Malankara World

General Interest Reading

Sashi Tharoor on Kerala

A couple of years ago, I was invited to address the Trivandrum Management Association on the subject "energizing Kerala". I found that odd, because the only place in the world where Keralites seem to need energizing is Kerala. Look around the planet, and you see Keralites everywhere, working extremely hard, from menial jobs in the Gulf to professorships in the States, displaying their entrepreneurial energies and achieving remarkable successes. So what is it that holds them back here, in their home state? Is it resources, policies, attitudes, politics? All of the above?

It's always been a curious paradox that Keralites put in long hours in places like the Gulf, where they have earned a reputation for being hard-working and utterly reliable, while at home they are seen as indolent and strike-prone. Surely the same people couldn't be so different in two different places? And yet they are - for one simple reason: the politicized environment at home. It's a reputation that has come to haunt Kerala.

Several people told me the story of how BMW had been persuaded to install a car-manufacturing plant in the state, thanks to generous concessions by the UDF government. But the very day the BMW executives arrived in Kerala to sign the deal, they were greeted by a "bandh": the State had shut down over some marginal political issue, cars were being blocked on the streets, shops were closed by a hartal. It had nothing to do with BMW or with foreign investment, but the executives beat a hasty retreat. The plant was set up in Tamil Nadu.

The irony is that Kerala has got some essential things right. One famous study has established some astonishing parallels between the United States and the state of Kerala. The life expectancy of a male American is 72, that of a male Keralite is 70. The literacy rate in the United States is 95%; in Kerala it is 99%. The birth rate in the US is 16 per thousand; in Kerala it is 18 per thousand, but it is falling faster. The gender ratio in the United States is 1050 females to 1000 males; in Kerala it is 1040 to 1000, and that in a country where neglect of female children has dropped the Indian national ratio to 930 women for 1000 men. Death rates are also comparable, as are the number of hospital beds per 100,000 population and the number of newspapers per 10,000 population (where Kerala is ahead of the US ). The major difference is that the annual per capita income in Kerala is around $300 to $350, whereas in the US it is $22,500, about seventy times as much.

Kerala has, in short, all the demographic indicators commonly associated with "developed" countries, at a small fraction of the cost. Its success is a reflection of what, in my book 'India : From Midnight to the Millennium' (Malayalam: "Ardha Ratri Muthal Nootande"), I have called the "Malayali miracle": a state that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has given its working men and women greater rights and a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India; and which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling and empowered lives.

And yet, despite all these strengths, it's difficult to deny that Kerala has failed to move from its agrarian past into meaningful industrialization, principally because it has acquired a less than positive reputation as a place to invest. "Keralites are far too conscious of their rights and not enough of their duties," one expatriate Malayali businessman told me. "It's impossible to get any work done by a Keralite labour force - and then there are those unions!" He sighed. "Every time we persuade an industrialist to invest in Kerala, it ends badly." Citing the examples of the Gwalior Rayons plant in Mavoor, the Premier Tyre factory in Kalamassery and Madura Coats & Apollo Tyres plants in Chalakudi, my friend shook his head. "I am a Malayali," he declared, "but I would not advise anyone to invest in Kerala."

This is what needs to change if we are not to languish in the margins of India's development success story. The challenge remains. When he was kind enough to launch my book, 'The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone,' (Malayalam: "Puthu Yugum, Puthu India"), our Chief Minister chided me for my book's criticism of hartals, saying that it was through such popular struggles that the people of Kerala had advanced. But even if that were true, the advances of yesterday have already happened; the advances of tomorrow require work, not hartals.

The fact is that we cannot afford to remain dependent on remittances from abroad for 20% of our state's income because we have such an inhospitable environment at home. We cannot languish in last place in the World Bank's 2009 "Doing Business in India" report, because it takes 210 days to obtain approvals and permits in Kochi against 80 days in Hyderabad. We cannot live with unusably narrow roads because we lack the courage to explain to residents why they must be widened in the interests of all. We cannot have one of the lowest rankings (lower than Orissa) in per capita information technology exports. We cannot be a state that our best minds and most skilled workers seek to flee because opportunities for remunerative work are stifled by opportunistic politics.

