“Kerala’s achievements have been produced by a redistribution of wealth brought about by the organized strength and militant activity of poor people allied with committed and often self-sacrificing radicals from higher-income groups” (Franke and Chasin, 1994).
A historical background of the state is required in order to understand the nature of this social development in Kerala. When colonial rule prevailed in India, the Malayalam speaking areas were under three different rules: Malabar, which was annexed by the British after defeating Tipu Sultan in 1792 and Travancore and Cochin princely states under indirect British rule. When the state of Kerala was formed on November 1st, 1956 according to linguistic considerations by combining these three regions, they were at differential stages of development because of the differences in agrarian relations, land tenure systems and the related caste systems prevalent in each of these regions.
Malabar was a neglected outpost of Madras, on which the British spent little beyond the requirements of law and order. In contrast the Travancore and Cochin governments actively stimulated agriculture, commerce, and industry, built roads and canals, founded schools, colleges, and hospitals, and in the 1930s jointly modernized the port of Cochin (Nossiter, 1982).
Agrarian and Land Tenancy Relations
Until the early 18th century, agrarian relations in Travancore and Malabar were pretty much the same before Malabar was conquered by the Mysoreans. Successive kings implemented policies that concentrated the land ownership in the hands of the government. By the Royal Proclamation of 1865, those tenants who cultivated in these lands were granted ownership rights. It strengthened the fiscal powers of the Travancore state. There was a similar proclamation in Cochin in 1909 that was not quite as expansive as only around 40 percent of the land was under government control. The rest of the land was under the control of Hindu landlords called jenmis as in Malabar but the tenants in Cochin were better off due to the industrial outlet provided by the port of Cochin. Since the British took control over Malabar in 1792, a land settlement system was established that favoured the jenmis. The tenants were eventually reduced to mere agricultural labourers. Thus, the directly British ruled area of Malabar was much worse off than the native states of Travancore and Cochin.
According the Census of 1891, Malabar had a higher sex ratio than Travancore and Cochin. 19th century observers of population data attributed the preference for girls to the matrilineal system that was prevalent among the major communities like Nairs, Syrian Christians and certain sections of Muslims. The more drastic declines in infant mortality rates, birth rates, death rates and fertility rates is associated with post-independent reforms.
Kerala is described as a unique case among developing countries as it is a society where ‘the health and demographic transitions have been achieved within a single generation’, that is after the formation of the Kerala state (Krishnan, 1991). Better child health and higher levels of female education are among those important reasons for Kerala’s low and declining birth rate and the general acceptance of a small family norm (Caldwell, 1985). In the late 50s and early 60s, there was a rapid decline in infant mortality rates associated with better healthcare facilities in Malabar. In the 70s, there was a further decline associated with improved pre-natal and post-natal care and more institutional childbirths (Zachariah, 1992).
Education and Social Reforms
Literacy and education are crucial features to the success of the Kerala economy. Female literacy particularly played a huge role in terms of the demographic features of the state. Traditionally, Kerala had a system of village schools that only catered to the Brahmins and certain privileged high caste Nairs. The first whiff of modern education came through the Christian missionaries that set up schools in Southern Kerala in the native state of Travancore. These missionaries also engaged in large scale conversions of lower caste Hindus that account for the higher than average Christian population in the state today compared to that of India as a whole. In 1817, a proclamation was made in Travancore that supported state funded education which called for malayalam based schools as a competitor to the church run schools. During the 1800s, colonial interests prevailed and more and more government aided private English schools were set up which were more in number than the public schools. Even in the latter part of the 19th century, a significant part of the lower castes and women were excluded from this education drive.
The caste system in India is one of the major reasons for the perpetuity of inequality in terms of distribution of wealth. Kerala had one of the most elaborate caste structures among all regions in India. 19th century social reformer Swami Vivekananda once referred to Kerala as ‘a madhouse of caste’. But with active social reform movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries, caste restraints in government schools were removed and in 1908, Cochin started providing free education in malayalam (Bello, 1994).
Gross violations to the dignity of life were opposed by social reformers like Ayyankali and Sri Narayana Guru. Ayyankali was responsible for the upliftment of the Pulayans, a category of people considered as untouchables by upper-caste Hindus. Sri Narayana Guru prompted the Ezhavas who were slightly above the Pulayans in the casteist ladder. The Pulayans and the Ezhavas combined to form almost 30% of the population in the early 20th century and eventually the state had to relent in terms of opening access to education. These social reform movements were strongly influenced by the communist movement in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Social reformers worked with trade unions and promoted education and literacy which they thought were the only ways through which the caste barriers in the Hindu religion could be broken. The Chengannoor struggle of 1917, the Vaikkom satyagraha of 1924 and the Temple Entry Proclamation in 1936 were some of the major campaigns against upper caste dominance in all spheres of life. After the temple entry struggles, there were more alliances between the leftists and the lower castes. It was the leftists in the state that argued and protested vehemently against the injustice meted out to the lower castes in the state during India’s struggle for independence.
