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.
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.
Kerala is now less caste-ridden than any spot in the Hindu world; it is a transition more complete than, say, the transformation achieved by the civil rights movement in the American South. Looking backward, it is clear that some of this epic, and mostly peaceful, change can be traced to new economic conditions. As the British and the rajahs pushed cash crops instead of subsistence farming, and as more and more tenant farmers became involved with that market, the need for literacy, for instance, grew, and some of the old customs became financially ruinous.
But a purely economic explanation of singular history is as unsatisfying as calling the Civil War a clash between industrial and agrarian economies. Economic factors are clearer in hindsight; to those who lived through the changes, they seemed much more dramatic and less inevitable. 'The large masses of people accepted caste distinctions as part of the order of things' writes M. K. Sanoo, a Keralite historian. 'Each in his own set place, moving along the orbit of caste, as if it was nature. The men of those days could not even dream that any change was possible.' Even Tharakan, a devout rationalist, says, 'Though these changes had an economic base, they were mediated at the level of ethics, of moral dictums.' Or, in plainer English, Kerala too had its Lincolns, its Martin Luther Kings, and to understand this quick and peaceful miracle--and perhaps to repeat it elsewhere--we need to catch their temper, see the ideas they set loose.
Sri Narayana Guru was born in 1856 to an Ezhava family--in proper holy-guy fashion, in a hut 'but a shade better than a cowshed.' As a young man, he renounced worldly attachments and began to wander, sitting in caves with legs crossed and meditating, fasting, and consorting with lepers. As more people sought him out for healing or advice, he and his disciples felt the need for a regular temple for worshipping Shiva. At a beautiful spot in a river near Aruvippuram, he had his followers build a small canopy of coconut leaves and mango leaves over an altar on a rock jutting out in the water. The year was 1888. 'They improvised lamps with shells and arranged them in rows. They were lighted at dusk and a piper began to play devotional tunes. The whole place was soon filled with pious village folk.' Sri Narayana, who had been sitting apart and meditating all night, stood at midnight and walked into the river. As thousands watched silently ('If silence had music, the atmosphere was filled with it,' wrote one corres ondent) he descended into the river and then reemerged, holding an idol of Shiva. He stood beneath the canopy with it in his arms for three hours, totally lost in meditation, tears flowing down his cheeks. Finally, at three in the morning, he installed the idol on the pedestal.
His action was the Keralite equivalent of overturning the tables of the money changers, or refusing to give up a seat on the bus. From the beginning of time, so far as anyone knew, only Brahmins had ever installed an idol. 'Yet when Swami performed the sacred rite it appeared so natural for him to pick up a small rock and install it.' When Brahmin authorities arrived to question him about his action, he gave an answer that still makes Keralites laugh. 'I have installed only the Ezhava Shiva,' he said, a mockery of caste that undermined its rotten superstructure more than his actual deed.
Caste did not crumble immediately, however. Sri Narayana Guru and many other reformers spent their lives campaigning for more rights--more opportunity, the right to enter and worship at all temples--for the various castes. But all the prosaic struggle for civil rights went on in an atmosphere of spirituality; more than the simple assertion of power by a group too large to be ignored, it was also the assertion of a moral ideal, a view of human dignity against the oppressions both of feudalism and of faith. 'One caste, one religion, one God for man,' was Sri Narayana Guru's rallying cry.
Since oppression and religion were so intertwined in Hindu culture, social progress depended on religious reform, which could only come from religious leaders; there's a sense in which activists like Sri Narayana Guru had to be both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. He knew the freedom struggle was about much more than political independence. When a student of his said once that if all the Indians merely spat at the same time, the Englishmen would be drowned, the swami replied, 'That is true. But the mouth becomes dry on seeing an Englishman.' He was building new people as much as a new politics.
In the morning, every road in Kerala is lined with boys and girls walking to school. Depending on their school, their uniforms are bright blue, bright green, bright red. It may be sentimental to say that their eyes are bright as well, but of all the subtle corrosives that broke down the old order and gave rise to the new Kerala, surely none is as important as the spread of education to an extent unprecedented and as yet unmatched in the Third World.
Though Christian missionaries and the British started the process, it took the militance of the caste-reform groups and then of the budding left to spread education widely. The first great boom was in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in southern Kerala, where the princes acceded to popular demands for ever more schools. When leftists dominated politics in the 1960s, they spread the educational programs into Malabar, the northern state that had been ruled directly by the British, and began granting scholarships to untouchables and tribal peoples. By 1981, the general literacy rate in Kerala was 70 percent--twice the all-India rate of 36 percent. Even more impressive, the rural literacy rate was essentially identical, and female literacy, at 66 percent, was not far behind. Kerala was a strange spike on the dismal chart of Third World literacy.
