A virus, social democracy, and dividends for Kerala
The State has managed the crisis by building on legacies of egalitarianism, social rights and public trust
- The national government ordered a lockdown but it is States that are actually implementing measures, both in containing the spread and addressing the welfare consequences of the lockdown.
- A number of States have been especially proactive, none more so than Kerala.
Flattening the curve and how
- Given Kerala’s population density, deep connections to the global economy and the high international mobility of its citizens, it was primed to be a hotspot.
- Yet not only has the State flattened the curve but it also rolled out a comprehensive ₹20,000 crore economic package before the Centre even declared the lockdown.
- Kerala’s much heralded success in social development has invited endless theories of its cultural, historical or geographical exceptionalism.
- But taming a pandemic and rapidly building out a massive and tailored safety net is fundamentally about the relation of the state to its citizens.
- The current crisis underscores the comparative advantages of social democracy.
- To begin with, social democracies are built on an encompassing social pact with a political commitment to providing basic welfare and broad-based opportunity to all citizens.
- In Kerala, the social pact itself emerged from recurrent episodes of popular mobilisation — from the temple entry movement of the 1930s, to the peasant and workers’ movements in the 1950s and 1960s, a mass literacy movement in the 1980s, the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP)-led movement for people’s decentralised planning in the 1990s, and, most recently, various gender and environmental movements.
- These movements not only nurtured a strong sense of social citizenship but also drove reforms that have incrementally strengthened the legal and institutional capacity for public action.
- Nowhere in India are local governments as resourced and as capable as in Kerala.
Chain of decision-making
- A government’s capacity to respond to a cascading crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic relies on a very fragile chain of mobilising financial and societal resources, getting state actors to fulfil directives, coordinating across multiple authorities and jurisdictions and maybe, most importantly, getting citizens to comply.
- Malayalees’ sense of citizenship was declared that the response was less an enforcement issue than about people’s participation, but also pointedly reminded the public that the virus does not discriminate, destigmatising the pandemic.
- The government was able to leverage a broad and dense health-care system that despite the recent growth of private health services, has maintained a robust public presence.
- Kerala’s public health-care workers are also of course highly unionised and organised, and from the outset the government lay emphasis on protecting the health of first responders.
- The government activated an already highly mobilised civil society. A State embedded in civil society — the women’s empowerment Kudumbasree movement being a case in point — was in a good position to co-produce effective interventions, from organising contact tracing to delivering three lakh meals a day through Kudumbasree community kitchens.
Pivot of local governments
- The pandemic is a physical exam of the social body, and never has public trust been put to a greater test. In democracies, compliance must be elicited.
- Malayalees have extremely high levels of trust in both their institutions and locally elected local representatives.
- At a time when India’s democracy was already in crisis, it is important to be reminded that Kerala has managed the crisis with the most resolve, the most compassion and the best results of any large State in India.
- And that it has done so precisely by building on legacies of egalitarianism, social rights and public trust.