02 March 2009

Kommunist Kerala.

Okay, so I couldn't resist the alliteration. But it is true – the Southern Indian state of Kerala, home to lazy backwaters, a rich Jewish and Catholic heritage and strange and beautiful art and dance, also has the world's only truly democratically elected communist government, and also the longest running (1957.) Kerala, is a literal and figurative breath of fresh air from the pollution and the chaos of Northern India and it is partly due to an efficient and responsible communism that should be an inspiration for the rest of subcontinent.

Simple things shock me now that I have spent 4.5 months traipsing through this baffling country. I'm so used to certain unpleasant aspects in the cities that I now notice when things aren't fucked up, rather than when they are. Upon pulling into the nicer neighbourhoods of Mumbai, I would look at Sean and say in wonderment “Look! There is very little rubble here! I mean, there is still rubble, but much less than most places!” (As a note, I have kicked rubble in my flip flopped feet numerous times, once cracking my toenail nearly in half. It is something I constantly have to be on the look out for.) Or, even more commonly I will have a sense that something is strange at a bus stop or train station, and I'll realize “Hey – I know what it is - it doesn't smell like pee! Yay!”

Sean and I spend hour after futile hour discussing what we could do to fix the lack of Indian infrastructure, and we always come up exhausted and lacking in even the most basic of solutions. Their colonial past has left India in a much earlier state of self governance and experience – hundreds of years of racist British rule set back homegrown politics and they are still recovering. And now, in the aftermath of the urban explosion, India can be an “every man out for himself” sort of society – why worry about that pollution/beggar/leper/dog if your own house and family are safe? Sheer disregard for human suffering is a hallmark of modern, city dwelling life around the world, and therefore things like reliable electricity, an adequate living wage and clean drinking water for the masses become a last priority. I would have a lot less irritation at the state of things if the media didn't constantly proclaim how modern and advanced India is – as if its problems have been fixed! The people with money and power refuse to see the plight of the poor as anything but a deserved consequence for sins in a past life or caste justice, and instead insist that India is on the cusp of world power status – as if this is on the basis anything but its huge population.

Maybe I should clarify the lack of simple quality-of-life measures – in some places there are no street lights. This seems like a trivial thing, but truly try to picture a city the size of Edmonton with no street lights – in a country that is touting itself as a modern nation. Now also imagine no sewer systems in those same places. Roads everywhere are potholed with giant craters – they have been there, unfixed for so long that now rickshaw drivers instinctively swerve around them. The monthly welfare amount given to widows is 400 rupees – 10 bux CAD – even in India this is a pittance. Very few state run orphanages and old age homes exist, and the few animal welfare programs are funded privately. Many villages and small cities have only the most basic of public schools, and attendance is not mandatory. Sewers, hygiene and innoculations against disease are not found out of the cities. Yet – INDIA HAS A THRIVING SPACE PROGRAM. And they are damned proud of it, at least if one is to believe the media's constant nationalist braggadocio. While children starve - hundreds each day – billions of rupees are funneled into redundant exploration with the sole purpose of stoking the nation's ego.

Reading Western media and hearing news that they are in the space age, one can easily be fooled into thinking that India is now part of the “Second World,” pulling millions out of poverty each year and playing with the big boys on the world political stage. Upper middle class Indians shop at lavish shopping malls, dine in world class restaurants and vacation in Singapore, Dubai and Maldives. Everyone else, the people who clean the shit from the open sewers, the labourers who construct the highways and then live on the side of them in tents at night, the butchers and bakers and candle fucking stick makers – they suffer. They suffer because there is no social safety net if they get sick or even just age, and therefore this entirely new middle class that India is bragging about finally having achieved is one step away from the slum. The workers are exploited while a more true bourgeois than the world has ever seen relaxes and reaps their caste based rewards and eats at TGI Fridays while congratulating themselves on the “New India” in which they live. If there has ever been a country more perfectly poised for a true Marx style communist revolution, this is it.

That was a bit tangential, but it's hard to talk about Kerala's Marxism without referencing the rest of India. This is the wealthiest state, has the highest literacy rate of all of the developing world (91%!) and an infant mortality rate 5 times lower than the rest of the country. Signs advertising jewels, private medical treatments, cars and luxury items are everywhere. The streets are clean – they actually have garbage pick up rather than large piles of trash in the street (most of India relies on cows, dogs and rats as their waste removal strategy, followed by scavengers who take all items of value for recycling, followed finally by burning, which leaves soot in your eyes and a burning plastic taste in your mouth.) Government run stores advertise “no margin goods” - making food and textiles affordable for everyone. Religion, often stunted or outright banned in communist societies, is tolerated and embraced, and red hammer and sickle flags decorate streets that are lined with huge churches, synagogues and Hindu temples. Most shocking of all – no children have approached me to beg for money since I have been here.

Its like a giant endorsement for Marxism.

