Why We’re in Kerala, India

(a little background reading)

The following are some great excerpts that help provide the context for our interest in this region. The author, Thomas Isaac, has had a long career as an organizer and internationally known expert on cooperatives, paticipatory government, and decentralization. He is currently the Kerala State Minisiter of Finance.

From Chapter One, Democracy at Work in an Indian Industrial Cooperative, by T.M. Thomas Isaac, et al., Cornell University Press, 1998.

“With 306,242 cooperatives and 146 million members in 1991, India has one of the largest cooperativenetworks in the world. Industrial cooperatives amount to nearly 15 percent of the workforce in India’s manufacturing sector… “Kerala’s exemplary workers’ cooperatives offer inspiration to the international movement for workers’ cooperatives through their combination of formal, structural features and their high level of worker consciousness and activism, both of which have contributed to remarkable success in overcoming the problems commonly faced by cooperatives worldwide… “Since the 1950s, both development theorists and policy makers have assigned cooperative institutions a vital role in supplying credit and essential goods and services to the many farmers and petty producers who lack sufficient market entitlements, and in revitalizing traditional cottage industries. As a result, governments became active promoters of cooperatives in the third world. Even the colonial governments that were normally indifferent toward the cooperative movement in their home countries often actively encouraged cooperative movements in selected sectors of their colonies.” With the attainment of independence, state intervention to accelerate economic development became the hallmark of third world government policies. In Asia and Africa especially, cooperatives rapidly expanded as development devices. Cooperatives provided important policy avenues for third world states to intervene in the product and credit markets, influence income distribution, and protect and encourage local production and employment… Cooperatives were seen to be the ideal framework for India’s initial development after independence…”Despite one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes, Kerala has achieved levels of literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality, and birth rates nearly as high as those in developed countries. So unusual are the state’s material quality-of-life indicators that in recent years academics have come to speak of the “Kerala Model” of development…”Indeed, much of the fascination with the Kerala Model results precisely from the combination of economic underdevelopment with advanced quality-of-life indicators. The state has one of the lowest rates of industrial growth in all of India, and it remains economically and technologically more backward than the developed nations and many parts of India itself… Kerala in 1993 had a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent versus the all-India average of 52 percent (World Bank 1995: 162-63). Kerala’s infant mortality in 1993 dropped to just thirteen per one thousand live births while India’s overall rate was eighty. The birth rate in Kerala was seventeen per thousand females of child-bearing age compared with twenty-nine for all-India. Kerala’s child tuberculosis, polio, and DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccination rates in 1992 were 100 percent. For measles the rate was 92 percent. (These figures are all above the Indian average).”Beyond these indicators that have attracted so much academic interest, Kerala is characterized by extensive roads, hospitals, educational institutions, and public food distribution shops, which tend to redistribute services to the poorest groups, who are ordinarily cut off from the benefits of the market, owing to their lack of purchasing power. In the absence of industrialization, these institutional supports appear to be wise policies for the general population…”To see the Kerala Model as an outgrowth only of “wise policies,” however, is to miss its most significant feature: the organization, mobilization, and active participation of millions of the state’s ordinary people in struggles to bring about those policies… Powerful social movements acted as pressure groups on the successive governments right or left, to maintain and expand the social infrastructure and social security schemes. These movements were instrumental in redistributing rural wealth through the 1971 land reform abolishing tenancy, the most successful land reform in India. The trade unions were successful in improving the wages of workers in the small-scale and cottage industrial sectors that, in the rest of India, are largely unorganized.”Above all, these social movements gave ordinary people a sense of dignity, self-respect, and consciousness unparalleled in most parts of India. Part of the apparent success of the Kerala Model results from comparison with the dismal failure of so many third world countries to raise the standard of living for the majority of their populations despite impressive statistical growth of their economies.”

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