India: A Glimpse of Reality in Kerala

University students in Trivandrum wearing salwar kameez. Image by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac. India, 2009.

SAKHI: a resource center for women. Image by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac. India, 2009.

Fish sellers in Trivandrum. Image by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac. India, 2009.

Our first interview in Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, yielded a disconcerting assertion. "The Kerala model is collapsing," declared C.K. Vishwanath, a youthful, intense authority on communal strife. We pressed for details, having flown halfway around the world to visit what experts said was an outstanding example of democratic social progress.

Our visitor elaborated: Yes, the south Indian state had achieved a first-world quality of life on meager average incomes, but it is a victim of its own success. "Kerala doesn't produce anything, so it can't provide job for its better-educated job seekers." Moreover, its health care system is being overstretched by an aging population as life-expectancy has reached Western standards.

All true, but based on first impressions, not the whole story. Our tour began with a glimpse of reality. We wheeled through much of Trivandrum, but did not encounter the omnipresent beggars, nor were we grabbed by roving gangs of children pleading for rupees that we found in central Mumbai. Instead, an air of animated cheerfulness permeated the streets, accented by a rainbow of faultless saris on the matrons and the now trendy salwar kameez of the twenty-somethings (a fashion which has now migrated south from the Punjab).

At the Center for Development Studies, Dr. Praveena Kodoth, acknowledged that that there weren't enough jobs for educated women and that Kerala's politicians, Left and Center, have been unresponsive. Before the reforms of the twentieth century, Kerala was a matrilineal society, but as Dr. Kodoth sadly remarked, the aim of schooling has been to prepare them to live in a patriarchal society. Women are still very much under represented in politics. In terms of wages, it's not that women are paid less for the same job but that the jobs they get pay less. For example, it is women who carry the bricks while men are the masons.

Not only are women workers the main pillar of the growing service sector but Kerala's tradition of democratic activism has been its abiding asset and potential salvation. We gleaned a whiff of that activism at SAKHI, a resource center for women, whose staff provides everything from counseling to a well-stocked circulating library for a roughly $6 a year fee. The center, partly funded by the Ford Foundation, began by helping the women who bring and sell fish at markets to unionize, the first step to bringing dignity to their difficult lives.

Yes, the extended life span in Kerala – 68 for men, and 74 for women – has put pressure on an underfunded public health system. Dr. V. Raman Kutty, chairman of the Health Action by People (HAP) Committee, agreed. But there is also pressure rising from the village level to widen health care services and increase government services beyond the current rock-bottom figure of one percent of the state's budget. Everyone was quick to add that they did not like the word "model," which implied that it needed no improvement; "the Kerala experience" promoted by the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen seemed more accurate. We will soon test all these ideas in two weeks on the road.