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January 3, 2001
T V R Shenoy
The Kerala model is an abject failure
Kerala and Keralites have been in the news quite frequently in the past week. On Christmas day, I was delighted to note that the prestigious Mastermind India quiz that appears on the BBC had been won by a woman from Kerala, and that the runner-up was a man from the same state. Later, I was happy to note that the prime minister had chosen Kerala as a holiday destination.
But I have to confess that things could have been better for my home state. The Mastermind competitors are, as Delhi papers pointed out, actually Delhiites, who have been in the city since their undergraduate days if not earlier. As for the prime minister's sojourn in Kumarakom, well I shall be happy if it boosts tourism, but I would have been happier had he gone there to inaugurate an industry or two.
Tourism is fine for a nascent economy. It is the icing on the cake for a developed economy. Once upon a time, places like Switzerland or Thailand for that matter depended almost exclusively on tourism. Tourism is still important to both, but it is no longer the mainstay of either nation's economy.
So why is it that Kerala, with its long history of investment in education, is still stuck where it was decades ago? Why is it that investment shall go to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka rather than India's most literate state? And why is it that Keralites aren't more effective even in something like quiz contests, where they really should have an advantage?
The truth is that the so-called 'Kerala Model' is an abject failure. It now turns out that the very phrase is rooted in misunderstanding. It was, supposedly, used by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Then it was picked up by the Marxist crew, who thought that the Master of Trinity supported their views. A burst of plain-speaking has left many Reds red-faced.
Sen said he wished to take no credit for that pernicious phrase 'Kerala Model.' He had, he clarified, spoken only of the 'Kerala experience.' A model is an example that is held up so that others may emulate it to their advantage. An experience has another connotation -- it is, usually, an incident that others should learn to avoid.
The sad fact is that both the major political formations in Kerala have become bull-frogs in a small pond. When confronted by the larger world, they shut their eyes and jump straight back in.
What is the oil that lubricates the machinery of governance in any modern system? Surely it is money. And what is the single unavoidable fact in the modern economy? I would posit that it is the phenomenon of globalisation. And this is precisely where Kerala is faltering.
Kerala's current bunch of Marxist masters are opposed to globalisation. That puts them at odds with not just the rest of India, but even with their Chinese comrades. The leadership in Beijing never bothered wasting time and energy on battling the inevitable; instead it tried to grab all the advantages it could.
Today, individual Chinese provinces compete against each other to woo foreign investment. That is nothing new; when Daimler-Benz decided to set up a plant in the United States, several states fought for the privilege.
This last bit is true of India too of course. The race between Bangalore and Hyderabad to become India's software capital is known to all. Chennai is going all out to regain its title as 'India's Detroit' as it makes a pitch for automobile manufacturers. Can anyone tell me just which industry is associated with Kerala?
Given Kerala's boasted educational achievements, one would have thought that it would be the place where the software industry took root. Why is it that this did not happen? Why is it that Kerala's economy still centres around agriculture, with a little tourism thrown in?
Come to that, what precisely is the state of Kerala's agriculture? Forget places such as Punjab and Haryana, which have three decades of investment in the Green Revolution. May I ask whether a palm in Kerala yields as much, on average, as one in the other southern states? Has rice production gone up in the last half a decade? There is a crisis in every department -- whether it is coconuts, or paddy, or pepper, or areca...
The situation is so bad that almost every section in Kerala -- the Marxists, the media, and the religious leadership -- is pleading for aid from Delhi. 'Help the farmer!' is the single point which they constantly reiterate. But the Government of India too has limited resources, and Kerala is not very high on the priority list. The Union finance ministry believes that the best help is self-help.
Sadly for Kerala, the Marxists are the state's worst enemies. They have completely ruined the work culture, creating an environment where school children speak seriously of a samaram -- a strike or agitation -- as the solution to every problem. Why would any sensible industrialist bother to invest in such a state?
I blame the Congress and the United Democratic Front as much as I do the Marxists. Technically as the Opposition, they have completely failed to offer an alternative path, becoming a paler, pinker version of the Reds. The same noxious cocktail of truculent trade unionism, illogical protectionism, and disdain for entrepreneurship feeds both the Congress and the Communists.
Once upon a time, 'productivity and social justice' were thought to be opposite poles. Today, we realise the wisdom of Sardar Patel's dictum: 'First produce, then distribute!' Kerala, sadly, is one of the last places where 'productivity' is still a four-letter word. (And given the declining standards of education in the state, there may be some who think that is literally true!)
Amartya Sen had a lesson for all Kerala, not just the Marxists: don't fight globalisation, take advantage of it.
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