Today a diversion to India’s own Chile, that sliver of a state along its west coast – Kerala. This is the quintessential spice state which was trading with Sumeria and Mesopotamia and Egypt, thousands of years ago. A land of sea-farers, Kerala is a proud part of modern India, yet utterly unique. Management Gurus will tell you that while the perpetual dependence on rain-fed agriculture has made Indians fatalistic and accepting, the people of Kerala have always been enterprising and risk-takers as they farmed the sea rather than the land. And the fact that the annual Southwest Monsoon first strikes Kerala, ensures that its fields and plantations are ever lush, earning it the sobriquet of God’s own country. Heaven with forests, backwaters and divine cuisine…
Naturally, tourism is a big part of the Kerala economy and it can satisfy everyone – the beachcombers, the wildlife enthusiasts and the mountain trekkers. And of course, history buffs. Kerala is reputed to be the entry point of all three Abrahamic traditions into India – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was also briefly the final resting place of Vasco da Gama, before he was reinterred back home.
In the modern day, Kerala has the highest literacy rate, the best gender ratio and consequently tops the Human Development Index among Indian States in report after report. Its flagship Kudumbashree programme based upon women’s self-help groups has banished abject poverty from the countryside, and empowered its women far beyond their sisters elsewhere in India. However (and there is always a ‘however’), Kerala also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the most densely populated State in the industrialized South and West of the country – 819 souls per square km according to Census 2011. Simply too many people on too little land available for agriculture or industrial development. Consequently, ever since the oil boom of the 1970s, Kerala’s chief export has been its people. The tallest structures in Dubai, the freeways in Abu Dhabi, the grand mosques in Saudi Arabia are all a result of the blood, sweat and tears of these stalwarts from Kerala.
Back home, this exodus mostly of young, single males has had a dramatic effect. While their families have prospered on these Gulf remittances, a disproportionate number of girls have been forced into the labour market, and none more so than in the profession of nursing. It is estimated that 80% of the membership of the Indian Nursing Association hails from Kerala, and they are ubiquitous in hospitals across India, and all over the Arab world, if not further afield.
Indian media prominently displayed pictures of Kerala nurses evacuated from Iraq, and later Yemen, where one supervisor heroically rescued not just her staff but also the patients, by negotiating with the attacking rebels. But these tales of heroism hide a more sinister truth. Why are these girls forced to look for work in such dangerous parts of the world? Quite simply, because they get much higher salaries than would ever be possible to earn in India. And they all have harrowing tales of indebtedness to tell – having borrowed heavily first to qualify as nurses, and then to pay agents to find them the jobs.
The moral of the story for me is that human development implies not just making more people literate, or bringing down the mortality rates; but also providing access to free higher education, and sustainable livelihoods to all within their community, or at least within their country. And neither the State Governments nor the Central Government show an iota of interest in human and community well-being, as they chase ever higher economic growth, at any cost.