KERALA is known to most of us for its touristy tagline, “God’s own country”. It is a sought after holiday destination to either cruise the backwaters or lounge on the palm tree-lined beaches of the Arabian Sea. However, more notably, in recent years it has made waves in the development arena for its ability to achieve growth and improve income distribution by investing in its citizens.

We’re happy to report that a United Nations’ study has highlighted Kerala’s successes in improving human development, in spite of countrywide inequalities.

Nationally, Kerala has the highest literacy rate at 94%, <0.5% school dropout rate, and the highest life expectancy of 75.8 years (versus 65.5), despite sluggish economic growth.

India’s rising Human Development Index (HDI) score reflects some of this success as it has consistently improved from “low” at 140 out of 188 countries in 1990 to 136th in 2012 to “medium” at 131st in 2016. Other contributing factors include a rapid increase in gross national income (GNI) per capita, life expectancy, and years of schooling.

While India has made remarkable progress, it could increase its HDI score much more if it would address regional disparities in education, health, and living standards.

Understanding HDI

The HDI focuses on success rather than inequities. Similar to the Social Progress Index, “the HDI was created to emphasise that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone”. It focuses on simplifying and capturing the basics of what human development entails.

However, it does not try to give a full picture as “it does not reflect on inequalities, poverty, human security, empowerment, etc.” Instead, it uses indicators to evaluate how successfully a country ensures “long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living” for all of its citizens.

Focus on Infant Mortality

According to experts, improving maternal and child health is “critical to fostering economic development”. HDI prioritises this with a life expectancy indicator, which can be assessed using the infant mortality rate (IMR), a measurement of deaths of children under age 1 year per 1,000 live births. IMR provides an overall measure of a country’s health as it reflects structural factors (e.g. general living conditions, social wellbeing, rates of illness, quality of the environment) that affect entire populations.

With this in mind, Kerala made an incredible improvement with a drop in IMR from a high of 57 in the 1970s to 14 by 1996.  It stayed steady at 12 for years before dramatically dropping to six in 2016, the same level as the US. A drop in pregnancies, a push towards hospital births (95%), and the nurturing of traditional medical practices (e.g. Ayurveda, Siddha, Kalari) are responsible for at least some of this improvement.

Educating Everyone

Education is a basic right that ideally people across all genders should have the access to. Often, women are denied this right but things seem to be changing.  Kerala has been a leader in educating females since “the Maharaja of Travancore established the first girls’ school in the 1850s, with his example taken up by neighboring kingdoms such as Cochin”. Education is an important cornerstone for development in general.

According to the UN, educated women improve community health by consistently seeking medical care, immunising their children, providing proper nutrition and sanitation, and being at less risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Staying in school longer delays pregnancy, makes babies healthier, decreases the likelihood of death during labour, and better prepares women for childcare. Furthermore, when females achieve a higher level of education, they gain access to better-paying jobs and become independent. This not only improves their families’ finances but also positively affects the nation’s GNI and it is crucial for their sense of self.

Harnessing the “Kerala Model”

There are many lessons to learn from Kerala. If India would shift its focus from solely improving GNI to making development people-centric by focusing on socio-cultural issues, such as decreasing IMR or addressing the factors that prevent females from pursuing an education, increased economic productivity would inevitably be a by-product.

Learn more here about the work NGOs are doing nationally to improve public health and educate girls to help India progress on the HDI spectrum.

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