"We were people who were defined by these achievements in social development."

Series 2 Episode 1

In the Field Series 2. Ep 1. “We were people who were defined by these achievements in social development.”

Approx run time: 30 minutes.

Note: In the Field is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. Readers are encouraged to listen to the show to get the full experience. The transcripts are meant as support documents and may not include inclusions from the day of recording and may contain errors. The audio version is the final version of the show.


J Devika (JD): We knew about literature. I was reading when I was 14 I was already reading Marquez and poetry by translation of course by prominent Latin American poets, we knew all about Cuba, we were watching Nicaragua. 

Radhika Viswanathan  (RV): This is J Devika, a feminist and historian.  

JD: And so if you had cousins visiting from other parts of India, metropolises, the Indian metropolises or from abroad, you never felt second rate to them.

I had cousins who came from the interior parts of the us 06:36 and `they knew nothing you know, so dumb! and we used to think aiyyo pavam ... indakudaka nallo....America indakudaku... appo onnu ariliya  [poor people, they come from boondocks, they don’t know anything] we knew so much more than them !

Samyuktha Varma (SV): Kerala. God’s own country. In the 1970s, the government of the time decided to pull Kerala up by its bootstraps. The state had acquired bad reputation: political unrest, poor industrialisation, government instability and a high population.  

C Achyutha Menon, the progressive chief Minister had decided that the state needed to modernise, and instituted policies to reform land, create housing and protect labour. He set up institutions to guide the state’s development. Institutions that are still standing today.

And then a few years later, a study discovered that Kerala had actually managed to do something quite remarkable. It found that the state’s population was in fact deeply literate, was eating more nutritious food, living longer...

RV:…reading newspapers, often more than one a day, and even using telephones to communicate with each other far more than in other Indian states.

SV: Remember this was India in the 70s.  The Kerala model as it came to be known showed how a poor state that had lagged behind could achieve high standards of living with low income levels. And it caught the attention of the world. People talked about it, people studied it, people tried to understand how they could replicate it. And that’s pretty much the story of Kerala’s development that we still hear about today.

RV: But there’s one big problem with this story, it’s terribly out of date.

Dr V Venu (VV): You know, we've been coasting on our past achievements… I do not know if we have really planned for the future. So we need to do a lot of catching up.

RV: Canonised in development theory, Kerala’s success loomed so large that it was all people could see. How does for a state, overshadowed by its laurels for so many years, to take a good hard look at itself?

SV: In 2018, floods devastated Kerala, but it allowed the development model to become a question for debate once again. A new Kerala is emerging from the legacy of its development history and its changing cultural and social landscape.

And as messy as it looks right now, we think Kerala is still showing us the way.

RV: I’m Radhika Viswanathan

SV: And I’m Samyuktha Varma.

RV: And welcome back to the second series of In the Field, our show about India and development.  This second series was made possible by our wonderful listeners. Thank you to all of you! In the Field is as always, supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.


SV: If you meet a Malayali anywhere in the world - the first thing they’ll ask you naatl-evadeya? Where in Kerala are your roots? It’s the classic ice-breaker that immediately establishes a bond, a bond that stems from a common sense of pride. A pride from knowing that Kerala is different.

Late last year, Radhika and I travelled to the motherland! Our home state - to learn more about the history of Kerala’s development model. We’d both studied it - case studies about Kerala are required reading in development courses. But we also knew this growing up, hearing about the state’s laurels, sometimes being puzzled by our parents’ nostalgia, but always feeling a sense of relief, that we are, thankfully, Malayalis.

JD: We were people who were defined by these achievements in social development and that made us very proud! […] so you had something to be deeply proud of, something to protect.

RV: J Devika has written reams on the subject. She works at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. In that red brick building with the leafy entrance, famously designed by Laurie Baker.

The development story is well known - for decades, Kerala had been the showpiece of international development because the Kerala model with its investments in social development and very high levels of social capital fit the prevailing dominant discourses of 70s, 80s, and 90s, whether it was social development or human development, participatory development, or even the decentralisation wave of the late 1990s. 