The government that came to power in Kerala in 1957 was also the first democratically elected communist government in India. They played a major role in initiating reforms in the post-independence era, the most important being in the sphere of agrarian reforms. The Land Reforms Ordinance which was passed as a prelude to the Agrarian Relations Bill to prevent the big landlords and vested interests from resorting to illegal practices in evicting tenants, debt relief legislation, another legislation to reduce exploitation through private money lending, vigorous drive to increase agricultural production, a new police policy that set a trend for eventual changes in police policies in many other states, introduction of ‘fair price shops’ for the supply of rice at cheap rates for the needy, democratic decentralization of power were only some of the many reform measures in the short time period of two years that they were in power before the government was dismissed by the President in 1959. Many studies commend the first communist government so much that sometimes they neglect the fact that Kerala was already ahead of all the other states in the country at the time of independence.
As mentioned before, there are three broad reasons why Kerala’s position was much better off than the other states. They are the autonomy of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin which enabled native rulers to spend on education and health during the colonial period, social and religious reform movements during the later part of the 18th and 19th centuries and the existence of matrilineal family organization that contributed to women empowerment (Sen, 1992).
The post-independence reforms in Kerala were those that had a policy bias towards active state intervention. One consequence of this kind of development is the over-emphasis on politics and the excessive reliance on the state to achieve economic goals. The pattern of state, politics and society may have undermined the autonomy and rationality of institutions of civil society (Tharamangalam, 1997). Civil society which earlier focused on self-help and local resource mobilization now resorts to agitations which are not always democratic and peaceful. It has led to a culture of hartals that constantly plagues the state. District and state level hartals in Kerala have lead to significant losses of the numbers of work days in a year. The industrial sector has failed to attract investments in the past decade primarily due to this factor. Vested interests have also led to factionalism in party politics that fail to recognize collective long term goals. The successive state governments since the 1980s have been unable to secure the interests of the state vis-à-vis the central government as every five years since the assembly elections in 1982 have seen a regime change without any of them winning a consecutive term.
Since the 1970s, politics in Kerala has been dominated by two fronts: the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Indian National Congress. The terms left and right are more generic than with reference to a particular ideology. The left can usually include social democrats, socialists, communists, anarchists, etc. The left traditionally favours policies that are biased towards liberty, equality and fraternity. They believe in the active role of government in the form of a welfare state benefiting the working class especially the marginalized sections. But in a democracy, no socialist political program has ever won more than 50 per cent of votes without diluting its base and forging coalitions (Przeworski and Sprague, 1986). So, the LDF in Kerala has more than often formed alliances with parties on the ‘other side of the fence’.
Right wing politics traditionally favours conservativism. They believe in maintaining status-quo, individualism, profit maximization and in pro free market policies. In India, however the views of the Indian National Congress (INC) were the product of Nehruvian socialism which was inspired by Soviet Communism. Post-Nehru era saw the INC turn towards more neo-liberal policies which promoted development in terms of economic growth and GDP. The very same INC had a strong presence in Kerala since the 1930s. Many of the early communist leaders in Kerala were socialist sympathizers in the Congress.
Most of the major political parties except for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be categorized either into the LDF or UDF. As mentioned earlier, political parties in Kerala are known for its factionalist tendencies. So, in a number of cases, it is possible to find a splinter group from INC joining the LDF while a splinter group from one of the socialist or communist parties joins the UDF during election time. But for the purpose of classifying regimes as right or left, the criterion chosen here would be the number of seats won by a party in a particular coalition. For instance, if in a particular year, a coalition wins 80 out of the total 140 assembly seats and in that particular coalition, if a majority of seats is won by traditionally non-right parties, the coalition will be referred to as a left regime.
The major question to be asked here is the regarding the growth of the Kerala economy given the political scenario in the state. The constant regime changes make it impossible to pursue long term interests. A bi polar democracy can be harmful. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, ‘one builds and the other destroys’. Another demerit is that political parties can relegate policy issues to the background and adopt populist measures to gather mass support. The last state budget was proof of unwarranted social expenditures without any fiscal considerations. The condition of state public sector enterprises and post-higher secondary education is also further proof of the excessive politics and bureaucracy that have crept into the state machinery.