The 2005 Conference on Kerala’s development is being held 11 years after the International Congress on Kerala studies in 1994. That Congress was a seminal one in charting out a course for Kerala’s development. The Congress was held at a time when the policies of liberalisation had already begun and were having an impact on the social gains made in Kerala. The Congress had concluded that while these social gains had to be defended, it is also necessary to develop the productive forces in agriculture and industry in the state so that the material basis for all round development is assured.
After more than a decade, it can be seen that the worry about the erosion of Kerala’s unique social model was correct. Kerala still has the lowest infant mortality rate in the country. The life expectancy is much higher than the national average. There is near universal literacy, particularly amongst women and the population growth rate is the lowest in the country. The Communist movement in Kerala made a major contribution to overall social progress. By initiating land reforms, stress on universal primary education and health care, provision of minimum wages and hutment land for agricultural workers, development of a wide network of public distribution system for food and social security measures, the Left-led governments beginning with the first Communist Ministry in 1957, laid the basis for this remarkable progress.
Internationally, neo-liberalism has ravaged the gains of public action. This has occurred all over the world, but particularly in countries that have historically been less-developed and in countries of the former socialist bloc. The assault has taken place in spheres of social and economic life and on institutions that are of particular relevance to the people of Kerala; the attack has been, for instance:
on access to universal, public school education and on the quality of mass education;
on public access to higher education;
on systems of the public distribution of food;
on public systems of employment creation;
on systems of public health and mass access to curative medicine;
on the prices of agricultural commodities produced in the less-developed countries, particularly those traded internationally;
on public investment in physical and social infrastructure; and
on public spending on protective social security schemes and welfare schemes in general.
The social advances in Kerala, a product of decades of popular movements and social reforms are being undermined. Public education and health systems are in crisis. The public distribution system, which was the best in the country is in decline. The agricultural and industrial sectors have been badly affected. The agrarian crisis, has become manifest since 2000 as a direct outcome of the liberalisation in trade. Both public and private investment in industry have stagnated. The traditional industries are in crisis. The growth in the services sector has not been able to create enough jobs, thereby aggravating the unemployment situation. The unemployment situation for women has worsened. All this has been accompanied by a recrudescence of caste mobilisation and religious sectarianism.
The Conference “On an agenda for Kerala’s development” is being held to grapple with this situation and come out with a clear-cut, alternative path of development. How to protect the social gains achieved while stepping up material production to achieve a higher level of development. A realistic developmental path has to be chalked out given the fact that at the national level, neo-liberal policies prevail and imperialist globalisation has a direct impact on Kerala. It is the understanding of the CPI(M) that Left-led state governments must be able to pursue certain alternative policies despite the severe constraints of the Central government’s policies, keeping in mind its commitments to the people.
While defending the gains, specific shape and content to the strategy for the future must be given. The crises in the spheres of employment and material production are among the most pressing economic problems in Kerala at present; the situation in this regard is unsustainable, and it is no surprise that in his address to the Congress on Kerala Studies in 1994 and in writings and speeches until his death, EMS Namboodiripad emphasised again and again the importance of transforming the conditions of production in Kerala’s economy.
Kerala’s development experience and Kerala’s development future are matters of great importance for the Left and Communist movements, in India and internationally. Working within the constraints imposed by the Constitution of India and by often hostile central governments, the Left in Kerala has mobilised the people for kinds of social change unprecedented in the rest of the country. The tasks of increasing employment and production (and transforming production conditions) have to be principal components of the next phase of Kerala’s development, and that this transformation must build on, consolidate, and extend the achievements of the past, and not undermine (or liquidate) the gains of a long history of public action.
Such a new phase of economic development has special resources on which to draw. Kerala has extraordinary natural resources, a basic land reform, an educated, skilled and politically conscious work-force, and unique achievements in the spheres of health and education. It has a strong Left political movement that is sensitive to issues of development and growth, that has set itself the task of building social alliances for economic development and socio-political change, and is active in the movement to create new institutions of local government in the State.
Without attempting a detailed blueprint for production and employment in Kerala, some general points can be made. First, market forces will not ensure that productive investment appears spontaneously; transformation in the spheres of production and employment requires public intervention. It requires the conscious policy attention of governments and intervention by political parties and mass organisations.
Secondly, it is clear, and there is general scholarly consensus, that state-supported infrastructural investment is crucial for industrial and agricultural growth in Kerala.
