The Limits of Public Health Management: Time to Rethink Development in Kerala

One of the effects of the pandemic in Kerala, like in most other parts of the world, is that the government’s narrative muffles all other narratives, and this is not just about the containment of the pandemic. Here the government’s narrative about the pandemic enjoys far greater legitimacy than elsewhere, and with good reason. It is true that Kerala’s greater successes in dealing with the pandemic are unique and commendable; however, to think that therefore, the government is right on everything else is probably a huge mistake.

This flawed logic has been thrust upon Malayalis during the debate around the government’s  data arrangements with the US-based company, Sprinklr .  What could have been ended with a graceful admission of oversight and immediate efforts to correct it on the part of the government ended up becoming an ugly public spat between political parties in this moment of general crisis. Meanwhile CPM cyber-warriors thrust the above logic in our faces: the government can’t go wrong here because it was right in its response to the pandemic. The High Court’s response was what the CPM-led government could have done on its own soon after the criticisms were voiced. Instead of making it into a Pinarayi Vijayan vs. All Enemies of Kerala issue.

But what worries me even more is the fact that the entire narrative of Kerala’s environmental movement has been rendered inaudible in the high-tide of (well-deserved) praise showered upon Kerala’s undoubtedly efficient management of public health. It may be true that the pandemic originated outside Kerala but recent public health challenged have indeed originated very much from within Kerala, as a direct result of the reckless predatory capitalism that all political parties here are completely committed to.  We have seen this: during the 2018 Great Flood, we did see how mindless consumerism-dictated land use had put the entire population to enormous risk. Yet, once Kerala won plaudits for the efficient management of the crisis, once the pain abated for the better-off, all was forgotten and the Kerala government’s Rebuild Kerala proposals once again batted for capitalist depredation masquerading as ‘development’. Now, once again, we see the same: the thoughtless promotion of quarrying which led to the terrible landslides during the past monsoons continues unabated, with the additional support of the government through public-private partnerships. Quarries in Kerala are very often close to forested areas, and the chances of newer zoonotic diseases infecting us are only increased. I suppose the response by government apologists to this misgiving would be to say, oh, that’s fine, our public health system will take care of it.

That’s pathetic, to say the least, especially when it comes from communists. The argument that governments are expected only to manage crises and not eradicate or at least alleviate, the conditions which produce them is certainly not befitting of any political force that claims to be on the left. Since many decades now, Kerala’s environmental movement — ranging from deep ecologists to those who favour cost-benefit analyses of development projects, such as Kerala’s popular science movement, the KSSP — has tried to alert government and civil society about the increasing fragility of Kerala’s environment, rising in direct proportion to the burgeoning complexity of consumption-centred life here. In the aftermath of the 2018 floods, these voices had once again tried to bring the government’s — and political society’s — attention to the ecological wounds that the flooding waters had laid bare — but to little avail.

Now they are clearly not even being heard.  Though the ecological chasm is all too visible in the wake of the pandemic. Kerala’s longstanding food insecurity, something which was ignored and sidelined, legally and illegally, in our frenzy for construction – on land, and sea too – and rampant consumerism is now staring in our faces. The dangers of destroying pockets of ecological security in increasingly-urban areas were  dismissed scornfully by progressives and reactionaries alike. The call to preserve forests and heed the knowledges and rights of tribal people were brushed off as sentimental romanticism.

But now, the government rightly warns people of a possible impending food crisis and the Chief Minister advises people to grow more vegetables at home and become self-sufficient in food, utilizing every inch of fallow land. Yet there is little talk of changing the paradigm itself.  And it is increasingly clear world-wide, evident to all people who can think a little, that we cannot continue this way.

Kerala’s Chief Minister is indeed a far-cry from evil men like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. But why is it that the force that he represents and its leaders, including him, cannot think in radically different ways about development? Why is it that despite our undeniable success in bringing together state and civil society in handling public emergencies in the short-term, we seem hobbled when faced with the urgency to craft long-term, sustainable solutions?

