Kerala State Planning Board report: People at the centre

Print edition : October 08, 2021

The COVID control room in Ernakulam. Kerala has a strong network of health workers and volunteers who are involved in ensuring the provision of health care for all. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Tourists at Kovalam beach in Thiruvananthapuram in June 2020. The State has recognised that there has been a slow but steady change in the kind of tourists now visiting countries such as India. Photo: GOPAKUMAR S

The Kerala State Planning Board’s latest report gives an account of the all-round development of the State from 2016 to 2020 in the face of heavy odds.

Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in 2014, the government decided to wind up the Planning Commission, which, in all regimes since Independence, had advised on the development policies of the country. The decision was to depend on the market and the corporate sector to evolve economic policies. The Kerala government that assumed office after the State election of 2016, however, decided to continue planned development, and the report under review gives an account of the State’s all-round development from 2016 to 2020. It reflects the new government’s conviction that development requires the active participation of the people, especially at the local level.

The Vice Chairperson of the Kerala State Planning Board says in the Foreword: “Kerala’s accomplishment shows that the well-being of the people can be improved, and social, political and cultural conditions transformed when there is appropriate public action . . .. Kerala is unique in the extent of people’s participation in government, particularly at the local levels, and in varied forms of civic cooperation in public action.” The volume is packed with statistics on every theme it deals with, and anybody who wishes to be informed about Kerala’s development or study it in depth will find its 22 chapters and more than 300 pages a rich and dependable source of information. This review, however, will concentrate on its central theme.

Response to the pandemic

A look at Chapter 16 that deals with the State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will illustrate the conviction and method of involving people in matters affecting their lives. At a time when the number of people affected in the months of June this year to August may make it appear that the performance of the State has been very poor (and the numbers may change), it is important to appreciate the basic procedure.

As is well known, Kerala was the first State in the country to report a case of COVID-19 and to evolve a programme to deal with it at different levels. Educating the public about the nature of the disease and the variety of means to tackle it were taken up immediately. An official Expert Committee, which was set up in March 2020, met every day until March 2021 and not only made suggestions to deal with the medical aspects but also recognised the economic impact that the pandemic would have. The Chief Minister held a press conference every day giving details of the spread of the pandemic in different parts of the State and outlining measures taken to combat it.

However, the disease was fought not from the top, but from where it was actually happening, a good deal by the panchayats and through primary health centres. The State has a strong network of health workers and volunteers who are involved in ensuring the provision of health care for all. When information regarding the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan in China was received, the Department of Health activated all local bodies to collect statistics about medical and hospital facilities, public and private, in the State. Covid Care Centres too were set up. Guidelines for operating procedures were prepared and widely circulated. Psychosocial support teams were set up in all districts.

When lockdowns became necessary, discussions were held with businessmen and traders to ensure adequate availability of essential goods. Special arrangements were made for migrant workers with local help. In each one of these measures special attention was paid to ensure public-private cooperation.

Mobilisation of people

The panchayat at Nochad (Kozhikode district) published a booklet with the title Kovidum Jeevithavum (COVID and Life) in October 2020 with contributions from a cross section of the population (including a student of Class 1) giving their account of the fight against the pandemic—a clear instance of mobilising the entire population in the fight against a catastrophe.

Against this background, a quick survey may be made of the rest of the report. The first impression one gets while glancing through the report is how thorough it is, with close to 200 Tables that make it impossible to summarise it. Hence what can be attempted in a review is to point out some of the main features and make some observations.

Economic performance

In spite of the natural calamities of the period, particularly the floods and mudslides in 2018 and 2019 and COVID in 2020, the economic performance of the State showed some improvement, though marginal, over the previous years. The average rate of growth from 2016-17 to 2019-20 was 5.4 per cent, slightly higher than the average rate of the previous four years, 4.8 per cent. This is just indicative and does not enable one to understand the specific features of the social and economic changes of the period under discussion.

One of Kerala’s distinctive features is that it is one of the smallest States in the country, with a high density of population. It also has a high proportion of its citizens taking up jobs in other parts of the world, especially the Gulf countries. Hence foreign remittances are a distinguishing feature of the State’s economy.

