A Left agenda for Kerala

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee addressing the inaugural session of the congress in Thiruvananthapuram on December 9. - C. RATHEESH KUMAR

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee addressing the inaugural session of the congress in Thiruvananthapuram on December 9. - C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The second International Congress on Kerala Studies, organised by the AKG Centre for Research and Studies, charts out a path for Kerala's development in a neo-liberal environment.

in Thiruvananthapuram THERE were nay-sayers in the past too, but as Kerala gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its formation in 2006, there is no questioning the claim that the unique path of development that the State chose to ensure social gains for its people in a typically Third World economic context was the result of targeted policy initiatives and years of public action of the communist movement. In the first elections to the Kerala Assembly in 1957, the undivided Communist Party of India was the only political force that went to the people with a proposal for the development of Kerala on the basis of discussions held by it nearly a year earlier to evolve a framework for Left activity in the new State.

"The communist proposal for building a democratic and prosperous Kerala" became the driving force behind the State's achievements in land reforms, literacy, universal education, health care and a series of social security measures, including the provisioning of minimum wages and public distribution of food in the years that followed - proposals that were outstanding, especially in a State where political coalitions led by the Congress had been known for their spur-of-the-moment, election-eve policy declarations that their governments hardly ever followed through.

By the early 1990s, however, when neo-liberal economic policies began to be implemented in the country, the Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), again announced that remarkable though the results of its early development vision had been, four decades later, an alarming economic situation had developed in the State and it was once again time for Kerala to re-orient its policies.

It was in this background that the CPI(M)-run AKG Centre for Research and Studies organised the first International Congress on Kerala Studies in Thiruvananthapuram in 1994 to open a dialogue between scholars involved in studies about Kerala and socio-political leaders worried about the state of its economy in order to help political parties and social organisations find solutions to the new problems affecting Kerala society. Veteran communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who led the organisers of the congress, famously declared: "Let not the praise that scholars shower on Kerala for its achievements divert attention from the intense economic crisis that we face. We are behind other States of India in respect of economic growth, and a solution to the crisis brooks no delay. We can ignore our backwardness in respect of employment and production only at our own peril."

Eleven years later, CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat renewed the call at the second International Congress on Kerala Studies held in Thiruvananthapuram from December 9 to 11, 2005, asking Kerala to chalk out a new "non-sectarian" Left agenda for its development during the next 10 years "to protect the gains of the past and craft a viable path to the future".

The call for a new agenda for Kerala's development comes at a time when the concerns expressed earlier about the State's crisis in material production, both in agriculture and industry, and employment, and threats to the significant social gains made by it through decades of struggle have become more acute as a result of imperialist globalisation and the pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies. As former Chairman of the State Finance Commission Prabhat Patnaik explained at the congress, the motive behind organising the first congress was the concern that while an equally egalitarian State such as West Bengal that had provided similar social gains for its people could simultaneously ensure a dynamic agricultural growth rate and a resultant resurgence in the industrial sector, Kerala had consistently failed to be a good performer in such sectors.

Hence one of the major outcomes of the first congress was the decision to launch the democratic decentralisation experiment in order to bring about an institutional change in the State. A substantial decentralisation of resources and decision-making carried out through the elected local bodies was expected to help Kerala achieve dynamic growth in the productive sectors.

But in the 11 years that followed, including the last five under a Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government (that allowed Kerala's decentralisation experiment to degenerate), the very concept of "decentralisation in a planned economy" had to be undertaken under the looming shadow of neo-liberalism. Patnaik said that while EMS and his colleagues envisaged the decentralisation of resources and decision-making for planned investment and development, what happened in the neo-liberal context was the disappearance of planning and the extreme scarcity of resources available in the hands of different tiers of government.

Hence at the second congress the worry was that in addition to the acute economic crisis that Kerala had to bear, globalisation and neo-liberal policies threatened to take away the very social gains that the State had achieved in literacy, land reforms, public distribution system, roads, infant mortality rates, higher social status of women, minimum wages for the working people, universal school education, quality of education, access to higher education, public sector institutions that create jobs, public health and access to medicines, remunerative price for (especially its export-oriented) agricultural commodities, public investment in physical and social infrastructure, public spending on social security measures, and so on.

