The Enigma of Kerala: One state in India is proving development
By Bill McKibben (American)
Web Specials Archives Issue (UTNE)
Kerala (pronounced ker'uh luh) , a state of 29 million people in
southern India, is poor -- even for India -- with a per capita
income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and $350
a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the
American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical Ker-
alite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly
half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench,
and a few stools in their homes. No beds -- that was the sum of
their possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and
cots, and 19 percent owned a table. In five households he dis-
covered cushioned seats.
But here is the odd part.
The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his
chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for
a Keralite male is 70.
After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the
United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate.
Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as
high in Kerala as in Kansas.
Kerala's birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with
16 per thousand in the United States -- and is falling faster.
Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United
States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of
course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that
may have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit
that is often described as out of control. But these are the
kinds of problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the
squalid drama of the Third World -- the beggars reaching through
the car window, the children with distended bellies, the baby
girls left to die.
In countries of comparable income, including other states of In-
dia, life expectancy is 58 years, and only half the people (and
perhaps a third of the women) can read and write; the birth rate
hovers around 40 per thousand. Development experts use an index
they call PQLI, for "physical quality of life index," a compos-
ite that runs on a scale from zero to a hundred and combines
most of the basic indicators of a decent human life. In 1981,
Kerala's score of 82 far exceeded all of Africa's, and in Asia
only the incomparably richer South Korea (85), Taiwan (87), and
Japan (98) ranked higher. And Kerala kept improving. By 1989,
its score had risen to 88, compared with a total of 60 for the
rest of India. It has managed all this even though it's among
the most densely crowded places on earth -- the population of
California squeezed into a state the size of Switzerland...