Kerala: People’s Planning Once Again, Please

For Kerala, the new millennium has been the century of development emergencies. The effects of climate change and rapid urbanization and globalization have had rapid and drastic visible state-wide impact on people’s lives here, much of which in the form of development emergencies like epidemics, devastating floods, landslides, and now, the pandemic (and if the worst health predictions for monsoon come true, the syndemic). In other words, the new millennium seems to be setting a host of challenges for Kerala’s  welfarism, which we seem to be meeting well for the time being at least.

I wonder however if we are reflecting enough on what these development emergencies teach us . Reflections on ongoing governmental interventions veer between a celebration of the success of local governance in Kerala which stress either its utility for effective public management, or as the arm of a benevolent state that protects its citizens. There is much to celebrate in the successes of our local governance and the governmental effort at monitoring, health-care provisioning, and support in general — no doubt. But it also important for us not to let the discourse of rights-based development slip into oblivion, in the process. This seems to be happening at the level of policy discourse. It is not surprising that the rights-based policy discourse has been losing traction as the union government has almost abandoned it; that is no reason, however, that we follow suit. Indeed, the new millennium has also been a time when Kerala has repeatedly shown itself to be distinctly and stubbornly different from both the actually-existing Indian nation ravaged unrelentingly by its elites, and  whatever is cobbled together by the Hindutva imagination as ‘India’. This is despite the fact that political parties here, including the left parties, have largely succumbed to the union government’s security-state discourses’ and now full share the fascination for predatory capitalism like elites elsewhere. There is no reason at all why we should also surrender our unique welfarism — no reason at all for even the mainstream left that has given in on most other things.

The local adaptation of the liberal rights-discourse is an interesting aspect of the history of left politics in Kerala that cries out for fuller historical exploration. Even when suspicious of liberalism, the left in Kerala in the mid-twentieth century sought to use the call for rights in utterly subversive ways — for example, projecting entitlements as rights and keeping the horizon of the rights discourse open to specific claims by more and more groups. These groups could include contingent ones, for example, squatters on government land, women workers impregnated by factory managers or overseers, and even men who chose vasectomy but felt emasculated by it. Surely, this was an important aspect of the famed ‘public action’ that is placed by the international human development discourse at the heart of the twentieth-century ‘Kerala Model’ of high social development despite poor economic growth.

Later, after the mainstream left distanced itself increasingly from such radical subversion in the 1990s, the rights discourse came to be taken up forcefully by what I would call the ‘second-wave’ of Malayali public action — through the adivasi and dalit struggles for land, the agitations of groups ranging from widows to the victims of endosulphan spraying in north Kerala, the public assertions of  sex-workers for recognition as labour, and the mobilizations of transpeople and queer people for human dignity and resources — that challenged the state in the new millennium. It came to be articulated by even groups that refused the fundamentals of liberal individualism — for example, the neo-Buddhist community of the Dalit Human Rights Movement. Second-wave public action demanded far more than development resources and challenged the core wisdom of communist politics — not surprisingly,  it has been consistently demonized by authorities. The discourse of rights seems condemned almost by association.

Local governance in Kerala, however effective it may be, was hardly shaped by rights discourses. The creeping presence of the language of  voluntarism and sacrifice, if not state benevolence, especially local government, can be traced into the 1990s itself. For example, in the imagination of the basic unit of local governance, the neighborhood group, as an ‘ benevolent and extended joint family’ by leading architects of Kerala’s experiment with local governance. Interviewing women panchayat presidents in 2007-8, we found that many new entrants to politics through local governance used the language of state benevolence – of ‘giving to beneficiaries’ — rather than the language of political engagement — ‘winning for the people’, compared to an earlier generation of women activists of the mainstream left. The by-now well-documented inability of our local governance to respond to address issues raised by groups that have suffered deprivation and abjection in twentieth century Kerala may be explained by this limitation: it can see only government beneficiaries and governmental labour and only rarely, citizens, especially ones that question, talk back. This is also why it has had less success in recognizing the diversity of needs. Very important too is the fact that this benevolence itself rests on an implicitly-conservative understanding of the family and community, and that the state seeks to reform these institutions only incrementally and inconsistently.

In the wake of development emergencies, this becomes all the more apparent. If we have failed to recognize sufficiently well the fact that the deprived and the abjected have paid a far greater price in the epidemics, floods, and landslides, mitigated only minimally by welfare handouts, it is only because the voices of these people have either been silenced  or muffled by and in the deafening chorus of self-congratulation that rises from the lower middle-classes (from whose ranks are drawn the beneficiaries and the labour of local governance).

It is also hard to ignore the fact that now many rights seem to exist only for those who count as part of the population as it takes shapes in the eye of government, as beneficiaries or labour. Thus the Chief Minister of Kerala himself warned against domestic violence in homes — addressing specifically men, exhorting them to help women with domestic chores — staying well-within entrenched gender arrangements of the Malayali family. This would be a laudable statement in itself — the change it demands is incremental but surely valuable — but only when we decide to ignore the apathy of both government and state-centred development civil society towards the horrors inflicted upon young queer persons by their families. The recent suicide by a young bisexual woman broken by her own family  and hounded by the community did not lead to swift action from the government: from the accounts of activists who tried to help her, the deep conservatism and indifference of the police to domestic violence against young queer people was one of the reasons that drove her to death. Indeed, heterosexual cis-women who do not confirm to the passiveness expected of the ‘family woman’ — which is how the welfare beneficiary is understood here — are outside the benevolence of the state when it comes to domestic violence, as much experience and research have shown.

It is not at all unrealistic to claim that the domestic violence faced by a heterosexual cis-woman who lives within normalized social institutions cannot be compared with the horrors which queer people are subjected to by their families and communities, and that while both may exacerbate in the current crisis (or any development emergency), the latter is bound to be much worse. Unless safety at home is acknowledged as a right of all citizens who are women and non-heteronormative people,  a right which the state is bound to protect, the voice of the latter stands no chance of being audible. It is easy to muffle such voices in governance with primarily managerial ends by marking them as low-priority through assigning them low utility in development terms (since the basic unit of development is still the heterosexual, conjugal, reproductive family). It is repeated historical experience that the benevolence of the state does not flow automatically to all subjects, and that it is more likely to be girded by patriarchal understandings of care than not. Neither serves the interest of the worst-off, those who are most deserving of welfare and support, especially during a development emergency in which all deprivations and abjections are easily intensified.

So the effects of the celebration of public management success and of singing praises to the benevolent state, however unintentional these acts may be, are not innocent.  They may actually cover up our exclusions. A rights-based approach to welfare policy would have meant more meaningful conversations between the government and marginalized groups, and respectful attention to their demands. The latter  have been hitherto either ignored or trivialised through such labels as ‘svatva raashthreeyam’ (literally, ‘self-politics’, but meant to stand for identity politics). A right-based approach would mean getting rid of the dangerous partitioning in which the mainstream left now indulges in — between welfare policy and the active voices of the worst-off. It means enriching and widening Kerala’s long and admirable history of welfarism by placing democracy at the heart of the Malayali civil society formed around development, and by drawing ever-more groups of people into it as citizens with agency and voice.

I do not mean to say that such an approach is totally absent in the state. We have indeed seen, for example, transgender people lay claim on resources using the discourse of rights, and the state respond to it. But we do not see it spreading and growing. What we need truly is a refurbished People’s Planning that truly acknowledges citizens and their rights (which would surely be not a repeat-performance of the 1990s), and not Planning for the People or Planning the People.



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