Kerala is well known as a model of human progress for other states in India. It has long had the highest level of human development in the country, as is also reflected in its Human Development Index (HDI). This is not surprising given that it has the highest literacy rate and the lowest infant mortality rate among all the major states of the country.

It is also sometimes lauded for being among the states with the lowest poverty rates. As per the Tendulkar Committee methods, only 7% of the population lies below the poverty line. Yet there are wide district-wise disparities, as per Indicus estimates. Ten of the 14 districts report less than 10% poverty rate and, yet, Wayanad district poverty estimates stand at more than 30%. Palakkad, Kasargod and Idukki are the other districts with double-digit poverty rates. Our spatial analysis shows a high concentration of poverty in other pockets of the state—even in the low poverty districts.

While many of Kerala’s achievements are comparable with those of developed countries, one of the disturbing trends of Kerala’s growth has been the growing unemployment rate. Despite producing a large number of educated professionals every year, the state appears to offer few economic opportunities, which, arguably, is the key factor behind its high out-migration levels. The state has, of course, benefited from the huge inflow of foreign remittances from its large non-resident community. Yet, progress appears to be unbalanced.

Indicus research on spatial poverty shows that areas with higher poverty rates have a significantly larger proportion of marginal workers in the workforce. This is by no means a Kerala-only phenomenon, but given that in all other parameters of progress Kerala performs unlike any other Indian state, it is interesting that unemployment—disguised unemployment which marginal work reflects—follows the same patterns as the rest of the country.

It can be seen spatially that the economically better off segments tend to concentrate in areas where they have easy access to basic services such as hospitals, educational institutions, banks, etc. Thus, we can see that those parts of Kerala that have fewer facilities of educational institutions, hospitals, etc., have a greater proportion of people below the poverty line. In other words, even though Kerala continues to be superior to most parts of India on socio-economic parameters, our work shows that even in Kerala, with its long-established traditions of spreading the benefits of progress, the poor are left out.

We also find that business facilities are mainly centred in one quarter of the state and, here, poverty concentration tends to be much lower.

So, even as the strong linkages of the Kerala economy with the international markets gave a lot of exposure to the residents of Kerala and migration led to large-scale inflow of funds to the state, this has not led to an appropriate increase in either productive investment or job creation. This is possibly one of the reasons why social development in Kerala has failed to trigger economic growth.

Nevertheless, certain sectors of the economy are growing at a rapid pace with a direct impact in reducing poverty, and our spatial data confirms this fact. Kerala is emerging as one of the important destinations for tourists in India. Our spatial analysis shows low concentration of poverty in areas with more travel and destination points. With the tag line, “God’s own country", Kerala’s tourism sector has contributed immensely to the expansion of services of hotels, transport and communication, finance, etc. Further, rural Kerala reports higher poverty rates than urban areas. Even here, there are spatial differences; in fact, as Kerala is one of the major producers of cash crops in India, the rich agricultural zones do report low levels of poverty.

Unlike the other states, we find no correlation between poverty index and socially disadvantaged groups. At the same time, another high correlate of poverty which is common to the other states is proximity to forest areas. Poor connectivity in forest zones makes the people residing here more vulnerable to poverty. Due to the dearth of job opportunities, people generally engage at marginal levels of productivity. Moreover, the unskilled nature of work that they get hinders their movement into developed parts of the state.

Overall, the data for Kerala shows that even though a state may succeed in spreading socio-economic progress through better quality delivery of health, education and justice, in the absence of productive investments, poverty continues to fester, albeit at lower levels.

Our concept of spatial poverty that can be identified and measured via remote sensing allows us a far greater set of policy insights as it allows relating poverty to the environment that gives rise to and sustains it.

Laveesh Bhandari and Minakshi Chakraborty are economists based in New Delhi. The views of the authors are their own and not those of the organizations with which they are associated.

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