JD: But when human development as an idea gets reduced to a global index and youre measuring the same things as you did in 1970s, you come up with this fabulous idea that oh Kerala is great on human development as well.What would happen is that as long as you clung to this methodology no one would really notice.

Shashi Tharoor (ST): I was one of the early um um writers on the so called Malayali miracle in the 90s…

RV: Wait, who’s that?

ST: Shashi Tharoor. Do everything, a little bit of everything, as much as I can. but I'm Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.

SV: We’ll get back to him don’t worry. Stick around, Shashi!

RV: There’s this well known story about Robin Jeffrey, the academic, that’s testament to the story of social reform in Kerala. He was at a restaurant in Trivandrum in 1971, when he overheard a man dismissively call a young waiter to their table. The boy, whom Jeffrey says did not look over 16, furiously came up to their table and told them quite firmly,

SV: Aan aanu, patti alla.

JD: I am a human being, I’m not a dog, and this is something that was unthinkable anywhere else. So you see people come here attracted by the political part of the Kerala model but unfortunately they end up defending the development part, which should have needed more serious critical scrutiny

 RV: A century ago Kerala had one of the most orthodox caste structures, once very pernicious.

 JD: You had not just untouchability you had unseeability and extremely harsh punishments for any kind of infringement by lower castes and from there you had these communities actually come up and question and actually decimate the power of the upper caste elites, they also came together as a collective force whether in caste organisations or in the communist party, differently of course, to put pressure on the state.

 RV: This second part, the political part of Kerala’s story, is equally important, because it set the stage for the development model to prosper. It’s the story of public action.

 JD: If you look at the 1950s you open the newspapers you find page after page full of tiny little news items that say that 'in Chalakudi a group of gathered, they sat in dharna in front of the some office, collectorate, some office, demanding funds for public library,' then 'in Mundakayam people took out a demonstration for a local school', and you will see this, and somewhere else 'there is an agitation going on for a hospital,' so everywhere at the grassroots you had people demanding, making demands and turning politics into a vehicle to push those demands to the state, the state being pushed to deliver those demands through what is called public action.

SV: Part of Kerala’s exceptionalism was its strong emphasis on welfare and deep sense of public engagement. As J Devika says, this history was older and was the legacy of decades of social reform in the early twentieth century and it created a feeling of worth within the culture.

 JD: You have this strangely contradictory slogan that says anukulyam namalde avakasham, anukulyam as a word means a gift, a concession actually, anukulyam exactly translated means a concession but here you have people demanding that as a right. What did that contain? It contained a reference to a minimal right to land, a minimal right to education, healthcare, and a minimum social security. Those were the four components of the welfare.

 RV: This was what formed the fundamentals of Kerala’s social policies. And it was built around the male organised sector worker, who had dignity, was unionised, and receiving the highest minimum wages in the country. But over the years, out of Kerala’s development model a new unlikely symbol began to emerge and take hold of people’s imaginations - the women.


SV: For decades the emancipated malayalee woman became the much loved embodiment of Kerala’s greatness - and she was frequently conjured even in the foreign press as Kerala’s development fame grew. In a state that had high life expectancy, a progressive sex ratio and as many girls in school as boys - she was educated, she was her own person, she was in some ways free of her culture. She was the demonstrable, empirical reality of the model. And this was the ordinary Kerala woman.

RV: But by the neoliberal 90s, a new wave struck and two important milestones began to shape development. The bold experiment of decentralisation happened. The People’s Planning Campaign in 1996 that passed down nearly 40% of the state’s budget to local self governments making women and men, active participants in their local planning.

SV: And then there was Kudumbashree, the flagship state programme for poverty alleviation that employed hundreds and thousands of these ordinary women. Launched in 1998, women were placed at the heart of a federated model of neighbourhood self help groups and offered microfinance, that great buzzword. By 2004, the programme covered the entire state. And the Kudumbashree women came to do almost everything from delivering nutrition, being healthcare footsoldiers, to running kitchens. The were also micro entrepreneurs.

