Wednesday, May 11, 2011

“Kerala Strategy”- The Untold Story

Prof Prabhat Patnaik's recent paper on “Kerala Strategy” is significantly deficient in that it does not give due recognition to the e-Governance and Knowledge Society initiatives of the V.S.Achuthanandan led LDF Government in Kerala which are extremely popular with the ordinary masses. This intervention is to highlight a few major features of the “actually existing and kicking” Kerala Strategy, which Prof.Prabhat Patnaik somehow overlooks in his wonderful defence of the superiority of the “Kerala Strategy”. These are related to the e-Governance and Knowledge Society (Vijnana Samooham in Malayalam) initiatives of the LDF Government led by V.S.. The intention is to improve upon Prof.Patnaik's defence of the “Kerala Strategy” (“THE KERALA STRATEGY -- Of a unique route to development”- Prabhat Patnaik)

A very popular Knowledge Society initiative in Kerala is the IT@School project. Even though unappreciated by many intellectuals and academics, it has led most school going children in Kerala to the world of internet. Since Kerala is a fully literate state, this means most youngsters below 15-16 years of age at present, even from the most marginalised sections of petty producers , peasants and tribals, is exposed to web. Naturally this has affected every household, even in the most backward pockets of Kerala. So much so that even the most right wing religious conservative groups ,who in other parts of India oppose the spread of web are resigned to this reality of increasingly high web and mobile phone penetration in Kerala. This actually made the masses of Kerala broadly aware of the social changes around the world. This has in turn contributed to significantly change the attitude of the broad masses in Kerala to most developmental issues.

This explains the unusually warm welcome extended even by evictees to the foundation stone laying ceremony of Kochi Smart City, which Prof.Patnaik mentions approvingly in his paper : “Not that it (i.e. the LDF government in Kerala) frowned upon or discouraged private investment, but such investment was welcomed within a policy framework, which offered no competitive concession for attracting it, which insisted upon a degree of government supervision (for example, 26 per cent equity in the setting up of information technology parks), and which eschewed coercion in land acquisition, to a point where projects often got delayed or even aborted for absence of land. (By the same token when projects did come up it was not uncommon for those on whose lands they were located to participate in the inaugural functions.) Kerala, not surprisingly, did not acquire fame like Gujarat as a destination for private capital, to the chagrin of many pundits sympathetic to the state” ( “THE KERALA STRATEGY -- Of a unique route to development” -- Prabhat Patnaik)

The evictees definitely were happy about the handsome compensation they got, which came to a tidy sum with around lakh for each cent (one-hundredth part of one acre) of land, with further monetary help for relocating houses. But a good compensation, however hefty it may be, does not explain the enthusiastic participation of the evictees in the foundation stone laying ceremony of Kochi Smart City. Practical people, especially women know that even a few lacs of rupees can get frittered away in no time and the household may find itself in dire straits after a few years. And why should a landholder bother about his/her piece of land once he/she has sold all rights to it and collected the payment? The enthusiasm was because the ordinary folks felt that the lives of their children will be better with the growth of the technology industry in their vicinity. Mentally the youngsters in poor peasant and petty producer households in Kerala were ready to become members of the emerging Knowledge society . They enthused the members of their households also, especially their mothers, to welcome the Smart City, resulting in a high participation of women in the ceremony.

In case they felt that the Kochi Smart City and the resultant growth of technology industry in their neighbourhood will benefit only the elite and the upper middle classes, the revolutionary people of Kerala who still keep the flames of Punnapra Vayalar burning in their hearts, would have vehemently opposed it. They would have characterised it as an elitist scheme backed up by petro-dollar imperialists and their collaborators as part of a grand strategy to introduce a new type of caste division in the mostly egalitarian Kerala society. Some intellectuals actually did theorise that the new digital age caste division will have the “ neo-Brahmins” who use and benefit by the web at the top and the vast poor and e-illiterate (e-Dalit?) masses at the extreme bottom with a few crumbs thrown to those intermediate groups who are ready to collaborate with the elite and the imperialists to oppress the e-illiterates. They even claimed that there will be no hope for the vast “e-Dalit” masses and their future generations to cross over to the other side of the digital side. The masses will be subjugated easily because English will become the language of dominant discourse in the new digital age caste society, and languages like Malayalam, Tamil will die a slow natural death with the spread of the web. Indeed some people did question the wisdom of promoting projects such as e-Governance and IT@ School on these grounds but could not carry conviction with the public.

