Kerala’s modernity and its discontents

The State has lost its quest for freedom, equity and rationality

November 05, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Kochi: A view of Alfa Serene Apartments at Marad built on the coastal zone, in Kochi, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. The Supreme Court Friday directed demolition of flats built on the coastal zone of Kochi's Maradu within 138 days and asked the Kerala government to pay Rs 25 lakh interim compensation to each flat owner within four weeks. (PTI Photo)(PTI9_27_2019_000169B) *** Local Caption *** 

Kochi: A view of Alfa Serene Apartments at Marad built on the coastal zone, in Kochi, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. The Supreme Court Friday directed demolition of flats built on the coastal zone of Kochi's Maradu within 138 days and asked the Kerala government to pay Rs 25 lakh interim compensation to each flat owner within four weeks. (PTI Photo)(PTI9_27_2019_000169B) *** Local Caption *** 

On November 1, Kerala completed 63 years as an economic-political entity. Kerala’s transformative experience in education, health, social security, land reforms and decentralised governance has been widely acknowledged as a ‘model’ for other States. This article is an effort to evaluate Kerala’s modernity in the context of the transformation that took place in Kerala society in the early part of the 20th century and the events that unfolded over the last six decades or so.

Process of renaissance

From a freedom perspective, Kerala’s modernity may be said to epitomise the social actions of a community to fight successfully the caste, class iniquities and capability deprivations of the lower castes. It was a great process of renaissance that tried to discover human progress, exemplified in the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru and in the social demands of several community leaders of those times. The abolition of agrestic slavery and untouchability, the successful fighting for the right to worship in temples meant for the upper castes, the right to wear clothes of one’s choice, the right to walk on roads exclusively meant for the upper castes, and so on were great achievements towards enhancing people’s capabilities and freedom. Importantly these happened in a unique geographic environment of rich biodiversity, water bodies, mountain ranges, wetlands, and so on, which are rare natural endowments. Indeed, it is for the Kerala people and its governance system to carry forward the process of expanding freedoms, and development without damage to its unique ecosystems.

The ecological overkill that happened in recent decades cannot be seen independent of the political decision-making. The colonial rationality of exploiting natural resources cannot be the guiding principle of any socially responsible political party. However, that aggressively happened in Kerala. The majority of the State Legislative Committees on Environment, except the 16th, which submitted its Report to the Assembly on July 4, 2019, were lukewarm to the issue of Kerala’s unique environment. The 16th Report speaks of the “cruel and mean” interventions in Idukki and Wayanad districts, besides pointing out that the illegal quarries were “ten times” the legal ones. That even after the floods and landslides, more quarrying and crushing units were granted amidst protests shows that the concern for the future of the State is but rhetoric.

Despite the constraints of a State in India’s quasi-federation, the quality of State and local politics is key to reducing corruption, conserving the environment, improving higher education and health care, and making policy choices that enhance freedom and social equity. That Keralites voted a Communist government to power in 1957, which initiated several progressive measures besides delivering an uncorrupt regime in the early years, cannot be forgotten. Kerala has come a long way from there.

Trajectory of development

In retrospect, the development trajectory over the last 62 years shows an early phase which sought to sustain the egalitarian project whereas the period between 1979 and 1988 witnessed a stagnation of the economy. This was followed by two events which radically altered the character of Kerala’s polity, society and economy: (a) the growing outmigration of Keralites following the Gulf boom which resulted in a steady flow of remittances and (b) the introduction of Central government-led economic reforms towards liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation which not only accelerated the foreign remittance inflow, but also promoted the market-mediated growth process. These forces triggered an unprecedented increase in per capita consumption (resulting in generation of waste) and unleashed a construction boom that adversely impacted the environment, widened inequalities, and created a service-led growth process. In the absence of a strong and determined political leadership to steer the State towards a better tomorrow (which was contingent on the productive management of the inflow of foreign remittances), we see powerful real estate mafia, liquor mafia, forest mafia, sand mafia, quarry mafia, and so on hijacking the development process. Mafia groups can bend rule of law and accountability norms. The Maradu building complexes of Kochi that attracted the wrath of the Supreme Court and the Palarivattom bridge that is under demolition are standing monuments of the endemic corruption underway. The State Finance Minister, Thomas Isaac, wrote in 2000: “Contractors made big profits, which were shared with politicians who connived to grant the work, engineers who gave technical sanction and monitored the work, as well as clerical staff who approved payment of bills.”

Looking back the situation has only worsened. Frequent custodial deaths, political murders, increase in crime, atrocities against women, increase in liquor consumption, increase in per day deaths caused by road accidents, and so on are disquieting signs. Can the political class ignore the writing on the wall?

Where is public action?

A moot question any concerned citizen may ask is: what has happened to Kerala’s public action tradition? That public reasoning worked well in Kerala cannot be denied. Unseeability, untouchability and agrestic slavery that alienated the Dalits, and several rituals and superstitions among the Namboodiris, came to be accepted as irrational by the public. Of late, particularly after the emergence of innumerable political parties with the support of religious and community leaders, Kerala has become a virtual post-truth society. The TV debates of many Malayalam channels will bear this out. Civil society is fast slipping away from public rationality and public morality.

True, public action will affect different social groups with diverse initial endowments differently. The ethnographic study of Osella and Osella (2000) documents how the progress of the Izhava community from a former untouchable class achieved tremendous social mobility and progress by making the best use of their exposure to modernity. On the other hand, the Dalits, the real tillers, got only homestead rights and many were confined to ‘colonies of Harijans’ which were certainly not uplifting choices for them. Similarly the Adivasis and fisherfolk were marginalised because they too were outside the political society and its discourse. That the marginalised communities remain as outliers is a conspicuous social failure.

The divided communities and multiplicity of political parties have fragmented the society and slackened the expansion of a reasoned public sphere. University and the higher education system have become a caricature of what they ought to be. Student, teacher and bureaucrats’ politics dissipate the time and energy of universities whose primary purpose is the production and dissemination of knowledge. Has the stream of reason lost its way in Kerala?

M.A. Oommen is an Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram

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