ST: We talked about empowerment of women which for me was an important thing, and I perhaps got a bit carried away because when I published a column in the Hindu a few years later uh, specifically extolling the empowerment of women talking about my own experience with my very independent minded mother and my strong willed grandmother and so on… I got a massive backlash from Kerala women who wrote back to me saying that you know you have no idea what it's like to be a woman in Kerala.

JD: The feminists of course since the 80s have been talking this. They’ve been pointing out the fact that women in Kerala have got a raw deal on so many fronts, and on top of it…

ST: The sexism the patriarchy, the sexual harassment, the impossibility of staying late at work without risking god knows what etcetera etcetera, all of which I had been unaware of obviously and I  then wrote a corrective column quoting these letters and saying looks like I may have overstated the case.

RV: In films produced during the golden age of Malayalam cinema in the 70s and 80s , films that were feted for being realistic, unadorned, and true to life, also portrayed the iconic Malayali woman - educated and self-aware as she was, but also always pure and self-sacrificing. And who can forget the epic scenes of her life’s tribulations that would be accompanied by wailing sad music representative of her moral triumph but predictable self-denial.

SV: Or the women were simple foils to their male counterparts, seen through the male gaze, as they were in the celebrity driven movies of the 90s.  In the end, this fiction was reality - the emancipated Malayali woman was still trapped within patriarchal stereotypes, expected to serve her family and her tradition, first.

JD: You had the angry young man in the 1970s right, who had no job was educated but no job and who was up against the patriarch both in the sense of the father as well as the state. Thats the angry young man for you, now in Kerala you have the angry young woman!

SV: Here’s why things get confusing. Why Kerala is so contradictory when it comes to its women. Kudumbashree is the state’s largest network of women, they are powerful. But ask any woman living in Kerala today, and even the Malayalis outside, about expectations. Malayalee women are expected to go to school, do well, have jobs, get married have children and then forever be devoted to their families. Years of development have not released women from this ideal, and they have not freed women from being seen as economic outflow.

JD: Every family, it’s a post demographic transition situation, if there’s a girl and a boy both are sent to school so both are equally individuated, the expectations are not very different from both but from the girl there is this additional expectation of being marriageable because that will reduce the dowry demands. So, but whatever the girl does she still represents the possibility of an outflow of material resources and however worthless a boy might be he represents an inflow so this is what I call structural worthlessness of the girl. 

RV: It’s hard to imagine that ideas like these exist, it seems schizophrenic. They may be wrongly seen as outflows for the family, but they are huge economic contributors to society. The big phenomenon of the Malayali nurse, for example, who are as a cadre have hugely contributed to the state’s remittances - and their family’s move up the ladder.

SV: If you think of Malayali nurse, who takes care of pretty much the whole world, these are women who broke with tradition and left home in search of work – as the primary breadwinner in many cases, leaving behind husbands and children. Many of these women chose nursing as a profession not because they felt a calling to care for the sick, but because nursing assured you of a job afterwards. And most of their families needed the money.

And so, wherever you go, the almost goddess like status which is given to kerala nurses is because they chose the job over the family.  

The Malayali nurse is tenacious. I mean who can forget the nurses who were airlifted out of Iraq and Kuwait a few years ago?

RV: It’s a funny story, when my mother had to have surgery in Rome twenty five years ago in the, she was nervous as hell. Foreign country, foreign doctors. And the one person who comforted her was the Malayali nurse in her ward, who coincidentally came from the same district as my mother, and – get this – spoke only fluent Italian and Malayalam, and no English.

SV: Today Kudumbashree has around 2.43 lakh groups across the State. And they are powerful. They played key roles in the response to 2018 floods. For the Kudumbashree woman, being integrated into the government system gave her an opportunity to become politically activated. Through bylaws Kudumbashree strengthened its internal democratic structure, introducing ‘office bearers’, the rank and file who were elected to work closely in local government bodies. Despite the pressures of external politics, these women have gained power.

RV: It is still one move though, with many more to be played to break through the glass ceiling, because it is one thing to empower the female government worker, and another to take her to political power.