Most of this newspaper's readers would be familiar with the story of the sinking of the ocean-liner Titanic in the early years of the last century, or at least have seen the film. For almost a hundred years till now, it was believed that the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage from Southampton in England to New York in America was caused by the ship moving too fast and the crew failing to see the iceberg before it was too late. But now a new book, authored by a descendant of one of the officers of the ship, says that it was not an accident caused by speed, but by a steering blunder. It seems that the ship had plenty of time to miss the iceberg but the helmsman actually panicked and turned the ship the wrong way, and by the time the error was corrected, it was too late and the ship's side was fatally holed by the iceberg. The error occurred because at the time, seafaring was undergoing an enormous upheaval as a result of the conversion from sail to steam ships. The change meant there were two different steering systems and different commands attached to them. When the First Officer spotted the iceberg two miles away, his order was misinterpreted by the QuarterMaster, who turned the ship left instead of right.

In a sense, Kerala's development failure has been like the story of the Titanic. As with the confusion caused by the new era where sail ships were being replaced by steamships, today those who rule us appear unsettled by the global changes which have moved the economic system far beyond their old paradigms and theories. By opposing computers and mobile phones, blocking land acquisition for development work, and impeding economic reforms, they have steered the ship of State left instead of right. If we don't steer it back urgently, we are heading into the iceberg.

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with the ship -- Kerala, its people, its resources or its potential. But we have to move with the times and not be left behind where other states are moving forward by steering in the right direction. Reliance on NRI remittances will not solve the basic problem, since remittance money is essentially personal savings and spent on conspicuous consumption, including purchase of land and the construction of dwellings. Kerala has to attract the normal type of investment funds which are being put to use by the rest of the country. This will only happen if we are hospitable to investors.

This does not mean betraying our workers, but finding them work. It does not mean giving up our values, but adding value to our economy. It does not mean placing profit above people, but rather, using profits to benefit the people.

We are seeing the beginnings of a counter-narrative. The Cochin Shipyard recently succeeded in building huge Trader class ships for a Bermuda company, ahead of deadline. Shipbuilding is a highly labour-intensive industry; some 30 percent of the input is human labour, which is what makes it ideal for us. The workers at Cochin Shipyard - unionized to a man - have demonstrated that labour remains India 's greatest asset, even in Kerala. It does not have to be, as investors have long feared, a liability.

A visit to Trivandrum's pioneering Technopark confirms that even Kerala's past failures at attracting and retaining heavy industry are now working in the state's favour. CEO after CEO told me in glowing terms of their satisfaction with the work environment in Kerala, the quality of the local engineering graduates, and the beauty of the lush and tranquil surroundings. Indeed, One Technopark firm told me of having bid for a contract with a Houston-based company which had drawn up a short-list of Indian service providers and placed the Trivandrum-based company last. The American executives making the final decision flew down to India to inspect the six shortlisted Indian firms. After three harrowing days ploughing through the traffic congestion and pollution of Bombay, Bangalore, and Delhi, they arrived in Trivandrum, checked into the
Leela at Kovalam beach, sipped a drink by the seaside at sunset -- and voted unanimously to give the contract to the Kerala firm. "If we have to visit India from time to time to see how our contract is doing," the chief said, "we'd rather visit Kerala than any other place in India ."

We can and must build on this. Kerala needs to improve its creaking infrastructure, improve its services sector, boost its IT exports, and take advantage of its existing potential to become a knowledge economy. If a Hyderabad company like Portal Player can design the iPod to be manufactured in China for sale in the US, the next world-beating invention can come from Keralite brains in Kerala. This will call for more than just investments from NRKs. It will mean private sector players from abroad and elsewhere in India deciding that investment in Kerala will pay for them. This will, above all, need a change of mindset.

