is under control in Kerala. The fertility rate is just 1.7 births per woman — lower even than Sweden’s or America’s.
  • What is perhaps most impressive is that 90 percent of Keralites are literate — a figure that puts the state in a league with Singapore and Spain. Children in Kerala are likely to beg for pens, not money. Schools — their classrooms clean, well-maintained, and filled with students in brightly colored uniforms — are found seemingly every few miles throughout the state.These are all indications of a way of life one would expect to find only in parts of the industrialized world — not in a state whose per capita income is lower than that of Cambodia or Sudan. But Kerala is more than just proof that even the poorest of societies can attain a decent standard of living: it also challenges the prevailing view that quality of life is best measured by per capita income. In recent years that orthodoxy has increasingly come under assault by a group of economists and social scientists who would like to see the narrow concept of economic development replaced with a broader notion of social, or human, development. For this group — the driving force behind an annual Human Development Report published by the United Nations — health, literacy, and freedom from discrimination are as necessary to a good life as is material wealth. Amartya Sen, a leading economist who has drawn attention to Kerala, has argued that the success and failure of development efforts cannot be judged merely in terms of income and output. “What ultimately matters,”he has written, “is the nature of the lives people can or cannot lead.”LEGEND has it that Kerala was created when a Hindu god, Parasurama, threw his ax into the ocean and lifted a new territory from the sea. Today, as I have found on three visits, the state does seem to be made of matter different from its surroundings. Much of Tamil Nadu, the state to the east, with which Kerala shares its longest border, is virtually a desert: a flat, sweltering scrubland. The earth is parched, cracked like the hooves of the meager cows that scavenge for upturned roots; the shrubs are denuded, their bare stalks pointing to the skies like arthritic hands.

    From Tamil Nadu, Kerala first appears as a distant series of incisions in the skyline. These are the peaks of the Western Ghats, a mountain range that stands as sentinel to a state as gentle and welcoming as Tamil Nadu is harsh and unforgiving. Lush plantations of cardamom, pepper, rubber, and tea spread over sloping valleys; the green and fertile countryside is home to dozens of rivers and is crisscrossed by a network of shallow canals known as the backwaters. In southern Kerala thin-bottomed boats on the backwatersserve as an informal public-transportation system, offering a quiet alternative to the lunatic buses that prowl the highways. One can catch a boat from almost any village; the ride reveals a lazy landscape of red-tiled houses amid paddies, leafy banana trees, and Kerala’s ubiquitous coconut trees.

    Kerala’s geographic difference is matched by its striking social and political difference from the rest of India. Whereas most of the country appears constantly ready to crumble under religious factionalism, Kerala’s sizable Muslim and Christian minorities co-exist peacefully with Hindus, as they have for centuries. Likewise, at a time when India is refashioning itself in the image of American-style capitalism, Kerala remains unabashedly communist, a bastion of militant trade unions and five-year economic plans. Everywhere in Kerala are signs of its anachronistic ideology: roads are littered with small paper flags bearing the hammer and sickle; walls are plastered with portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara. Once, when the car in which I was traveling broke down, I found myself outside a mechanic’s shop encouragingly named Lenin Auto Parts.

    In Trivandrum, the mellow state capital, which spreads over seven hills, I paid a visit to C. P. Narayan, a prominent member of Kerala’s largest Communist party. His office was opposite the party headquarters, a hideous slab of concrete, like something out of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Bucharest.

    Narayan is not a happy man these days. As the monsoon rains buffeted his windows, and as aides shuffled in and out with papers for him to sign, he railed against global capitalism and India’s program of economic liberalization, adopted in 1991. Kerala, he told me, has no place for the modern industries that are setting up shop all around the country. “What is being done,” he shouted over the downpour, “is being done at the expense of many.” Waving a copy of The Economist that contained a story on the Asian economic crisis, he added, “What we find is that nation-states are being run roughshod over.” When I expressed surprise that he should be reading the staunchly free-market British publication, Narayan responded with a comment straight from the trenches of the Cold War. “Of course I read it,” he said, chuckling. “We should know what our enemy really thinks and is really planning.”

