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Kerala State:
A Social Justice Model

by Richard W. Franke
and Barbara H. Chasin

Kerala State, in southwest India, shows that Third World people can make their lives better in the absence of industrialization or large-scale economic growth. The key ingredients: active grassroots organizations, redistribution of wealth and democratic participation.

Despite low per capita incomes, Kerala's 31 million people have achieved nearly total literacy, long life expectancy, low infant mortality and birth rates and high access to medical care. Kerala's development indicators compare favorably with the rest of India, low-income countries in general and even rich nations such as the United States.

The main elements of the Kerala model are: a land reform initiative that abolished tenancy and landlord exploitation; effective public food distribution that provides subsidized rice to low-income households; protective laws for agricultural workers; pensions for retired agricultural laborers; and a high rate of government employment for members of formerly low-caste communities.

Kerala's peasant associations and unions have also fought for public health measures and access to health care. Kerala has the lowest rates of malaria, cholera and several other diseases in India, coupled with the highest access to doctors, health clinics, nursing care and hospitals. Kerala's child tuberculosis, polio and DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccination rates in 1992 were 100 percent, compared to national rates of 83 percent. For measles, the Kerala rate was 92 percent versus the national rate of 77 percent.

Women also benefited from the Kerala model: Kerala continues to be the only Indian state with no major statistical evidence of excess female mortality - a sign that female children in Kerala have equal life chances to those of males.

A new element in Kerala's development strategy is the New Democratic Initiatives campaign launched by the 1987 to 1991 leftist Democratic Front Administration. The New Democratic Initiatives were designed to involve people directly in development activities and to make extensive use of voluntary citizens' organizations.

Literacy campaign

One of the most important of the New Democratic Initiatives was a campaign to establish full literacy throughout Kerala, begun in December 1988. The Kerala People's Science Movement (KSSP) initiated the campaign in Ernakulum District, mobilizing nearly 22,000 volunteer activists. The volunteers organized jathas (processions), meetings, drama presentations and literacy classes in the neighborhoods where illiteracy was concentrated. The KSSP was founded in the 1960s as an organization of scientists who wanted to popularize scientific thinking among ordinary people. Over the years it has evolved into one of Kerala's most important voluntary organizations and is especially active on environmental issues.

The KSSP created popular committees to energize and involve villagers in all 860 rural wards of the District as well as in the municipal wards. Five literacy jathas, beginning from five edges of the Ernakulum District in January 1989, inaugurated the campaign. Major political leaders, literary figures, religious scholars and academics led the jathas. Each jatha also had an artists' group. They traveled for six days on foot, giving street plays, folk performances, group songs and speeches at various stopping points. An average of 300 to 400 people gathered at these reception points.

The jathas and artistic performances helped create an atmosphere in which people felt they could come forward, admit their illiteracy and join the classes. After the classes began, literacy walls were set up in each ward to give news of the campaign. At some events, illiterates were encouraged to come forward and display any talents they had. Many could sing, dance or recite. The campaign encouraged these activities to promote the self-esteem and self-awareness of the learners. Thousands of prizes and certificates were awarded.

Activists hoped to teach villagers to read in Malayalam - the language spoken in Kerala - at the rate of 30 words per minute, to copy text at seven words per minute, to count and write numbers up to 100, to add and subtract three-digit numbers and to multiply and divide two-digit numbers. They also hoped to teach basic knowledge about the public institutions of Kerala and India, fair prices for basic goods, how to read a clock, nutrition, disease prevention, equality of the sexes and the dignity of work. Immunization discussions were coordinated with a campaign that vastly increased immunization levels against measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria and polio.

During the campaign, teachers discovered that lack of eyeglasses prevented many learners from reading. In one Muslim region, organizers responded with an appeal for local people to donate spectacles. During October and November 1989, more than 50,000 pairs of eyeglasses were donated. Forty volunteers, who received one-day training courses, matched those who needed glasses with the appropriate set of lenses.

In February 1990, Ernakulam's district collector, who acts as the district's chief executive officer, handling day-to-day government operations, declared the district 100 percent literate: 135,000 persons had learned to read and write out of an estimated total of 174,000 illiterates in the district. The 135,000 neo-literates had scored better than 80 percent on a program literacy test; the other 39,000 failed the test, but gained some literacy skills which they could build on in follow-up programs. An independent observer calculated that each student became literate at a cost of less than $26 per person. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) bestowed its 1990 literacy award on the KSSP.

One achievement of the campaign was the pride of accomplishment of the mostly low-caste learners. Many of the older learners had fought in earlier years in land reform struggles or had other long-term experiences with trying to change their lives. Learning to read and do arithmetic gave them the confidence to challenge government officials above them. One journalist reported that "collectors in Kerala say neo-literates are writing letters to demand better roads and health facilities." The statewide expansion of the program resulted in Kerala's being declared 100 percent literate in 1991.

Ecological cook stoves

Another New Democratic Initiative aims to install high-efficiency stoves to reduce the strain on Kerala's few remaining forests. India's overall fuel crisis is acute. The nation lacks substantial known oil or gas reserves. As a result, wood-burning provides 69 percent of rural energy. Centuries of use, a large population and lack of alternate fuels have resulted in dramatic forest loss, long hours spent gathering wood, and a bleak energy future for the country.

The traditional Indian stove burns at only 10 percent efficiency, causing considerable air pollution. Research in Gujarat State indicated that an average household cook inhales 21,000 milligrams of suspended particulates annually; non-cooks inhale 3,700. The World Health Organization recommended level is 210 milligrams. Cooking for three hours in a Gujarati kitchen is the equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes per day in terms of exposure to benzoapyrene, a likely carcinogen. A 15-year study in New Delhi found likely associations between cook stove use and heart disease. Research in Ahmedabad linked smoky kitchens to chronic bronchitis. In Nepal, domestic smoke is associated with higher infant deaths, since carbon monoxide compounds anemia in poor, undernourished mothers.

The KSSP aided efforts to install high-efficiency stoves throughout India. Although high-efficiency stoves were developed in India in the 1940s, they have not been widely used. The New Democratic Initiatives movement conducted consumer research and education to improve and popularize the stoves.

At the Integrated Rural Technology Center (IRTC) in the Kerala village of Mundur, a small team of scientists and engineers works on improved stove design. KSSP engineers have developed a stove - the Parishat 21 - with two main burners and one auxiliary burner with 25 percent combined burning efficiency. Households help install their own chulahs, or traditional stoves. They provide tiles, bricks, clay, lime, sand and rice husks (to temper the clay platform). In 1992, the cost of chulah materials and labor for a typical household was equal to five days' wages for a male agricultural laborer, or about $8.64. This investment offered a potential annual savings of $21.43 in fuel costs.

The IRTC holds seminars to bring together household cooks and scientists. KSSP activists use these seminars to generate enthusiasm for the chulahs while scientists hear user complaints that lead to design improvements. This approach helped overcome a major design flaw. Early stove designs had a chimney ascending from the back of the cooking platform. To clean the chimney, users had to lie across the platform, remove an inaccessible part of the baffle and brush out the accumulated soot. This dirty, time-consuming maintenance was needed at least once a month to prevent the lower chimney from clogging, reducing efficiency and sending dangerous fumes back into the kitchen. To remedy the problem, IRTC engineers extended the back of the stove outside the house. Outside the home, the chimney turns upward at 90 degrees. A plastic trap at its base provides for convenient chimney sweeping.

Using its repertoire of jathas, artistic performances, lectures and respect for consumers, KSSP and IRTC have accounted for more than half of the 200,000 new stoves installed in Kerala since the early 1980s. The 200,000 stoves are enough for about 9 percent of households, much higher than other parts of India.

Resource mapping

Kerala's most innovative development effort is the People's Resource Mapping Program, which mobilizes villagers to inventory their resources on maps. These homemade maps are combined with scientific maps to guide environmentally sound local planning discussions of the long-term consequences and short-term gains of resource use. KSSP activists see the project as a logical extension of the total literacy campaign: the People's Resource Mapping Program is an attempt to create land literacy.

Because they see poverty and inequality as threats to sustainability, activists are suspicious of large-scale central plans that are drawn up in the national and state capitals. They put their faith in local landowners, arguing that they know area resources best and are better able to judge which land-use practices or inputs will improve land productivity. Collective action of villagers, with input from scientists, the activists contend, offers the best hope for promoting socially and ecologically sustainable land-use practices.

