The Enigma of Kerala

One state in India is proving development experts wrong

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Kerala (pronounced ker'uh luh) , a state of 29 million people in southern India, is poor--even for India--with a per capita income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and $350 a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical Keralite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench, and a few stools in their homes. No beds--that was the sum of their possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and cots, and 19 percent owned a table. In five households he discovered cushioned seats.

But here is the odd part.

  • The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a Keralite male is 70.
  • After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate. Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as high in Kerala as in Kansas.
  • Kerala's birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with 16 per thousand in the United States--and is falling faster.

Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that may have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit that is often described as out of control. But these are the kinds of problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the squalid drama of the Third World--the beggars reaching through the car window, the children with distended bellies, the baby girls left to die.

In countries of comparable income, including other states of India, life expectancy is 58 years, and only half the people (and perhaps a third of the women) can read and write; the birth rate hovers around 40 per thousand. Development experts use an index they call PQLI, for 'physical quality of life index,' a composite that runs on a scale from zero to a hundred and combines most of the basic indicators of a decent human life. In 1981, Kerala's score of 82 far exceeded all of Africa's, and in Asia only the incomparably richer South Korea (85), Taiwan (87), and Japan (98) ranked higher. And Kerala kept improving. By 1989, its score had risen to 88, compared with a total of 60 for the rest of India. It has managed all this even though it's among the most densely crowded places on earth--the population of California squeezed into a state the size of Switzerland. Not even the diversity of its population--60 percent Hindu, 20 percent Muslim, 20 percent Christian, a recipe for chronic low-grade warfare in the rest of India--has stood in its way.

It is, in other words, weird--like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich people have fewer children. We know all these things to be true--and yet here is a countercase, a demographic Himalaya suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It's as if someone demonstrated in a lab that flame didn't necessarily need oxygen, or that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry to explain it, a whole new science.

Kerala emerged at the end of the eighth century, when a Hindu monarchy supplanted a looser, feudal structure. The trade contacts of the ancient and early medieval periods--Kerala's cardamom, pepper, turmeric, and other spices were constant attractions (our word ginger derives from a word in the local language, Malayalam)--eventually turned to more modern, and more exploitative, colonial domination. By 1792, the British controlled what is now Kerala, dividing it into three districts. The first hints of singularity came in that colonial era. In the southern two-thirds of the state, the British left the local princes on the throne. Hoping for an agricultural surplus large enough to satisfy both themselves and the British, these rajahs offered tax breaks for the reclamation of swamps and marshes, and they moved to give tenant farmers more control over the land. 'Development policy in the whole world is generally considered to begin in the 1940s,' says historian Michael Tharakan. 'But you can see the roots of it right from the beginning of the 19th century in Kerala.' To conclude, however, that Kerala under the British was becoming an enlightened and democratic place would be a mistake. The tradition of caste, bulwark of the Hindu rulers since the eighth century, was as strong as ever in the nineteenth. At the top of the heap were the Namboodiri Brahmins, followed by the Nairs--soldiers and administrators--and various artisanal classes. Below all of them were the Ezhavas, roughly a fifth of the population, who traditionally made their living climbing palms to harvest the coconuts, and the Pulayas, the local untouchables. Within the various castes, innumerable complicated subsets emerged, and the codes of conduct became ever stricter and more degrading over time.