Today, the knee-jerk response of the average CPM supporter to the impending food crisis is to point towards Kerala’s huge SHG network of women, the Kudumbashree. Give them more resources, more training, and they will deliver — this has been the mantra since quite some time now. This is not surprising at all, since as far as welfare is concerned, the CPM has stuck to the meet-neoliberalism-halfway approach it adopted in the 1990s which centred upon decentralized governance through the panchayati raj network and the state-centred development civil society of women’s SHGs which continues to yield considerable benefits to society at large.

My feeling however is that it is time we have a serious discussion about a shift in our approach to welfare and development. First, it is time we stopped being mendacious, pretending that welfare at the level of the panchayats and predatory capitalism at higher levels can co-exist peacefully, or thinking that enabling a decent standard of life to the lower middle-classes is enough to counter the externalities of predatory capitalism. In other words, it is  time we took the advice of the environmentalists seriously and stopped encouraging capitalist plunder of natural resources at every level — recognizing that food security is impossible to imagine without stopping it. We need to take seriously the knowledges of our ecosystem peoples, our marginalized fishers and tribal people, on food security, becoming openly humble in the face of our failure. Pride goes before a fall or soon after at least ; and we have indeed fallen.

Secondly, it is important to recognize that the Kudumbashree is build on neoliberal-individualism, not on collective social interest. The collective social interest, almost always, has been top-down — announced by the government for the women to take up. Kudumbashree lacks collective fora on which the members may deliberate and arrive at a sense of the collective, nor do they have the authority to announce their own collective goals separate from the government’s. Given this, Kudumbashree may be expected to deliver excellent returns in the short-run, as long as the government-led campaign lasts and act as an information-cum-delivery network (which is valuable, no doubt) but it will not come up with its own vision of development for the future. And both the flood of 2018 and the present pandemic teach us that we desperately need to renew our sense of the collective.

Thirdly, this unending dependence on women as crisis managers should stop  – it is blatantly unfair to women. It is true that women have been central to managing the pandemic — as nurses, social workers, and providers in charge of community kitchens and other facilities — but to imagine that they will and should be made to take on all aspects of the imminent challenge is to authorise super-exploitation. Women in Kerala have seen significant changes, since the 1990s at least, in the nature, intensity, and range of the labour they perform (all three have intensified, though we need better studies on these) even though their presence in the labour market is still very low. The nature of domestic labour has changed, and ‘governmental labour’ they perform for the panchayats is not negligible at all. Indeed, this is not the first time in which Kudumbashree women were in the front line of preventing epidemics. In 2007, we were doing fieldwork among Kudumbashree women leaders during the chikangunya outbreak. To our great surprise, almost all the CDS Chairpersons in the district of Alappuzha were down with chikangunya; they had been tasked with mosquito-eradication work, for a miserable pittance, with no protective gear, in the panchayats. Things have changed since then no doubt, but general ’empowerment’ is still a distant dream, even general economic empowerment, though Kudumbashree has  had unintended consequences that has indeed empowered may individual women. Levels of sexual and domestic violence have not fallen; women’s mobility and choices are still quite limited; male chauvinism and misogyny are now all the more acceptable. These are not quelled by social arrangements that enable the government to call upon the labour of women during crises.The first-world left intellectuals who heap praise on ‘Kerala women’ are actually doing us a disservice simply because their irritating hyperbole only sanctions the super-exploitation of women in development today.

It is time the Kudumbashree women were actually rewarded materially for the enormous work they undertake (the panchayat would not be a viable institution in Kerala, financially or otherwise, without the labour contributed by these women) . If we understand empowerment as the ability to make choices where none existed before (following Naila Kabeer), then world-wide, studies show that  an independent income which a woman controls is one of the key resources necessary for women’s empowerment; it has also been demonstrated in research on a wide range of societies that a mother’s income benefits the family more than the father’s. In other words, an independent income that a woman controls is central to meeting both practical needs and strategic interests — and indeed, it reveals that the distinction made between these two is false. My point is that instead of burdening women with yet more challenges, this is the moment to actually empower them — with a basic income that goes into their bank accounts. That may help them and their families equally in times of the pandemic.

