August 03, 2020
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...And He Can Keep It

God, that is. His Own Country has the largest suicide rate, the worst crime figures, the highest unemployment numbers and the biggest per capita consumption of liquor. It needs some saving.

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...And He Can Keep It
Madhu Kapparath
...And He Can Keep It
Kerala's Shining Numbers
If statistics were all that mattered, Kerala is a stunning success of development

Kerala All India
Human Development Index Rank (2001) 1
Sex Ratio (women per 1000 men, 2001) 1058 933
Literacy Rate (% - 2001) 91 65
Life Expectancy at birth (years, 1992-96) 73 61
Infant Mortality Rate (per 1000, year 2000) 14 68
Maternal Mortality Rate (per 1,00,000 live births, 1998) 198 407
Data Sources: Indices: National Human Development Report, Planning Commission; Sex Ratio, Literacy: Census 2001; IMR: Planning Commission Tenth Plan (2002-07); MMR: National Human Development Report

And The Darkness They Conceal
Kerala's impressive figures obscure the appalling truth of a society in deep trouble

Suicide: The state is No. 1 in India, with 9,000 reported suicide deaths a year, or 27 per day. There are 80,000 reported attempts annually.

Crime: India’s highest crime rate; 306.1 crimes committed per 1,000 people per year (national crime rate, 176.7 per thousand).

Joblessness: The worst in India; 36% and 34% respectively of the rural and urban population in the 15-29 age group are unemployed.

Atrocities Against Women: The number of these crimes has risen fourfold in the past seven years; 22.7% of all Malayali women suffer some form of violation.

Foeticide: There were 962 girls for every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group in 2001, down from 976 in 1971.

Alcoholism: Each year Kerala guzzles 8.3 litres of liquor per person, the highest in India, and nearly three times the national rate.

Sources: Conference titled "Towards a Statewide Strategy for Suicide Prevention", Thiruvananthapuram, January 2004; National Crime Records Bureau (Ministry of Home Affairs), 2000; Employment Generating Growth, May 2002, Planning Commission, Labour Ministry, 2002; Kerala Calling, a Govt of Kerala publication, March 2004; Kerala Women’s Commission; Census 2001; Global Alcohol Policy Alliance, 2003 and Kerala Distillers and Bottlers Federation, April 2003.

Mortal predicaments abound in God’s Own Country. Finding face, for now, in the forlorn figure lying in a senseless sprawl on a cot in ward no. 25 at Thiruvananthapuram’s Mental Health Centre. He’s a thirtysomething twelfth-pass unemployed heavily-in-debt wife-beating suicidal alcoholic, reveals the woman sitting in a dejected perch on the edge of his bed. She is his wife, attending to him on his third foray into a mental hospital in two years. "There are many many men like my husband in Kerala," she declares dismally, "Very unhappy..."

...To get to the pulse of this sadness, we would have to journey into the dark heart of Kerala. Travelling for the next many days, from Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam, Alleppey, Kochi up to Kozhikode. Through this coastal land of 44 rivers and two rainy seasons that breeds greens; greens that conquer land, float over water and reach up to palm the skies. This state where on weekdays we would spot no children on roads till way past noon, when schools get over. Where we would have bus conductors chat us up on the pros and cons of liberalisation. Strike up conversations on how land reforms have been jolly good for social equity in Kerala with an approving Malayali elite in premier country clubs. Hear graceful aged Nair women speak nostalgically of their matrilineal moorings. Have academics hand us reams on the "Kerala Model of Development".

And we’d discover a much sadder story about Kerala than the one that statistics had persuaded we chase. The huge and growing numbers on suicides, unemployment, alcoholism, crime, violence against women, domestic harassment in the state had got us curious. More so, since these numbers were coming from such an advanced state with high literacy, low infant mortality, low fertility, high life expectancy; from India’s best state according to the Planning Commission’s last computation of human development in the country. Both sets of numbers, the good and the bad, came alive as we traversed Kerala, not to contradict each other, but to mix and merge in ambiguous cause and effect. Birthing a story about Kerala’s unleveraged achievements, her stunted possibilities, about the frustrations of men and women whom progress has taught aspirations and then kept them unfulfilled.

Unemployment Women who qualified for jobs but were not recruited protest in Thiruvananthapuram

A handful of women defy the blazing sun with some dozen rickety umbrellas outside the Kerala State Public Service Commission office in Thiruvananthapuram. Having passed the test to become police constables in year 2000, they are protesting their continuing joblessness in 2004. A banner identifies them as "Women Police Rank Holders", a body of women who weren’t given the jobs they qualified for because far too many qualified, and training facilities fell short. With a few more days to go before their sit-out completes a month, frustrations rise higher than the sappy summer heat. One protester, Bessy P. Verghese, MA (Malayalam), verbalises her perplexity: "All this chest-thumping about how literate Kerala is! Post-graduates are hankering for a Rs 3,500 job! We’d make more money if we were illiterate drivers!"

