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Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: God's Own Country

Kochi (Cochin)—In the 1990s, the wordsmiths in New Delhi struck upon “Incredible India” as the advertising shorthand for the world’s most populous democracy. Not to be outdone, Kerala’s rulers rebranded their state “God’s Own Country,” a slogan now seen everywhere. But three thoughts occurred to us after spending ten days traveling through Kerala:
  1. That the apostrophe should appear at the end of the first word, given the plurality of divinities in this intriguing state;
  2. That among these deities is the Marxist god that demonstrably failed the former Soviet empire; and
  3. That communism here has half-succeeded and half-failed in interesting ways.
Much has been written about Kerala’s quality of life, its achievements in literacy, health, and empowerment of women. But we found that God's Own Country is also vulnerable to mortal misjudgments and adverse external forces. As we learned in Mumbai, access to jobs is a major source of communal strife. In Kerala, the lack of jobs for educated citizens is an omnipresent challenge. Unemployment in the state hovers around 25 percent, depending on how and whom you count; roughly twice as many women as men are jobless. Moreover, Kerala has no industrial base. Workers are unionized and wages are high compared to neighboring Tamil Nadu. Land is in short supply and expensive; consumer goods are imported. Jumbo-sized billboards pepper the landscape; television commercials interrupt programming—a Mad Man’s delight. Print journalism flourishes, and people are well informed and opinionated. But in the words of a friendly critic, “Keralites know their rights, but not their obligations.” On our journey we have seen several attempts to mitigate the relentless consumer pressure on a weak economic base by promoting ecotourism, nurturing manufacturing cooperatives founded a half- century ago, and disbursing micro-loans to seed small businesses. The intentions are admirable; the limitations severe. Early on, we visited a popular tourist destination, the hill station of Ponmudi, nearly three hours by car from the capital, Trivandrum. But whereas the ancient Romans excelled at constructing ruler-straight roads, Keralites have produced what must be among the world’s greatest collections of hairpin turns (22 in the final stretch). On leveler terrain, public and private buses, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars hurtle through roads blocked by armies of pedestrians, cows, protest demonstrators, and the occasional temple elephant accompanied by his or her mahouts. A recent cover story from India Today noted that India has the highest number of road accidents in the world: by last count, 13 every hour, 114,590 a year.  Safety aside, public transport is sluggish, inadequate, and subject to periodic strikes. This infrastructure is palpably inhospitable to large-scale ecotourism. As a headline in The Hindu puts it, India is a country “Where the Pedestrian Is a Third-Class Citizen.” Sidewalks are a rarity in Kerala. 

THE INDEX — November 30, 2009

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Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Brysac: A Glimpse of Reality in Kerala

This article was originally published by Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Trivandrum—Our first interview in Trivandrum, capital of Kerala, yielded a disconcerting assertion: “The Kerala model is collapsing,” declared C. K. Vishwanath, a youthful, intense authority on communal strife. We pressed for details, having flown halfway around the world to visit what experts said was an outstanding example of democratic social progress. Our visitor elaborated: Yes, the south Indian state had achieved a first-world quality of life on meager average incomes, but it is a victim of its own success. “Kerala doesn’t produce anything, so it can’t provide job for its better-educated job seekers.” Moreover, its health care system is being overstretched by an aging population as life expectancy has reached Western standards. All true, but based on first impressions, not the whole story. Our tour began with a glimpse of reality. We wheeled through much of Trivandrum, but did not encounter the omnipresent beggars, nor were we grabbed by roving gangs of children pleading for rupees that we found in central Mumbai. Instead, an air of animated cheerfulness permeated the streets, accented by a rainbow of faultless saris on the matrons and the now trendy salwar kameez of the twenty-somethings (a fashion which has now migrated south from the Punjab).

FALL FUNDRAISER

 

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