So my own views on meeting the food crisis would be:

— the efforts to encourage farming should focus on young men, senior men who have no land, and young women too, who are rarely part of Kudumbashree.

— Migrant workers could be offered small patches of land to farm vegetables and tubers for their own consumption, leased out by the government. Any excess production can reach the market. Lest this sound strange to middle class readers, it is worth remembering that the poorest people are the most resourceful — regarding time, money, space, everything — unlike the wasteful middle class. Very many migrant workers are good farmers and given the land and some basic support, will find the time to grow their own vegetables.

— Tribal people have been since long demanding food security — it is time that the Forest Rights Act be implemented in Kerala seriously so that their food security is assured. The other group that has always prioritized food security is the fisherfolk, and their demands should be addressed immediately. The ban on middle-men in selling the catch has been welcomed by Kerala’s fishers – this may be a good start.

— Urban and semi-urban homes should be made to have a mandatory food patch, of greens, moringa, papaya, kanthari chillies, and tubers, all of which require little space and tending — that is, they do not demand more labour — and those that don’t have land should be helped with terrace gardening.

— All urban buildings and houses should be made to plant a minimum number of fruit trees including a coconut tree around them even if that means that the tile-paved courtyard will have to be dug up.

— There should be a total ban on the felling of all fruit trees, from the larger ones like jackfruit and mango, to the small ones like guava and bird-cherry.

— All tourist resorts, hotels, and other such institutions where food is prepared and served should be required to necessarily devote a certain portion of their land to farming their own food.

What I mean is that there are ways to meet this challenge without placing yet another burden on the shoulders of Kudumbashree women. But the foremost challenge in achieving a paradigm shift in development is that of building dialogue and consensus.

Here I do despair. Because it appears that governments in the age of Trumpism and Moditva  — and we are no exception — seem to have in general grown addicted to anti-dialogue and the top-down command model. A shift in our fundamentals requires the willingness to reach out to different sections of society, listen patiently and without judgment, and come to terms with changes that may be uncomfortable. And Kerala is so utterly polarised. There is shameful shoving and pushing on the ground between political parties to own relief work and even to favour their supporters. There is no hope of dialogue it seems even within the political class.

7 thoughts on “The Limits of Public Health Management: Time to Rethink Development in Kerala”

  1. Devika is a good scholar very sincere and committed with great sympathy towards women and other weaker sections, and a renowned social scientist. But she has failed to note a fact that Kerala govt is bound by a constitution and policies prescribed by central govt. She overlooked social realities in making sweeping remarks about the left and injustices thrust upon women by a patriarchal society championed by neo-liberal forces.


    1. That sounds odd CP. Thank you for the response, but I wonder what sweeping statement I made. I said that the left today supports welfare at the level of local government while it seems to endorse predatory capitalism at higher levels. This is an empirically verifiable statement and one is talking about policy orientations. Secondly, I am sure I was not implying that kerala should do things not permitted by the Indian Constitution, nor do I believe that the Kerala government or the CPM is somehow necessarily subject to the whims of the present BJP government and its crony capitalists. In fact one wonders, for example, how a left party could not have a critical position on the latter. But more importantly, how it could not tailor a vision of development that is sustainable for kerala? Thirdly, the injustice that women suffer from patriarchy is not some immutable rock against which the waves of social change must interminably fall upon and shatter. Policy needs to aim against it, not rest on it conveniently. Unfortunately, when task upon task is laid on KS women with no real collective empowerment, then that is precisely what the government of kerala is doing, however inadvertently.


  2. Thanks so much J. Devika for that very enlightening analysis. In my country too, France, the press is (probably rightly) saluting the management of the crisis in Kerala. But unfortunately nobody raises the very important points you are discussing. I will try to bring them into the debate.


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