Author: Anushca Thomas, Research & Content Head
Kerala and Tamil Nadu have performed well in most aspects of SDG goals, but with different models. Can every state emulate this success?
The age-old puzzle of what helped the southernmost states of India attain equitable and sustainable development is a fundamental question that set the direction for this research paper. Added to it, the recent achievements of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the 2020–21 SDG Index gave the research a formal grounding.
The paper seeks to find answers to a fundamental question: How have the state-level policies adopted by Tamil Nadu and Kerala favoured them in attaining commendable positions in the SDG Index? While the research paper analyses the most recent policy decisions that helped these states outperform others, it does not view these policy decisions in isolation.
The paper argues that the social engineering carried out by the respective governments through early investments in the socio-economic development of these states is crucial in assessing their development models.
The paper offers a comparative perspective of the policy decisions that helped Kerala and Tamil Nadu to reach their respective positions and also goes out to point out the inherent flaws that brought about a decline in the performance of certain indices.
India’s southernmost states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have been widely acclaimed for bearing the torchlight in the march towards SDGs. Kerala with an overall score of 75 and Tamil Nadu, with a score of 74, have led the pack from the front while competing between themselves at the same time.
A comparative analysis of the performances of these states will bring into light the policies that helped them accelerate their success rates by winning over existing impediments. There is a lot to imbibe from the experience of these states in delivering the SDG goals equitably and efficiently.
However, a one-size-fits-all adoption of these policies will be counter-productive. Each state should consider the challenges that lay ahead of it and try to frame a set of home-grown policies that can serve its interests better.
The incremental changes that can be observed in the accomplishments of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu are minimal. This is not a reflection of their poor strategising, but these states have to bear the burden of their absolute successes in various fields.
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Last-mile reductions in these indicators require heavy infrastructure and technology, and the incentive to work towards them will come only by comparing these states against developed countries of the world.
Before analysing the policies that aided Kerala and Tamil Nadu in their progress, it is crucial to understand the political and social terrain of these states.
Kerala began investing in social welfare programs right from the 60s and 70s. The cumulative benefits of these investments are being reaped by Kerala currently in terms of high HDI values. On the other hand, the Dravidian movement led socio-economic developments in Tamil Nadu has not reached its true potential due to the populist measures followed at the cost of development.
This paper aims to break down the performance of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in various indices by mapping them onto the policies that assisted them in the journey. By micro analysing the virtuous and vicious cycles that different policies created in these states, one can understand where these states should work differently in order to bring forth sustainable development.
This will set a precedent for other states to examine their development trajectory and, thus, locally adopt these policies in their march towards SDGs as well.
More than 381 mn people live in multidimensional poverty in India.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) October 14, 2021
Under the rubric of “No Poverty” (SDG1), Tamil Nadu has taken the lead amongst the Indian states, along with Delhi, with a score of 86. But on closer inspection, one can observe that Kerala, with its score of 83, has shown considerable improvement by gaining 19 points since 2019.
The recipe that both these states prepared in achieving this goal has certain similar ingredients they being the virtuous cycle of participatory planning and decentralised governance. The Self Help Groups established in these states like Mahalir Thittam of Tamil Nadu and Kudumbashree units in Kerala have been serving the states at the grassroot levels.
The Kudumbashree Mission, whereby a women community network is established under the aegis of State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) of the Kerala government, has been a significant player in bringing the poverty rates down. Initiatives like Destitute Free Kerala, Tribal Development, Micro Enterprises, Women Empowerment and Social Development programs have helped in this process.
Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, the Mahalir Thittam, with a special focus on marginalised groups such as NREGS women workers, urban slum dwellers, helped in extending credit availability to the rural interiors of the state. Unlike SHGs of other states where women from privileged groups had the upper hand in decision making, the democratic and representative model in these states made them more effective.
With respect to “Zero Hunger”, Kerala bagged the first position with a score of 80 along with Chandigarh. For a nation with a mere mean of 47 in SDG2 and 94 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index, Kerala’s position is commendable.
The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop the state from delivering mid-day meals programmes and Anganwadi nutrition kits to its children as it adapted to home delivery. This, along with the centre’s scheme of PMGKY, was a major booster in helping it fight the hunger problems.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) June 30, 2021
Besides this, the vital role played by Janakeeya Bhakshanashalas (free/low-cost food courts) under Kudumbashree units is praiseworthy. Tamil Nadu, which exhibited a rocket rise of 18 points in SDG2, is a perfect example for India’s laggard states. With excellent collaborations with civil societies, Tamil Nadu brought more people under the PDS system through door-to-door delivery of dry rations.
But from the reports of Tamilarasi, a member of SDG Watch-Tamil Nadu, it is evident that certain districts like Salem have left out around 900 gypsy community families without access to ration cards. This needs to change as the major vision of SDGs is to leave no one behind in the development process.
On “Good Health and Well Being”, Tamil Nadu showed progress in indicators such as maternal mortality rate, institutional deliveries, mental health and out of pocket expenditures. While on the other hand, Kerala slipped down 10 positions from 2019 due to an increase in suicidal rates, ageing demographics, substance abuse and out-of-pocket expenditures.
Yet, comparing both these states on the same yardstick is problematic as Kerala had achieved most of the development in the health sector by the 80s and 90s. Therefore, the room for improvement for the state can now only be achieved through increased investments in terms of infrastructure and technology like developed countries.
