• Email
  • Print

The Kerala Difference

In response to:

More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing from the December 20, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In his article, “More than 100 Million Women are Missing” [NYR, December 20, 1990], Amartya Sen draws our attention to an important fact of life in many parts of the Third World: the neglect of women’s health, summed up by the statistic that males outnumber females.

One notable exception to this bleak picture in Asia, as he notes, is Kerala state located in the extreme southwestern corner of India. There the ratio of females to males is 1.03 to 1.0, and the life expectancy of women is 68, compared to 64 for males. Females are more highly educated than their counterparts in the rest of India, with an adult literacy rate of 66 percent versus the Kerala male rate of 75 percent.

However, Sen’s analysis of why Kerala is so exceptional is misleading. He minimizes Kerala’s radical political traditions in improving the lives of all of its people, including women. Though he does credit recent “left-wing governments,” he gives far too much weight to Kerala’s pre-independence rulers’ stress on public education, and to a tradition of inheritance through the female line in much of Kerala that he says gives women more material means for survival. He also fails to account for the availability of the medical care that he correctly points out is one of the major factors accounting for the better health of women in Kerala.

It is true that the Nair caste in Kerala traditionally practiced inheritance through the female line, but 80 percent of Kerala’s people are not Nairs. Traditions may help set the ground work for progressive changes, but these traditions must be constantly buttressed by popular movements.

Sen does not discuss Kerala’s long history of mass mobilization, in which men and women under radical leadership have struggled for better lives. As we demonstrate in our 1989 book, Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (San Francisco, Institute for Food and Development Policy), this political mobilization resulting several times in electoral victories for the Communist Party, or to coalitions led by it, is largely responsible for Kerala’s advances over other Indian states.

Even when the left has not held formal political power in Kerala, left organizations have demanded and won accessible health care, educational opportunities, real land reform, successful caste affirmative action, rural workers’ pensions, and effective food distribution to all social classes. Kerala, with a per capita GNP lower than the all-India average ranks first among all Indian states in provision of 15 basic services, including schools, good roads, ration shops, health centers, hospitals, veterinary services, banks, etc. Women are better off in Kerala because they are part of a struggle that benefits the whole population.

Barbara H. Chasin
Professor of Sociology
Richard W. Franke
Professor of Anthropology
Montclair State College
Upper Montclair, New Jersey

Amartya Sen replies:

Professors Chasin and Franke are right to emphasize the remarkable nature of Kerala’s achievements as a “notable exception to [the] bleak picture in Asia,” and also right to point to the constructive contributions of left-wing “political mobilization.” They are less right to downplay the importance of Kerala’s public policy of promoting mass education in the past and that of pro-woman inheritance laws applying to a powerful section of the population.

I begin with our differences. Kerala’s success in reducing gender inequality does relate, as Chasin and Franke say, to “political mobilization resulting several times in electoral victories for the Communist Party, or to coalitions led by it.” But it must be remembered that, unlike much of the rest of India, Kerala has never had a female-male ratio below unity at any time in this century. The Communist party first came into office in Kerala in 1957. In the census preceding that (in 1951), Kerala’s female-male ratio was already as high as 1.028, and in the subsequent censuses we see some variations in that ratio—falling to 1.022 in 1961 and to 1.016 in 1971, before rising again to 1.032 in 1981 and to 1.040 in the 1991 census. I don’t believe I was slighting the positive role of Kerala’s left-wing politics in seeking an explanation that goes back to its pre-independence history, and takes note of the educational policies pursued in the “native kingdoms” of Travancore and Cochin (outside British India), which make up the bulk of today’s Kerala.

The causal chain of Kerala’s exceptional record goes back in history and includes among other things such steps as the public policy of “enlightenment” and “diffusion of education,” clearly articulated by the reigning queen (Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai) of Travancore as early as 1817. The high level of education also contributed to the development and utilization of Kerala’s extensive public health services, by making the population more informed, more articulate, more keen on demanding health services, and more able to make use of what is offered. Jean Drèze and I have tried to explore, in our book Hunger and Public Action (Oxford, 1989), the connections, which are by no means unique to Kerala, between education, public activism, and the development and use of health facilities. Literacy and basic education have also contributed, it can be argued, to Kerala’s radicalism (and to the development of “political mobilization” on which Chasin and Franke concentrate), by making it easier to depart from the traditional mold of Indian conservative politics.

Chasin and Franke are also over-quick in their dismissal of the role of the inheritance laws favoring women among a part of Kerala’s population. The Nairs might well have constituted no more than a fifth of the total population, but the practice of giving women a high position in property ownership on the part of a substantial, prominent, and powerful group was clearly influential on the appreciation of women’s rights and positions in the society in general.

Despite these differences, I am very glad that Chasin and Franke have emphasized the achievements of Kerala, which I had to discuss rather briefly given the overall space limitation. Kerala’s extent of success is, in fact, considerably greater than what would emerge from the numbers that Chasin and Franke give. According to the 1991 census, the female literacy rate in Kerala is 87 percent (the male rate is 94 percent), and the estimates based on the Sample Registration Survey for 1986–1988 suggest a life expectancy at birth of 73.2 years for Kerala females (with a male life expectancy of 67.0 years). Its contemporary female-male ratio of 1.04 is indeed close to the values that obtain in modern Europe and North America (1.05 or so), and is totally different from that in India as a whole (0.93), and also from those in many other countries in Asia (such as, China’s 0.94, Bangladesh’s 0.94, Pakistan’s 0.90).

Modern Kerala does deserve credit for consolidating and building on past achievements. But the background to these developments has to be traced, to a considerable extent, back to Kerala’s remarkable past, and we have to take note, among other things, of its old policy of educational expansion. These issues are important since the role of education, and in particular of female education, may well be central to many problems of the contemporary world.

  • Email
  • Print