Opinionista Mike Wills 20 July 2017

Kerala – a place to make Blade happy

The red flag still flies in the south-west of India where lessons in governance and equality abound for our Cabinet ministers.

Last Tuesday, in the high noon monsoonal humidity, a breathtakingly beautiful protest snaked its way through the cacophonous main street of the southern Indian town of Alleppey under the retro red banner of the hammer and sickle.

Around 1,000 women, all dressed in glorious saris, slowly paraded two-by-two and softly chanted their slogans.

One hour prior, the same route had seen a less elegant, more raucous and entirely masculine march in the name of a trade union movement.

The day before, small bands of members of the communist Left Democratic Front peremptorily stopped our car and all other traffic around the hill town of Munnar, generally causing random delays while crisply uniformed police looked on passively.

Most locals seemed barely to notice these minor disruptions and no one I asked knew what any of them were about.

But the thriving and feisty local print media did offer a smörgåsbord of possibilities. They reported a call for a state-wide shutdown against the imposition of a general services tax (GST) by the Delhi government and that the nurses were due to start a strike for higher wages in the face of a court ruling that they were an essential service and forbidden from industrial action. They also covered a promise by local poultry farmers of aggressive protests over suppressed pricing and the agricultural union lodging a bizarre criminal complaint with the police against the state weather forecasters for allegedly colluding with seed and pesticide suppliers by providing inaccurate monsoon rain forecasts which had caused their members to overplant.

The state of Kerala, I discovered later from our walking guide in the popular tourist destination of the Backwaters, is a constant cauldron of industrial and political action. But it is also India’s most efficient, literate and healthy state with a notable equality of wealth and an equally notable tolerance of religious and social diversity.

Kerala, with 33-million people on the country’s south-western Malabar coast, runs contrary to almost every Indian stereotype. I counted the grand total of nine beggars in two weeks – fewer than I would see at two sets of robots in Cape Town. I lost count of the number of Orthodox and Catholic churches (largely the result of Portuguese colonial history) nestled comfortably alongside Hindu shrines and mosques. The city of Kochi also has a splendid old synagogue and an entire district labelled Jew Town.

The state is also almost overpoweringly green in contrast to the predominantly brown terrain of the rest of the country.

Its political history is fascinating. In 1957, Kerala provided the world’s first democratically elected communist government and the party has held power in the state for the vast majority of the years since. Even the main opposition, which carries for South Africans the redolent name of the UDF, proclaims a version of socialism.

The state’s radical programme of literacy and healthcare over five decades has delivered outlier results which should give liberals everywhere serious pause for thought. But the same informative guide on the Backwaters drolly informed us of a local saying that “Kerala communists are communists on the flag only”. (He then went on to extol the colonial British, in a way that would make Helen Zille’s eyes and Twitter feed light up, for their “marvellous” steam-driven pump which had extracted water from the man-made paddy fields for nearly 100 years – but that’s another story altogether).

Kerala’s Marxism may well be a watered down version but it also undeniably has worked.

As well its leftist agenda, London Financial Times journalist Edward Luce in his book In Spite of the Gods; The Rise of Modern India also ascribes the relative efficiency and prosperity of Kerala, and its southern neighbour Tamil Nadu, to the huge distance from the bureaucratic clutches of faraway northern Delhi, and their separate linguistic and cultural identities.

This is more a state government than a national one (Prime Minister Nirendra Modi’s BJP only has two seats in the local parliament) and its success makes a compelling case for decentralisation. (And Zille would note that the Western Cape is also both the most efficient province and the furthest away from Pretoria.)

Kerala abounded with other lessons for a South African observer.

Building on a particular local tradition of matrilineal inheritance, Kerala offers an exemplary tale of gender equality in terms of educational and employment opportunities. Two 16-year-old girls, in separate, very unprepossessing surroundings, each confidently expressed their aspirations for a career in medicine, something our driver confirmed was highly probable: “Kerala is biased in favour of women,” he told me. Our women’s minister Susan Shabangu should listen and learn.

Education in general is clearly a big deal. On a superficial look, the schools were full of bustling, happy, neatly uniformed kids. Many of the schools were church institutions, which the government seems happy to allow to thrive. Angie Motshekga, please take note.

They also tolerate private healthcare. An urgent search for a doctor led us to the only hospital in a smallish rural town. It was run by the Tata Beverage Company. The casualty ward experience was somewhat less than uplifting but the clientele was not exclusive and an efficient consultation was backed by blood test results inside one hour on a Saturday afternoon and the provision of antibiotics for a total cost of less than R750. Aaron Motsoaledi would kill for that kind of outcome.

He would also relish the state government’s harsh crackdown on alcohol consumption which saw us fearing arrest for the consumption of Kingfisher beers during a police raid on a restaurant in the tourist beach town of Varkala. And Motsoaledi would note with approval the overwhelmingly vegetarian (and almost universally superb) cuisine that seems to reduce obesity levels way below global, or Indian norms.

And maybe transport minister Joe Maswanganyi would like to take the counter-intuitive step of making our roads more crowded. Kerala traffic behaviour is often hands-over-the-eyes stuff but few vehicles have any dings and I saw the aftermath of only one shunt. The road toll is low primarily because no one can ever get up any real speed. Traffic flows reasonably well at a constant slow tempo.

And thinking of roads, I never saw a single look-at-me car. No Porsches or monster 4×4’s or even a Beemer. Small and nifty was the way to go, in keeping with Kerala’s demonstrable sense of equality. Little extreme wealth was on display anywhere and nowhere was there evidence of desperate poverty. GINI co-efficient seems very low in this part of the world.

Maybe one reason is the kind of over-employment which makes hard-nosed business people blanch. Every task in Kerala, private or state, seems to involve at least twice as many people as it should. At the extreme end of the spectrum, my passport was checked by nine different people passing through the shiny new Trivandrum airport. But one thing India has in abundance is labour, so the logic of rationalisation does not stack up. It makes a curious sort of sense to spread the salary net and halve the profit.

Kerala is not nirvana. It faces issues of urbanisation, addictions, corruption, pollution, climate change, demographic shifts (Christian and Hindi birth rates are low while Moslem birth rates are high), an over-dependence on remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf and plenty else besides. But it is an intriguing, tolerant, soulful, friendly and uplifting place that suggests, somewhat alarmingly, that the SACP might be on the right track. DM

Mike Wills is a Cape Town journalist, radio talk show host and PR strategist.

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