Towards the next Nava Keralam

Compared to a human, a 60-year-old political entity is probably not even mature. Nevertheless 60 years is a long enough slice of its history for an economy.

In 60 years, China has risen from a poor agrarian society to become the powerhouse of the world. Before that, Germany and Japan, which saw a large part of their populations die and wealth irreparably damaged during the Second World War, transformed themselves into manufacturing giants.

Kerala must measure its progress against such heroic transformations. Of course, in some global comparisons, it comes across quite well indeed. For instance, Amartya Sen, who popularised Kerala’s development experience, has made a most interesting observation.

Five indicators

Taking five indicators of human development, namely, life expectancy for men and women respectively, infant mortality, the fertility rate and the sex ratio, Mr. Sen has shown that Kerala was ahead of China on every indicator, pointing to the extent of human development in the tiny State. This is no small achievement, especially as it was achieved within a democratic framework, in contrast to China, an authoritarian State.

But focusing on social indicators alone has its limitations. It masks two aspects that may matter as much to our evaluation of a development experience. These are how the outcome has been achieved and what has been the cost, both being central to a fuller assessment of a development experience.

Economic dynamism

Upon some reflection, it would come to light that Kerala’s much-vaunted social indicators may have been achieved by plugging into an economic dynamism elsewhere, namely the boom in the Arabian Gulf. Even if this arrangement were to continue, we are left with questions of its desirability.

The countries of the middle-east are mostly kingdoms with scant regard for human rights. Malayalis have been forced to work there under conditions bordering on bondage.

Therefore, narratives of the Kerala development experience that foreground human development indicators without reference to the economic model that has underpinned their attainment can only be partial.

Gulf-driven migration

By now, however, even the continuation of the Gulf-migration-driven economic model is in doubt. Falling oil prices have taken the wind out of the boom. Gulf States are being forced to scale back public expenditure. Growth in the region is bound to slow down for the foreseeable future.

The future of migrant labour in Saudi Arabia was evident even five years ago when the government launched ‘nitaqat’, which is aimed at increasing the employment prospects of Saudi nationals. For Kerala, the writing is on the wall for growth via the export of labour.

Economic outcomes

But the economic outcomes we have observed over the past 60 years are not merely a reflection of some impersonal economic forces working outside of us. Such a view would leave little room for the role of human agency in creating our life world, including the economic environment.

To understand this agency, we must approach the inner life of the Malayali. A short representation of it would be that he or she struggles with an impossible trinity constituted by security, identity and creativity.

Structured social order

Those who have remained in Kerala cling on to a security offered by a benign natural environment and a highly structured social order in which everything is in its place and there is place for everything.

A long coastline and a hoary tradition of sea-faring did bring the great religions of the world. The construction of identity followed the rise of religious diversity as manufacturing difference is the life blood of organised religion.

The biggest casualty of the seeking out of security and the pursuit of a religious identity, intended to enhance one’s sense of security but actually working to weaken it, is the third element of an impossible trinity, which is creativity.

Following one’s creativity requires the individual to leave the comfort of security and abandoning the restrictive bonds of community-based identity to accept a new life. The politics of governance in Kerala may have given fresh lease to the reactionary yearnings for security and identity.


Here, the Left parties have defined their raison d’etre as bringing security to the working class.

If this is Communism, it certainly was not how it was practised in the Soviet Union where the workers were expected to contribute to the building of a brave new world. Production was central to this idea of communism, and the hammer and the sickle more than the mere symbols they have been reduced to in the tropics.

On the other hand, the Congress, which has cobbled together a coalition of parties of which some are openly sectarian, have given legitimacy to the manufacturers of difference based on religious identity.

A sham secularism is now purveyed, providing an umbrella for religious groups and business interests who influence the governance process and sabotage the common good.

Creativity beckons

Creativity beckons more than ever to Kerala at this juncture when violence has assumed a shocking presence in the public domain.

The State is now known in the country for the violence committed against both humans and animals.

As pointed out by Mr. Sen, attaining human development does not require authoritarianism and neither does social transformation require violence. Land reforms in Kerala may have been more successful as a means to social rather than economic transformation, but were achieved without violence.

Political arguments

Political arguments for the necessity of violence today when most hierarchies have been dissolved are not credible. Though in the first instance violence in a democracy may be seen as a failure of public policy, ultimately it comes to a failure of the imagination.

When directed against political rivals, it only reflects insecurity. When directed against animals, as seen recently in the violent public parading of killed dogs, it only reflects a brutalisation. Genuinely democratic cultures do not tolerate violence.

They find ways of creatively surmounting their challenges.

Ironically, Kerala’s most creative moment may have been when it was yet the imaginary that determined the radical changes that followed. After the 1950s, Kerala has remained mostly in slumber.

To build the next Nava Keralam, we must recover the spirit at her birth. Then people had come together driven by creativity, without the burden of identity, disdainful of their security.