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Three Lessons from Kerala's Experience in Poverty Alleviation

Source: Poverty Alleviation as Advancing Basic Human Capacities: Kerala's Achievements Compared, K.P. Kannan in Kerala - The Development Experience: Reflections on Sustainability and Replicability, edited by Govindan Parayil, Zed Books, London, 2000. ISBN 1856497275, pp63-65

Kerala's 30 million people may not have experienced rapid growth in GDP per capita, but they have for the past several decades achieved a remarkable social record in terms of adult literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy, stabilising population growth and narrowing gender and spatial gaps.

A number of direct poverty alleviation programmes have made an impact - free midday meals to primary-school children, institution of supplementary nutrition programmes for pregnant mothers and pre-school children from poorer households, granting of old-age pensions to rural workers in a number of occupations and the implementation of integrated rural development programmes.

What are the main lessons from Kerala's development experience in poverty alleviation?

The first lesson is the intervention by a strong state that has taken responsibility for poverty alleviation but which has created political space for the poor and opportunities for non-state public action.

What Kerala demonstrates is the feasibility of poverty alleviation in the context of a political democracy that does not impose limitations on the freedom of political choice or public action of the people. The exercise of such political choice compelled the state to respond to the demands of the poorer sections that were no longer constrained by the social structure. Public action thus played a dual role in removing the fundamental social constraints and giving a political voice to the poor. Kerala has a long history and tradition dating back to the early 1900s in which a diverse variety of social movements have taken the form of empowerment through organisation.

The second lesson relates to the role of economic growth in poverty alleviation. The trickle-down theory does not enjoy much empirical support in the Kerala context. Poverty alleviation was accelerated during periods of very slow economic growth between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s. Kerala demonstrates that poverty alleviation can be achieved with or without economic growth if concerted public action is focussed on the problem.

The third lesson from the Kerala experience concerns the role of women. During the last 40 years women have caught up with men in terms of literacy, school enrolment, performance and retention rates. These education gains have a direct relationship with enhanced health status of both women and children.


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