Kerala has unique challenges in its response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The prognosis for the state’s resilience with the virus is not great.
Kerala is neck-and-neck with Maharashtra in the race for the highest number of coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in a state.
Several factors make Kerala particularly susceptible, and there might be useful lessons for other states in what to do (and what not to do) from its experience.
Let us consider just three factors: globalisation, citizen engagement, and state capability.
Kenichi Ohmae wrote The Borderless World in 1990, a classic text of globalisation. But Kerala has been a beneficiary of globalisation for long.
It was a big part of the spice trade, from as early as Roman times, and there were ancient ports at Muziris and Kollam, and coir-stitched ocean-going ships were built in Beypore.
In colonial times, migrants went to Malaysia and Singapore seeking work. Later, a flood of nurses from Kerala reached every hospital in the West.
After 1973, a virtual tsunami of skilled and semi-skilled workers went to the Persian Gulf.
All this has benefited the state, which, however, has remained un-industrialised due to extreme militancy of labour.
Inward remittances are of the order of magnitude of the state budget. The number of fancy houses, cars and gold jewellery shops is testament to how the inflow is spent: unproductively.
Besides, Kerala is a tourist destination, attracting large numbers of foreign visitors.
And now comes the backlash.
The Economic Times of 19 March estimated that 26,000 Gulf returnees would come to Mumbai by 31 March from the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
Even though this exodus has been put on hold by the cancellation of flights, similar numbers are likely to come to Kerala. We have little information about the progress of the epidemic in the Persian Gulf states, other than Iran.
Almost all cases in Kerala are attributable to travellers: the very first three cases in India were Wuhan students evacuated to Kerala.
There are foreign tourists from affected countries, or, increasingly, expatriates visiting.
There was the notorious Pathanamthitta family, migrants residing in Italy, who apparently socialised with dozens instead of isolating themselves.
The most egregious example is a Kasaragod man from Dubai. A super-spreader, he jumped quarantine and attended two weddings, a funeral, a communist party meeting, and various other events.
The large number of illegal alien Bangladeshis in the state (a senior police officer told me he thinks there are 35 lakh of them) is also a concern.
The key to success in the fight against any epidemic, and indeed in resilience, is the wholehearted support of the man in the street. There is a case study of Surat, which survived an alleged pneumonic plague epidemic in 1994.
Apparently, city administrators thereafter created a de-centralised mechanism that reached out to the community, and listened.
Instead of babus doing things they thought were necessary, they asked for input from citizens and community groups.
This paid dividends. For instance, Surat had been filthy, which may have been a factor in the plague. But the city was largely cleaned up, and waste management became a priority.
Real problems faced by the people were addressed, for instance improved water supply and bus transit. As citizens realised that co-operation was beneficial, they responded with enthusiasm and helped craft the needed programmes.
The result is that Surat is now considered a model for city resilience. Surat was to be honoured in mid March at a smart cities summit at UNESCO, Paris, for resilience, but the programme was postponed, ironically, because of the pandemic.
It is not at all clear that there is the same level of engagement in Kerala. Though funding has been devolved to the panchayat level, it is hard to see any great trust between resident and government. This may partly be explained by the harsh politics in the state.
Perhaps, an example of this was in the Janata Curfew. While most people stayed at home, it was largely a sullen crowd that greeted the 5pm ‘thanksgiving’. Perhaps that is because the majority of residents are Congress or communist fellow-travellers, with no trust in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a larger sense, there is a sense of entitlement. The public expects the mai-baap sarkar to provide everything free, and that is a right with no corresponding duty.
People think that since they pay taxes, they can demand endless freebies (eg evacuations of stranded Keralites, from Kuwait, Syria, Wuhan etc). But most expats do not pay taxes in India, and remittances (which Keralites are proud of) are private gains, but the evacuation is a public loss. They don’t see this as a moral hazard.
State Institutional Capability
A final concern is the ability of the state to actually deliver. It has a rich-world-style economy: heavy on services, salaries and pensions. But its main revenue sources are remittances and alcohol sales.
Remittances are dangerous to depend on: with West Texas crude oil falling below $20, it is only a matter of time before expatriates will be forced to leave the Persian Gulf states.
As there is no productive industry in the state, there is not much of a tax base. Agriculture has been devastated by a minimum wage that makes farming unviable, and most of the paddy fields — once some of the most productive in the world — now lie fallow.
In addition there is a welfare state. The government pays generous salaries and pensions, for example, to teachers even in privately-owned schools and colleges. Pension and salary expenses eat up something like 70 per cent of the state budget.
Under these circumstances, the capacity of the state to deliver world-class services is limited. This was evident during the two floods, in 2018 and 2019. The disaster management system was less than effective.
Furthermore, graft is a concern. Some funds collected for flood relief were redirected for personal profit. Some officials, for example, allegedly diverted flood funds to lease a chicken farm in their families’ names.
A famous actress and her husband ran a charity show. Amidst accusations that they had diverted funds, belatedly they paid up a rather small sum.
There were assertions that there would be $100 million in grants from an Arab shaikh. The shaikh, however, strenuously denied this.
A total of $250 million in flood relief loans from the World Bank were diverted to general government expenses.
Now the state has drawn up extensive plans for coronavirus relief, with a price tag of Rs 20,000 crore, but a little scepticism is warranted about its ability to execute and prevent leakage. And it has no money of its own either.
There was tremendous press coverage about how well Kerala had prepared itself, but, it’s not clear there is capability.
In fact, it might be better if any central financial relief bypassed the state, and was paid using the direct benefit transfer (DBT) straight into people’s Jan Dhan accounts using their Aadhaar and mobile, the JAM trinity.
There are many daily-wage earners, housemaids, auto rickshaw drivers, casual labourers and so on, as well as small businesses which will be devastated. It may be beyond the capability of the state government to reach out to them.
To sum it up, Kerala has unique challenges in its response to the virus. Migrants, an unruly population, high entitlements, and a state machinery with limited means all complicate matters. The prognosis for Kerala’s resilience with the coronavirus is not great.