Indian State Serves as Development Model

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET

On a bright fall morning in the Indian state of Kerala, among bustling tea shops and markets, we watch as a remarkable daily ritual unfolds: long streams of children in their brightly coloured uniforms march steadily to school.

While a sight like this would be normal on any Canadian street, in India--where millions of children in rural states have never set foot in a classroom--it's something that immediately catches our attention.

But Kerala is not your typical Indian state. That's because, among the overwhelming poverty in many areas of the country, Kerala has the incredible distinction of a standard of living that rivals any in the developed world.

The statistics are sometimes difficult to believe. Kerala's life expectancy, literacy rate and infant mortality rate are all roughly equal to those in Canada and the United States, and dramatically better than in anywhere else in the developing world--including other states in India.

In Kerala, located on the country's southwestern tip, it's as easy to have a well-informed conversation with a businessman as it is with a taxi driver. Women play an integral role in public policy and child labour is virtually non-existent.

The streets are clean, the beaches are beautiful, and the lush countryside is dotted with historic temples and churches.

To outsiders, Kerala seems to have gotten development right.

What makes these accomplishments extraordinary is that the state has one-seventieth the wealth of the United States. In fact, Kerala is even poor by Indian standards. The per capita income there is roughly $320 a year, compared to $770 in the rest of the country.

Historians and anthropologists have long tried to explain how this state, with a population the size of Canada's, has become such an anomaly. They point to the fact that since India's independence, Kerala has been governed by a series of left-wing governments which have invested heavily in healthcare and education.

At the same time, land was transferred from the rich to the poor, a minimum wage was established, and regulations were put in place to reign in industrial development.

This emphasis on personal and social growth over unlimited economic expansion was even given a name: the "Kerala model."

Despite all the praise Kerala has received, it is not without its problems. Unemployment is rampant--as high as 25 per cent--and the low levels of industrialization means there are few suitable jobs for its well-educated youth.

As a result, many have been forced to leave. Nearly two million Keralites live abroad, mostly in the Persian Gulf, pursuing jobs that simply don't exist at home. And while they send home $5 billion a year, many are separated from their families for years.

Kerala isn't perfect. But this small Indian state does serve as a development model for emerging countries, while also redefining what it means for a region to be developed.

Kerala may have a low per capita income --the traditional marker of success that all countries and provinces strive for--but it also has a healthy, well-educated and literate population. The state's Human Development Index ranks first in India and is comparable to countries in the West.

And Kerala has achieved its level of success with little impact on the environment. Scientists suggest that, for every dollar spent on goods around the world, half a litre of oil is burned in producing, packaging and shipping those goods.

Without the overconsumption so common in other parts of the world, Kerala has found a way to provide for its citizens, while still being eco-friendly.

As countries like China grow rapidly, Kerala offers an alternative path to development--one that becomes increasingly attractive as fears over climate change intensify. The state may be poor, but the lessons it holds are priceless.