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Imagining an Economy of Plenty in Kerala

Land reforms in Kerala, far from being a remarkable success, have been a major failure. They were meant to redistribute land and not to improve productivity. It is time the state government considered ordering that redistributed land should be returned if the beneficiaries do not cultivate it and also reversing the existing anti-tenancy law. Kerala's food security demands that the state think afresh about its policies for land and production.

COMMENTARYmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly14Imagining an Economy of Plenty in KeralaPulapre BalakrishnanAmong the public statements on the crisis caused by the rising price of food that by chief minister V S Achuthanandan has been the most significant as it took you straight to the heart of the matter – the issue of food security for Kerala. Addressing a rally of trade unions in Thiruvananthapuram on May 1 he is re-ported (‘VS: State Must Become Self- sufficient’,The Hindu, May 2) to have said two things worthy of attention. First, in the context of the global food crisis, he called for an all-out effort to make Kerala self-sufficient in the production of food. Secondly he went on to say: Youngsters are reluctant to stop and dig up the soil a bit and plant a few vegetables. All they do is dress up well in the morning and roamaround. This must change. We must try and produce vegetables in the smallholdings we have. These are both significant statementsin the current historical contextinKerala. That they were made to a trade unionrally on the occasion of InternationalWorkers’ Day is doubly significant. Not onlydidthe speech not take the congratulatory form customary on such occasions but alsoit dared to suggest a role for workers in the betterment of their own lives. Exhortation to self-help is not the staple of speeches by politicians to their constituencies.By speaking out so clearly the chief ministerhas not only shown himself to be critically alive to the future of his people but also distanced himself from the stand-ard discourse on Kerala’s economic devel-opment. This discourse has it that Kerala’s development path is superior to that of all other regions of India and that it derives uniquely from the brief but boldly executed rule of the first E M S Namboodiripad ministry. Now, a full half-century later we are able to see very clearly that while that ministry successfully destroyed landlord-ism and liberated many from agrarian bondage, its contribution to the longer-term health of the economy has been lim-ited. This is not surprising, for reasons that I shall make clear shortly. However, of all the failings of the so-called “Kerala Model”, failure on the food front is the most significant. Its manifestation is the “all-party delegation” ever ready to flee to Delhi at the first sign of shortage, to plead for greater allocations to the state from the central grain pool. Indeed it is the only occasion on which the participants in an otherwise fratricidal engagement ever A shorter version of this article was published inBusiness Line of May 14, 2008.Pulapre Balakrishnan ( is currently with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi and is also associated with the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.Land reforms in Kerala, far from being a remarkable success, have been a major failure. They were meant to redistribute land and not to improve productivity. It is time the state government considered ordering that redistributed land should be returned if the beneficiaries do not cultivate it and also reversing the existing anti-tenancy law. Kerala’s food security demands that the state think afresh about its policies for land and production.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200815combine cause. The disaster on the food front, while apparent to anyone willing to watch without blinders, is never ac-knowledged in this great “development” discourse as it would be tantamount to admitting a failure.Failure of Land ReformAs land reforms are considered the one outstanding achievement of the so-called Kerala Model, the obvious question to ask is why this has not solved the food prob-lem once and for all. Why after 50 years must Kerala depend on Andhra Pradesh for rice, Tamil Nadu for vegetables and Karnataka for meat? Only fish is Kerala’s own, though settled on it by a bounteous nature. A society based on one-way exter-nal dependence on food to such an extent cannot be considered independent. Far from having been able to bring about a permanent increase in the rate of growth of rice, successive governments of the state have presided over the steady decline in paddy cultivation despite the much-publicised land reforms. This is because land reforms in Kerala have been imple-mented as a means to redistribute land, not to raise its productivity. What is inter-esting is that this has been hailed as “socialism”. Actually, this is a far cry from the spirit in which socialism was conceived of in Europe over a 150 years ago. Socialism was offered as a systemic approach to the problems of the economy and society. As far as the economy was concerned, the rationale for socialism was that it would harness the available resources far more efficiently than capitalism, which was driven by individual greed. Socialism was, of course, also seen as more just, but not even this was allowed to detract from its only raison d’etre, the ushering in of prosperity by a rational application of resources. The mere rearrangement of property among private players would have been treated with disdain.In the implementation of land reforms and the agricultural policy that accompa-nied it, successive governments in Kerala have been no more than “redistributivist”. Thus, land taken away from landlords was redistributed among erstwhile tenants who were not even required to cultivate the land given to them, leave alone till it themselves. The last assumes significance in that Kerala’s land reform was legislated by a communist government. Mostly land went to the intermediary between the landlord and the labourer, seldom to the “tiller of the land”. This is left unspoken, though it was pointed out even at the time by Daniel Thorner, the historian of India who had found refuge in India from the witch-hunt against communists in America by Eugene McCarthy. Now land reforms in Kerala come across as more Thatcherite than socialist in that they had the effect of creating more private proprietors in land than to rejuvenate a decaying feudal agri-culture. Recall that in 1957 the govern-ment had the option of vesting the land with the state and leasing it out to pro-spective tillers. Not only would this have been more in the spirit of socialism, but it would also have avoided the problem of small and unviable holdings that we are now faced with. More significantly, it would have prevented the conversion of