Thirdly, the potential for the expansion of skilled employment in Kerala is extraordinary. Unlike the rest of India, where schemes for mass employment are basically earth-work projects that involve unskilled work or work that requires low skills, Kerala is a region where even schemes for mass employment can draw on a labour force, rural and urban, whose members are literate, with high levels of political and social consciousness.
Fourthly, as is well known, Kerala’s agriculture is characterised by the existence of a series of agricultural micro-environments suited to different kinds of mixed farming, and by a substantial proportion of perennial crops in total agricultural output. Thus, any plan for rural economic growth in Kerala must consider the very promising opportunities for growth based on the mixed cultivation of diverse crops that require skilled crop management, with support in respect of agricultural information, extension, and marketing, from public institutions and that involve new forms of production organisation.
Fifthly, industry is an area that needs fresh thinking, and it is not my intention to second-guess the experts in this field. Nevertheless, past experience indicates that future industrial development in Kerala must take into account specific features of the State’s natural resource base, its location in the south-west of the country, and the environmental needs of a thickly-vegetated region with a high population-to-land ratio.
In the sphere of industry, while protecting and restructuring the public sector enterprises in the state, serious efforts must be made to attract fresh investment. Much of this will be in the private sector. The IT sector, biotechnology and agro-based processing industries must be given priority. Foreign capital in high technology areas can be solicited. The revival of traditional industries like coir and cashew is important given the large numbers employed in these sectors. Small scale industries will continue to form a significant part of industry and they require adequate State support. Infrastructure development and the power sector in particular will need public investment.
The public sector requires to be defended and strengthened in the face of the right-wing assault against its existence. However, the public sector cannot be strengthened without a process of restructuring. The public sector enterprises in the key and core sectors have to be retained. Apart from the profitable public sector units, those enterprises in public services which serve a social need have to be retained. Many of the public sector enterprises, which are loss-making, can be revived through restructuring and through joint sector ventures with the private sector. Totally unviable public sector units may have to be closed down but this should be done only after an appropriate rehabilitation and compensation package for workers is put in place.
While the substantial historic gains of women in Kerala cannot be underestimated, there are still important spheres in which women’s equality has not been achieved, and in which discrimination persists. Simply put, socio-political and economic advance among women in recent years is not commensurate with the historic achievements of women in the spheres of education and health. Work participation rates among women are low, rates of unemployment are very high, and gender differentials in the labour market persist across caste, income, and education categories. A substantial section of the women’s labour force is concentrated in traditional industries that are currently stagnant or in decline. The representation of women is very low in elected bodies and in trade union executives. Economic planning and social measures must specifically address these problems and ensure greater participation of women in the production processes and employment.
Kerala has felt the impact of the rise of identity politics and communalism all over the country. In recent years, the secular space has been invaded by new forms of aggressive communalism. The Hindutva forces have been trying to communalise politics by pitching against the minorities. Another distortion of the tradition of public action and civic consciousness is the effort of caste groups to widen their intervention and challenge the Left in the political and social spheres. There has been a regression from the earlier posture of claiming to represent a socially oppressed group, as in the case of the SNDP, to advocating a Hindu consolidation to take on the power of the minority communities.
Such divisive and sectarian agendas mask the rampant drive by the elites in these communities to aggrandize public resources and privatise public services such as education and health. Social control over private professional and higher education institutions is essential to check such unhealthy trends. Democratic politics in Kerala must assert that caste and communal organisations will not be allowed to carve up public resources for private use and counter their forays into politics.
The CPI(M) and the Left have been most consistent force advocating decentralisation of powers in the country. The evolution of powers from the Centre to the states and the states down to the panchayati raj institutions has not only been advocated by the Left but also put into practice within the existing constitutional limitations in states like West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The people’s planning campaign between 1996 and 2001 was an important initiative in democratic decentralisation. Unfortunately, the UDF government, which took over in 2001, has scuttled some of the vital aspects of the decentralised planning process. It is essential that popular participation in planning and development be taken forward. For this, a critical evaluation of the people’s planning campaign and suggestions for overcoming the weaknesses should be on the agenda of the conference.
The Left is hopefully poised to undertake another stint in government in Kerala. Protect the past gains and chalk out a viable future path should be the slogan. The Conference “On an agenda for Kerala’s development” involving hundreds of political and social activists, social scientists and intellectuals should be able to make a major contribution in delineating this path forward.