Isn't this counterintuitive to what we've been taught about communism? Isn't the common statement “Oh, I believe in ideal communism, but in practice it can never work...” being proved wrong here? Granted, this is a state level government, and we have no idea what would happen if Kerala separated from the rest of the subcontinent, but in my eyes it's looking pretty good.

Communism in India is not unique to Kerala – the Bengali state government has also at times elected communist officials, and openly Marxist parties have fared far better here than in the West since the 50's. Although it's also not always idyllic fluffy socialism - Naxalites, communists from the Naxal region who believe in taking power forcibly with violence, have been active for decades and still commit terrorist acts, and even the most centre socialist parties have been rocked with corruption. But not in Kerala. Here it has worked.

Marx was convinced that Germany was the perfect candidate for his communist revolution – the criteria of many skilled workers being exploited by a small number of wealthy who were reaping all of the benefits easily being met. France or England could have also fit the bill. But despite the best efforts of agitators in these countries, Communism did not sweep across Europe, rather waiting nearly 50 years for Lenin and his Bolsheviks in Russia. Lenin bent and broke Marxism until it was scarcely recognizable, substituting the disgruntled factory workers with landless peasants – an agrarian revolution rather than one hatched in the city. All the rest - Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro and Pol Pot all followed suit, using their rural farmers in place of the proletariat – and all (arguably) failing, at least to some degree. But India.....

India is still 50% agrarian, but more and more its citizens are streaming into the cities, making them bloated giants with no infrastructure to take on these new financial refugees. Things become hotter, more crowded, even less livable. The rich, whose generations-old caste privilege is a direct parallel to Marx's land owning bourgeoisie, exploit the poor. They then grow ever more wealthy, all the while losing their practical skills, unable to even make a small meal or do their own laundry, these tasks all done for them by people who are effectively indentured servants and who go home to the slums at night. I think this all fits nicely into Marx's theories, don't you?

The exploitation of cheap labour is not confined to the poorest of the poor – increasingly IT hubs such as Bangalore and Mumbai are serving the needs of Western business at the expense of the locals. Tech and engineering jobs are highly desirable, and this has led to such a glut of recent grads that both Western and Indian firms can treat these middle class workers as expendable, knowing that there is a line-up of applicants waiting for their chance. Here, as always, the history of colonization in India is still tangible and relevant. This should come as no surprise – after all, where would India be today if it had been allowed to have its own industrial revolution rather than contributing to Britain's? Perhaps they would have achieved social equality under other terms and all of these problems would be a long distant memory.

I say Workers of India, Unite. The country would grind to a stuttering and groaning halt almost instantly without the chai wallahs, maids and rickshaw drivers willing to work for peanuts. This isn't even to mention the factory workers and manual labourers that Marx actually specifies in his 150 year old doctrines, or the newly exploited educated middle class!
A new, truly Marxist era in a country where it just might work.

Now I just need to convince 1 billion people that I'm right......


person within said...

This is a typical "First World" reaction to most things that they find/observe in my country.

These are things which I agree to, but one has to understand that we got our independence only in 1947 unlike many of my Western peers who were the ones who were busy in colonizing other countries.

Though I am not proud that such levels of poverty still exists, one has to remember that to progress that much in the 60 odd years of independence, is pretty commendable. Don't you agree?

Yes, we need to focus on the healthcare system of our country. To provide more support to old age homes and orphanages.
I understand that the government provides a minimum amount weekly to unemployed people in some countries.
But this again has its own disadvantage. Instead of trying to get work, these people get even more lazy. Not all, but many.

There are pros and cons to everything. We need to figure out the best way to tackle a certain situation and implement it.

I agree with most of the things that you have mentioned. But, there is one thing which I would like t state. A completely socialist or a completely capitalist market will not work for a longer duration of time . Only those which have both, like the one present in India, will survive and work. This is because a certain level of checks and balances to each other.
We are progressing as a nation and we do take care of the poor. But, its inadequate.
Hopefully, we will be able to work out something or the other soon and truly become a 'World power' recognized by others instead of harping about it ourselves time and again.

Anonymous said...

While a lot of what you write is true, the communist government has also effectively put any type of manufacturing out of business. The state is supported by massive inflow of money from the Gulf, and wealthy diaspora around the world. The government is so ineffective that they cant even fix the roads. I know, I am a malayalee, a proud one, and everytime I go back, my heart breaks.

Violet Dear said...

Person Within - I think I did respond to the legacy of colonization as the key reason that India was 'left behind' - otherwise, I really appreciate your feedback. As for the "First World" perspective, it is true (to a degree) as that is the place I come from and the eyes I view the world through - the poverty is so shocking to a Canadian that it is jarring, it is horrifying and I think it is a common reaction to try to come up with a 'fix.'

I know, after seeing the resilience and amazing spirit of India, that things will get better.

India Education said...

Kerala is one of my dream destination for visit, but no body give the complete kerala travel guide. I read some good stuff in Travel India website but not complete guide there.