Has Kerala’s Development Story Reversed Under LDF CM Pinarayi?

INC members Dr Rajeev Gowda and Varun Santhosh examine Pinarayi Vijayan’s performance as Kerala’s chief minister.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Kerala map and LDF party symbol used for representation.
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Kerala’s branding as ‘God’s Own Country’ made it a global tourist destination. In parallel, scholars celebrated the ‘Kerala Model’ of development, characterised by high literacy, low poverty, high life expectancy, a healthy sex ratio, but an unusual dependence on remittances.

Kerala benefited from social, cultural, political and administrative reforms over a century –– from the Travancore Kingdom to democratically elected governments post-independence. Parties alternating in office since 1980, together madeKerala a bastion of social democracy in India, with high investment in public health and education, democratic decentralisation, and communal harmony between three major religions.

Unfortunately, data reveals that Kerala’s development story has reversed over the last five years. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has mismanaged the economy and administration and opened up space for communal discord and tensions in the state.

Kerala’s Flailing Human Development and Economy in Numbers

Members of Mr Vijayan’s alliance partner, the Communist Party of India, labelled him “Modi in a mundu”, referring to his autocratic style of functioning and the unprecedented (for Left politics) projection of his face alone in massive public relations exercises. Vijayan may well have takeninspiration from Prime Minister Modi who hyped up the ‘Gujarat Model’ when he was CM. Just as that proved hollow, so too does the hype surrounding Kerala’s CM.

Consider Kerala’s famed social development indicators. According to the National Family Health Survey-V (2019-20), the state’s sex ratio at birth has plummeted to 951 in 2019-20 from 1,047 in 2015-16. Years of improvement in the nutritional status of children reversed in the last five years. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2019 notes that one in five children in the state are malnourished. These are shocking statistics for a state like Kerala.

The economy is faring badly. According to Union Government data, Kerala's GDP growth plummeted from 7.4% in 2015-16 to 3.45% in 2019-2020. Much before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kerala ranked the third lowest in the GDP growth among all states in 2019-20. The net per capita growth rate at constant prices reduced to 2.78% in 2019-20, the second lowest amongst all states in India, down from 7.06% in 2015-16, when the UDF government left power.

A CAG report notes that the state’s total debt burden has increased by 70.21 per cent in the five years from 2014-15 to 2018-19.
Per capita debt has also zoomed from Rs. 42,499 in 2014-15 to Rs.66,561 in 2018-19.

The LDF government had promised 25 lakh jobs in its 2016 manifesto but has completely lost sight of the unemployment crisis brewing in Kerala for the past five years. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey, Kerala reported the highest youth unemployment rate in urban areas in January-March 2020, pegged at 40.5%, which is almost double the national average of 21.2%. At 48.33%, every second woman between the age group of 15-29 years in Kerala was unemployed.

Pinarayi Vijayan’s COVID-19 Cover-up

When COVID-19 hit, the Vijayan-led government earned worldwide accolades for its initial prompt and effective response. This success drew upon the robust public health infrastructure built over decades. Unfortunately, it has crumbled with a second wave of rising cases. Contact tracing has been practically abandoned.

The diligent work of vigilant citizens who tracked obituaries and deaths through newspaper reports showed that the LDF government concealed COVID-19 data regarding caseloads and deaths.

The government has reneged from its commitment to conduct 1 lakh tests per day from January 2021, when Kerala climbed the charts to become the third highest state with the number of cases.

In February, when the Test Positivity Rate had crossed 7, the testing was oscillating between 50,000-75,000 samples. Meanwhile, the number of RT-PCR tests is almost half of Antigen tests, when it should ideally be around 70% and upwards.

Failure to safeguard Social Justice and Ecology

Kerala’s renowned land reforms had left behind a sizable number of Adivasis and Dalits, who are still waiting for the land they were promised. In January 2020, the 50th anniversary of the Land Reforms, around 150 Adivasis protested for their long pending demand of one-acre land per family for cultivation.

In 2019, Adivasis and Dalits in Arippa held demonstrations in 55.46 acres of land, marked for redistribution among landless Adivasis, Dalits, and the poor, but the government did nothing to resolve their concerns. Therefore, it is good to see the UDF People’s Manifesto promise to revive and implement the landless Adivasi rehabilitation programme and restart a Housing Scheme for SC/STs.

For a state ravaged by natural calamities turned man-made disasters, the CM has paid scant regard to Kerala’s ecology.

By approving the contentious Athirapally hydel project despite expert advice to the contrary, relaxing the rules for quarrying, and diluting the regulation for conversion of agricultural land into construction sites, the LDF government has exacerbated the state’s ecological crisis.

Abandoning the Left’s Own Professed Values

The LDF selling out to private and corporate capital is exemplified by its fielding 11 independents – mainly wealthy businessmen – in north Kerala. The LDF government allegedly signed a deal with an American firm that breaches its own 2018 fisheries policy andwould open up deep-sea trawling to big private players,shattering the lives of local fisherfolk.

In February 2019, the Attapaddy Cooperative Farming Society leased 2,730 acres of land, which was meant for Adivasis living in Palakkad, to a private construction firm, breaking a 44-year-old agreement between the state government and the society to protect the land and livelihoods of indigenous people.

Mired in Corruption

The LDF’s litany of scams have left Keralites cheated. For example, flood relief funds meant for affected peoplewere sometimes diverted towards the party faithful, the future of youth was compromised by undermining the Public Service Commission’s processes, and the CM’s aide is being investigated in a murky gold smuggling scam.

Lastly, the CM gave oxygen to communal forces through his heavy-handed approach to the emotive Sabarimala issue, disturbing the state’s social fabric. A truly democratic leader would have consulted all stakeholders before taking any decision. Thus, on election day, voters would do well to reflect on this disastrous decline in Kerala’s economy, human development, and its democratic and secular ethos.

(Prof. Rajeev Gowda is a former Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Research Department, All India Congress Committee. He tweets at @rajeevgowda.
Varun Santhosh is aide to Jairam Ramesh, MP. He tweets at @santvarun.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.
The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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