Kerala: Nothing Ever Changes
March 18, 2010, 02:21 AM
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The BBC reports on Kerala in southwest India, west of booming Bangalore. Kerala is a sort of Nicholas Kristof Utopia. But all is not well:
Why is India's most socially developed state - and one of the developing world's most advanced regions - an economic laggard?

This question about Kerala, known all over the world for its lush landscapes, sun-drenched beaches and idyllic backwaters, has been a subject of intense debate among economists and social scientists.Kerala defies all stereotypes of a "socially backward" Indian state - swathes of people living in abject poverty, men outnumbering women because of female foeticide, internecine caste politics.

Many of its social indicators are on par with the developed world and it has the highest human development index in India.

It also has the highest literacy rate (more than 90%) and life expectancy in India, lowest infant mortality, lowest school drop-out rate, and a fairly prosperous countryside.

That's not all.

In contrast to India's more prosperous states, like Punjab and Haryana, Kerala can boast a very healthy gender ratio - women outnumber men here.

Life expectancy for women is also higher than for men, as in most developed countries. Thanks to a matrilineal society, women, by and large, are more empowered than in most places in India.

When it comes to low population growth, Kerala competes with Europe and the US. And all but two districts of the state have a lower fertility rate than that needed to maintain current population levels.

All this happened because of the region's early trading connections with the West - the Portuguese arrived here in the 15th Century, followed by the Dutch and then the British - and a long history of social reforms initiated by the missionaries and the kings of two princely states that were later integrated to create Kerala. [I believe Kerala has a Christian population going back to Doubting Thomas the Apostle.]

And thanks to pioneering land reforms initiated by a Communist government in the late 1950s, the levels of rural poverty here are the lowest in India. Decent state-funded health care and education even made it the best welfare state in India.

Yet, today, Kerala is a straggler economy almost entirely dependent on tourism and remittances sent back by two million of its people who live and work abroad, mostly in the Gulf.

Joblessness is rife due to the lack of a robust manufacturing base - more than 15% in urban areas, three times the national average. More than 30 million people live in the densely populated state, a third of which is covered by forests

More people here are taking their lives than anywhere else in India. Alcoholism is a dire social problem - the state has India's highest per capita alcohol consumption. People migrate because there are no jobs at home.

Apparently, nothing much has changed in the dozen years since The Atlantic ran an article on Kerala in 1998 praising it as "Poor but Prosperous" (but the details painted a darker picture).
My guess is that the lesson is that if you want to turn your country into Sweden, it's best to get fairly rich first.