Various speakers at the congress drew attention to the fact that the Left movement in Kerala had decided on an alternative path to development in 1994 exactly at a time when the Central government was determined to push ahead with neo-liberal economic policies that militate against such an alternative. Hence there was the realisation that it was not an easy task to implement the Left alternative programme in Kerala. "The irony is that the States have the weighty responsibilities on education, health, infrastructure development, industrial growth, agriculture and rural development and so on but they are consistently denied the money to undertake these responsibilities. This is going to be an enormous issue as Kerala undertakes to defend the gains of the past and build a new future," said V.K. Ramachandran, economist and member of the Planning Boards in West Bengal and Tripura, at a symposium on Kerala's development experiences. "The resources available to the State to do it is being consistently reduced by the Centre and the ability of the Left to present an alternative to the people too is thus being narrowed," he cautioned.

As Patnaik told the congress, it was important to know that this shrinkage of resources in the hands of the state was not accidental but a necessary feature of neo-liberalism about which Kerala needed to be vigilant. He said that for international finance capital to impose its hegemony vis-a-vis any economy, the Third World state, which was the potential bulwark against this hegemony, had to be weakened and emasculated. To achieve this end, it became essential that the resources in the hands of the state should be reduced so as to force it to seek assistance from private capital and multinational corporations for investment in key sectors such as agriculture and industry.

The decline in the tax-gross democratic product (GDP) ratio, the new law that prevents governments from borrowing beyond a certain limit and so on, are all efforts aimed at reducing the capacity of the state to raise taxes, to reduce its capacity to borrow, to reduce the resources available in its hands and to undermine its capacity to undertake investments on its own or to provide social services, especially to the poor, he said.

Decentralisation taking place in such a context is not decentralisation of resources and decision-making as envisaged by EMS and the first congress in 1994 because the resources have all dried up. Decentralisation in the neo-liberal context is, therefore, decentralisation of decision-making to the advantage of imperialism that forces various States to compete with one another and decide in favour of offering concessions to foreign players to invest in their respective areas. Hence what is actually happening is not "economic decentralisation" but "economic disintegration", with the concessions offered being clearly at the expense of the people.

Patnaik said that the worst affected are the poor who rely on the package provisioning of social services that are crucially dependent on the declining revenue of governments as a direct result of the concessions offered. The manner in which imperialist globalisation had affected Kerala and the erosion of the social gains owing to the policies of liberalisation and privatisation was the major topic of discussions in the 65 sessions on various aspects of Kerala society held as part of the three-day congress.

What the State had witnessed was termed as "jobless growth". Kerala faced a deep crisis in employment in the organised sector and a fall in employment elasticity in the service sectors. The high unemployment rate among women - 26 per cent in rural areas and 28 per cent in urban areas - was described as a sign of the severity of the unemployment situation in the State.

The general concern was that like in many other parts of the developing world, Kerala too was witnessing sharply widening inequalities, huge unemployment and large-scale impoverishment of a large section of people, especially those engaged in agriculture, traditional industries and fisheries and the marginalised sections such as Dalits and tribal populations.

According to the draft agenda discussed at the congress, the centrepiece of the new Left development programme would be the strategies to make Kerala achieve an economic growth rate that is significantly higher than the national average in order to strengthen the social infrastructure and expand the coverage of social security system, to overcome the State's mounting debt burden and because the investment required to generate jobs are higher in Kerala (with its huge share of educated unemployed) than in other regions. Hence a major increase in investment rates was proposed - an aggregate investment requirement of about Rs.71,1369 crores between 2006 and 2016, an increase in investment from the present 22.1 per cent of the NSDP to 39.6 per cent of NSDP in order to achieve a 10 per cent rate of growth during that period.