SV: Repressive attitudes towards women also show up in insidious ways, affecting their daily lives I met Dhanya, a journalist with the digital media outlet called Azhimukkam, who has been documenting stories about real women and the issues they face, and what she found curious was the incongruence they called out between what they are taught-- and what they experience, and how this works in their relationship with the state, and how this works with their relationships with their families.

SV: How old was she?

Dhanya (D): 16.

D: As a science student, that is a biological process.  

SV - VO: Dhanya shows me a recording of a sixteen year old girl, who talks about how she learnt in biology that menstruation was normal but had to deal with oppressive social taboos at home like having to stay unwashed for four days and keep her items separately.

SV – VO: She also tells me about the abuse women face in labour wards when giving birth.

SV: So what they told me about their experiences, it’s very heart-breaking, their accounts of what they went through.  at a time when they were either in the middle of labour, or were waiting anxiously and excitedly for the birth of their baby, they were subjected to highly insulting physical and verbal abuse.

RV: In 2015 there was a whole spate of stories from across the country about the abuse women face in the delivery wards of government hospitals. Kerala doesn’t seem to be so exceptional in this regard. Horrifyingly, many of the perpetrators in these stories are female hospital staff, Women were routinely screamed at, hit and abused when they showed pain by women.

SV: What is odd is that scores of women supported her childbirth stories, but the response to the menstruation stories was lukewarm. The women she spoke with talked about the difference between what they are taught and what they experience. But what she found curious is the difference between their responses to the state, and their responses and reactions what happens within the family.

RV: 2018 seems to have been the year to debate, who and why the Kerala woman is who she is. And every woman held up as an example has been different, from the from the Hadiya case and the Supreme Court judgment that held up her autonomy, to the Women in Cinema Collective and their fight to acknowledge the working conditions and vulnerabilities of women in their industry, to women on both sides of the Sabrimala and the ones who participated in the Women’s wall.

SV: In every decade that Kerala was being praised, smugly putting out its social or human development indicators, it was ignoring a chance to look inward. Or is it that in the first story, the development agenda shaped the Kerala woman’s identity. And today the agency is with her, and she is pushing her identity into the larger agenda.


RV: On the 8th of August 2018, it rained. And it continued to rain. Kerala was used to tropical storms, when sheets of rain would fall from sky for hours and sometimes days on end.

But this was different. In twenty four hours, the state received 310 mm of rain. People sat at home watching as the shutters of the great Idukki dam, for so long a tourist spot, was opened for the first time in twenty six years.  There were landslides. Bridges gave way and electricity was cut off. Rivers flowed in spate. All in all 35 dams were opened in two weeks. Trains were suspended and airports were flooded. The red alert was sounded across the state. Over a million people were evacuated to relief camps as the worst flood in 90 years set in.

SV: The floods and the destruction it left in its their wake created an opening for a much needed conversation about the choices the state had made. Beneath the sylvan green surface, there were critiques to Kerala’s development trajectory that had too long be ignored.

The environmental critique called out Kerala’s poor land usage and planning, rampant deforestation, encroachment and rapid urbanisation that had taken place. There had been a reckless reclamation of agricultural land, wetlands and forest and their transformation for industrial, commercial and residential use.

RV: Alongside the sheer lack of state planning was the contribution of millions of malayali migrants who were sending back so much money

ST: We have, um, a great over dependence on remittances. Something like 25% of the state's revenues come from remittances from abroad and that compares to an all India figure of 3%.

RV: But which went largely to building private assets - homes, hospitals, schools.

ST: The average unemployment rate in kerala is 25% which is quite startling because it is actually unemployment of the educated and the skilled. The labour manual labour community has largely migrated to the Gulf, or has gone at least temporarily to the Gulf. The manual labour in Kerala is done increasingly by manual labour from other states. So it’s a peculiar kind of unemployment but its real.

RV: In a state a populous as Kerala, with limited land, and employment opportunities, economics and ecology vy for primacy, Economics usually wins.  

SV: Kerala was one of the six states that resisted the recommendations of the Gadgil report in 2011, that called for more stringent protection of the ecologically sensitive western ghats. Even its recommendations of its successor, the Kasturirangan report, are still being debated.

But the floods brought everything to a head. The ecological repercussions created a space for a state and its society to stop and reorient itself, to get off the development wave it had been riding for so long.

