India can be an overwhelming place. There is so much to try to understand and so much that gets lost in translation. To no surprise to all of you who know me, since I have arrived I have been reading everything I can get my hands on. The local new agents laugh as I purchase every English language newspaper and news magazine they have. I have written some in my blog about the many contradicting faces of India and I realise that no matter how much I learn there will still be so much beyond my grasp.
In an effort to add even more substance and context to my trip, I decided to spend the last two weeks on a Global Exchange "Reality Tour" of the southern state of Kerala. Once again GX helped me connect with local leaders, professors, workers and activists so I could hear their stories and ask some of my ever expanding list of questions. It also gave me a group of fellow US travellers to share observations with.
Learning about Kerala, in the end, made India even more complicated but also even more interesting. But ok, now you are wondering why since I doubt too many of you have even ever heard of Kerala. I know I hadn't.
First off, it is important to understand that the national government of India is made up of 28 states that run semi independently on the local level. While national laws are passed it is up to the state government to decide how to implement them. The states very widely in their effectiveness and their policies towards their people.
Kerala is located on the South West Coast of India. It is known for beautiful beaches, meandering backwaters, lush green rice paddies and ayurvedic medicine. Although it is only 1.3% of the total landmass of India, it has 3.2% of the population, which makes it extremely densely populated. (More on this later) It is separated on the East by a mountain range so throughout history it has been able to develop independently from the rest of India using its coast as its main asset to open it up to the rest of the world.
For centuries it has been a trade center with all the great empires stopping here to buy it's spices. It was the midway point between the East and West trade routes so some traders set up in Kerala as middle men to sell the East's goods to the West and likewise. The Dutch, Portuguese, Jews and later the Brits settled in as trade partners. This is important because it has meant that Kerala was richer and had different influences than other parts of India.
Kerala's most valuable product was black pepper. In fact it was the only cultivator of black pepper in the world, which was called "black gold" because of its high value, especially in a world without refrigeration where it was used to disguise the taste of rancid meat. Today they still produce pepper, cardamom, tea, rubber, (both brought in by the Brits.) and of course rice. Many many many kinds of rice.
Trade brought people from all religions to settle on Kerala's coasts. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians lived side by side depending on each other for trade and digging roots into society that are still visible today.
Kerala's Christian community is said to be 300 years older than Europe's after a visit in 52 AD by St. Thomas the Apostle spread its gospel into the community and today the signs of Christianity are everywhere with giant basilica's and tiny chapels lining the roads. (This is quite a contrast to North India.)
The Jews played a major role in local trade. One historian told us they were the most important traders of all. They formed settlements along the coast, but today unfortunately there is only a small community called Jew Town left in Cochin. (I'm not kidding, that is the name of the place.) After the great migration to Israel, most Jews left Kerala and now there are only 13 left to take care of their beautiful synagogue and their significant place in Keralan history.
Kerala has had a long history of progressivism that has made its development stand out from other parts of India. Proudly, it produced the first democratically elected Communist government after Indian independence. Years of progressivism here lead to a different development experience. One professor told us that where the rest of the world says it must create wealth and then spread it (IE. trickle down), in Kerala they have tried to distribute whatever wealth they have. The result is that two major land redistributions have taken place, services like health care and education are available to all and there is a co-operative movement to raise wages and increase worker protections.
This set of values comes from various differences in historical development in Kerala. One factor was that the royal families in Kerala were more benevolent and took better care of their people. (While in North India, I visited many palaces and temples built by the Indian royalty. Wealth was lavished on symbol and spectacle but rarely shared with the people they oversaw.) Instead in Kerala the royal families lived in a more modest fashion. Some examples are that vaccinations were introduced in Kerala before they were in Europe and schools were built to educate a larger group of citizens then other parts of India. Ayurvedic medicine was also developed here and provides a historic foundation to a better medical system than the rest of India and many parts of the world.
Literacy also spread here first. One reason was with the rise of trade in the late 1800's it became necessary for trader families to educate at least one family member so that that person could manage the books and deal with trade law and other business matters when dealing with international traders. The result was that communities built schools and by the 1930s 32% of Keralans were literate compared to single digits in the rest of India.
The rise of trade wealth also contributed to the growth in the social movement. While attempting to explain the caste system to all of you would be impossible here, suffice it to say that it is a system built out of Hindu religious doctrine to keep some people living with privilege and most without. In history, India had never prized its merchant class and the pursuit of wealth, so while these Muslim, Christian and Jewish traders were beginning to gain wealth and education there were still held back by the traditions of the caste system and they yearned and began to strive for more respect and a higher place in society.
The social movement was gaining strength in the 20's and by the 30s this movement was meshed with the rising tides of socialism and communism peculating around the world during the depression. Its themes were land redistribution, education, worker's rights, a basic minimum wage and were being taught by the progressive educated people locally and by the actions of the post revolution Soviet Union.
All this meant that at the time of Indian Independence in 1947, Keralites were ready to embrace the future and make some major changes in their society. In 1956 their state was officially formed and by 1957-8 the new Communist government was elected and began actively preaching its theories of social change. By the time official laws passed to proceed with land reform in 1971, land owning upper caste people were prepared and ready to distribute their land to the middle castes who had been leasing the land from them. Small parcels of land were also given to the the lower castes who worked the land for their houses, but eventually another set of of land reform had to happen to redistribute the land even further.
What seems interesting about this land redistribution is that in many places it was lead by the progressive educated members of land-owning families who with their knowledge and experience with other world movements were fueling the change.
Although the experience varies widely, we visited the Panjal Village and met one elder brahmin play write. He told us about the experience in his village. He said "we went out to meet the farmers and asked them to revolt against us." (This man was famous for writing satirical plays that spread the Communist message in a way that was undetected by the powers he was criticizing.)
With this basic land redistribution of land and resources as well as a commitment to education, Kerala has flourished since Independence. It has almost 100% literacy in a country with a 65% average. Life expectancy has reached 76+ for girls and 71+ for boys born today up from an average of 50-51 years at Independence. The rest of India has a life expectancy average of about 60 years. They have mostly eradicated extreme malnutrition. There is wide spread medical care including check-ups, physical exams, immunizations, blood tests, pre-natal care and one doctor told us proudly that over 90% of babies are born in hospitals contribution to very low infant mortality rates.
Because of Kerala's higher population density, (They say Kerala is twice as dense as New Jersey.) basic amenities are easier for the government to provide. There is no noticeable separation between villages so people don't have to travel large distances to find a hospital, school or a post office. These government services can be evenly distributed and all can be broadly used. One little stat is that 60% of Keralans have a phone compared to 10% of other Indians and no Keralite lives more than 100 yards from a phone. Due to high literacy rates, Kerala has the highest level of computer penetration in India and Keralites take real pride in reading the paper and having a base knowledge of the world. Many people told us that Keralites have an opinion about everything!!!
In fact it is embarrassing to see how much their know about our political system and our daily political battles knowing how little Americans pay attention to our own system. Our feelings about President Bush and the Iraq war were constantly challenged by every speaker we met.
What was even more impressive to me was the scale of political participation. On one the streets of the capital city, Trivandrum, on my arrival, my car had to stop three times because of three separate protests and marches. On other days we walked by sit down strikes, hunger strikes and large marches. One speaker told us that initially the people were being taught about society by being exposed to the social unrest on the streets. On the way to or from school students were stopped on every corner by activists and lecturers speaking passionately about one issue or another.
Ideas area also spread organically here. In Kerala goods are still delivered door to door daily in the milkman fashion. So every day the fish monger comes to your door. Along the way he may hear that such and such kind of fish is good for you because it is high in Omega 3 fatty acids and he will spread this information to his customers in their daily chats. Doctors actually use this method to distribute their health information along with a comprehensive educational radio system where they distribute information about health, hygiene, prenatal care... through a talk radio type format. We were told that the radio was on all day in a typical Kerala household.
The most inspiring by-product of this political base and social movement came in 1996. In 1992 India's national government passed two constitutional amendments that attempted to decentralize the huge national government by delegating certain administration functions and bringing the responsibilities for providing certain services to the local level. It was believed that this would help lower corruption and bring more accountability to the government.
There have been various levels of success throughout India, but, here again, Kerala was prepared to do even more with it. This change in national policy opened up the chance of creating a genuine local democracy and in 1996 Kerala launched the "People's Plan" with "power to the people" as their slogan. This plan empowered the decentralization movement which has radically changed the way services are provided. Unlike other Indian states, Kerala took an additional step and gave local governments control of the money along with the political responsibility. This gave them real power to achieve local goals and priorities.
The new Panchayat system brought political control of the communities functions down to the local people. The process was developed deliberately and systematically. People were invited to attend local meetings to discuss local issues. Committees were developed. Priorities were agreed on and throughout the process people were constantly coming together to share their local development plans and integrate them at the various levels of government.
Since democracy of this fashion is a complicated process each step in this journey was taken with training. Skills such as how to organize and run a meeting, how to draft a report, how to prepare a budget and importantly how to set up safeguards against corruption, were some of the training themes.
While I could delve deeper into the details if probably makes more sense to tell you about a specific Panchayat that we visited and a few of the programs that we visited there.
We travelled up to the most Northern district in Kerala to visit the Pallikkara Village Panchayat of the Kasaragod district. Just describing the welcome they they gave us could fill pages but just imagine our bus arriving to the open arms of an entire village. Banana leaf banners "Welcoming delegates from the USA" were placed at the doorway. Flashing cameras of the local press made us feel like celebrities going down the runway. Beautiful women gave us fresh cut roses on our way in the door and delicious coconuts to drink during our discussion. It took us a few minutes to get over the "we're not worthy" overwhelmed feeling before we could get down to learning about the great work they were accomplishing there.
We were able to spend the entire day with the entire elected leadership of the Panchayat as well as other activists in the community. They piled onto to our bus and toured us all over the community.
One sign of their activism is that after our individual introductions we heard our group leader describing in their local language how we feel about the Iraq war and the themes of globalization (or at least that is what it sounded like "blah blah blah Iraq. blah blah blah globalization...". As I said before, we soon learned that almost every conversation we were going to have in Kerala included some reference to our feelings about US policies. In fact the TV reporter that travelled with us all day in the village later interviewed us for the TV on our feelings about the war and US foreign policy. Again with that I'm not worthy feeling... Does my opinion even really matter at home? Well, to an entire community watching the evening news we were one face of the US they rarely see.
Ok, back to their programs and inspirational work...
This panchayat was running a public health center, 4 family welfare centers, an agricultural office, 15 primary schools, 4 secondary schools among many other things. Their programs focused on micro enterprises (via micro loans), sanitation, poverty eradication, providing housing and environmental programs.
What was thrilling and inspiring to me is that I keep reading that somehow India is moving people out of extreme poverty but on the surface its really hard to see how. But these programs are real examples of how this it is done. In 1996, when they began their work 34% of the local families were homeless. Now that number is 4% and now only 4% of households have no toilet. (Another of their major initiatives.)
On an even more local level, we met with one of the 154 Women's Self-Help Groups that have been established since 1996 to help build the community and support the population there. These small groups meet weekly to discuss community issues, health issues and even topics like violence against women. They then area able to take any problems to the Panchayat leadership for help. The group we met with has 26 member families. One women from each family is allowed to attend the weekly meeting. They told us that it has created a sense of community that has helped them solve their problems. Each week every family gives 10 rupees (22 cents) into a fund that is used for micro loans for the group. It helps fund joint economic projects like growing vegetables for their consumption or another project we went to had set up a cashew processing co-operative that was bringing steady work and wages where there has not been any. Funds are also used as a safety net to help with unexpected hospital bills or educational scholarships and it is decided within the group what the best use is.
Mostly the example of community empowerment and the dramatic successes of micro loans were inspiring and very concrete examples of the small economic progresses being made here. while it is true that programs like these are not as prevalent outside Kerala, they are happening and creating hope where they was none before.
Kerala is a bright light within India and is a wonderful example of what people can accomplish if they are empowered. Upon seeing some of these programs first hand I see the possibility of bringing real change to the developing world. I am reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat along the way and towards the end he begins to outline some of the basic changes that need to be made to bring everyone into this new flat world. The most crucial things are less corruption and more democracy and the Kerala decentralization plan does just this. It is crucial to spread education and literacy to create the possible foundation for this change.
Ok, enough lecturing, but for those of you who made it to the end of this piece I hope you enjoyed what you learned. I am coming home soon and hope to at least write one more travelogue, but I thought a little substance would be good for you all too.