A journey to a South Indian state and the contradictions in its egalitarian ideals
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I had been battling continuous fatigue and exhaustion, largely mental and partly physical. A friend advised me to seek traditional Indian treatment. He chose ShinShiva, a treatment center in the southern Indian state of Kerala. ShinShiva is built like a resort on the shores of the Indian Ocean overlooking a beautiful beach. It is surrounded by trees and dense vegetation. Its residences overlook the giant ocean. Its walkways, snaking from one block to another through dense vegetation, reminded me of Aristotle’s school, Peripatetic, at Lyceum in Ancient Greece. The school was named Peripatetic because of the peripatoi (or walkways) through which the great philosopher would walk with his students while discoursing politics, astronomy, biology, ethics etc.
I could seek healing in peace and quiet away from work, friends, and my phone. I would do yoga which includes stretching the body and meditation, an exercise in mental control of your thoughts – to relax the mind and free it of worries. I would also have daily body massages using different traditional oils, herbs and aromas on top of my regular habit of running. These were supplemented by a strict vegetarian diet and traditional medications.
In my free time, I would sit on the balcony to my apartment and watch the waves of this giant ocean bounce off the beaches, enjoying the sound of this natural struggle between land and sea. Then I would listen to the birds singing, feel the cool breeze of the wind and watch trees bend to its unconscious will.
It was a sweet coincidence that I travelled with, among other books, Sylvia Tamale’s Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. It is a majestic piece of work written with passion and penetrating intellectual bite. The book is a call to all Africa to go back to our roots and stop aping what colonialists imposed up us. It was a sweet coincidence because I read it at a treatment center where Indians have largely preserved their traditional medicine while ours was destroyed by colonialism calling it witchcraft.
I first heard of Kerala in 2000 while a graduate student at the University of London. Peter Evans, in his book, Embedded Autonomy; States and Industrial Transformation, presents Kerala in romantic fashion. He argues that while Kerala was not successful at industrial transformation as South Korea and Taiwan, it was very successful as these industrial giants in engineering welfare outcomes such as provision of healthcare and education.
Recently, I read a World Bank study titled “How to make Rajasthan Kerala.” Rajasthan is a state in northern India. The paper showed high levels of teachers and medical workers absenteeism, poor delivery of basic services like water and electricity, issuing drivers’ licenses, collecting garbage, traffic policing etc. I am not sure whether Rajasthan can be turned into Kerala (even if they belong to the same country) given their different social and political dynamics, a huge debate best preserved for another day.
To return to the main subject, I run constantly on the streets of Kampala and the biggest menace is car fumes. Running on the busy roads of Kerala, I could not smell any fumes. I noticed signs of “pollution testing centers” and asked what they were about. I was told cars have to be checked for carbon emissions every six months. This is different from Mumbai, a city in the same country, where car fumes are akin to Kampala.
Everywhere I went, even in the remotest villages, they have tarmac roads. The quality of housing across the entire state is descent. I could hardly find a house built out of mud and wattle. Practically every house is built out of permanent materials, has piped water and electricity. This was intriguing for a state with a per capita income of $3,300 – the same as Ghana. Even if we adjusted it to Purchasing Power Parity, Kerala remains fairly poor. Like in all of India, internet access is very cheap and of good speed. At only Shs 30,000, one can gets unlimited internet access for a whole month.
Kerala even has fair price shops and canteens run by the state where its residents buy food at subsidized prices based on their income. Public transport is by buses run by the state at cheap rates. The government also provides free lunch to pupils at schools. The state even builds homes for the poor. In Kerala, including in its big cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, I could not find the kind of shacks for the poor that liter the slums of Mumbai. More impressive is the presence of trees everywhere. The entire state looks like one sprawling forest, every place is covered in trees including every private home or public building. I wondered whether this is culture or state action or both.
Most countries at Kerala’s level of income would find it difficult to deliver the range and quality of public goods and services it delivers to its people given their severe revenue constraints; only Rwanda can compete. Evans argues that these decent levels of welfare are not a result of enlightened government but rather of high levels of social mobilization. State action in Kerela has been a result of the activism of large numbers of people at the grassroots with dedicated leaders willing to struggle. If there is a shortage of medicines at the public clinic, the next day masses Keralans will be outside the district administrative hall protesting.
Kerala is a multi-religious state with 20% Christian, 34% Muslim and 44% Hindu. Yet there are no religious conflicts. The people there speak a common language and cooperate well in all spheres of social life. Politicians do not hide their poor performance behind appeals to identity. Kerala could be the only state in India where the communist party wins elections and runs government. The state government keeps alternating between the Congress and the Communists. But regardless of which party is in power, leaders there are under constant pressure from below to serve the common good.
Yet many Keralans leave the state to work in the Middle East and elsewhere. Some of the rich Indian friends always joke that Kerala’s enterprising citizens prosper elsewhere but in their home state. Why? Because mass mobilization by labor for high wages chases businesses away. Therefore, Kerala may have achieved high levels of social welfare and avoided high income inequality (its Gini coefficient is 0.29) and its accompanying social conflicts at the price of stifling business growth.
This is a critical contradiction. One society, like the USA, can allow unrestrained free enterprise with low wages leading to the growth of tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc. with their billionaires. The result would be to concentrate incomes at the top leaving very many people in big cities desperately poor and homeless. This tends to create social tensions with the country sitting on an active political volcano.
Kerala’s effective social mobilization ensures such big businesses pay their workers well; so, innovative entrepreneurs seeking to maximize returns on their investments go elsewhere in India and/or the world. Nonetheless, Keralans live almost a similar standard of living and the society has limited social dynamite. Which system is better? Here, there is no correct answer, only individual opinions and preferences. The problem with individual opinions and preferences is that they are like noses – everyone has one.