The Kerala Model
The Indian state of Kerala is an example of degrowth in practise
Kerala is doing A LOT right
I recently watched this 1 minute and 41 seconds long video on the Indian state of Kerala by @karishmaclimategirl on Tik Tok, where Karishma describes Kerala as “representing the success of degrowth”. I was keen to know more and what I learnt did not disappoint. Here is the video:
As Karishma describes in the video, Kerala has a higher human development index than some European countries (and also a higher sustainable development index), one of the happiest and healthiest populations in the world, the highest daily wages in India, strong labour, trade unions and land reforms, all villages and cities are electrified and it has the highest literacy rate in all of India. Additionally, Kerala has been declared one of the states where citizens experience the lowest instances of corruption and has been designated the best governed Indian state. Kerala also has the lowest rates of poverty (0.71%, an enviable result even for most ‘developed’ nations), the lowest rates of positive population growth, and the lowest rate of infant mortality in India (6 deaths/1,000 births vs the national average of 30 deaths/1,000 births).
Kerala has also recently declared internet access a fundamental right. The government launched a publicly owned broadband service and will be providing the service for free to more than 2 million people. There are more statistics on the wellbeing of the people of Kerala that I could cite (around low homelessness, hunger and murder rates and high criminal conviction rates etc.), but I think the point has been well made.
Most astonishingly, and against the mainstream belief in economic growth as a path to prosperity, the people of Kerala have achieved all of this with a Gross National Income (GNI)/capita of just US$12,376 compared with the USA of GNI/capita of US$76,399. Kerala also has very low C02 emissions/capita of just 2.84t and a material footprint/capita of just 8.53t (compared with C02 emissions/capita of 19.01t and material footprint/capita of 32.43t for the USA).
Kerala shows us that we don’t need to destroy the planet to live well.
What are the people of Kerala doing differently?
All of this is made possible by the Kerala model of development which prioritises sustainable social and human development over economic growth. Kerala has a politically engaged citizenry, a history of organised labour, decentralised governance and community-based participatory decision-making. This radical democracy has resulted in higher government spending on education, health care and poverty reduction over the last century. It is through these high levels of democracy that Kerala has been able to improve the quality of life of its citizens without significant environmental harm.
Interestingly, Kerala also has high levels of cooperative and social enterprise business structures which, like the Kerala model of development, also put workers and social welfare above profit. Kerala has 11,892 cooperatives across key sectors, including agriculture, industry, banking, grocery and restaurants. Kerala “has less than 3% of India’s population, yet accounts for 17% of cooperative membership”. These structures are run by members rather than (often passive) shareholders simply seeking a return on investment. This allows members to prioritise other outcomes over and above profit and growth.
The large numbers of social enterprises and high levels of participatory democracy are likely to mostly eliminate the “state-capture” we see in so many other countries, whereby governments are influenced by corporations and wealthy individuals for their own gain (see here and here for examples).
Kerala isn’t perfect. Despite having low levels of poverty, it has high levels of inequality (the wealthy are very wealthy). It also struggles with high levels of unemployment (although arguably this is not as great a concern as we might be led to believe, according to the late David Graeber perhaps we should all be working less), and there is still work to do on gender equality, access to water, sewage treatment and morbidity rates.
While there may still be areas for Kerala to improve, it is an inspiring example of how we can focus on human needs rather than economic growth to achieve genuine sustainability. By focusing less on profit and growth and more on providing everyone with the things they need to live well, we can all have access to high quality food, healthcare, education, housing, and connected communities. Realising such outcomes in “over-consuming” nations will require us to reconsider for-profit organisational structures, as well as the highly concentrated media ownership and political donations that are damaging our democracies. It will require building grass-roots movements and much more organised labour, but - looking at the example of Kerala - the payoffs will be tremendous.
Protecting the Future is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.