Kerala development model under stress

‘Lockdown' is a word that has entered the Malayalam lexicon along with ‘social distancing’. COVID-19 is impacting Kerala society in an unprecedented way never seen before

K S Nayar Mar 26, 2020

‘Lockdown' is a word that has entered the Malayalam lexicon along with ‘social distancing’. COVID-19 is impacting Kerala society in an unprecedented way never seen before. In a state where ‘hartal’ or state-wide shut-down is common as a form of political protest, COVID-19 lockdown has shaken up the people of India's southernmost and most literate state, to a new reality. Educational institutions are shut, streets are deserted and those who dare to venture out – even wearing masks – get arrested or reprimanded. 

Kerala is witnessing an unprecedented social revolution that is impacting the way people think and behave. The ‘Kerala model of development’, which economists around the world have been talking about, is under severe stress following COVID-19.
Kerala is lauded for its high human development index (HDI) as it is almost on par with European countries. It has low infant mortality and high life expectancy. At this time of COVID-19, sustainability of HDI is under threat.

Among Indian states, Kerala has the lowest level of Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI). This index represents multiple  deprivations  at  the  household and  individual  level  in  health,  education  and  standard  of  living. Now sustaining this level of achievement is a challenge. 

A recent briefing on MPI by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) shows that Kerala’s poverty picture is dismal. It may sound strange, but it is found that the incidence of poverty is 12.7 per cent of the population while those who are vulnerable to poverty are 22.3 while 2.1 per cent face ‘serious poverty’. Can the state sustain the HDI following COVID-19?

The pandemic will further erode the Kerala model of development. The ‘money order economy’ has been hiding a dark side. The remittances from the three million Keralites working abroad – mostly in Gulf countries – have been providing a facade of well- being. It has begun to crumble and, with COVID-19, it is on the verge of total collapse.

There is already a crisis brewing following large scale return of workers from Gulf countries. These young men are unwilling to take up low-paid jobs, which are filled by migrant workers, mostly from West Bengal, Assam and Uttar Pradesh. These migrants are also a cause of concern amid COVID-19. They live in dingy clusters in deplorable hygienic conditions. It’s a sure recipe for the deadly virus to spread.

Health authorities are sending out messages in their regional languages to keep social distancing. Just before the stoppage of train services, some of them – mostly working in plywood factories and restaurants – have gone back. But a huge vulnerable section is staying back.

Most COVID-19 infected people were found to have come from abroad, mostly Gulf countries. Their families are quarantined in their homes. In many places, police were deployed to restrain them from venturing out. 

Another dimension to the pandemic scare is the vulnerability to infection among the elderly.  Because of the relatively better health infrastructure, their population is steadily growing with about 15 percent of 35 million being over 80 years. 

Amid significantly low population growth, Kerala is set to see a drop in the number of young working population. It has also the highest unemployment rate at 12.5% as compared to all-India level of 5%.  

With fewer job opportunities, a serious social crisis is simmering. There is a surge in drug abuse and alcoholism. Women, in particular, are raising the banner of protest against the government’s "liberal" liquor policy. Chief Minister Pinaray Vijayan, who initially opposed closure of liquor outlets and bars as part of the COVID-19 strategy, has to backtrack under popular pressure. His concern was revenue drop. 

Excise duties on liquor – a whopping 212 percent – are its major source revenue.  The annual turnover of liquor sales during 2018-19 had touched an all-time high of Rs 145 billion and the revenue from state excise exceeded Rs 25.21billion. 

Kerala has no option but to go for lockdown and social distancing to fight the pandemic. The challenge now is to how to sustain the 'Kerala model of economic development' and avert an impending social unrest.  

(The writer is Senior Fellow, SPS. He can be contacted at


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