The Kerala Paradigm

Sherif Aziz

In the 1990s, when Richard Franke and Barbara Chasin talked about ‘development without growth’ while describing the Kerala model of development1 , many would have considered it as yet another left-oriented welfare state model that wouldn’t last long.

Indeed, Kerala had one of the first few democratically elected communist governments in the world. However, the left parties couldn’t rule forever just like that. They were thrown out and brought back several times. The people of Kerala have been mercilessly objective and opportunistic about the kind of government they want. So, they aren’t completely and blindly leftists. This place, in fact, has been a ‘living lab’ for running coalition governments and perhaps for democracy itself in its unmutated form.

Kerala has all the potential to become a world-class center for education, healthcare, tourism, research and development, and digital technologies

Kerala’s PQL Index was almost at par with Europe even in the 1980s. For several years now, Kerala ranked number one among all states in India in terms of the human development index. For hypothetical purposes, if Kerala was to be considered a country, this would be the only state in India that the UN would consider to have high human development since it has a score greater than 0.7 (on a scale of 0-1). In real terms, things would have gone a bit bad in recent times, with lifestyle diseases, new epidemics, and, interestingly, irrepressible dog bites2 , too!

Around 1991, Kerala acquired the unique status of being India`s first state to have nearly 100% literacy. As early as 1901, in this region, there was one educational institution per 790 persons, which also roughly meant at least some kind of an institution per 1.9 sq. miles3. And so, Keralites rapidly spread across the world with their three Rs – Reading, (W)Riting, and (A)Rithmetic.        

Reading out newspaper in a school assembly
Photo by Fabola (See full credit below)

Kerala had one of the finest social reformers the world has ever seen – Sri Narayana Guru. If he was writing and preaching in English, the extent of influence he would have had in this world is unimaginable. Yes, one has to market the language first and then the other things. Perhaps, we didn’t know the basics of marketing then. We now know that even democracy can be marketed globally in the most undemocratic manner!

But we are more or less in troubled waters since a few years. In August 2018, nature poured down incessantly on our heads for nearly a week. Thirty-four dams, unable to bear the pregnancy any longer, gushed out water, submerging almost all the districts in the state. Repeated landslides made many homes simply vanish along with the lands on which they stood. It was the unkindest disaster in a century. And, with global climate change, the threats of cloud bursts and floods have now become more frequent than ever.

More than 400 people lost their lives. It could have been easily a ten thousand if the people of Kerala had not worked hand-in-hand with the government machinery and the limited army personnel deployed by the central government. But, most importantly, about 4500 fishermen took out around 650 of their traditional fishing boats into the ‘streets’ of Kerala and rescued at least 60000 people across the state. What an army of professionals the state could silently organize from the very same community that was devastated in the Ockhi cyclone hardly a year ago!

This was not completely a man-made disaster. However, there was evidence of unpreparedness inherent within a largely bureaucratic governance practice that doesn’t have the ability to scientifically foresee and alleviate the impacts. Just to cite a possibility, if the domain expertise to handle thirty-four dams prevailed in positions of critical decision making, perhaps, a slow release of water, even before the rain had actually started (say, when the probability of an incessant rain was 80 or 90%), just to create capacity for the fresh rainwater inflow, could have prevented a large gush downstream in a short time. But when you have generalists primarily holding the reins, they need not have the technical, experiential and the resultant intuitive knowledge to take such important decisions, or to convince the government to do so in the shortest possible time. That requires a high order of expertise and empowerment (from the society at large), regardless of what the media and the state audit process could reimagine in hindsight about possible (fictitious) losses in billions, if there was no heavy rain as predicated (a possible situation in a rather argumentative society).

What is fairly evident in India as a whole is that the general governance structure has weakened the management of technology in every sector – be it power, water, agriculture, health, or transportation, by undermining professionals who are qualified, certified, and experienced to do such jobs. Over the years, most of these professionals have also learned to enjoy the comfort of being mere file pushers.

Following the flood, almost all the TV channels ran marathon discussions on what was next for Kerala. There was an apparent competition among the channels and among the speakers themselves to come out with those killer ideas that the government will immediately take note of, implement, and Kerala will become the next Singapore (see below why I drag Singapore into the picture). We do not get much meaningful outcomes from such sensationalized debates or from the innumerable daily Twittering. When you want to evolve an appropriate housing or transportation model or do a strategic development plan, you need to follow a methodology, use data extensively, and also need a team with the right expertise, motivation, and empowerment to do such things.