The government, particularly the leftists who governed for much of the late 1980s, continued to press the issue, aiming for 'total literacy,' usually defined as a population where about 95 percent can read and write. The pilot project began in the Ernakulam region, an area of 3 million people that includes the city of Cochin. In late 1988, 50,000 volunteers fanned out around the district, tracking down 175,000 illiterates between the ages of 5 and 60, two-thirds of them women. The leftist People's Science Movement recruited 20,000 volunteer tutors and sent them out to teach. Within a year, it was hoped, the illiterates would read Malayalam at 30 words a minute, copy a text at 7 words a minute, count and write from 1 to 100, and add and subtract three-digit numbers. The larger goal was to make people feel powerful, feel involved; the early lessons were organized around Brazilian teacher Paolo Freire's notion that the concrete problems of people's lives provide the best teaching material. 'Classes were held in cowsheds, in the open air, in courtyards,' one leader told the New York Times. 'For fishermen we went to the seashore. In the hills, tribal groups sat on rocks. Leprosy patients were taught to hold a pencil in stumps of hands with rubber bands. We have not left anyone out.' For those with poor eyesight, volunteers collected 50,000 donated pairs of old eyeglasses and learned from doctors how to match them with recipients. On February 4, 1990, 13 months after the initial canvass, Indian prime minister V.P. Singh marked the start of World Literacy Year with a trip to Ernakulam, declaring it the country's first totally literate district. Of the 175,000 students, 135,000 scored 80 percent or better on the final test, putting the region's official literacy rate above 96 percent; many of the others stayed in follow-up classes and probably had learned enough to read bus signs. The total cost of the 150 hours of education was about $26 per person.
Organizers knew the campaign was working when letters from the newly literate began arriving in government offices, demanding paved roads and hospitals.
Many people, sincerely alarmed by the world's ever-expanding population, have decided that we need laws to stop the growth, that, sad as such coercion would be, it's a necessary step. And they have some cases to point to--China, for instance, where massive government force probably did manage to contain a population that would otherwise have grown beyond its ability to feed itself. But as that country frees itself from the grip of the communists, the pent-up demand for children may well touch off a massive baby boom. Compulsion 'does not work except in the very short term,' writes Paul Harrison in his book The Third Revolution (Viking Penguin, 1993), and his case in point is India, which tried to raise its rate of sterilization dramatically in the 1970s. To obtain recruits for the 'vasectomy camps' erected throughout the country, the government withheld licenses for shops and vehicles, refused to grant food ration cards or supply canal water for irrigation, and in some cases simply sent the police to round up 'volunteers.' It worked, in a sense: In 1976, 8.3 million Indians were sterilized. But Indira Gandhi lost the next election largely as a result, the campaign was called off, and it was 'ten years before the number of couples using modern contraception rose again to their 1972-73 peaks,' Harrison writes. India's population, which grew by 109 million in the 1960s and 137 million in the 1970s, grew 160 million in the 1980s. That is the population of two Mexicos, or one Eisenhower-era United States.
Kerala--and a scattered collection of other spots around the world, now drawing new attention in the wake of the United Nations' Cairo summit on population--makes clear that coercion is unnecessary. In Kerala the birth rate is 40 percent below that of India as a whole and almost 60 percent below the rate for poor countries in general. In fact, a 1992 survey found that the birth rate had fallen to replacement level. That is to say, Kerala has solved one-third of the equation that drives environmental destruction the world over. And, defying conventional wisdom, it has done so without rapid economic growth--has done so without becoming a huge consumer of resources and thus destroying the environment in other ways.
The two-child family is the social norm here now, said M.N. Sivaram, the Trivandrum--capital of Kerala--representative of the International Family Planning Association, as we sat in his office, surrounded by family-planning posters. 'Even among illiterate women we find it's true. When we send our surveyors out, people are embarrassed to say if they have more than two kids. Seven or eight years ago, the norm was three children and we thought we were doing pretty good. Now it's two, and among the most educated people, it's one.' Many factors contribute to the new notion of what's proper. The pressure on land is intense, of course, and most people can't support huge families on their small parcels. But that hasn't stopped others around the world. More powerful, perhaps, has been the spread of education across Kerala. Literate women are better able to take charge of their lives; the typical woman marries at 22 in Kerala, compared to 18 in the rest of India. On average around the world, women with at least an elementary education bear two children fewer than uneducated women. What's more, they also want a good education for their children. In many cases that means private schools to supplement public education, and people can't afford several tuitions.
