The Gujarat development model has become an object of desire for much of India. And this is what the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, promises the masses. But much like the village in Gaul which holds out against the Romans in Asterix, emerald Kerala is not waiting to be transformed into Gujarat. No, in fact the mention of the Gujarat model, which mercifully Modi did not raise on his lightning visit to Kerala before the state went to polls, sets the excitable Malayali off into paroxysms of rage. “Model, what model?” is the question in that marbles-in-the-mouth accent when you dare speak of the Gujarat model.
Malayalis are proud, justifiably so to some extent, of their model of development which had become world famous much before the Gujarat one. It was a model based on improving health, education and quality of life for people. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen would often hold it up as an example. But, the foundations of this holistic model of growth were laid in part by the enlightened maharajas and in part later by the church, which invested heavily in health and education. Not the politicians.
The fact that the Kerala model has not brought economic prosperity is in contrast with Gujarat, which has been corporatised in a dazzling manner but has abysmal development indicators. But Kerala has little to cheer about. Thanks to ruinous politics, especially of the Left, the state has not been able to build on its enviable social indicators. A literate population has few jobs within the state. The ugly and violent unionisation has led to manufacturers fleeing the state as well as skilled and unskilled labour migrating to better pastures.
Education has not brought with it the social enlightenment it should have. Behind the natural beauty is a tale of despair, alcoholism, wife battering and suicides. The state consumes the highest amount of alcohol per capita. A drive along the waterways in the evening brings with it the ugly spectacle of drunken men lurching their way home, most usually to beat up their wives. Child abuse at the hands of relatives is rampant. Many people have nothing productive to do, so they immerse their inadequacies in drink and the violence it brings with it.
Such a model, feted around the world, ought have created a safe space for women. The opposite is true. The ugly leering and often molestation that many sniffy south Indians feel are the prerogative of the ‘ugly northerner’ are part of the social milieu in Kerala. Educated women do not have much voice within the home or within society. Even the political system is skewed against women and Kerala has a very low number of women in politics.
In a state with few means of income generation, there is suicidal rush to keep up with the Joneses, or Pillais, Mathews or Ahmeds, so to speak. So people live far beyond their means on loans. When it comes to repayment, the trouble starts, often leading to suicides. The single-biggest factor for people going into debt seems to be marriages. Along the narrow highways, gigantic signs advertise ornate wedding saris and gold. Oddly enough, hirsute and swarthy ageing Malayali male cine stars advertise gold jewellery and gold loans. One image I found particularly amusing, if disturbing, was that of a film hero,holding up a delicate bangle in a hairy hand. The underlying unspoken message was ‘if you cannot afford gold for your daughter, do take a loan available on easy terms and buy these lovely trinkets we are advertising.’ The gullible do with fatal consequences.
There are hordes of people who have been turfed out of jobs in the Gulf. The government was meant to help them get jobs or other relief in return for having faithfully sustained the state’s economy with their remittances. Of course, such help is not forthcoming and many of them cannot even maintain the homes they built with their savings. This has forced distress sales and along with this the entry of land sharks who prey on these unfortunate people. Murders of the elderly left alone after their children have migrated to find jobs are commonplace as are robberies. The culprits often cite buying luxury goods as a reason for having committed thefts.
In the get rich rush, environmental norms have been sidestepped though unlike in Goa it has not made national headlines. This has meant much greater pollution, a shrinkage of water sources and the destruction of flora and fauna. But under cover of the development model, governments have glossed over the many shortcomings of growth, if it can be called that, in this tiny state.
Tourism and ayurveda are doing reasonably well, in spite of the comrades wanting to shut things down on the grounds that the local people are being exploited. Evidently, the only people who have the copyright to exploit are the comrades themselves with their technoparks and TV channels. The Gujarat model has been roundly criticised by many. But the Kerala model, which has flaws, has got off lightly. Its gains are increasingly becoming meaningless because they have not been built on. There has been no value addition.
So we have two models to choose from. One, where the investor is wooed and social indices are given short shrift. The other where the investor is frightened off and social indices are commendable. Not much to choose from really, unless the two models were merged to make one glorious blueprint. Not something that is likely to happen in a hurry unless the new government happens to be far more progressive and imaginative than we expect it to be.