    Officials like Narayan have governed Kerala on and off since 1957, when Communists were first elected to the state legislature — the first time that a Marxist government was brought to power democratically anywhere in the world. These people have been responsible for both the worst and the best of Keralan development. The state’s poverty can be traced to their strident anti-capitalism: Kerala has an abundance of natural resources, but industries have largely stayed away, for fear of the state’s difficult trade unions, pro-union courts, and high minimum wages. The consequence has been one of India’s highest unemployment rates — as high as 25 percent, by some estimates — and an economy marked by large budget deficits. But if Kerala’s Communists have failed to spur economic growth, they have been singularly successful at implementing development through redistribution. Perhaps more than anything else, the state’s high standard of living is a story about equal standards of living. This egalitarianism is primarily attributable to three policies enacted by the political leadership: a generous minimum wage; one of the best distribution systems in the country, leading to a network of shops that sell everything from rice to batteries at subsidized prices; and a land-reform program, legislated by Communists in the 1960s and accompanied by tremendous social upheaval. The last, an ambitious project that abolished landlordism and handed property to 1.5 million former tenants, has been the most important: crops grown on redistributed land ensure Keralites a basic income that shields them from absolute destitution.

    THE changes wrought by the Communists reveal a recurring Keralite willingness to upset the existing social order — a tendency that can be traced back at least as far as the early nineteenth century, when the rulers of two southern parts of the state enacted a series of reforms that curtailed the power of the upper castes and of feudal lords. At about the same time, a series of protests by the lower castes initiated a period of drastic social reform.

    Until then Kerala had had one of India’s most rigorous and complex social hierarchies, prompting the nineteenth-century Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda to label the state “a madhouse of caste.” But toward the middle of the century untouchables and other low-castes began demanding the right to education and access to temples, among other things. Their struggle was remarkably successful. Although isolated cases of discrimination remain, in no other part of India has untouchability — that “blot on Hinduism,” as Gandhi famously called it — been so thoroughly expunged from the fabric of social life.

    It is hard to pin down the origins of Kerala’s tendency to reconceptualize itself. One might begin, though, by visiting the city of Cochin, a ten-hour drive along the coast from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. A mainland city also encompassing a number of islands, this “Venice of India” is home to one of the country’s busiest ports. For centuries its narrow channel to the Arabian Sea has served as a gateway to trade with lands as varied as China, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, and Holland. Today the streets of Cochin reflect a remarkable confluence of cultures. Along the shore, fishermen in loincloths make their living with funnel-shaped nets suspended from intricate wooden structures, a method imported by Chinese merchants in the thirteenth century. Inland, adjoining the Dutch villas that are home to Cochin’s elite, is a church built by Franciscan friars in 1503. Deep within the city’s labyrinth of sinuous alleyways is a synagogue, established by a Jewish community whose roots stretch back some 2,000 years.

    The ships that harbored at Cochin came in search of gems, tea leaves, spices, and rare Keralan teakwood, which is said to have been used to build the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. “Here … it has sometimes happened,” a sixteenth-century Portuguese sailor exulted, “that a handful of pearls has been given in exchange for a bell or a looking glass.” Such commercial exchanges were accompanied by a robust traffic in ideas. Merchants and sailors brought with them not just the baubles of Western fashion but also the latest intellectual currents and religious teachings. The result is a remarkably outward-looking culture, receptive to new ways of understanding the world, and prone to bouts of self-reinvention. “Ideas, wherever they are generated, are available for public consumption,” I was told by P. V. Venkateswaran, a Keralan activist and teacher. “New trends and tendencies have influence in the public sphere.”