But where will Kerala find the money for achieving such a high growth rate? Addressing the valedictory session of the congress, Prakash Karat said: "In the present day world situation and given the Central policies, in industry today a large part of the investment has to come from the private sector. Kerala requires more domestic private sector investment. In future the State has to open itself up to foreign direct investment [FDI] too if that would help it acquire new technology, augment productive forces and expand employment." The draft discussed at the congress notes that 80 per cent of the additional investment would have to come from the private sector, given the serious fiscal constraints of the State and the neo-liberal policies of the Central government.

It points out that "since it would be unrealistic to expect FDI to play a major role in the State, while taking a positive attitude towards FDI inflows in order to create productive capacity, regenerate employment and upgrade technology, the major source of private sector investment would have to be the Indian private corporate sector and the non-corporate household sector in Kerala". The draft agenda says that the high level of domestic savings and potential savings in the form of money transfer by non-resident Indians are an important strength of Kerala economy and the major policy intervention should be to create an investment environment in the State, so that household domestic savings flow into investment in agriculture and industry.

The congress made it clear that the creation of an investment-friendly environment will depend on modifying the sector-wise development policies that are currently being pursued, improving the work culture, building healthy industrial relations, making the government more efficient and transparent, stepping up public investment in agriculture and traditional industries and improving key infrastructure. But the most important concern at the congress was about the dwindling flow of funds from the Centre and the impact of other Central policies on the State's plans for the future. Karat said: "There is a long history and experience in Kerala of how Central policies have been negative for Kerala. Today also the question cannot be decided only in Kerala. The struggle for decentralisation of powers has to be continued.

But even in the fiscal sphere, the measures taken by the Finance Commissions militate against the State's rights in the sphere of State finances. This will have to be seriously taken up. The struggle in Kerala for protecting its social gains, for keeping its public distribution system alive, for maintaining its public health and education systems, all of it would be in jeopardy if the Centre is unable to raise more resources and devolve it."

THE congress was held in the background of a debate on whether Kerala could be led into a post-industrial era by developing the Information Technology, tourism and the service sectors. But there seemed to be general agreement among the delegates that the growth of Kerala should not be hitched on to the tertiary sector alone, but should also be based on growth in the agricultural and industrial sectors. Several arguments were raised in favour of such a strategy. One, the growth in the services sector in Kerala has so far been fuelled, to a large extent, by the inflow of remittances from outside the State and the country. But this may become a risky proposition in the long term, if remittances fell and a large-scale reverse migration of Malayalees occurred, as it happened after the Gulf war of 1991.

Two, growth in the services sector cannot be sustained if there is no concomitant growth in the productive sectors. Demand for services solely arising from the non-productive sectors within and outside the regional economy tended to disturb the structural balance of an economy, and hence had serious limitations. Third, in a State where agriculture is dominated by cash crops, the price of cash crops relative to that of food crops is likely to decline in the future because of the adverse effects of trade liberalisation on primary commodity prices. Hence the congress called for a more sustainable, productive sector-led growth that is complimented by growth in services. It also called on the State to continue its decentralisation programme, after a critical evaluation of its present strengths and weaknesses.

Prakash Karat said in his valedictory address: "The People's Plan Campaign between 1996 and 2001 was an important initiative in democratic decentralisation. Unfortunately, the UDF government did not carry it forward. It is important that popular participation in planning and development is taken forward. For this a critical evaluation has to be undertaken to overcome the weaknesses and streamline the system."

Karat explained the nature of discussions at the conference on what he termed as "some vital issues and questions" that would influence the final Left agenda for the development of Kerala in the decade starting from 2006, "when a Left government was sure to come to power in the State". The first task, he said, should be to address the agrarian crisis gripping Kerala. The crisis was unique because agriculture in the State was dominated by commercial crops. Foodgrain production formed only a minor part of the overall agricultural production and the big commercial crops have all been affected by imperialist globalisation, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime and the agreement on agriculture.

