Kerala continues to throw up paradoxes (Letter from Kerala)

March 1st, 2009 - 11:03 am ICT by IANS  

Forty years ago the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) noticed that Kerala has achieved social progress comparable to that of the West without industrialisation. It asked experts to study the phenomenon, hoping it will yield a new model of development.

Economists like Amartya Sen offered explanations for the paradox of social advance without economic advance. However, a developmental model that others can replicate did not emerge.

Kerala continues to throw up paradoxes. Take, for instance, the future that awaits the newborn in India. If born in Kerala, the child can hope to live longer than one born elsewhere but he or she will probably have a shorter working life.

At the time of the 2001 census, life expectancy in Kerala was 74 years, as against 62 years for the country as a whole. That gave a new-born in Kerala an advantage of six years over his Punjabi counterpart, who with a life expectancy of 68 years, was in the second place.

Eight years have passed since then. It is reasonable to expect that improved healthcare has pushed up life expectancy at both national and state levels during this period. As a result, Kerala kids may well have an even greater advantage now than before.

As a child in Kerala enters the officially identified working age group of 15-59 years, more paradoxes arise. There are more than 20 million people in this age group. The authorities do not seem to have a clear picture of what many of them do for a living.

Migration from Kerala to other parts of India and other countries in search of jobs began more than a century ago. The process still continues.

The department of Non-Resident Kerala Affairs, which the state government set up in 1996, estimates that about 2.5 million people from the state are working abroad. Most of them are in the Gulf region.

The Gulf region emerged as the popular destination of jobseekers in the wake of the oil boom of the 1970s. There is now a two-way traffic with older emigrants returning after working there for years and younger ones moving out to take up jobs.

According to the latest annual Economic Review, the state has 10.29 million workers, of whom 1.65 million are agricultural labourers and 365,000 are in household industries. The public and private sectors together employ 1.12 million.

Four million people are waiting for jobs after registering with employment exchanges. That leaves a few million still unaccounted for. Some of them may be self-employed and some underemployed.

In the Economic Review, the Planning Board describes unemployment as the single largest puzzle of Kerala’s economy. It offers this simplistic explanation for this puzzle: “Though the supply of work seekers increased, the demand for them did not increase. As a consequence there was an alarming increase in unemployment rate from time to time.”

The board says one reason for the mounting unemployment is the decline in demand for unskilled and less skilled labour and the rise in demand for skilled labour on account of technological advance. The fact, however, is that there is a high level of unemployment among both the skilled and the unskilled.

Of the 4.12 million people who were on the register of jobseekers in June last year, 139,000 were people with professional or technical qualifications. They included 2,297 medical graduates, 7,706 engineering graduates, 31,066 engineering diploma holders, 97,014 ITI certificate holders, 690 agriculture graduates and 580 veterinary graduates. There were also 52,889 post-graduates and 232,949 graduates among them.

Those lacking skills remain unemployed not because there is no demand but because they are unwilling to take up menial jobs. Migrant workers from other states are picking up such jobs. Nearly one million people from Tamil Nadu, Orissa, West Bengal and other states are believed to be working in Kerala.

Those with professional and technical qualifications remain unemployed mainly because of bureaucratic delays. The State Public Service Commission, packed with political appointees, takes years to complete the process of selecting candidates for government jobs. Even a medical graduate wishing to join government service has to wait for several years to get a placement.

A high upper age limit of 35 years has been fixed for entry into government service so as to prevent delays resulting in denial of opportunity. The retirement age is 55 years. As life expectancy improved, a Congress-led government raised the retirement age to 58 but a subsequent Communist-led government lowered it again.

Government employees are not a hard-working lot. Ten years ago the government placed punching machines in the state secretariat to ensure that the employees remain at the workplace during office hours. Backed by the unions, the employees defeated the experiment.

Early retirement and growing longevity have combined to impose on the state exchequer a heavy burden on account of pensions. Various committees have recommended to the state government to raise the retirement age.

This week the expenditure committee of the state assembly suggested that it be raised to 58 years immediately and to 60 later. The government quickly rejected the suggestion.

Youth organisations are opposed to upward revision of the retirement age. They argue that if the existing employees stay on their jobs for three years or more, young jobseekers will have to wait that much longer to get into government service.

The argument is not without merit. But the retirement vacancies, numbering less than 20,000, are too few to make an appreciable difference to the unemployment problem. The flip side is that early retirement is resulting in wastage of valuable human resources.

(B.R.P. Bhaskar can be contacted at

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