The yardstick for measuring the incremental progress of both these states needs to be updated so as to get a reality check of where the so-called developed states stand with respect to the developed parts of the world.
At a time when the pandemic created the largest disruptions in online education, Kerala topped “Quality Education” by availing access to education without barriers.
Kerala tried to close the digital gap by democratising access through free distribution of devices to attend classes, forming neighbourhood study-rooms and by introducing the “First Bell” through Victers Channel under the aegis of Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE) and the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT).
It is to be noted that Kerala had the easy choice of tapping into a population that had around 93% TV penetration. One should always remember that Kerala’s economic growth, which is often attributed to remittances, was only possible due to the early reforms made by the state in education.
Tamil Nadu, with an overall score of 69, is still above most of the states in India, majorly attributable to its continued improvements in educational governance and infrastructural facilities. Tamil Nadu also started “veetu-palli” where lessons were aired through Kalvi TV and adult literacy programmes called “Karpom Ezhuthuvom”.
Due to the differences in TV penetration and internet usage, the reception for Kalvi TV has not been as effective as seen in Kerala.
To make things worse, none of the tasks that the women perform are recognised as economically productive.
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) July 29, 2021
Although Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been in the top four, both these states have still not entered the Front Runner phase in the Gender Equality Index. Kerala, by opening its first Gender Park in South Asia, has extended its support for the entrepreneurial activities of women and transgenders.
Kerala’s special focus on Kudumbashree Missions, which are women-led SHGs, has helped women to own land, actively participate in the labour force, and have decision making powers in the family.
Alas, it is disheartening to realise that even after six decades of accomplished performance on various human development indicators, Kerala’s Legislative Assembly has never crossed the 10% threshold of women representation.
On comparing the literacy rate for males and females in Tamil Nadu, which stood at 82.04 % and 64.55%, it is obvious that the state policies on education have not been successful. Moreover, a mere increase in enrolment rates of women in education has not translated into closing the gender wage gap in the state.
Despite having dominant women faces in politics, only 5% of Legislative Seats were filled by women. Thus, we can observe that the southern states of India, which are hailed as models for development, have partially ignored the women’s cause in its march towards progress.
“Decent Work and Economic Growth” has also come to a standstill in both these states owing to the economic upsetting amidst the pandemic. In the front runners, Tamil Nadu slipped down to 71 from 74, while Kerala showed a one-point improvement by still remaining in the performer phase.
Looking at Kerala’s economic terrain, which is primarily based on the service sector (>60%), one can observe that the state has failed to account for the educated unemployment amongst the youth. The primary sector of the state (farming, fishing, mining) seems weak, and a majority of the secondary sector jobs in which the educated youth of the state find no interest are taken up by migrant workers.
CMIE data shows that Tamil Nadu, a highly industrialised state of India, was hit by the lockdown restrictions. Major job losses happened among the poorer strata with limited educational qualifications. The World Bank assisted the Tamil Nadu Rural Transformation program and MGNREGA helped the micro-enterprises and migrant workers stay afloat all along.
The financial and social benefits accruing from Labour Welfare Boards and Universal PDS has helped the rural population stay afloat during the pandemic. As the crux of the 17 goals lies in sustainable solutions for the future, the role played by both these states in developing SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) is crucial.
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Although considerable improvements have been made from yesteryears, Kerala’s performance in these has been below the national mean. Kerala Smart City missions should not be limited to Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram alone but must be broader and universal as well.
State initiatives like solar-run airports, green-metros and Bevco recycling of alcohol bottles are indeed praiseworthy. But a growing consumerist lifestyle and extravagant celebrations will not be sustainable in the road ahead.
Although Tamil Nadu’s progress is above the national average, it’s still not satisfactory. TNSUDP, which has been developing systems for flood forecast, sewage and GPS for urban planning, is in the right direction. But TN needs to work on improving infrastructure for treating sewage and processing MSW.
TN’s drop in consumption and production cannot be happily attributed to SDG12 alone but is a reflection of dampened demand in a state with 36.44 lakh commercial consumers and 7.47 lakh industrial consumers due to the pandemic.
Performances of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in other SDGs have been varied as well. This can be attributed to the policies mentioned earlier and the broad effects that they have.
🚨Is our current understanding of aggressive industrialisation what we call development? Will it help our children eat, breathe and drink clean? Let’s talk. (5/5)#ClimateJustice #ClimateAction @FFFIndia @stc_india @UNICEFIndia #UNICEF @k_satyarthi
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) August 23, 2021
In “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure”, Tamil Nadu can be seen as a front runner among all Indian states while Kerala lags behind. Due to the welfarist policies pursued by Kerala in the 1900s, its population, which is highly educated, demands more white-collar jobs, making industries averse to functioning. This led Kerala to focus more on services and less on industry.
While in Tamil Nadu, supply based incentives along with cheap labour have made it an industrial hub of the country. Thus, different paths chosen by these states have produced varied results in these states, but the ultimate goal points to a case where they build back sustainably in the path they have chosen for themselves.
While emulating their development trajectory, one should not only consider their recent policies as the linchpin for their development but also consider the long-term policies that helped them to lay the foundation strong and stable. Their recent achievements must not be seen in isolation but as a reflection of the early investments in the socio-democratic reforms.
Rather than being smug and satisfied over the attainments so far, these states should be on constant vigil to retain their positions as well as level up their achievements in tune with developed countries of the world.