Economy – Lessons from Kerala

Lesson from Kerala: Another Developmental State is Possible!Whither succession debate

In the current debates on Developmental state a neo-liberal intellectual mantra is continuously peddled around by the advocates of neo-liberalism for the citizens to consume, it is that for countries to develop they must draw lessons from East Asian Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) eg South Korea and Malaysia. In this piece we contend that this is a lie.

We argue that there are alternatives. The Kerala Development model is one among many of these alternatives.

Kerala is a small state in India, it has a population of more than 37 million. In 1957 Kerala democratically elected a Communist-led coalition into power.

The victory of Communists over parties of the right shook the world. Our concern is not the Communist Party Coalition that got elected but what the Communist Coalition delivered together with the poor working, and oppressed sections of Kerala when it assumed political power.

What are the lessons that the South African working class movement can draw from Kerala?Our concern is that in the lead up to Polokwane, everything seems to be shelved under the so-called succession debate.

Key strategic questions of theory, strategy, tactics and policy are relegated to the backburner its succession debate tops the fashion stakes. Whither the succession debate!

Challenges that faced communist-led KeralaBefore going to the key features of the Kerala model it is important that we take a detour to Michael Lebowitz when he says:“Any country that would challenge neo-liberalism by seriously attempting to foster endogenous development will face the assorted weapons of international capital.

These are of course, formidable foes. Since no government based simply on its own resources can hope to succeed in this struggle against such internal and external enemies, the central question will be whether the government is willing to mobilise its people of the policies that meet the needs of the people.”

But Lebowitz warns:“If a model of endogenous development is to be successful, it must base itself upon a theory that places the goal of human development first.

This means not only investments in human beings that come from the direction of expenditure and human activity to the critical areas of education and health, but also from the real development of human potential which occurs as a result of human activity.

This is the essence of the revolutionary practice that Marx described, the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self change.

In contrast to populism that merely promises new consumption, this alternative model focuses upon new production – the transformation of people through their own activity, the building of human capacities”.

Lebowitz' observations reflect the Kerala project, a project that is built on the logic of human development, which is a result of human activity.

What then are the key achievements and features of the Kerala Development project?

Key achievments of the Kerala Development projectWriting about the Kerala project, Govindan Parayil argues that “Kerala has in fact proved the development experts wrong.

Over the past fifty years or more, Kerala has been transforming itself from an extremely poor state, ridden with caste and class conflict and burdened by high birth rates, infant mortality, and population growth rates, into a social democratic state with low birth rates, (reduced) infant mortality and population growth rates and high levels of literacy.

Kerala indicators of social development are comparable to many so-called developed nations, although its per-capita income is a mere fraction of theirs.

He further says “this transformation occurred without the rapid economic growth characteristic of the East and South East Asian NICs.

Another scholar on Kerala, Kannan says “Kerala's development record should not be perceived, in common with most analysts, as merely the achievement of a high quality of social life despite low economic growth. Instead.. enhanced social conditions, including alleviation of poverty, have been attained along with a reduction in both spatial (between rural and urban areas) and gender gaps (between males and females) – two regressive trends that characterize most developing societies.

He further says that “Kerala’s economic and social transformation took place without outside help”.

Ramachandran refuting the myths of neo-liberals, argues that “states with per-capita income higher than that of Kerala, fared very poorly in terms of social indicators of development, which clearly show the inadequacy of economic growth as the measure of development.

Alternative indicators of development such as the physical quality of life index, human development index, and gender development index, measure development more usefully than do economic growth indicators like GDP per capita”.

Kerala's achievements:


Education – 90% of its population is literate (94.2 are males and 87.9 are females). Ranked No 2 across all Indian states.Life expectancy – 70 for males and 76 for females Primary health care – ranked No 2 across all Indian states.Electrification – all villages electrified during 2005-6Telephones – all the villages in Kerala have public telephones

The state has also been very active in regulating the market, restricting labour displacing technologies, legislating working conditions and aggressively implementing minimum wages. One of its achievements is its land and agrarian redistribution programme which it supplements with a comprehensive social security system including a child care programme.

On the ground features of the Kerala modelLebowitz speaks of human activity and self change and this he calls revolutionary practice. How does this find expression in the economy of Kerala? Alexander argues that over the past 20 years, “Malayalees have ventured into community-based banks, milk producer co-ops, vegetable grower co-ops, cottage and light industry co-ops, as well as the establishments of co-operative hospitals, built by different social groups all over Kerala.”

When thousands of unemployed industrial workers were made redundant when the tobacco industry which employed them moved to the neighboring state, a giant industrial co-operative employing 35 000 men and women was formed.

This is just one example showing “the existence of community based ventures in Kerala.” Kerala has built a social economy that is premised on meeting social needs.

This lays the basis for a society based on human solidarity. Many of these ventures in Kerala are people-driven, people-centered. They are built on the foundations of human collective solidarity.

Is Kerala a gift from heaven or a product of social struggles?Academic Patrick Keller believes that Kerala could not have achieved what it has without the CPI's successful attacks on feudal institutions and the building of “instruments of working class power” to replace the institutions they crushed. “

Beginning in the early 1940s the Communist Party of India (CPI) successfully welded together landless laborers, poor tenants, urban workers.

The ideological agenda that drew together these caste-differentiated groups was the CPI's sustained attacks on feudal institutions – landlordism the attached labour system and the indignities of the caste system.

With a strong cadre based system and a coherent transformative project the communists successfully built instruments of working class power, most importantly unions, farmers' associations, students' groups, village libraries and a powerful co-operative movement.

Under the leadership of a communist party that was committed to building a broad based coalition of lower-class groups, urban workers and the rural poor, agitated, built associations and won elections, the instrumental and universalistic character of the movement’s demands invited effective state intervention.

Building the power of the oppressed and the exploited so as to push the state to act and intervene in the interests of the poor and the working class is the fundamental lesson that we can draw from Kerala.

The Kerala model backed this up with a strong social economy that is premised on meeting social needs and that prioritizes human development.

It also enforced participatory, democratic developmental planning that is people-driven and centered.

This has helped to confront the dictatorship of neo-liberal notions of development.Delegates to Limpompo 52nd National Congress must just look around at what surrounds them – a sea of poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructure, huge inequalities in income and assets.

They want a better life. Though individuals leave their imprints on history, it is only the masses that are the real makers of history! Whither the succession debate! Another developmental state is possible!

Tengo Tengela is the head of Numsa's national research department


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