Now, the Singapore story. Even within the constraints of a large and complicated polity called India, Kerala may be able to aim at a paradigm shift similar to what Singapore did in the early 1970s. The Housing Board that Lee Kuan Yew established in the 1970s had the larger agenda of transforming the space-constrained island into a world-class metropolis providing superior living conditions and mobility. And the Economic Development Board did its best to build Singapore industries and businesses for wealth creation and to provide employment. So, much later, at a time when the ICT industry could be rapidly nurtured and the chemical industry appeared to be somewhat detrimental to life on earth, they had no problem in pushing a very successful chemical industry out of the mainland to a reclaimed single island by joining seven of the small southwest islands. Don’t we touch base with some fundamental principles here?

Mobility in Kerala

While remaining a bit euphoric about Kerala’s Human Development Index, as of now, certain things are incorrigibly pathetic about this state, mobility being one of the top pain points. Some poorer parts of the Arab world as well as Latin America had much better and safer roads than Kerala when I saw them nearly two decades ago. In Kerala, a highly skilled driver with unimaginable zig-zag maneuvering skills takes something like five to six hours to cover 200 km, needless to mention the associated risks throughout the journey. In most other parts of the world, it should be a little more than two hours of untiring drive. From time immemorial, Kerala also had rundown railway coaches and relatively slower tracks, thanks to our multi-faceted alienation from New Delhi in the very North. The state road transport corporation (KSRTC) and the private bus services constantly unleash terror on the roads. KSRTC is also a classic textbook case of mismanagement.

With prime properties in every city and town centre in their hands, we should wonder whether KSRTC has effectively used BOO or BOOT models to make substantial revenues leveraging on private investments –anything from multistoried public parking, commercial and office spaces, restaurants, and even business hotels. Perhaps, the chief executives, often drawn from the administrative-, police- and forest services, didn’t have the expertise or a reasonable tenure to do such futuristic planning and execution. Obviously, they also didn’t have the belongingness to do anything on a long term, unlike in the case of the Cochin International Airport (CIAL). No wonder this airport dream that started with a few hundred dollars contribution from some well-wishers, now has a landside (non-aero) income of 40 percent of its operational revenue, from things like the golf course, renewable energy, retail outlets, duty-free shops, car parking, etc4.

That said, in many parts of the world, public-private-partnership (PPP) models have increasingly become the most blatantly misused mechanism to foster crony capitalism. However, even if there isn’t any corruption, it is quite likely that the kangaroo courts run by the media (including social media) could cause ample hullabaloos. Therefore, the real intent and transparency of the government would be critical in withstanding extraneous pressures to come out successful with experimental strategies.

In any case, there is no single wonder solution for solving mobility issues. At a time when a few countries are even considering futuristic vacuum-sealed pod transportation systems, such as the Hyperloop, multi-modal transportation is still the mantra in optimizing public transport. This includes walking and bicycles to airplanes and anything in between. There is an underlying principle of seamlessly integrating the various options that are appropriate for different situations. This approach is sustainable and healthier too. In many parts of Europe, one could book a journey comprising different modes of transport through their rail booking system, for example. The ticket will also tell you where and how long you have to walk or wait for connecting to the next mode of transportation, which could be a ferry, for example. The whole focus is on the user experience for moving from point A to point B without being bothered about the typical departmental fiefdoms that we have.


Kerala’s healthcare infrastructure, both in the government and the private sector, is commendable. But the ‘user experience’ still remains appalling, mainly because there has not been enough ‘process design’ to create an optimal ecosystem that is easily possible in the current times. Most tertiary hospitals are overcrowded because people throng to these hospitals even for trivial things. A well-designed and regulated PPP, leveraging on reliable first-mile services5, along with things like telemedicine, and inclusive insurance coverage, can enhance the overall effectiveness and user experience at every level of the healthcare network. Perhaps, private hospitals want patients to pour in to keep their business viable. But, as in the case of many e-services, some percentage of the services, especially preliminary screenings and follow-up treatments, can be easily done remotely without any loss of revenue. This, along with primary and secondary healthcare centers, field health workers, and mobile clinics could make healthcare inclusive, efficient, and user-oriented.