RV: And it was a moment where people, Malayalis from all over the world, called for restraint, to resist the impulse to rebuild frenetically.

VV: My name is Venu. Venu Vasudevan and I am Principal Secretary for forests but these days most of my time is consumed by my new position which is the Chief Executive Officer for the Rebuild Kerala Initiative.

RV: The state set up Rebuild Kerala to build the longer-term perspective.

VV: How do you build back better? And there the definition sort of widens now, right so it’s not about rebuilding some lost assets but rebuilding the state and many aspects of various sectors in a better, improved form. And we're using this opportunity to get into systems and get into sectors which perhaps have not been directly and dramatically affected, but certainly have long term repercussions and implications for the state.

ST: Um so my own view is that we can sustain the model on our human development indicators if we can boldly embrace some possibilities for change.

SV: There are lots of ideas on the table - to boost tourism, to make agriculture more productive, to address sanitation in urban areas. But the priority is to find ways to boost the economy while understanding the fragility of the ecosystem.

ST: one is of course it sounds like just a cliched buzzword but it can have real meaning is to really embark on a serious mission to turn Kerala into a knowledge economy, by which I mean both technology, research, IT, high tech including biotech and so on, and, um, sort of, uh, education in the general sense of the term. We could be the sort of Boston or the Raleigh Durham triangle of uh, southern India, if for no other reason we offer a very pleasant environment for people to come and work, I mean which scientist wants to sit in Bangalore traffic, which um, research, thinker wants to breathe Delhi's polluted air.

RV: And what’s interesting is that apart from the usual administrators, this time round, architects, urban planners, social thinkers, disaster management specialists, and youth are all pitching in with their ideas. There are new groups forming - many on Whatsapp, who are talking seriously and collaboratively about how to address the state’s problems. Groups we spoke to like Resilient Kerala which is comprised of Malayalees from all over the world and within Kerala. They initially formed to coordinate rescue and organise shipments of relief, but then turned into a kind of virtual think tank that offers advice, commentary and expertise. People are talking. And it feels promising.


SV: There’s a joke about how you can find Malayalis everywhere. That if you went to the moon you would find a Malayali chai kada - tea shop. For years Kerala’s able-bodied men left its shores to work in the Middle East. Who knows when this started happening, Kerala has faced the sea all her life. The Arabs were close brothers whom they traded with, sold boats from Beypore to and forged close ties with. But by the 1970s, the great gulf migration had begun, feeding the oil boom’s need for cheap labour, and since then, professionals and entrepreneurs - men and women - have conquered the world. Malayalees are not afraid of the world, and the history of social mobility has meant that we will go anywhere to make our lives better. My grandfather went to work in Libya in the early 80s, my uncle worked in Botswana!  

RV: And because of the close connections they’ve kept with family back home and not just the remittances they sent back, there has emerged a kind of transnational Malayali identity, which is extremely important both to its growth and to shaping its cultural fabric. Kerala is shaped by national and global forces like no state in India.

SV: This is part of Kerala’s DNA. And it’s started to find its voice. In the last few years, more and more tongue in cheek wry malayali humour is making its way online, shared on Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. Dank Memes Malayalam is one of the most popular social media groups online, They have over 153 thousand followers and counting on Instagram and 34 thousand odd members on Facebook.

But there are countless meme pages, even Malayali ones. What sets Dank Memes Malayalam apart is their incredibly funny, ironic and on the point political commentary that almost seems to be adding to the discourse or the identity framing of the malayalee.

RV: Whether it’s about an errant comment made by a minister, or a growing protest, or a landmark judgement such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Dank Memes Malayalam has a viral pop culture based riposte. While Dank meme’s audience may not be taking to the streets they’re still very clued into what’s going on. Their stage is the digital one.

Varun Menon (VM): What we try to do is we try to follow the global trends in Reddit and 4Chan and what we try to do is we try to mix this global trend with Malayalam pop culture.

SV: The page is run by seven young men including Varun Menon, a young undergraduate student studying the life sciences.

