It is time to question the Kerala Model, which says an enlightened government can keep its citizens happy even when they are poor, by investing in their education and health. Of course, this won’t be the first time it has been questioned. Some have asked whether preventing growth of industries, driving your educated population to the Gulf and surviving on the money they send back is something to be proud of. Others have claimed that the said investments were not made by the communist governments after independence, but by princely rulers and civil society much before.
It is a worthwhile idea to test the role of civil society. Is it not likely that the government followed those policies because its people demanded them, and that the people were able to organize and demand those policies because of a certain cultural context?
These questions need not be idle speculation, because geography and history have provided us with a way to answer them.
To the north of Kerala, in Karnataka, lie the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. The latter was a part of Dakshina Kannada till recently—therefore, we will lump it into the area we are concerned with and call the combined area “DK”. Mangalore, the headquarters of DK, is an important port and is emerging as a tier II IT city.
DK has much similarity with Kerala. They share a creation legend involving Parashurama reclaiming land with his axe. Much of the culture is shared. The Yakshagana of DK is related to the Kathakali of Kerala. Many of the religious rituals, such as the worship of Bhootas are shared, and the temples of DK are built in the Kerala style.
More importantly, the socio-economic profile is similar. People have similar attitudes towards education. The schools in Mangalore are among the best in Karnataka. Education of women is given a higher value than in the rest of the state.
The district is also an important centre for higher education, with many high-quality engineering and medical colleges. It is very likely that along with religious pilgrimage, spending by out-of-district students contributes quite a bit to the district’s economy.
Social and political awareness is high. Just as the Keralites did, the people of DK, too, routinely fight against mega-projects that threaten to destroy their environment. Consumer activism can also be found among its citizens. But while the increased political awareness of the Keralites ended up as support for communism, this did not happen in DK. Their social awareness and activism has been channelled to voluntary groups—some secular, some caste-based and some religion-based—doing productive work.
DK is one of the few places where you have support on the ground for free markets. Many communities of DK, such as the Shettys and the Konkanis, have an entrepreneurial culture that one rarely finds in Kerala.
A surprising proportion of banks that Indira Gandhi nationalized were from DK—the nationalization might have prevented the emergence of a financial hub.
It would be interesting to formally study DK in terms of the socio-economic indicators that make Kerala such a success story. It is likely that Kerala and DK will end up in a dead heat. For example, DK achieved full literacy just a few years after Kerala.
The result will be interesting because what we have is a natural experiment that is controlled for practically everything except what we want to measure—whether increased government activism actually makes much difference.
If DK turns out to be as good as Kerala, then we will know that an aware citizenry can gift to itself the same benefits of health and education without the need for an overactive government that hobbles them in other ways.
It will mean an end to the canard of the “Kerala Model”—and not a moment too soon.
Ravikiran Rao is a writer based in Hyderabad. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org