agricultural land into real estate in so rampant a manner as we find occurring around us today. Beneficiaries of the land reform were among the first to sell off their allotments as a labour shortage hit the economy following the Gulf boom that had started in the first half of the 1970s. That this group is itself contributing to the alienation of prime agricultural land is en-couraged by the projection of socialism as the unbounded right to receive benefits from society without a commensurate duty to contribute in return. That we have no food security yet in Kerala despite land reforms may now be easily comprehended. Actually, it is still not too late for the government of Kerala to decree that beneficiaries of the land reforms must transfer the land to the government if they do not cultivate it. The government may then lease it out to those willing to cultivate it, of whom there are many. Actually, to reverse the by now defunct anti-tenancy legislation is long overdue. The existing tenancy law banning tenancy has no economic basis. Its status is no more than that of a dogma. Its repeal could potentially bring about a realloca-tion of land contributing to food security via greater production. This would be entirely compatible with protection of the rights of tenants against rack renting and arbitrary eviction. In the context, even conversion of paddy land by owners of land since before the land reform should be banned in the public interest. In most matters relating to the gravity of the food situation and in seeking to remedy it by raising production, the observations of V S Achuthanandan are entirely correct. However, he was completely off the mark when at the same May Day rally he had gone on to remark that “Kerala would have become self-sufficient in the avail-ability of foodgrains long ago if the first EMS government was not dismissed be-fore it could carry out the land reforms”. This is a myth, and there is little evidence for this. While it is correct that the original proposals for land reforms had to be watered down to accommodate the interest-ridden logic of coalition politics – for E M S Namboodiripad could only return to power with the support of the Muslim League – it is unlikely that anything short of land to the tiller would have stood a chance of raising its productivity. Moreover, the problem of far too small landholdings after redistribution could not have been avoided even if the land reforms were fully implemented by an EMS ministry allowed to serve out its term.Value of PDS?Nevertheless Achuthanandan’s identifica-tion of food security with self-sufficiency is one of the most far-sighted observations made by a Malayali politician in recent times. Its implication is that production must now be brought into centre stage, foryou can be self-sufficient only if you produce all that you need. The proposal also has the effect of showing up the limited role of the public distribution system (PDS) as an instrument of food security. This measure has about the same value in the context of a chronic food shortage such as that faced by Kerala as does sticking plaster over the crack on a broken glass. Devised by the British colonial government as a means of maintaining the peace in urban India, it has been quite disingenuously projected as some kind of socialist triumph by governments unable to raise production and economists committed to the status quo. By meeting its food needs via thePDS supplied by a few surplus-producing states, Kerala gives up any hope of a long-term control over the supply of grain,
COMMENTARYmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16leave alone its price. Such an arrangement cannot be compatible with food security. Lack of self-sufficiency in food is also the cause of forced migration from the state. If Kerala has to buy food from out-side it has to be paid for by the sale of something in turn. When it has no goods to sell, because as a high labour-cost economy it is uncompetitive, at least some part of the expenditure must come out of income transfers from outside the state. To ensure that this income is earned by the state has been the macroeconomic role of migration in Kerala’s recent history. The irreparable loss that characterises the experience of the vast majority who have to leave, constitutes the dark underbelly of Kerala’s development experience. As Kerala is not self-sufficient in food, and a less than competitive producer of manu-factures, her people must perforce sell their labour power elsewhere. Often this has meant working under near slave- labour conditions, both elsewhere in India and especially in the Gulf where they must barter away their human rights to eke out a meagre livelihood. In the past India herself has experi-enced the vulnerability induced by the absence of self-sufficiency in food. In the mid-1960s after two consecutive years of drought had lowered the availability of grain, India had had to approach the US, whose foreign policy it had all along criti-cised, for food aid. Lyndon Johnson re-sponded by sending wheat east by the ship-load so as “to keep India on a short lease”, a public humiliation of India for having maintained an independent for-eign policy. Indira Gandhi, who despite her authoritarianism loved India fiercely, took the message to heart. Thus was born the green revolution which was soon to permanently raise the rate of growth of food production over the rate of growth of population. India was finally to be self-sufficient in food. One of the pillars of this audacious plan process was that techno-crats were given full independence to implement the task once politics had set the agenda. Kerala could learn from this magnificent achievement. The supreme conceit of its establishment that it has nothing to learn from the rest of India as the state under its tutelage is so far ahead of every other may just be tempered by the recognition that Kerala’s independence as a social sphere may well be threatened by its inability to produce food cheaply and generate income more generally. V S Achuthanandan’s public remarks on a food secure Kerala are not just honest but also far-sighted. For far too long the public discourse on Kerala’s economic development has been strictly celebratory. The centre-piece of this has been to define socialism as redistribution of wealth to the neglect of any programme for its gen-eration. Far from being pro-labour this has enfeebled the prospects of the working class. That Achuthanandan is able to see this clearly may have something to do with the fact that he had himself started out as a working man, unlike the intellec-tuals who enshrine the status quo repre-sented by the distributivist Kerala Model. Self-congratulatory rhetoric has dumbed down the debate. Perhaps concerns of food security will finally bring us to our senses before it brings us to our knees. And steer us towards an economy of plenty.

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