The curious case of Kerala’s many titles

Kerala will become the first among India’s populous states to build about 200,000 toilets thereby picking up the title of being open defecation-free


Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan pledged for the electrification of 100% households by March 2017, a feat achieved by no Indian state so far. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan pledged for the electrification of 100% households by March 2017, a feat achieved by no Indian state so far. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Bengaluru: When Kerala picks up the title of being open defecation-free (ODF) in the next three months, the southern state will be adding just another laurel to the many it has already collected.

By November, Kerala will become the first among India’s populous states to build about 200,000 toilets at a cost of over Rs.400 crore.

The end of open defecation will mark the start of a bigger goal—to become India’s cleanest state with 100% sanitation, said chief secretary S.M. Vijayanand, who played a key role in the Kerala’s decentralization initiatives in the 1990s.

So far, only Sikkim, a relatively small state, has achieved these two distinctions.

These apart, in a Facebook post on Sunday night, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan pledged for the electrification of 100% households (from the more than 90% levels now) by March 2017, a feat achieved by no Indian state so far.

ODF will become yet another status that sets Kerala apart from the rest of the states.

Earlier this year, vice-president Hamid Ansari declared it as the first state to achieve 100% primary education and in 1990, then Prime Minister V.P. Singh officially recognized its Ernakulam district became the country’s first fully literate district—all thanks to the continuous literacy drives, in 1980s and 90s, that helped it achieve India’s highest literacy levels of 93.9%.

If you keep Puducherry, a small Union territory of just four districts, out of the basket, Kerala is the only state to have more women than men. The sex ratio of women to men is a creditable 1.08, the highest in India. It also ranks first in life expectancy (74 years), in women’s education (over 90% against a national average of 65.46%) and has the least infant mortality rate (12 deaths per 1,000 live births), which are some of the most basic indicators of the quality of life in a country.

While India’s central bank and the Union government struggle to bring banking services to all corners of the country, every family in Kerala had a bank account as early as 2007.

In terms of urbanization, Kerala saw the creation of 360 new census towns between 2001 and 2011 second only to West Bengal. In fact, the only two towns in India that started out with an under quarter-million population three decades ago but have emerged as cities of more than one million now are in Kerala, notes Ruchir Sharma in his recently launched book, The Rise and Fall of Nations: Ten Rules of Change in the Post-Crisis World. (However, a relatively recent redrawing of the local administrative map would have played a large role, he added)

When compared with the rest of India, the religiously diverse state has also advanced in terms of social equality. Untouchability of lower castes has been more or less extinguished, and a decent minimum wage is ensured for the majority of its workers, thanks to trade union movements.

Why is Kerala so different? Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha attempted an answer for exactly this question in his book India After Gandhi. The below is the conclusion he reached:

“It had a history of progressive Maharajas and missionaries, and of major social movements oriented around both caste and class. These reforming traditions were picked up by the first communist administration in 1957-59, and renewed further in the early seventies when the state was ruled by a CPI (Communist Party of India)-Congress alliance under the chief ministership of the communist C. Achutha Menon. This government transferred large accounts of land from absentee owners to cultivating tenants and passed a new Agriculture Workers Act to enhance the wages and living conditions of the landless. Although these reforms fell short of what was demanded by the radical intellectuals they were much in advance of what was on offer elsewhere, furthering Kerala’s reputation as, if not exactly egalitarian, certainly the least unjust state in India”.

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