    It is this cultural porousness that must take much of the credit for Kerala’s open-mindedness. In contrast to the rest of India, with its history of invasions and foreign occupation, Kerala has been exposed to the outside world primarily through trade and missionary activity. When newness has come to the state, it has come as an unthreatening insight or idea, as a friend. And Keralites have repeatedly responded in kind, assimilating foreign notions to strengthen the best indigenous traits. Thus the Brahminical respect for education, for instance, was initially extended to the lower castes by Christian missionaries, whose schools were open to all sectors of society. Likewise, Kerala’s reformist rulers were inspired in part by liberal notions of good governance that were just then becoming popular in the West: among the policies they instituted were the abolition of slavery and the adoption of Western-style judicial processes.

    TODAY one has only to visit a village tea shop for confirmation of Kerala’s continuing openness to new ideas. Here, under dilapidated thatched roofs, seated on splintered wooden benches, and sipping from cracked cups, Keralites congregate throughout the day. The scene is a vivid enactment of Venkateswaran’s “public sphere.” The conversation is lively and the debate heated, often centering on the contents of a newspaper passed from customer to customer. (Kerala has the highest per capita consumption of newspapers in India.) No subject is too rarefied for these impromptu seminars; Venkateswaran told me that he has participated in discussions on the postmodern tendencies of Keralan film. And, indeed, in bookstores in Trivandrum I found shelves stacked with titles like Text/Countertext,Intimations of Post-Modernity, and The Spectre of Hegel.

    The scene at the tea shop is repeated throughout Kerala, in a host of clubs, groups, and associations that clutter the Keralan social landscape. “The state has a remarkable civicness, a great associational life,” says Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist who teaches at Columbia. He likens Kerala to the America observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century — a nation filled with “associations … of a thousand kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

    In towns and villages, hanging from the tiled roofs of otherwise nondescript houses, one sees signs advertising soccer clubs, film clubs, and youth clubs — all providing occasions for the kind of interaction conducted in tea shops. Nearly every village has a public library, another hub of social life. And overtly political associations, activist groups dedicated to social reform, exist to an extent unparalleled elsewhere in India. Membership in some of these organizations can number in the tens of thousands; for many Keralites, belonging to these groups seems almost a civic obligation.

    The result is a sort of activist democracy, in which well-informed citizens know their rights and feel empowered to take matters into their own hands. Kerala is a proud state, devoid of the self-abasement that so often comes with poverty. Beggars are rare. Women in Kerala will look one in the eye; there is little of that socially conditioned demureness one finds in the rest of India. Less pleasant, but indicative of the same qualities, is the fact that shopkeepers and hotel clerks can be astoundingly rude: service is not a notion that comes easily to the Keralite laborer.

    It is, in fact, this refusal to serve that is at the root of strikes by disgruntled workers that often shut down the state. But the same spirit of entitlement has been the engine of Kerala’s development. Change has come to Kerala in waves, in the form of popular movements that have bypassed — and, it might be added, achieved more than — the ballot box and other traditional methods of effecting political change. In the nineteenth century lower-caste protests electrified the state; in the middle of this century the land-reform movements galvanized Keralan society.

    Then, in 1989, Kerala’s activist organizations kicked off a widespread campaign for total literacy. Over a three-year period more than 350,000 volunteers fanned out across the state, taking their blackboards and textbooks to fishing villages, city slums, and remote tribal areas. In the streets and in the fields the volunteers staged plays that adapted scenes from traditional myths and everyday life to spark popular enthusiasm. Classes were conducted outdoors, under shady trees, or in the single-room houses of villagers. Elias John, an Indian filmmaker who produced a television series on the campaign, compared its spirit for me to that of “a freedom struggle.”

    Like land reform, literacy changed Kerala by instilling self-reliance in ordinary citizens. The earlier movement had guaranteed a degree of financial security; the literacy campaign provided a measure of psychological security. Adult students newly inducted into the ranks of the literate described themselves to John as having overcome a handicap. Some said they had joined classes so that they would be able to read their children’s letters, others so that they would be able to read bus signs and make their way from place to place without assistance.