The combined effect of these aspects has a visible bearing on the State’s economy and society. Like most other States, agriculture occupies a dominant position in the State, and farms are of very small size, the average size being less than half an acre. But because of the presence of high-value commercial crops—rubber and spices—value of output per hectare is high. Consequently, land moves out of foodgrains to non-foodgrains, rubber and coconut being in the lead. The share of foodgrain production gets reduced and there is little incentive to go in for fertilizers, the per hectare use of fertilizers being one of the lowest in the country.

Not surprisingly, gross value added from agriculture in the State was one of the lowest in the country and fell sharply between 2011-12 and 2015-16. Reversing this would be a major task during the 13th Five Year Plan. Similarly, learning from experience, special efforts are being made by policies of the State government and experiments by panchayats to increase the production and productivity of vegetables and fisheries. There has been a more than doubling of vegetable production between 2015 and 2020. Cattle and poultry too are receiving special attention.

Manufacturing sector

On manufacturing, Kerala’s position is distinctly different. Its share in gross value added from the factory sector in the country was just 1.2 per cent in 2014-15, moving up to 1.5 in 2017-18. A substantial share of the workforce is in traditional industries such as handlooms, cashew and coir processing. The State has a number of State and Central public sector units, but their performance has been poor, though slowly improving. Of late, the private sector has shown some interest in electronic components and medical instruments. Unincorporated enterprises also have been quite active in the State. The State has been trying to develop Knowledge-Economy clusters in centres such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. It is recognised that the State’s future industrial development will depend largely on knowledge-based industries and increasingly be led by the private sector. Among the many initiatives taken by the State government in this regard is the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment. The council promotes and activates programmes to encourage research and fine-tunes policies in this area.

The report frankly admits that the performance of the public sector has been rather ‘lacklustre’ and recognises the contributions of the private sector. The Plans make an effort to leverage science and technology for development via industry-government-academic interaction.

Tourism industry

Kerala has excellent natural and social facilities for the tourism industry—its hills and forests, rivers, backwaters, seashores and much more. The State has recognised that there has been a slow but steady change in the kind of tourists now visiting countries such as India. There are, of course, tourists coming from relatively new countries to have a glimpse of the ancient glories of the country, check into a luxury hotel in Delhi, take a luxury coach to visit the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal and then go back to their countries. In contrast, there are now tourists who wish to understand the lives of people of the countries they visit, stay with people, eat the food they prepare and enjoy nature’s beauty. Recognising this changing pattern, the State and the private sector cooperate in providing tourists ‘Homestays’ in rural and hilly areas and close to the rivers witnessing the traditional boat races, and in providing the excitement of being in ‘God’s Own Country’!

Kerala also has a strong cooperative movement. The cooperative movement in the State, which was intertwined with the Independence struggle, has become very strong. The well-known Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society (ULCCS) is one of the largest construction cooperatives in Asia and the success it has had has led it to diversify its activities into information technology parks and even a special economic zone.

Kerala’s educational enterprises were for long in the private sector. But public sector schools are now attracting attention. Government-aided schools now have IT-enabled courses with laptops and computers. The State provides textbooks free from Standard I to VIII and offers special facilities to the differently-abled. It offers continuing education in the fields of health, environment and gender, and now has an Open University of its own.

One of the much talked about new institutions is the primary health centre in different parts of the State that was put into effective use in dealing with the COVID pandemic. The centres are well set up, spacious, clean, and those who run them are extremely helpful.

The Kerala government faces many problems because of the natural limitations of the State. Traffic illustrates this. Most roads in the State are single lanes with crowded traffic. The number of vehicles per 1,000 population in Kerala is 425 compared with the all-India figure of 18. It gives rise to frequent accidents. The departments of the State and the local governments try to do their best. During the many natural calamities that the State faced such as the big floods in 2018-19, the response from the local population was spontaneous and it made it easier for the administration to do its part.

The report is a candid appraisal of the State’s 13th Five-Year Plan. It does not blow its own trumpet. People-centredness and frankness are its hallmark.

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