A realisation that many in Kerala are struggling to make peace with. M.Keshavan, LLB, MSW(Masters in Social Work), and R.Vinayakan Nair, llb, are now bus conductors. A decade ago, even matriculates wouldn’t stoop so low in the job hierarchy, they say, "but today every other government bus driver and conductor is a graduate, many are MAs, we even have two engineers." It’s better than being unemployed, admits Vinayakan, but "lawyers who become bus conductors despair sometimes. If it can’t get you a job, what good is a degree?"

Kerala’s greatest achievement is its 91 per cent literacy rate.But having ensured basic schooling for all, it faltered in scripting similar success in market-relevant higher education.Even Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whose engagement with Kerala’s development is well-known, underlined this shortcoming in a speech in 2000: "It is possible that Kerala could have done much more to suit the demands of the contemporary age, including a focus on the rapidly expanding information economy." But Kerala didn’t. Instead, as large numbers of students passed out of schools and the demand for degrees escalated, ‘affiliated colleges’ mushroomed, churning out graduate, and later post-graduate degrees. "These institutions provided and continue to provide a type of education completely unrelated to the manpower requirements of the economy or the development needs of the state," writes Joseph Tharamangalam in his paper The Social Roots of Kerala’s Development Debacle. "Vast numbers of graduates are not only unemployed but non-employable." Add to that the state’s rigidity in changing the relative importance of its economic sectors and it compounds the unemployment numbers, says Abusaleh Shariff, chief economist, ncaer: "While the Indian economy has shifted from agriculture to being service sector-oriented, Kerala hasn’t been able make any such switch which would have generated jobs for her educated."

Work Ethic Men pass their time at noon reading newspapers at a Kottayam bus stop

That’s the expert analysis. But the average Keralite’s take on the unemployment crisis is far more self-critical. Here are some mouthfuls on the Malayali’s work ethic from people the state over. "Outside Kerala, Keralites are the most industrious workers, they’ll work for a pittance. Here, if not paid what they want, they would rather count coconut trees and discuss socialism." "Having bought into the literacy myth totally, even though it has not even taught us fluent English, each of us wants a white-collar job. Or we won’t work at all." "Construction labour, agricultural work...the Malayali won’t do these for less than the prescribed daily wages, the highest in the country mind you. So, men from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, even Bihar and Orissa come here and take these jobs!" "Unemployment? There’s a shortage of labour here. Try finding a plumber or an electrician in Kochi, you’ll be negotiating with some union before you get one!"

Ah, unions. There are more unions in Kerala, quips a Malayali wit, than causes for them to rally around. And yet another of the state’s historic good fortunes seems squandered away. The tradition of community movements, after all, had made social and land reforms possible here. The legacy of public mobilisation thrives still, and coupled with the state’s Leftist temperament, has spawned thousands of unions and associations. But the goals of these bodies, now, seem limited to squeezing out benefits from the State. "Unions now are mere pressure groups," says Prof M.N.V. Nair, chairman of Thiruvananthapuram-based Public Affairs Forum, "doing little other than forcing the government into becoming a patronage-dispensing agency". For instance, money in universities can hardly go into improving academic infrastructure when the demands of at least some 10 associations need to be pandered to: teachers, laboratory assistants, fourth-class employees, pensioners.... Unions in Kerala, regret many, are now mostly about collective haggling with the government.

Naturally, the state’s image as the home of unreasonable unionism costs it dear. Typically, even as a circa-2000 cii survey ranks Kerala third among all Indian states on "investment attractiveness," investments from outside are rare. "We’ve missed out on all the booms—real estate, dotcom, biotech.Now the bpo boom is passing us by," regrets G.Vijaya Raghavan, founder and former ceo of Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark, "This despite having India’s first cyberpark—our best-kept secret—and half the workforce in Bangalore’s IT industry probably being Malayali!" With the umpteen hartals and bandhs here, says he, no one with a 24/7 business wants to set up shop: "We simply are not seen as a state that can guarantee uninterrupted business." Kottayam-based Ravi D.C, ceo, DC Books, a leading publishing house, goes as far as to insist that public action has become a way of disguising the personal lethargy of Malayalis. Sued every other day for reasons like a book having two pages less than advertised, alleged bias in content, "objectionable" cover designs, Ravi should know: "pils, dharnas, strikes, anything but work, engages people here!"

Ask the uninitiated what they know about Kerala, and bet you the top replies will be: "God’s Own Country," "100 per cent literacy," and "matrilineal society". Fact is, matriliny, or the marumakkathayam system—where names and properties descended through the family’s female line—was practised only by the Nairs and legally means nothing today. Add to that the state’s 88 per cent female literacy, as against the country’s 54 per cent, and it substantiates the perception that Kerala has always uniquely empowered her women.

