Saturday, November 05, 2011

Kerala thoughts

I visited Kerala recently - my association with Kerala goes a few decades back and it happens to be my native place too.

I recall my dad saying sometime in the 80s, that the single lane road to the village road was exactly the same in the 50s, when he went to school. And this is the second decade of the 21st century - that road is exactly the same. And that road is no exception, the situation is the same in most parts of Kerala - the roads are as bad they have always been.

Over the past 30 years, like much of India, traffic and prosperity of this money order economy have increased steadily. As the rupee fell and the population going outside for work rose, money has come in at a steady tick. And Kerala has steadily lapped up all the new car models and smothered itself in ever more copious quantities of gold and other precious metals. The real estate boom which the country saw has had its effect in Kerala too - once agricultural land has given way to gated communities and posh sea and lake and river facing apartments. Land value has gone up multiple times. A small amount of IT companies have finally found an opening in the IT park in Trivandrum, but that really is about the only industry that has opened in the state in recent times. There are other jobs that the literate locals do not want to do and that gap is being hungrily fed by immigration from other parts of India. So, while Kerala exports manual labour (or plumbers, fitters etc. among others) to Gelf countries, it imports manual labour from other states of India - read Hindi speaking states. (For the first ever time in my life, I saw a bus board in Hindi in Kerala.) What tensions (communal and otherwise) this will cause remains to be seen.

A generation ago, my relatives worked in banks and other state owned enterprises and a few of them worked in colleges and found jobs in the handful of private enterprises. Their next generation has precious little chance of getting any job in Kerala - since our state owned enterprises are in no great shape and there are hardly other jobs available unless one counts attendants in gold souks and mobile phone stores. Software jobs are happening, but are really, too few to count as compared to any of the other 4 Southern states.

The point that I am trying to make, is that one on the one hand, because of the money order economy, the states people have made themselves prosperous while the state itself has had little or no role to play in it and that the state remains in as pitiable a condition as ever. The swanky houses hide the bad power and infrastructure situation. They have their gensets and inverters. The cool cars hide the bad roads.

Infrastructure is poor. The single lane roads are killers - especially with the new vehicles on it. Why could the state not acquire land to build better roads and railways? While land has been acquired by private entities to build swanky apartments, the government has not found itself able to acquire land for enterprises. Private entrepreneurship has found sources of labour from outside the state. But the government has not been able to reduce the grip of unions - in this state which has a strike every couple of weeks. So, the service industry which could naturally fit in this semi urbanized state with its high education levels is still struggling to find its feet.

KSRTC still runs old broken down buses and is unable to churn a profit, while the KSRTC of neighbouring Karnataka has taken great strides forward. The irony is not lost on the fact that Kerala with its transport services has not been able to tap into the thousands of tourists that pour into the state while neighbouring states have. Infact private operators in Kerala are doing very well. Tourism will suffer on account of bad infrastructure. As it is, it is horrendously expensive for most people to set foot in Kerala (Singapore and SriLanka compare favourably). Given the lack of facilities and the zooming cost associated with it, Gods own country could very well remain a slogan.

The Sabarimala pilgrimage contributes crores to Keralas economy - yet the temple surroundings, roads and facilities around it remain in pitiable condition. These pilgrims of course, are another type of tourists who contribute to fill Keralas coffers, but their condition remains despicable, as this years tragedy (now lost in public memory) shows.

Thirdly, Islamic fundamentalism is rapidly gaining ground in many parts of Kerala. And the political parties are cosying up in bed with them.

Theres a lot more that can be covered, but all in all, in my view it is not a very rosy future for Kerala - the state once famous for 100% literacy and then as gods own country - might well become a basket case very soon. I may be more pessimistic than sanguine, but I would love to be proved wrong!

No comments: