The Enigma of Kerala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
. ‘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
(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

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
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

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

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).
Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 56070, Boulder, CO
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