An awareness drive in Ernakulam district in Kerala, April 15
Kerala’s success story in its fight against COVID-19 has been a discussion point in the country. People-centered approach initiated by the Left government in the state played a crucial role in flattening the COVID-19 curve. Three main factors played a vital role in this process. These are the presence of a socially vigilant administration, high degrees of civic participation, and a robust public health care system.
The exceptional leadership and management skills of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan helped Kerala to respond better to this crisis. Since the Left government came into power in 2016, Kerala has witnessed a series of crises – Kerala floods of 2018 & 2019, Nipah Virus outbreak of 2018 & 19, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Social unity and physical distancing is the slogan of Kerala’s fight against COVID-19. Kerala is known for its high civic participation throughout its political history. One of the hallmarks of the current government during its fight against the recent series of crises, including ongoing COVID-19, is ensuring high standards of social unity. This is noteworthy when most of the country is busy communalising and targeting specific communities for the spread of COVID-19.
But what is Public Action and why is it important in Kerala’s context? It holds the key to understand Kerala’s success in the social front. Further, it also helps to unravel the performance of the state during various events of recent crises. Scholars who have studied the achievements of Kerala on the social front have concluded that mass mobilisations and progressive policy initiatives of the government were the main reasons behind the success of the state. They credited public action for playing a vital role in social transformation.
Famous economists John Dreze and Amartya Sen (1989) argue that Public action refers not only to the activities of the State, but also the “social actions taken by members of the public,” which are both “collaborative,” through “civic co-operation,” and “adversarial,” through “political opposition and social criticism.” In the framework as proposed by Dreze and Sen, public action includes actions from above (actions of the State) and below (actions of class and mass organizations, political parties, individuals, and non-Governmental groups).
Early 20th century history shows that several mass mobilisations related to caste, land and food were held in the Malabar, Cochin and Travancore regions of current day Kerala state. Most of these movements played a crucial role in shaping the public policy of Kerala since inception in 1956. These mobilisations also played a significant role in moulding the progressive public sphere of the state.
For example, the first Kerala government’s (led by EMS Namboodiripad) land reform policy was a culmination of a number of land-related anti-feudal struggles led by the Communist Party before the establishment of the state in 1956. John Dreze and Amartya Sen identify this as the best example of public action from below and the government’s proactive policy response to it.
Progressive social reform movements led by personalities like Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, and Sahodaran Ayyappan along with temple entry movements had an outstanding influence in radicalising the notion of social justice in Kerala society. Further, these factors also influenced Kerala’s early legislations on caste. At the same time, it is also imperative to understand the role of the progressive Communist Movement in shaping most of the landmark policy initiatives that changed the face of the state in the latter half of the 20th century.
As Ramakumar (2006) suggests, through public action, the state executed radical reforms in land, spent a major portion of its revenue in sectors like education, health and started numerous social policies some of which include programs like PDS (Public Distribution System), social protection for a large section of the population and also support to the cooperative movement which flourished in the state.
The foundation of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Kerala owes its being to mass mobilisations during periods of food crises before and after the formation of the state. Many economists suggest that the preliminary form of the public distribution system emerged as a result of the struggles of workers in the Travancore region and peasant protests in Malabar. Further, the establishment of PDS in modern Kerala in 1964 was again associated with the mass movements led by the Left parties against the massive food shortage witnessed then.
Cooperatives and other community initiatives have had a significant impact in Kerala society. The success story of Uralungal Labour Contract Co-operative Society (ULCSS) started in 1925 in Malabar is an excellent example of the role cooperatives can play in formulating an equitable society. Another example worth mentioning here is Kudumbashree, which is considered as one of Asia’s largest women’s collective. Kudumbashree originated as an offshoot of the Peoples Plan Campaign of the Left government in the 1990s and represents an important chapter in the progressive politics led by the Communist Party in Kerala. Ensuring social justice and inclusive development policies have become the hallmark of Kerala’s politics since its formation.
Investment in a robust public health care system is another indicator of Kerala’s development experience. The progressive governments of Kerala state have created a chain of public health care institutions accessible to the people with the best of amenities.
Critics might argue that the historical significance of factors like Kerala’s centuries-long globalised trade connections, multi-religious society, the role of Christian missionaries in education, policies of the Travancore Royal families were the main factors which laid the foundation of establishing a modern Kerala. There is no doubt about the influence and impact of these factors in the formation of a modern state.
However, it’s important to know Kerala’s situation at the time of independence to understand its progress now. As famous social scientist Robin Jeffrey (1987) points out, during pre-independence, the per capita income of Kerala was one of the lowest and it was the least urbanised state in the country.
There is a tendency amongst current scholars to credit the success of the state to feudal factors like the policies of the Royal families. It becomes problematic when they choose to overlook the exploitation and discrimination meted out by these authorities and their opposition to social justice.
To understand this a little better, it is important to access the progress of the Malabar region which was part of the Madras presidency before the formation of Kerala state. It ranked amongst the least developed regions in the nation. After its integration with the newly formed Kerala state in 1956, the Malabar region steadfastly caught up with the rest of the state mainly based on the policies of the governments that ruled Kerala since its formation. Therefore, all credit to development of Kerala to pre-independence factors is perhaps a bit far stretched and uneven.
It is essential to acknowledge the role played by democratic governments, especially the Left governments, since 1956 in formulating people-centered public policies that transformed everyday life of the common public. The Left politics in the state has a remarkable influence on policies related to land, education, health, people’s planning at local self-governments, cooperative sectors, etc.
One of the major contributions of the Left politics in Kerala is creating a system based on the ideas of socialism which is free from class exploitation and social oppression. Kerala’s success story during the recent events of crisis is a product of the effectiveness of government’s people-centered approach along with its long history of public action in the state. And it is in this historical context of public action, that we must endeavour to locate the state’s response to COVID 19 to comprehend its initiatives and success.