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Measuring well-being

It’s so rare that I see a headline on my parents’ home state of Kerala that I couldn’t resist writing about this article in the Globe and Mail. For those of you who don’t know, Kerala (pronounced CARE-ah-la, and not cur-AH-la) is a mass of contradictions. It has the highest literacy rate in India but still has arranged marriages. The population of the state is the same as that of Canada, but Kerala’s birth rate is lower that the US rate, thanks to the intense family planning advocacy that’s gone on since my parents were children in the 1950s. A relatively high quality of life is contradicted by a very low GDP. And most paradoxical, the state has a Communist history: democratically-elected Communist governments.

This last point is the key to all the others. Since 1957, the Communist party has been democratically elected and in office, either alone or working with other left wing parties. The leftist governments prioritized public services, small scale co-ops and rural land reforms, resisting rabid globalization and the corporatization of agriculture. In other words, the governments have built upon Kerala’s strengths rather than following popular, often disastrous, employment trends. Strong labour unions are also responsible: workers of all stripes go on strike regularly in Kerala, with the result that the state has some of the best working conditions in the country.

Most importantly, Kerala illustrates one of the classic postwar economic paradoxes: it has a very low GDP but excellent labour conditions, lower poverty than the rest of the country, very strong women’s rights, and excellent health outcomes. How can that be when the state governments haven’t bought into the ideas of neoliberalism, globalization and corporate agriculture? For one, the excellent public health initiatives in Kerala are a direct result of a strong, affordable, health care system that was only possible with consistent leftist governments. Ditto education, which is the key to women’s economic and social independence. State education in Kerala, including free public and high schools, mean that Kerala doesn’t have untouchables: the caste system barely exists at all in the state. It has a very low incidence of religious intolerance (Hindus killing Christians, Muslims killing Hindus, etc.) The strength of the public sector balances out the lower employment in niche areas like traditional Kerala crafts and small-scale manufacturing and production.

All is not sunshine, however: the traffic and pressure on local roads is growing by 10% each year and the rate of road accidents is the highest in India. And unemployment, particularly among youth and women, is fairly high (a handy side effect of strong labour unions and a very well-educated population). This has resulted in massive emigration of Kerala’s population to the Arabian Gulf, the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. More than 50% of Kerala’s population relies on wells for fresh water, which are still responsible for water-borne diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and hepatitis. Environmental conditions are no picnic either: Booker Prize winning author Arundati Roy (The God of Small Things), who hails from Kerala, famously donated her prize winnings to fighting the Sardar Sarovar Dam project across the Narmada river.

Nevertheless, Kerala has achieved a remarkable amount with, measurably, very little. The state is just one more example that money may not be the key to happiness after all.


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