Kerala's remarkable access to affordable health care has provided a similar double blessing. There's a dispensary every few kilometers where IUDs and other forms of birth control are freely available, and that helps. But the same clinic provides cheap health care for children, and that helps even more. With virtually all mothers taught to breast-feed, and a state-supported nutrition program for pregnant and new mothers, infant mortality in 1991 was 17 per thousand, compared with 91 for low-income countries generally. Someplace between those two figures--17 and 91--lies the point where people become confident that their children will survive. The typical fertility for traditional societies, says Harrison, is about seven children per woman, which 'represents not just indiscriminate breeding, but the result of careful strategy.' Women needed one or two sons to take care of them if they were widowed, and where child mortality was high this meant having three sons and, on average, six children. In a society where girls seem as useful as boys, and where children die infrequently, reason suddenly dictates one or two children. 'I have one child, and I am depending on her to survive,' said Mr. Sivaram. 'If I ever became insecure about that, perhaps my views would change.'
Kerala's attitude toward female children is an anomaly as well. Of 8,000 abortions performed at one Bombay clinic in the early 1990s, 7,999 were female fetuses. Girl children who are allowed to live are often given less food, less education, and less health care, a bias not confined to India. In China, with its fierce birth control, there were 113 boys for every 100 girls under the age of 1 in 1990. There are, in short, millions and millions of women missing around the world--women who would be there were it not for the dictates of custom and economy. So it is a remarkable achievement in Kerala to say simply this: There are more women than men. In India as a whole, the 1991 census found that there were about 929 women per 1,000 men; in Kerala, the number was 1,040 women, about where it should be. And the female life expectancy in Kerala exceeds that of the male, just as it does in the developed world.
Whatever the historical reasons, this quartet of emancipations--from caste distinction, religious hatred, the powerlessness of illiteracy, and the worst forms of gender discrimination--has left the state with a distinctive feel, a flavor of place that influences every aspect of its life. It is, for one thing, an intensely political region: Early in the morning in tea shops across Kerala, people eat a dosha and read one of the two or three Malayalam-language papers that arrive on the first bus. (Kerala has the highest newspaper-consumption per capita of any spot in India.) In each town square political parties maintain their icons--a statue of Indira Gandhi (the white streak in her hair carefully painted in) or a portrait of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in careful profile. Strikes, agitations, and 'stirs,' a sort of wildcat job action, are so common as to be almost unnoticeable. One morning while I was there, the Indian Express ran stories on a bus strike, a planned strike of medical students over 'un
reasonable exam schedules,' and a call from a leftist leader for the government to take over a coat factory where striking workers had been locked out. By the next day's paper the bus strike had ended, but a bank strike had begun. Worse, the men who perform the traditional and much beloved kathakali dance--a stylized ballet that can last all night--were threatening to strike; they were planning a march in full costume and makeup through the streets of the capital.
Sometimes all the disputation can be overwhelming. In a long account of his home village, Thulavady, K.E. Verghese says that 'politics are much in the air and it is difficult to escape from them. Even elderly women who are not interested are dragged into politics.' After several fights, he reports, a barbershop posted a sign on the wall: 'No political discussions, please.' But for the most part the various campaigns and protests seem a sign of self-confidence and political vitality, a vast improvement over the apathy, powerlessness, ignorance, or tribalism that governs many Third World communities.
How can the Kerala model spread to other places with different cultures, less benign histories? Unfortunately, there's another question about the future that needs to be answered first: Can the Kerala model survive even in Kerala, or will it be remembered chiefly as an isolated and short-term outbreak from a prison of poverty?
In the paddy fields near Mitraniketan, bare-chested men swung hoes hard into the newly harvested fields, preparing the ground for the next crop. They worked steadily but without hurry--in part because there was no next job to get to. Unemployment and underemployment have been signal problems in Kerala for decades. As much as a quarter of the state's population may be without jobs; in rural villages, by many estimates, laborers are happy for 70 or 80 days a year of hoe and sickle work. And though the liberal pension and unemployment compensation laws, and the land reform that has left most people with at least a few coconut trees in their house compound, buffer the worst effects of joblessness, it is nonetheless a real problem: In mid-morning, in the small village at the edge of the rice fields, young men lounge in doorways with nothing to do.
To some extent, successes are surely to blame. A recent report published by the Centre for Development Studies looked at the coir (coconut fiber), cashew processing, and cigarette industries and concluded that as unions succeeded in raising wages and improving working conditions, they were also driving factories off to more degraded parts of India. Kerala's vaunted educational system may also play a role. Because of what they are taught, writes M.A. Oommen, 'university graduates become seekers of jobs rather than creators of jobs.' In Kerala, says K.K. George of the Centre for Development Studies, 'the concept of a job is a job in a ministry. When you get out of school you think: `The state should give me a job as a clerk''--an understandable attitude, since government service is relatively lucrative, completely secure, and over, by law, at age 55. Large numbers of Keralites also go into medicine, law, and teaching. That they perform well is proved by their success in finding jobs abroad--as many as a quarter million Keralites work at times in the Persian Gulf--but at home there is less demand.