This is why I pursued the opportunity of bringing an IPL team to Kerala. I was convinced that the only antidote to the hidebound statist mentality that has produced such stagnation in Kerala would be the infusion of a venture that is so 21st century in its conception and execution - not just boosting the prospects of our cricketers, but igniting the imaginations of our young people and opening new vistas for businesses, as well as promoting a new surge of "cricket-related tourism" in our state. That investors from Gujarat and Maharashtra were persuaded to team up to bring their venture to Kerala is proof that we too can attract outsiders to invest in our future.

Similarly, to be a knowledge economy we have to open our mental horizons to the world, rather than remaining embedded in the sterile dogmas of shopworn and discredited ideologies. This is why I persuaded the organizers of the world-famous Hay Festival of Literature to bring their Festival, not just to India, but specifically to the capital of Kerala. The extraordinary enthusiasm with which Hay was received by 3000 attendees in Thiruvananthapuram reflects the hunger of our educated young Keralites to be part of today's world rather than handmaidens of yesterday's.

Kerala can be India's intellectual centre, a distinction now abdicated by Bengal after three decades of Marxist rule.

In the same spirit, I have pushed national and international firms to come to the Trivandrum Technopark, the oldest in the country and yet the least global in terms of its composition. HCL has acceded to my request and Oracle is actively considering our pitch. Not even the Left disputes that IT is perhaps the most important area for Kerala's future growth and development; yet, despite the availability of educated young people, relatively low operational costs and a congenial working environment, Kerala has failed to break into the "Big League" because of our failure to attract the major global companies like IBM, Intel or Oracle to set up shop in our state.

But we should also realize that a knowledge economy will not employ all Keralites. We need to improve our agriculture too - particularly cereal, vegetable and fruit production, including for export. And we have to be able to develop industry beyond construction of houses for Gulf Malayalis!

We have already proved that we are capable of innovative change. Our late "Leader", K. Karunakaran, took the bold step, in the teeth of Leftist opposition, to initiate public-private partnership in 1994 in the construction of Cochin International Airport (CIAL) at Nedumbassery, a model of development only emulated a decade later in the rest of India. This is why I have formally proposed that CIAL be renamed for him - not only to honour him but also to inspire admiration for his innovativeness and courage, qualities that Kerala so direly needs.

I believe that the Kerala that will succeed is one open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is our civilization's greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfill the creative energies of its people. Such a Kerala is possible if we change our attitudes and work with determination to fulfil it. God's Own Country no longer deserves the business reputation of being the devil's playground.

See Also:

Corruption - Noitpurroc
Corruption is the root cause for underdevelopment, poverty, squalor, unemployment and all maladies of the world. This is not an exception even in the religious and spiritual world. The spiritual world should be the correcting catalyst agent for this time old cancerous malady, but it has become the fountain of corruption, from top to bottom.

God's Own Country
Kerala has now become almost a mint of monetary monsters and pent of political puppets. Deep de-forestation has brought about the draining of the once swollen rivers. The gutter roads are becoming ghastly death traps and drinking water pipe lines are just turned out to be cesspools.

For Indians Its 'Me' - No 'We' or Teamwork
One thing I have noticed being in the east is 'we' is always more important than 'me'. Japanese, Koreans, in particular, and Chinese included are willing to work for their country, company, society ahead of individuals.

India is Changing
An experience shared by someone who went out with his wife to Varanasi (aka Benaras)

Satyagraha, Your Secret Marketing Weapon
Satyagraha was popularized by Mohandas Gandhi during his fight for Indian independence. It became synonymous with the use of civil disobedience as a political tool. Gandhi believed that truth had great moral power to galvanize resolve against an oppressor, while also garnering support from the rest of the world. And history proved him right.

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