    The new self-confidence had a more public face, too. According to John, one of the most memorable moments in the campaign occurred when a group of neo-literates, led by a handicapped Muslim girl named Rabia, demanded — and got — a road and streetlights for their village. In the district-assembly headquarters on the outskirts of Ernakulam, Sulekha Sasidharan, a district-assembly leader, told me that since the campaign women have become more involved in village assemblies. “Women come and take far more interest,” she said. “Especially now that they are educated, they are more concerned about their children’s welfare.” Others I talked to in Kerala confirmed that the literacy campaign has greatly increased women’s participation in public life — an impressive achievement in a country not otherwise distinguished for the emancipation of women.

    ON one of my last days in Kerala, during a sweltering afternoon of low gray skies and oppressive humidity, I visited a Keralan rarity: an industrial complex, a sprawling landscape of factories and assembly plants at the edge of the town of Kalamaserry. It was not a pretty sight. The land was arid; a sulfuric stench hung in the air. Instead of gently swaying coconut trees, I confronted a line of billowing chimneys whose exhaust seemed to feed the gray skies.

    At a tannery in the complex I got some insight into the conditions that have kept industry out of most of Kerala. For more than two hours one of the five directors of the tannery lamented the tribulations of working with overeducated and overly assertive laborers, speaking of strikes and aggressive demands for better working conditions. “These people … ” he said. “Their blood is polluted.” In other states, he told me, workers hunch over and “beg for work,” but in Kerala they always want more.

    This company director is luckier than many other Keralan businessmen: after a lengthy court battle he was allowed to import his labor force from out of state. Still, he told me, pointing to a water-treatment facility bordering the company compound, his troubles are not over. Once a month state government inspectors visit the facility, armed with a zealousness that he never encountered in Tamil Nadu, China, or Taiwan — all places he has worked before.

    As I was about to leave, I asked the director if he really felt so unfortunate to be living in an educated state that cares about its environment. He shrugged his shoulders, wiped the sweat from his brow, and uttered something between a laugh and a sigh. “It’s a good place to live,” he said, “but a tough place to do business.”

    The trouble for Kerala is that in a changing India, doing business is increasingly important. And as the socialist era comes to an end across the nation, Kerala’s resistance to modern industry may prove to be an unsustainable indulgence. For years the state’s economy has hobbled along on one leg — the agricultural sector. That sector, I was told by Michael Tharakan, a historian at the Center for Development Studies, in Trivandrum, has been supported in large part by national tariffs that have raised the prices of imported crops. (The state’s economy has also been bolstered by the remittances sent home by Keralites who work abroad, particularly in the Persian Gulf.) “In a way,” Tharakan said, “Kerala is being sustained by favorable terms of trade.”

    But Kerala does not exist in a vacuum. And as economic liberalization takes hold, tariffs are being lowered. Other states have dealt with the demise of a subsidized economy by turning to free-market enterprise and wooing multinational industries. Driving from Tamil Nadu, for instance, I passed a large Pepsi bottling plant and a gargantuan factory being built by Ford in collaboration with the Indian automotive company Mahindra.

    Whether Kerala will have to adopt similar measures is a matter of real concern in the state. Newspapers are filled with stories about cheap Guatemalan cardamom and Philippine coconut oil; even C. P. Narayan, that dyed-in-the-wool Communist, admitted that the state might accept some degree of industrialization — though he hastened to add that Kerala would opt only for “labor-intensive industries.”

    Yet even as the Keralan model runs the risk of being steamrollered by a changing Indian economy, it may still prove to be valuable to that economy. Fifty years ago, in a speech celebrating the country’s newly acquired independence, the nation’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, exhorted his listeners to work on ending “poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” Today his speech is widely remembered (it was broadcast last year to mark India’s half century of independence), but its idealistic goals remain dismally unrealized. Nehru set out to achieve his goals with an ambitious agenda that focused on developing heavy industry and fostering economic self-reliance. Now, as the nation searches for a new development model, Kerala suggests an alternative — one that not only emphasizes economic growth but also recognizes the importance of an equitable distribution of resources, an open-minded, socially engaged population, and a certain degree of enlightened governance.

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