The combination of a stagnant economy and a strong commitment to providing health and education have left the state with large budget deficits. Development expert Joseph Collins, for all his praise of progress, calls it a 'bloated social welfare state without the economy to support it,' a place that has developed a 'populist welfare culture, where all the parties are into promising more goodies, which means more deficits. The mentality that things don't have to be funded, that's strong in Kerala--in the midst of the fiscal crisis that was going on while I was there, some of the parties were demanding that the agricultural pension be doubled.'
But the left seems to be waking up to the problems. Professor Thomas Isaac--described to me as a '24-karat Marxist' and as a wheel in the Communist Party--said, 'Our main effort has been to redistribute, not to manage, the economy. But because we on the left have real power, we need to have an active interest in that management--to formulate a new policy toward production.' Instead of building huge factories, or lowering wages to grab jobs from elsewhere, or collectivizing farmers, the left has embarked on a series of 'new democratic initiatives' that come as close as anything on the planet to actually incarnating 'sustainable development,' that buzzword beloved of environmentalists. The left has proposed, and on a small scale has begun, the People's Resource Mapping Program, an attempt to move beyond word literacy to 'land literacy.' Residents of local villages have begun assembling detailed maps of their area, showing topography, soil type, depth to the water table, and depth to bedrock. Information in hand, local people could sit down and see, for instance, where planting a grove of trees would prevent erosion.
And the mapmakers think about local human problems, too. In one village, for instance, residents were spending scarce cash during the dry season to buy vegetables imported from elsewhere in India. Paddy owners were asked to lease their land free of charge between rice crops for market gardens, which were sited by referring to the maps of soil types and the water table. Twenty-five hundred otherwise unemployed youth tended the gardens, and the vegetables were sold at the local market for less than the cost of the imports. This is the direct opposite of a global market. It is exquisitely local--it demands democracy, literacy, participation, cooperation. The new vegetables represent 'economic growth' of a sort that does much good and no harm. The number of rupees consumed, and hence the liters of oil spent packaging and shipping and advertising, go down, not up.
With high levels of education and ingrained commitment to fairness, such novel strategies might well solve Kerala's economic woes, especially since a stabilized population means it doesn't need to sprint simply to stay in place. One can imagine, easily, a state that manages to put more of its people to work for livable if low wages. They would manufacture items that they need, grow their own food, and participate in the world economy in a modest way, exporting workers and some high-value foods like spices, and attracting some tourists. 'Instead of urbanization, ruralization,' says K. Vishwanathan, a longtime Gandhian activist who runs an orphanage and job-training center where I spent several days. At his cooperative, near the silkworm pods used to produce high-quality fabric, women learn to repair small motors and transistor radios--to make things last, to build a small-scale economy of permanence. 'We don't need to become commercial agents, to always be buying and selling this and that,' says Vishwanathan. He talks on into the evening, spinning a future at once humble and exceedingly pleasant, much like the airy, tree-shaded community he has built on once-abandoned land--a future as close to the one envisioned by E. F. Schumacher or Thomas Jefferson or Gandhi as is currently imaginable. 'What is the good life?' asks Vishwanathan. 'The good life is to be a good neighbor, to consider your neighbor as yourself.'
A small parade of development experts has passed through Kerala in recent years, mainly to see how its successes might be repeated in places like Vietnam and Mozambique. But Kerala may be as significant a schoolhouse for the rich world as for the poor. 'Kerala is the one large human population on earth that currently meets the sustainability criteria of simultaneous small families and low consumption,' says Will Alexander of the Food First Institute in San Francisco.
Kerala suggests a way out of two problems simultaneously--not only the classic development goal of more food in bellies and more shoes on feet, but also the emerging, equally essential task of living lightly on the earth, using fewer resources, creating less waste. Kerala demonstrates that a low-level economy can create a decent life, abundant in the things--health, education, community--that are most necessary for us all. Gross national product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods. One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly more successful society.
Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they do--or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly somewhere in between. Logical as a middle way might be, though, we've not yet even begun to think about it in any real terms. We've clung to the belief that perhaps someday everyone on earth will be as rich as we are--a belief that seems utterly deluded in light of our growing environmental awareness. Kerala does not tell us precisely how to remake the world. But it does shake up our sense of what's obvious, and it offers a pair of messages to the First World. One is that sharing works. Redistribution has made Kerala a decent place to live, even without much economic growth. The second and even more important lesson is that some of our fears about simpler living are unjustified. It is not a choice between suburban America and dying at 35, between agribusiness and starvation, between 150 channels of television and ignorance.
It is a subversive reality, that stagnant/stable economy that serves its people well, and in some ways it is a scary one. Kerala implies that there is a point where rich and poor might meet and share a decent life, and surely it offers new data for a critical question of our age: How much is enough?
Excerpted with permission from DoubleTake, a magazine of
photography and literature (Summer 1995).
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