Kerala is also facing the serious problem of decline of paddy cultivation and production. Karat said: "Like in the rest of India there has to be a stepping up of public investment in agriculture. There is no escape from that. There has also to be a focus in Kerala on improving quality and scientific methods of increasing productivity and yield in rice cultivation and serious efforts to ensure that the nature of the commercial crops that the State has are sustained and supported through improvements in quality of production and State interventions to see adequate prices are provided to the peasantry."

The congress found that socio-political and economic advancement of women in Kerala in recent years was not commensurate with their historic achievements of women in education and health. Work participation of women continues to decline and substantial section of women labour force is concentrated in traditional industries that are currently stagnant or are declining. Representation of women is very low in elected bodies and in trade unions and the new agenda would specifically address these problems and ensure greater participation of women in the productive processes and employment. Karat talked about the need to checkmate the impact of the rise of identity politics and communalism in Kerala and the erosion of secular space by new forms of aggressive communalism. The Hindutva forces have been trying to communalise politics by targeting the minorities, he said.

Another distortion of the tradition of public action and civic consciousness in the State is the effort of caste groups to widen their intervention and challenge the Left in political and social spheres. "Such divisive and sectarian agenda mask the rampant drive by the elite in these communities to aggrandise public resources and privatise public services such as education and health. Social control over private professional and higher education institutions is essential to check the unhealthy trend. Democratic forces in Kerala must resolve that caste and communal forces will not be allowed to take over public resources for private use and must counter their forays into politics," he told the delegates.

CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury reminded delegates that the second congress was being held at a time when the World Bank and India's ruling classes were seeking to delink politics from the economic reform process. The World Bank's participatory democracy process seeks to keep people away from decisions that affect their life and future. But in this congress, discussions on politics, economic development, people's future and the State's welfare have converged in the discussions on a new agenda for Kerala's development in the next 10 years, he said.

Yechury said that there was no need for confusion on the approach of the Left regarding imperialist globalisation and neo-liberal economic policies. "We will support the policies that are beneficial to the people. We will oppose the policies that are against the people. Every new policy will be judged based on such a criterion." He said no Left-led State government would accept investment offers from foreign agencies if they have conditions attached to them.

More than who provides the assistance, what would be crucial would be to understand the conditions that come with them. The usual conditions put forth by foreign agencies asking governments to privatise public sector units, cut the number of government employees, reduce and eventually eliminate subsidies, follow economic discipline (a euphemism for doing away with social welfare programmes) is not acceptable.

IN a State where coalitions with diametrically different visions of development had held the reins of power, as general rule, every five years, there was criticism too at the congress about some of the Left's policies, especially when it was not in government. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who was the chief guest at the valedictory session of the congress, mentioned the Left's initial opposition to the introduction of mechanisation in Kerala's agricultural sector, privatisation in the industrial, education and health sectors, and also about Kerala's yesteryear labour unrest.

His argument was that "the State is today but a graveyard of lost opportunities because it responded too late to world realities". What Kerala needed was a code of conduct for political parties, a willingness to support good development initiatives irrespective of who initiated it, and a realisation about lost opportunities.

Through his comments the Chief Minister, whose party had inaugurated a major (though unsuccessful) "development drive" in Kerala five years earlier by organising a Global Investors Meet (GIM) in Kochi, was in a way also reinventing an age-old debate in Kerala: "Is social justice a separate objective to be pursued independent of the growth objective in this era powered by the mantras of privatisation and liberalisation?" The congress, however, ended on a positive note with both the Chief Minister and the CPI(M) general secretary renewing the call for a consensus on a broad platform of measures to overcome Kerala's economic crisis.

Karat told the delegates: "In Kerala today, we have a hostile environment. But because of the rich experience of popular movements, of struggles and public action, we are confident that a model of development can be put in place that will be of much benefit to the people of Kerala and our country." He said the "Left agenda for Kerala's development 2006-2016", when it is finalised soon, based on the discussions and suggestions in the congress, will offer an objective assessment to any new government about "where Kerala stands today, about its strengths and weaknesses and about the way forward".

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment