Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Riddle of Kerala: How radicals secured water rights where capitalists have failed

In Kerala, there are standing ruins of state-organized production cooperatives for local handicrafts and terra-cotta tile and coir, once organized with a vision of deploying newly-Independent India's richest resource, labor, in the form of that most free and egalitarian and beneficiary of institutions, the worker-owned cooperative.  The cooperatives are rotting now, their letters faded, hidden behind chained fences, their long modernist horizontals in reinforced concrete besmirched by lacrimal black stains of mildew weeping down the facade.

The ruins are victims, my local friends tell me, of Kerala's success.  A program of mass education was begun in the early twentieth century here by Kerala's benevolent ruling elite. After Independence in 1947, the freely-elected communist party, the world's first, continued the tradition of strong local schools, and began touting another problem: the "unemployed literate," found everywhere in Kerala.  Free-wheeling capitalism does not necessarily reward virtue; it employs the poor only where wages are smallest and restrictions the least, and leaves the learned behind unless they take the initiative to make their own future.  So the Keralans did just that.  Worker-owned cooperatives sprung up, organizing local production into units that generalized profits to the workers themselves.  Then famine hit in the 1970s, and Kerala's new cooperatives were too poor to generalize profits.  So Kerala turned to that other tool for generalizing wealth implemented by left-wing governments across India and South America in the 1970s, land reform.  

The sweeping Keralan land reforms were a more progressive measure than those executed in Mexico in the 1910s or Peru in the 1960s.  Rather than concentrating on the breakup of traditional feudal land-holdings, Kerala broke up all concentrations of land, even some considered merely middling or grand only by local standards.  This "land ceiling" created a province of smallholder farmers.

Land ceilings in other parts of India were ringed with corruption and left behind a legacy of resentment.  Elites with large estates transferred the land before its seizure into the names of cousins, while Americans muttered about how such dispersals were stymying the progress of Green-Revolution-style industrialized agriculture.  

But in Kerala, dispersed land-holding combined with high rates of education prompted an economic miracle.  Within a generation, Keralans became among the richest of the Indian provinces.  They joined the service sector, sending legion nurses to work in Dubai.  The worker-owned cooperatives of yore have been updated, transferred away from the main road.  They still sell homespun silk and matted coir for the roofs of traditional houseboats .  But now Kerala's major net export is labor: it sends highly-educated labor to other parts of the world, importing workers from other parts of India to run its booming construction industry. 

It's routine for economists to dismiss the history of land reform as a failure, pointing to corrupt militarized land distribution under dictatorships like Peru and Ethiopia at the same time.  Democratic land reform, however, has a historic record linked to economic development and education. 

The longer legacy of Kerala's democratic project remains in its success with providing water to a majority of its people.  With its history of democratic experimentation, Kerala has become the site of some of the most successful experiments in mass water provision in all of India.

One such experiment is Mazhapolima, a north-Kerala-based consultancy to the district collectorate of Thrissur, whose name means, "the richness of water."  Mazhapolima is the project of Jos Raphael, an LSE-educated PhD in Development Studies, who concentrates on "water literacy" classes where he preaches the benefits of recharging groundwater through connecting the traditional open dug wells, found in every plot in Kerala, to rainwater catchment roof systems, arrays of tarp and pvc pipe that local plumbers install for around $60 a house.  

Another such experiment is a groundswell political organizing effort for lake-water management at Vembanad Lake organized by Dr. Priyan Rajan, a biologist and native Keralan at ATREE foundation in Bangalore.  The Vembanad Project has successfully organized fishermen, clam-collectors and farmers to organize a new, democratic entity for governing salinity and pollution in their lake.  Now, with the help of the Delhi Institute for Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), they're looking into systems of sand filtering for water appropriate for mass, decentralized adaptation across south Kerala.

Rainwater catchment experimentation is nothing new to India, where investigating indigenous techniques of rainwater harvesting and water recharge has been a national agenda since the 1980s.  Kerala's experiments, however, are stamped with the democratic imprint of its long experiment with communist and socialist politics.  By contrast, in Rajasthan, Tarun Bharat Singh's experiments with water harvesting commandeered the unpaid labor of landless peoples to dig wells.  In some cases, charismatic leaders hinted that the poor would have access to water after the wells were dug.  It didn't work out that way.  The wells became the property of local elites, and the poor, for their labor were promised seasonal jobs in lieu of water.  Insecure water rights were a product of being nomadic workers, with no rights on the land.  The ordinary burdens of itinerant labor worsened in the case of water.  

Kerala's experiments with water have been more democratic.  Because of the land reform, even poor Keralans whose landholding is the size of a single bedroom, have rights of access to groundwater through their ownership of land.  Unlike in other parts of India, where the poor are dependent upon public wells or enormously overwhelmed public utilities, the poor in Kerala have private water rights, made secure by the egalitarian redistribution of private rights to land under a communist government in the 1970s.  Land reform did for Kerala what decades of water-pump-distribution and charismatic organization could not do for other regions in India: land reform secured the people's rights to the water below the surfaces they walked.  

Moreover, the distribution tradition in politics continues to insure that Kerala's experiments with water harvesting reach the region's poor. Kerala's socialist government continues to take seriously its mandate to participation in land and water.  At the moment, that's done by the government delivering clean drinking water by truck and by boat to Kerala's many remote residents, an expensive and unsustainable stop-gap expression of a government convicted of its responsibility to provide water to all its citizens.  In embracing the mandate of land and water for the people, Kerala stands apart from other districts in India, including the slums of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, where the poor have to purchase water delivery by truck from private vendors.  But the land and water mandate also means that Kerala is dedicated to exploring other avenues of water provision.  

An unintended consequence of land reform has been another form of water security as well, one linked to buying power.  Economic success means water dominance, the net importing of products of water farming elsewhere.  One of the most fertile regions in India, Keralans have themselves largely left agricultural production behind, becoming importers of mangos and coconuts from drier and rockier Tamil Nadu.   With broadcast economical success as the result of decentralized development and land reform, a majority of Keralans can afford to import their water in the form of mangos and melons from far away.  

With its inheritance of systems of rights securing the power of people over their land and water, Kerala's radical traditions have succeeded around water security where capitalists have failed.  

That connection between land reform and economic development is the hinge of a moral paradox.  In some sense, Kerala's progressive image is falling victim to its own success.   Birth rates have fallen, in keeping with economic development in many places, even as Kerala's educated worker-citizens migrated around the world to high-placed jobs in medicine and research.  Fisherfolk, farmers, and migrant construction laborers remain.  But will future generations be able to benefit from earlier land reform?  The answer is unclear.  In a booming market, land prices for the many broken-up smallholder plots have escalated.  Kerala is becoming a province of rich, secure retirees, occupying sumptuous new houses, boasting carved teak brackets in the traditional style of temples.  Around Lake Vembanad, some of the most expensive resorts and spas in all of India have risen up, their soaring buildings dwarfing nearby temples.  The success of education and land reform has meant development, and development, to a large degree, works against the decentralizing effect of land reforms. Land, in Kerala, has become expensive as a measure of success, and no one speaks of breaking up such precious land again with another land reform.  

There's a paradox here that's emblematic of the experience of democratic legislation in land around the world.  In nineteenth-century western Massachusetts, transcendentalists decided to pursue a policy of welfare-for-the-poor, education, and agrarian development that froze the place in time.  Later, Community Land Trusts set aside large plots of the region for cross-class housing development, securing the houses against higher property taxes and insuring the continued ability to thrive of the people who lived there.  Rather than pursuing industrial development at scale, it gradually improved its nineteenth-century clock towers and eighteenth-century white-washed church steeples.  Those from poor families who stayed continued to thrive.   Land prices rose around them, but western Massachusetts stayed stuck in time.  Outsiders could only move in at great expense.  

Are examples like Kerala and western Massachusetts examples of success?  They insured the development, education, and welfare of a generation of their own poor with greater success than regions characterized by rampant industrialization and exploitation.  In the end, they close their doors to outsiders; the land becomes too expensive.  Land reform is a victory for economic development, but is it a victory for moral welfare?  That question remains open.  On the other hand, the question of land illuminates the problem of water.  There are unintended consequences to an egalitarian ethos, a democratic attitude towards land and water, which are vital for us to learn about in a coming age of water scarcity.


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