Initially there was opposition by some activists to the Kochi Smart City on these grounds. Some activists even switched strategy by working with the evictees to persuade them to demand a very high compensation which seemed astronomical to many at that time. However most of such demands were accepted by the Smart City promoters backed up with deep petro-dollar pockets. What ultimately resulted was that the land price in and around Kochi became very high. Real estate ads in local newspapers soon started using catchwords like “house plot available for sale , less than 40 kms to Smart City”. This caused almost all new agricultural and industrial projects in these surroundings to become unviable, if they were to factor in the market price of land. That makes the technology industry and the real estate and construction sectors which indirectly depend on the technology industry , the only hopes for future decent paid employment in and around Kochi. This has also made traditional industries of Kerala like coir, cashew and handloom unviable because these labour intensive industries cannot match the high wage rates enjoyed by even unskilled workers at construction sites. No youngster is willing to work in these sectors which sustained many generations of their ancestors. Even the harvesting of paddy became totally mechanised during the last few years as able-bodied youngsters won't turn up for the hard labour which paid less. They can get many times more compensation if they chose to work at construction sites. Materialist ideas have come to reign supreme in the youngsters’ choice of vocation. This explains the unusually warm welcome extended by masses to the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Kochi Smart City project as highlighted by Prof.Patnaik in his analysis. The foundation stone for this revolutionary change in the attitude of masses to developmental issues was laid by the IT@School project which was conceived towards the end of the last LDF ministry in Kerala headed by E.K.Nayanar. This impact of IT@School can be explained by materialist dialectics as a case of change in base affecting the superstructure. It is interesting to note that extreme leftist intellectuals and activist groups, who are abundant in this part of the world, did not organise major protests against the Kochi Smart City project. It is not that they didn't try, but apparently could not gain much support from the masses. The impact of IT@School project on the attitude of masses to development ventures as outlined above has evidently a few lessons for other states including West Bengal. Incidentally this is one of the reasons for this intervention.

Another point worth noting in this connection is that the idea of Knowledge Society as a highly desirable future goal for Kerala was broadly endorsed after much discussions by the International Congress on Kerala Studies held at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, during the first week of January 2011.

Further there are many popular e-Governance initiatives which have endeared the VS led government to the people of Kerala. I will mention only a few.

One is the Single Window (Eka-Jalakam in Malayalam) initiative for School admissions which have reduced scope for malpractices by private school managements. So much so that even the president of Muslim Education Society, an organisation not particularly well disposed towards the Left, has recently come out very strongly against a call by the powerful Catholic corporate schools management to discontinue the Single Window initiative. There are many other popular eGov initiatives in Education dept including online registration for examinations. Education being an explosive subject in Kerala , the success of these initiatives has earned LDF enormous goodwill of masses of late. Recently many more such e-Governance initiatives have been flagged off in other departments also .

However the initiative with the maximum positive impact on the successful functioning of the VS led LDF government is the e-Filing project of the taxes department under the Finance ministry headed by Dr. Thomas Isaac.The project has still some teething troubles. Still along with some complementary action by Finance Minister Dr.Thomas Isaac this project has contributed to an almost threefold increase in the sales and other tax collections in Kerala by plugging loopholes. That too without unduly antagonising the powerful trader organisations in Kerala. This heavy increase in tax collection prompted some people to jokingly attribute it to some sort of “sorcery” practiced by Dr.Thomas Isaac. (Dr.Isaac's field of specialisation is economics not “sorcery”.) This in turn enabled the LDF government to undertake many progressive initiatives benefiting poor people, some of which have been highlighted by Prof.Patnaik in his wonderful defence of the Kerala Strategy.

Incidentally the Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh , while speaking in some pre-poll campaign rallies organised by the UDF, attacked LDF by pushing the theme that the Left is against IT and is against development and modernisation. His argument came unstuck as it failed to convince even those who were well disposed to UDF and UPA, with almost all local leaders of his party failing to take up this line of attack against LDF. Even most IT professionals in Kerala were unconvinced by his arguments with many coming out and joining the candle light vigil against UPA government’s response to the demands raised by the Anna Hazare led campaign at the peak of pre-election fever. It is evident that overlooking the contribution made by the increasingly successful e-Governance and Knowledge society initiatives of the LDF government in Kerala, even if done inadvertently , will play into the enemies of the Left like Dr.Manmohan Singh.

Let me conclude this by repeating that the e-Governance and Knowledge Society(Vijnana Samooham in Malayalam) initiatives of the LDF Government led by V.S., has contributed heavily to its success about which even some of its diehard opponents will agree in private . It is not fair to avoid these facts in any informed discussion about the “Kerala Strategy”. Historical materialism demands concrete analysis of the concrete situation before we derive theoretical conclusions.

(This is an attempt to improve upon the arguments in the important paper “THE KERALA STRATEGY -- Of a unique route to development “ by Prof.Prabhat Patnaik. You can read his paper here and at some other websites. This short rejoinder to his paper uses the dialectical tools of Marxism and the actual experience of living in the fast changing state of Kerala. )



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