Need for region-specific approach

In relative terms, Keralites maybe more pluralistic and law-abiding – ready to pay for their train journey (compared to their brethren in some other parts of the country) or educate their girl children. While many households remain more or less spick and span, any vacant space or land could easily become a waste dump yard. We strictly follow animal protection rights to the extent that dog bites on public roads are now a daily affair – human beings continue to suffer unquestioned because of some laws. Our seashores are being eaten away and the land mass is shrinking because somebody again made a generic coastal regulation zone act that does not consider region-specific characteristics.

Dogs everywhere and a local innovation to stay safe on the streets!

In a state that has successfully implemented the land reforms6, large scale mechanized farming on tiny pieces of land is impossible. Yet, even now, substantial land in the state has been branded paddy fields and kept completely unusable because we love being known as ‘environment friendly’. Perhaps, in the context of Kerala, we may have to start appreciating the possibility of decentralized household farming and micro businesses around people’s dwellings and their lives. Then, their living spaces become more important, as would be the trend in the coming years with regard to even ICT and many knowledge-based businesses – working from home/anywhere is the new norm and gig economy is already on an exponential growth trajectory. We shouldn’t be surprised if a few technology parks go out of business as the requirement for office spaces shrinks in a few years. People’s living spaces, their connectivity and mobility will become more important.

We may have to build things like what the Dutch and many others do to give water legitimate ways to move around, but also find ways to protect us from its surprise onslaught on our lives. If we can’t manage climate change and rising sea levels, at least manage this. Otherwise, what is the point of churning out engineers in the country? I don’t have the expertise to comment on this particular issue, but often wonder whether our complete and blind ban on river sand mining has aggravated the flooding of rivers. Has there been a holistic and scientific modelling of the causes and effects, on any of these, before the related laws and regulations were made?

When situations become rather vague, unable to comprehend what human beings really want out of all these self-inflicted complexities of laws, regulations, and taxes, I would recollect what Ayn Rand said in her book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ in 1957 that, in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing. I often wonder why lean management principles cannot be applied to law-making, taxation, and other administrative systems.

While trying to comprehensively study the development problems and prospects of Kerala, I had proposed a region-specific integrated strategy around 1992 and a bit later through the first strategic plan made for the Kerala Bureau of Industrial promotion (K-BIP). Kerala, by now, should have had the excellent expertise to manage its waters, for both mobility and economic development. Ironically, most parts of present-day Kerala, as the Princely States before the Indian independence, had well-managed inland waterways providing the backbone for trade and commerce. Perhaps, the generic national-level infrastructure models and related funding sources insidiously killed these unique regional characteristics. I often wondered why Kerala, with its strategic location on an international sea route, could not focus on entrepôt trading to modernize its economy and be like Singapore or the Emirate of Dubai.

The way forward

Not every part of the world is suitable for large-scale manufacturing due to various factors – ecological fragility, biodiversity, density of population, and so on. Kerala is one such region. However, living in the information era and with an abundance of intelligent human capital, why should Kerala worry too much about manufacturing. If at all it has to, why not engage in activities related to Industry 4.0 or 5.0?

Development no longer is a natural phenomenon, nor is it purely based on the resource endowment of a region. It has to be brought about by planned action and through appropriate strategies. We have the glaring examples of countries that have immense natural resources, but remain under-developed and also countries that have industrialized with the least natural resources or land area. The nature of human intervention is increasingly becoming critical in the development process. And such interventions should be responsible enough, too, so that life on earth is sustainable.

Cyclones, flooding, and similar calamities are increasing the world over. We should expect these to come again and again but should prepare to survive fairly unaffected using appropriate development policies, regulations, technologies, and disaster management. What we have on hand is not merely an environmental problem that environmental activists can solve. We have a larger development problem that needs extraordinary expertise, experiential knowledge, interdisciplinary approach, and visioning capacity.

It is high time that Kerala seriously think about: (1) the economic activities that it really wants to foster in the future (while discouraging those it can’t accommodate), (2) the kind of habitat and housing that it wants to promote as a norm, and (3) the required spatial planning and regulations to be introduced and implemented gradually and holistically. Kerala needs comprehensive ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT strategy and SPATIAL PLAN for the next 25 years that would clearly identify what can and cannot be done.