Gender Huge ads aimed at the dowry market are all over Kochi—and the rest of the state

Yet, the signs of Kerala imitating the rest of the country’s bias against women are now unmistakable. Its gender ratio for the zero-to-six age group is down to 962 girls per 1000 boys in census 2001, as against 976 in 1971. There were about 100 ultrasound centres in the state a decade ago, now there are close to 850, indicating a sharp rise in sex-selective abortions.

The symbols of chauvinism get gaudier. Huge hoardings of women covered in gold up their heads higher than the palm trees in big towns and small, cities and villages. "Weighed down by gold on every part of the body, brides here nowadays, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, can barely walk straight. We had no tradition of dowry, today it’s commonplace," regrets social scientist K. Sardamoni, author of Matriliny Transformed: Family, Law and Ideology in Twentieth Century Travancore, "The measure of Kerala’s regression in every aspect of life can be traced to the ill-treatment being meted out to her women both outside and within the home."

Numbers quantifying such cruelty are in fervent supply wherever we go. Cases of atrocities against women have increased fourfold in the last seven years, feminists inform us. Aleyamma Vijayan of Sakhi, a Thiruvananthapuram-based women’s resource centre, reads us a Malayala Manorama clipping: the experience of six women scribes from the newspaper as they fanned out across the state this January. Each encounters sexual harassment, and 71 per cent of the women they interview say that travel in Kerala is unsafe for women. Meanwhile, Sakhi’s own study—in the data compilation stage—finds about 38 per cent of its respondents in three districts are victims of domestic violence. In Kozhikode, Anweshi, a counselling centre for women, has registered 302 cases between April 2002 and February 2003: the largest chunk, 165, are complaints of domestic harassment. Analyses activist-counsellor K. Ajitha: "This is about dowry, alcoholism and the hurt ego of the jobless Malayali male."

An inmate at Anweshi’s short-stay home for women, twentysomething Shobhana pacifies her bawling year-old daughter with biscuit bits, inconsolable herself for having dumped her older son in an orphanage.A week into marriage, her husband began thrashing her: "He would work in spurts, find no regular job, get drunk, force sex on me in front of my son.I attempted suicide many times; once when I fell unconscious trying to kill myself he stole my earrings and bought liquor." Ugly drunken dramas played out in the domestic space are a recurrent theme.At Athani, a distress home for women in Thiruvananthapuram, young Rekha says her alcoholic father would never have let her complete her studies if she’d stayed home. She’s doing a Malayalam (Hons), and there are other girls like her at Athani. Girls staying in a distress home to study? Says poet-activist Sugathakumari of Athani: "They’ve left nothing. Drunken abusive men don’t make homes, women all over Kerala will tell you that."

Mental Health Substance abusers and suicidal patients find help at a mental healthcare centre

On the road from Alleppey to Changanassery, the skies pour a watery haze. It’s just past four in the afternoon, but in Kerala rains can obliterate the youngest sun. Quite nothing is visible, but the toddy-joint signboards still show through. Doesn’t even matter that we don’t know the Malayalam script: so ubiquitous are the signs—about 10 in a 24-km stretch—that our eyes have learnt to recognise them. Inside, a mouldy pungent smell and listless men hang. Drinking opaque-white country liquor in used beer bottles, with chillied-lemon, or bits of fried meat. Our cabbie, sympathetic because I’ve been thrown out of two such joints for being a woman, helps: "They drink here from morning to evening. Women make liquor at home also, or people buy a bottle of rum and split it. They drink because they’re sad, they don’t have money. Or because they have money."

Alcoholism Toddy shops line the Alleppey-Changanassery road, separated by a few metres from each other

And then, suddenly, the numbers on Kerala’s unemployment, high liquor consumption, zooming crime rate, domestic violence all add up into a disturbing equation that needs urgent solving. "Kerala’s priorities for development need reassessment," says Dr S. Jayaram, medical superintendent at Thiruvananthapuram’s Mental Health Centre. "Literacy, physical health, even longevity mean little if there is no mental harmony, if people routinely end up killing themselves by the thousands." Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist at Delhi’s Centre for Studies of Developing Societies, had made the same point: "Development indices can’t measure human happiness. Do those who talk about the lucrative Gulf-remittance-economy of Kerala factor in the loneliness of families, sexual frustrations, boredom of those who return and don’t need to work, the ensuing alcoholism?"

Many in the state know how to make these uneasy connections, refusing to be dazzled by the Kerala Shining statistics. "Literacy, our trump card, means so little given the poor quality of our schools," says educationist Mary Roy. "The sole emphasis of our learning is speaking English, mugging up and taking competitive exams." Roy’s school, Pallikoodam, in Kottayam, tries hard to break this formula, is vigorously stress-free and has Malayalam as the medium of instruction in the lower classes.

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