The Draft Human Development Report for Kerala 2005.

Talk at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, August 24, 2005.


I have not been able to read the Report at any length, so these are mostly observations based on my own reading of the Kerala development experience.




It is clear that the high literacy rate in Kerala ought not be taken as a proxy for the quality of the education provided in the State. We get an idea of the true quality of educational training when we ask why there is a substantial cohort of ‘educated unemployed’ in the state. First, Growth Economics has long flagged a direct relation between education and growth. Secondly, a little reflection tells us that the educated are not to be seen solely as human resources to be employed but also as active agents of employment creation. Thus independently of a discussion of the quality of employment in the abstract we may ask whether the educational system in Kerala has given due recognition to entrepreneurship as a desirable capability to be inculcated in our young.


From the point of view of the Report, may I suggest that in future the HDR should actually undertake make an assessment of the quality of education. This is not some hopelessly grey area. Indicators and tests exist. I might mention PISA or Programme for Integrated Student Assessment. It is a test of the knowledge and skills necessary for full participation in society rather mastery of a curriculum. The test is based on Reading, Science and Mathematics. The 2003 test was focused on Mathematics with the problems set in real world situations involving space and shape, change and relationships and quantity and uncertainty. Note that thought developed for the OECD economies the test can be adapted to most cultural contexts, and most certainly for Kerala. PISA has revealed almost as much variation in test scores across countries of the OECD as within. Thus a similar education quality test for Kerala should be able to reveal to us not only how Kerala fares internationally but also how egalitarian is education in Kerala. There are two issues here really. First, if education is the principal means of levelling a society (I hasten to add that `levelling’ does not mean levelling down always) unequal schooling - due to varying educational quality – ensures that you have lost the race even before it has started. Secondly, it is important to re-affirm the rationale of government intervention. I would have thought that the point of intervention is to bring about the highest attainable standards (in case ‘excellence’ induces squeamishness). There is evidence that this is feasible. I take you back to PISA. Finland is the economy that tops the global school table for PISA. It is an economy with substantial government intervention and a relatively egalitarian distribution of income. It is clear that a socialist orientation is compatible with the highest class of educational attainment internationally. The task for Kerala is cut out. Recall that 2006 marks sixty years since the formation of Kerala State. Some of the most sought after schools in New York are public schools and I can personally testify that by the early sixties, which you can see is less than fifty years after the Russian Revolution, schools in the Moscow of the Former Soviet Union were outstanding not only in the quality of their instruction but also in the quality of the carethat they provided. The Russians were fond of saying that though they had abolished class they had not abolished privilege for their children! Surveys of the quality of schooling in Kerala along the lines of the Pratichi Trust reported by Amartya Sen in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ are long overdue. Sen's summary assessment of the condition the government schools of West Bengal is that it is “dismal”.


  • Vocational Training: Government must channel educational demand. Government has been more pro-active re: Information Technology (IITK for instance). It has done less for the semi-skilled who are also from lower income groups.


  • Report does mention Regulation of Higher Education. This is an important point. However remember that government is also in the business of providing higher education. It must set standards. For all their faults, and they are many, IITs and IIMs have done so to some extent.


On the role of the private sector:On a visit to Kerala at the invitation of one of the political parties Bibek Debroy of the Rajiv Gandhi foundation had spoken of the need to allow greater role for the private sector. However, in Kerala the private sector has had a major role. As far as maintaining standards are concerned its contribution has been limited. Part of the reason for this is regulatory failure. For institutions of higher learning that the Kerala Government finances it should have its own accreditation procedures.


            There has been a colossal failure of the state in Kerala when it comes to education. Rife with private commercial interests often masking their avarice behind the veil of caste or religious advancement this sector posses a major threat to the integrity of Kerala society. Government intervention ought not to cease with the implementation of quotas, it ought also to be directed towards the provision of an excellent schooling in a secular environment. 




Three points to note


  1. While the sex ratio is positive for the Kerala economy as a whole this is an average figure concealing a variation across age groups. The juvenile sex  ratio (that is, for the 0-6 years age group) is 963women to 1000 men raising the spectre of sex determination at birth even in this allegedly most political of states.


  1. The 2001 Census points to a lowering of the female work participation rate from 16.6 percent in 1981 to 15.3 in 2001. We find the participation rate declining at a time when female empowerment would require its rising. Traditionally female employment was high in agriculture with certain tasks such as the transplantation of paddy being reserved for women. The decline of paddy cultivation has meant a decline in opportunities for female employment even as we must account for the fact that there has been exit from such labour with social mobility.


  1. The relative high value of indicators of women’s development reported for Kerala must be seen against the poor participation of women in the upper reaches of the governance structure. For instance while the representation of women in the local bodies is over a third it is near absent in the legislature and the administrative and police services. The reasonable representation at the local body level is due to reservation. Perhaps we should consider similar reservation in the state’s legislative assembly.


This section has drawn substantially on ‘Unlearning the lessons in Kerala’ by  Sarita Varma, Financial Express, August 21, 2005 


Natural Capital


There is barely any concern for natural capital in the state. The link between health and the natural environment is often ignored. Note for instance, the Report of the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management, Kozhikode that close to ninety percent of the wells in Kerala are polluted.


It is important to note that a large part of the destruction of the environment is due to consumption as the state is not a major producer of goods. This must be borne in mind for the trade-off is not automatically between employment and the environment in Kerala, as mostly tends to get assumed. The internationally constituted academic concern of whether we are consuming too much in the aggregate (Kenneth Arrow et al. 2004. Are we consuming too much? Journal of Economic Perspectives 18(3):147-172.) is now entirely relevant for Kerala. Clearly there is needed a concerted and publicly-driven effort at conservation.


We need to distinguish between natural capital as an integral part of an economy, vital to its ability to generate wealth in a sustained way, and natural capital as an exploitable resource. When I speak of the latter I refer to the exhortation to preserve the natural environment as a bait for tourists, a view often articulated by government agencies. While this is by no means unreasonable, we underestimate the extent to which the economy’s future more generally is related to natural capital the role of which ranges from the production of biomass to the provision of inputs to the production of goods.