A non-state view of Kerala

 Pulapre Balakrishnan

The Government of Kerala has just concluded an official celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the state’s legislative assembly. In the capital there were photo-exhibitions, speeches and a closing ceremony with the Governor presiding. It could not have missed the citizen’s attention that at least some part of the present government’s enthusiasm was fuelled by the fact that the state’s first ministry was formed by their own united Communist Party of India which was to split into pro-Soviet and pro-Mao factions only later. The focus of the celebration on was on that moment in history.

            Partisanship aside, it is difficult for the citizen to not be inspired by the early days in Kerala. Much is made of the arguable assertion that it was the first instance of a communist government being voted into power. For Indian democracy what is of far greater significance though is the sheer capability of its leadership, headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. It is worth recalling that it had contained C. Achutha Menon, K.R. Gowri, Joseph Mundassery and V.R. Krishna Iyer among others. Namboodiripad himself was Nehru’s intellectual equal and the recognition accorded to Kerala in the comity of Indian states is partly related to the sureness that he had displayed in dealings with Delhi. However, we admire the early leadership of Kerala not merely for the quality of their intellect but also for the sense of purpose that they brought to the task of governance. There had been fresh initiatives in spheres central to the future of the state ranging from education to irrigation. That very few of these initiatives had lasting impact has to do with the inability of the latter-day communists of Kerala to reconcile themselves to creating public assets as opposed to exploiting social cleavage in order to capture the state apparatus. Of course, the state has by now been ruled for an almost equal number of years by a political formation led by the Congress, but its representatives in the state could hardly match either the vision or the energy of their national leadership. 

            1957 was indeed Kerala’s proudest moment and the pride of place in it belongs to the communists. It was in the sphere of land ownership that they were to leave their mark. Within weeks of coming to power the government had legislated the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, the provisions of which are known as “the land reforms”. The three main aspects of this legislation were to restrict the maximum land a family could own, transfer to the tenant land leased-in, and invest agricultural labour with ownership rights over dwellings hitherto occupied on sufferance from the landlord. Reform so radical was unheard of anywhere else in India and has not been matched since. But it was not without consequences that threatened the life of the ministry. Opposition to the policies of the communists was to come from the landed interests and caste and religious organisations that ran educational institutions. An agitation termed ‘Vimochana Samaram’ or ‘liberation struggle’ was launched and a ‘law and order’ problem was manufactured. An opportunity was presented to the central government, which dismissed the ministry invoking Article 356 of the constitution. Moral victory may have been Namboodiripad’s but the event may have affected his poise. He was to return as chief minister within a decade but had little to show for it. His tenure is remembered mainly for truck and barter with the Muslim League which resulted in the carving out of a district defined by religious count. That this happened within two decades of the Partition of India left millions of malayalees who had reposed faith in the communists feeling betrayed. It was left to Achutha Menon to take to fruition the provisions of bill that had ushered in the land reforms.

            Today we are able to see that while the land reforms of Kerala were a defining moment their impact was more social than economic. The section of the agricultural sector addressed in them has decayed. In reviews of the state’s performance this tends to get glossed over. And, from grain to meat the state is supplied by the rest of the India. But socially the impact of the land reforms was salutary. As caste status was closely aligned to land ownership, the re-distribution of land was to have a direct consequence for social relations. Kerala’s transformation in this regard is unparalled and was achieved without bloodshed. In this regard, it serves as a beacon on a hill for the rest of India, leaving for all to notice the irony that it is yet ruled, via representation in parliament, from the most backward parts of this country.

             The economic consequences of the land reforms are more difficult to establish as their final enactment was to coincide with the onset of the Gulf Boom. The latter provided an opportunity for economic migration. As labourers may have owned their dwellings but not the land they tilled an incentive to migrate emerged. Kerala has faced a shortage of manual labour ever since, resulting not merely in the hollowing out of a sector but possibly a permanent alienation of arable. This could perpetuate Kerala’s dependence on the rest of the world for food, a commodity steadily increasing in price. As we have just witnessed the official celebration of sixty years of the state’s legislature, it may be mentioned that there has been no response, whatsoever, from Kerala’s political class to the developments in the food economy. This even after it has become clear that some of the provisions of the land reforms bill may be a hindrance to progress. Instead it has chosen to whinge about the malevolence of a central government refusing to promptly despatch grain for the state’s public distribution system. Kerala’s record of meeting its food requirement is out of line not only in relation to that of the Former Soviet Union and China, societies the communists have always admired, but also to what was achieved by the government of India through the Green Revolution.

            Since the early 1970s, with integration to the Arabian Gulf region, the state’s economy has been tossed about by the currents of globalisation, leaving the political class with barely a grip on its fortunes. Its right wing has merely pandered to special interests in business, of which education has become an arm, and the left wing has multiplied welfare schemes involving disbursal of public money. Over time both the fronts have drifted closer to one another in a bid to come back to power every five years. In the process, the drivers of growth have been stifled. The left has till recently displayed a fierce hostility to private enterprise. Technically speaking, this could have been compensated for by a vigorous public sector. But this was to prove incompatible with pampering of public sector unions for political gain, which made it difficult to extract performance out of the employees. Nothing signals better the raison d’etre of the state’s public sector than the recent instance of a minister nominating his relatives to their headships, the discovery of which led to his ouster.

            Finally, while Kerala has achieved an impressive levelling across social groups, it has been far less succesful when it comes to gender. The unmistakable downward devolution of power among men has not been matched by an increasing presence of women in leadership roles or even just in public spaces. Political parties are uniformly bereft of women in their upper echelons and female labour force participation is low in Kerala compared to Indian states. The failure to empower women equally in the face of a political rhetoric of egalitarianism may not be by default. The formation of a separate trade union by women plantation workers is very likely the result of their marginalisation in the male-dominated mainstream unions of the state. In fact the recent actions of a legislator belonging to the CPM leaves one to wonder if the communist party ever intend to shed their patriarchal mindset. In the context of the official drive to clear the encroachment on the Munnar hills he is reported to have made derogatory remarks on the conduct of representatives women’s union Pengal Othrumai and threatened the public servant who had led the action. The chief minister was muted in his criticism of this legislator who continues to be a minister. The action hardly serves to dispel the perceived that Kerala’s political class is involved in the privatisation of the state’s natural resources.

           A future of uncertainty beckons Kerala. Endowed with thrifty people and a bountiful nature it is far from achieving its potential. The journey to this end depends upon a youth wary of promises of unlimited rights and conscious of the responsibility of offering solutions to their country’s challenges.