Is Kerala really the No.1 state in India?

Bengaluru: A day after Union finance minister Arun Jaitley flew down to Kerala to meet family members of a murdered Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, newspaper readers in Delhi woke up to a full-page advertisement by the Kerala government.

In a uniform yellow background, the ad’s headline announced ‘What makes Kerala No.1’, with the letter ‘1’ in giant type size. It went on to list the state’s achievements on literacy, transparency, governance and communal amity, peppered by quotes from noted personalities praising the state. The ad ended with the tagline Visit Kerala/Invest in Kerala. A day later, a Hindi version of the ad appeared in various dailies.

The ad came in the backdrop of a sustained verbal assault by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders inside and outside the Parliament on what they called political murders of RSS workers in Kerala by its ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government.

The ad generated quite a buzz. Some social media users in the state changed their profile pictures to incorporate ‘No.1’ showing their solidarity with the government, while others said the government was trying to fuel sub-nationalism and deflect attention from the killings.

The ad may or may not have served its purpose, but it left the question: Is Kerala the No.1 state in India?

For long, Kerala’s welfare-oriented growth model has attracted attention, with economists like Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya weighing in on it in the past.

According to K.P. Kannan, a noted scholar and economist on the state’s development, Kerala does not have the kind of indignity and poverty that mark several Indian states. Instead, he says, Kerala is often compared with developed countries, characterised by high literacy, incomes and expanded individual choices.

Its literacy rate is as high as 95%, says Kannan, who was also former director at Center for Development Studies, a public policy think tank. Average schooling in Kerala is eight to nine years, against four in the rest of India, he says, and in the realm of demographic transition, it will take the rest of India at least 30 years to catch up with its average demographic statistics.

Government estimates say only six out of 1,000 children in Kerala die before they reach the age of one compared to 41 across India, and its average number of children per family is below two which is seen as a direct consequence of female literacy. A health care facility is available within every 2-5km, many of them run and subsidised by the state, and average life expectancy is 75 years, 11 years ahead of the rest of India.

The state has also one of the highest per-capita incomes among Indian states (if you are an unskilled rural labourer, it has the highest), aided by over Rs1 trillion that emigrant Keralites send in every year. There are several, nearly universal welfare measures such as highly subsidized, if not free, food grains, medical insurance, meals and uniforms in schools, and so on.

Kerala’s sanitation drive began much before Swacch Bharat became fashionable. Close to 95% of its households have toilets, as per 2011 census, while close to half of India doesn’t have them. In 2016, Kerala also claimed it had turned “Open Defecation Free” (ODF), the third Indian state to do so after Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh.

Is that enough to say the state is No.1?

“No self-respecting social scientist would write a paper saying a state is broadly No.1,” says Ashok R. Chandran, a books editor on Kerala’s development.

“No. 1 in what? Any ranking depends on what criteria are selected in the ranking exercise, which in turn depends on the ranker’s motivations. No academic will be motivated to write that a particular state is No.1, said Chandran, who also operates the ‘Kerala Scholars’ online group, a platform for peer-reviewed research on Kerala.

He points out that there is no basis for such claims, barring odd ranking of states by some media outlets.

“As far as I can make out, the current ‘Kerala is No.1’ campaign is for political propaganda against the BJP than any policy impact,” he said.

“I am reminded of ‘India Shining’, which was initially to win international investment but backfired electorally at the national level. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government’s spin doctors say that the ‘No.1’ campaign is to reassure potential investors who might have been frightened by the political murders,” he said.

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