In a pilot mapping project, professional scientists working in conjunction with the KSSP selected 25 villages across Kerala. They asked KSSP activists and the IRTC to participate. KSSP started the campaign with jathas, artistic performances, lectures, seminars and puppet plays. After creating a festive atmosphere in each of the 25 selected villages KSSP organizers worked to recruit at least five mapping volunteers per ward.

After the volunteers underwent a brief training session, they began mapping with the assistance of the scientists, who spent up to 10 days in each village. Village mappers collected data on land use, local assets and water resources. These data were supplemented by the scientists, who reworked the materials to produce a set of six maps from which they developed an environmental appraisal map. This map was submitted to the village, where villagers, map volunteers and scientists used it to develop a mapped action plan.

In one pilot village, Kalliasseri in northern Kerala, local people with leadership from an experienced KSSP activist used this map to better meet their agricultural needs. The socioeconomic survey that they carried out in conjunction with the mapping showed that late in the dry season, villagers imported vegetables at great cost from other parts of India. At the same time, many rice fields lay fallow for lack of water. The People's Resource Mapping group and the village committee sponsored a small experimental program in which land owners would grant free use of their fallow rice fields during the dry season to unemployed youth. The youth cultivated popular dry-season vegetables on the land and marketed them below the cost of imported vegetables.

The committee used their maps to locate garden sites that would make the best use of local water resources. In the dry season of 1993, the youth work groups produced a respectable first harvest and made back as much money as the community had invested in the project. A total of 2,500 unemployed youth gained work experience and income. More than six acres of fallow land were put to productive use. In future years, organizers hope to time the planting and harvest better so a profit can be made.

Kerala under fire

Kerala's planners and villagers are attempting to create genuine participation, equality, reasonable self-reliance and enough concern for the environment to create conditions for sustainable development. The New Democratic Initiatives hold the promise of using local initiatives to improve education, reduce forest depletion and identify village resources that could be used to increase production. In recent years, however, Kerala's achievements have been threatened by slow economic growth, high unemployment and changes in policies from India's national government, which has been pressured by the World Bank.

Kerala's social justice model is threatened by the liberalization policies of India's central government. National-level budget cuts have forced a reduction in school lunches from 3 million students in 1987 to 2.2 million in 1993. Fair-price food shops sold 9 percent less rice in 1993 than in 1992. Other redistribution policies are also threatened. In 1994, only sustained and militant demonstrations prevented a massive privatization of parts of the educational system. Five students were killed by police during the campaign. The New Democratic Initiatives are part of Kerala's attempt to maintain and expand past gains under new conditions that are not of Kerala's choosing.

Comparative Quality-of-Life Indicators, 1991

Indicator Kerala India Low-Income CountriesUnited States
Per capita GNP ($) 298 330 350 22,240
Adult literacy rate (%) 91 52 55 96
Life expectancy (years) 71 60 55 76
Infant mortality (per 1,000) 17 85 91 9
Birth rate (per 1,000) 20 31 38 16

Source: Kerala, Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State.

The Politics of the Kerala Model

Active grassroots organizations are the political key to Kerala's success. Predictably, redistribution policies have been stronger under left-wing governments. Communist or Communist-led governments elected by the people held office in Kerala during the periods 1957 to 1959, 1967 to 1970, 1980 to 1982, and 1987 to 1991. Popular agitation compelled a centrist coalition that governed from 1970 to 1980 to carry out many leftist programs. In fact, unions and peasant associations have been able to pressure even conservative ministries into making some improvements in the lives of the poor.

The possibility of Communists holding elected power means that conservative administrations must take seriously the demands of Kerala's organized peasants and workers. But Kerala's Communists must also play by rules set in New Delhi by central administrations that are usually anti-Communist.

Kerala's land reform illustrates these complexities. The reform abolished tenancy, benefiting 1.5 million poor households. This achievement was the result of decades of struggle by Kerala's peasant associations. The reform act itself was initially passed by the 1957 Communist ministry, but that ministry was dismissed by the Indian central government - primarily to thwart the land reform. A second Communist ministry pushed for the reform again in the late 1960s, but it was a centrist ministry that finally implemented it in 1971, acting under heavy public pressure.

- R.F. and B.C.

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