Quality of life is key

Finally, Kerala may be one place that is perfectly fit to experiment with the Doughnut Economic Model propounded by Kate Raworth, the British economist. She argues, and rightly so, that humanity is currently using natural resources far beyond what the planet can afford. Its collective pressure on the planet has already overshot the boundaries. At the same time, a large proportion of people worldwide fall short on life’s essentials, such as food, water, healthcare, and political freedom of expression. An Oxfam study in 2018 reported that the world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much assets as the 3.8 billion people, who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population. In other words, today’s global economy is deeply divisive with extreme inequalities. Equality lies only in bearing the brunt of the ecological damages.

If we consider the above situation as a doughnut with the boundaries of human needs at the centre and the ecological ceiling as the outer periphery, then we cannot overshoot the doughnut’s outer crust if we are to safeguard earth’s life-giving systems, on which all our wellbeing fundamentally depends. We must, therefore, also focus on the “quality of life” of the people and not purely on GDP growth, as mere growth will blow up the doughnut, without even addressing people’s basic needs.

Subject to the findings of detailed studies, Kerala shall aggressively promote economic activities and mobility plans that do not overload the scarce land but maximise the utilisation of its human capital and unique features like the water-bodies. Kerala has all the potential to nurture purely Knowledge-Based Businesses (KBBs) and shall put all its efforts to become a world-class center for education, healthcare, tourism, research and development, and digital technologies. Of course, these need to be nurtured without making the mistake of Bangalore, where everything physical crawls while still being a technology hub.  Business agglomerations shall necessarily factor in the need for social infrastructure, following a live-work-play model that balances housing, mobility, and recreational needs as well – paying attention to the overall well-being of the citizens.

The new norms

Having gone through an unusually long global pandemic, the world has learned to get rid of presenteeism. One can work from anywhere and at one’s convenience – productivity is what matters. Not everybody has to rush to the office at the same time and on all days. There are countries that offer remote work visa (some call it digital nomad visa). So, you can be by the beach side in the UAE or Portugal and work for a company in another country. Further, in the years to come, living spaces will become more important than office spaces. In other words, development planners could soon face the reality of falling demand in office spaces. Development planning, therefore, cannot be done in silos created by different government departments.

The overall situation demands both economic and social infrastructure. We need an enabling environment and transparent support systems – civic amenities, mobility, healthcare, and education being integral part of such an ecosystem. Some of the steps needed in this regard for Kerala are:

  • A comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the next 25 years
  • A well-conceived Spatial Plan – sustainable development, quality of life, and smart communities
  • Integrated Transport Modelling and Management
  • Health-4-All Mission: Immediate steps to ensure hundred percent social security for healthcare (using an effective PPP model); a global destination for tertiary healthcare.  
  • Holistic and integrated waste management employing appropriate technologies and, most importantly, with adequate social engineering. Aggressively foster circular economy concepts.      
  • Excellence in Education Mission – Convert at least 5 state-owned educational institutions into world-class institutions that can attract both national and international students.
  • Excellence in Profession Mission – Nurture a cadre of high calibre professionals and scientists in institutions that manage power, water, health, and other infrastructure facilities. These professionals should see a clear but competitive career path in front of them and finally head these institutions rather than being subdued and subordinated by generalists all the time.            
  • Clean drinking water to all
  • Do something really wise to manage irritant things like dog bites and mosquito menace
  • Strengthen law and order, including attractive welfare measures to enhance the morale and integrity of the police force. 

With higher levels of literacy and education among the people, Kerala has always been an exporter of human capital, on account of both the associated push and pull factors. This has helped Kerala not only with remittances but also in terms of significant exposure for its people to advanced industrial and service environments elsewhere. However, the state remains unprepared to capitalise on this strength, in case of a mass return of this highly skilled workforce, which can happen anytime. Kerala’s development strategy should consider such eventualities with high socio-economic impact.

[1] Richard Franke and Barbara Chasin, ‘Development without Growth: The Kerala Experience’, Technology Review, April 1990. pp. 42-50

[2] This is a typical situation when laws swallow the very people who made them, apparently due to the lack of proper systems to strike a balance between animal welfare and threats to human life. (See,

[3] Michael Tharakan, ‘Socio-economic Factors in Educational Development: Case of Nineteenth Century Travancore’, Economic and Political Weekly, Nov. 10, 1984

[4] See, a LEAD Digest article published in December 2020.

[5] I would want to call it the first mile (and not the last mile) in the case of healthcare.

[6] Starting with the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, with provisions relating to the fixation of ceiling on land holdings and redistribution of excess land among landless people.

Photo credits:

IMG_4145” by fabola is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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