VM: A large part of this Malayalam pop culture that I talked to you about is occupied by Malayalam cinema, like most of us grew up watching cult comedy movies from the 90s and so you will know all the movie dialogues by heart and there are movies that you just can’t forget. So when you mix this with global trends that people follow, you get something special, you get,  that’s how we make a meme.

SV: Varun and his crew have their ear to the ground and they’re very conscious of both their influence and reach.

VM: yeah so when we started out we were doing this because we liked doing this, we liked making memes. Making memes is something I love, and I mean it’s nice to make people laugh and feel good, we just wanted to do this for the sake of entertainment, make people laugh,and then when we grew in popularity we figured we could do something more with this. It was like we had this large audience in front of us and we figured we could get ideas that really mattered. We post a lot of memes commenting on the hypocrisy…

RV: He means the hypocrisy in Kerala society...

VM: Actually as in our memes will have many layers to it,  it’ll be ironic and we trust our audience to understand the levels of irony that we go into…

RV: So whether it was a gender controversy over a movie, or movements that are stretching at the social fabric, DMM has tried to offer socially relevant commentary where ever they can. For example, they took on what it meant to be a feminist in Kerala:

VM: So there is this umm, misconception about what the word feminist means in Malayalam community is what we figured. The word feminist itself became a sort of taboo in the audience is what we felt, so we wanted to clear that up, there is a very healthy discussion in the comments section that is interesting to see.

RV: Dank memes has created a space for the modern socially engaged and questioning young person to speak up and share.

SV: So another question i had is why are there no girls on your group?

VM: Hahahaha.

SV: Are they just not as interested in making memes as much as boys are? Do you find that online communities tend to be more male in certain areas? Like in this humour area or in this kind of, I mean what is your perception, I mean you have girlfriends right? what do they say about this?

VM: So, we have girls who post memes. but like you said the number is less and im not really sure why um that is the case. but we try to promote girl meme makers. Maybe it has something to do with how um Facebook gives you this anonymity and you were not sure who the person is behind the computer so um, with all the fake ID cases and stuff you hear, maybe girls are more skeptic into getting into contact with guys over the internet.

SV: In the conversations we had with Keralites and Malayali there were these interesting examples that kept coming up about youth related protests or subcultures. They all seem to be pointing at some kind of cultural change that is underway.

RV: The 2014 Kiss of Love protest was a young symbolic reaction against rising moral policing - it started with young people kissing and hugging openly in Kochi. The movement was widely supported online with hundreds of thousands of supporters.

Another group mentioned Freakens, a self styled tribe of young people who sport flamboyant hairstyles, have their own slang and trace their lineage back to characters in Malayalam films. Or the groups of men online, that troll and bully prominent female public figures.

SV: There are hard questions that need to be asked about what young people in Kerala want. Have boys and men have been left out of the development agenda. High unemployment in the state, coupled with the fact that migration, the aspiration of most young men, is on the decline after decades. Some have been writing about how ideas of hypermasculinity have proliferated by the fact that women for years have been pushing back and chipping away at the patriarchal order - with support from the secular state.  

Is there a way to talk about development without talking about a model. Because when we say we need a model we never mean just that, we always want a societal ideal.

What is it about Kerala that makes it so fascinating? social reform so deeply ingrained in its people, the progressive path it chose to take that made its society more equal, or is it its development model? Or is it the Malayali pride that so many want to protect?

Or is it its people, who believe so strongly that public action can bring change?  

RV: So who is the very model of the modern Malayali?



Thanks to Bala Menon, Bharati Menon, Dr J Devika, Devika Radhakrishnan, Daneesh, Dhanya, Josy Joseph, Mujib, Raghav Sharma, Dr Shashi Tharoor, Sumesh Mangalasseri, Varun Menon, Dr V Venu, Vidya Varma, Yamini and Gayatri Vijayan and all the folks who are a part of Resilient Kerala.

Sounds: Sound Producer is Santhos Nataraja. Sound Design by Erwick d’Souza. Theme song by Hollis Coats. This episode was mixed and recorded at Third Eye Studios.

 Show and art design by Bhushanraj.

In the Field is supported by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.