Kerala: A Lesson In Light Living

A one-month "study-tour" to this south Indian state
could change the way you think about what is enough

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 56
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

For anyone who has lived exclusively in the cities, towns and suburbs of North America, a visit to what we strangely refer to as the "Third World" is a mind-opener. Often people return from such journeys impressed by two things: the technological simplicity of the cultures they visit, and the happiness of the people, seemingly out of all proportion to their material wealth.

It is a sad commentary on the First World that contentment amid simplicity comes as such a surprise. But even if happiness isn’t dependent on economic power and possessions, as we’ve been led to believe, is a feeling of contentment alone enough to make a good life? What about education, health, and democratic government? Hasn’t our high-tech, resource-intensive lifestyle bought us near-universal literacy and a longer life span?

Maybe it has. But if so, the story of the Indian state of Kerala demonstrates that we may have paid a far higher price than necessary.

Comparison of Quality of Life Indicators, 1986
(Sources cited in Food First Development Report #6, October 1989)

 Indicator  Kerala India Low-income
 Per capita GNP (in $) 182 290 200 17,480
Adult literacy rate (%) 78 43 na 96
Females 66 25   na
Life expectancy (years) 68 57 52 75
Infant mortality (/1,000) 27 86 106 10
Birth rate (/1,000) 22 32 43 16

In conventional economic terms, Kerala is one of the poorest places in the world. Annual per capita GNP in 1986 was $182 (that’s less than 50 cents per day in total economic production for every person in the state), compared to $290 for the whole of India and a whopping $17,480 for the United States. If Kerala were a separate country, those figures would place it 9th on a list of the world’s poorest nations.

Yet in terms of quality of life, Kerala is an astonishing success story. In contrast to the rest of India and most other low-income countries, people in Kerala enjoy education and health at levels close to those in the West. Women in Kerala are generally far better off than women in the rest of India, and people at all levels of society have greater access to services and opportunities – as well as a greater say in their governance – than can be found in many of the world’s other societies. The numbers in the accompanying chart paint the picture of a society that manages to provide a good life to its members at a tiny fraction of the cost paid by industrial societies.

What explains Kerala’s success? The history is fascinating: Kerala was exposed to peaceful trade with the outside world long before the British arrived, and then both suffered and benefited from British colonial rule. As the British penetrated the economy and Christian missionaries began opening schools, ancient patterns of caste discrimination and autocratic power were eroded. Newly "proletarianized" peasants – whose Western educations, ironically, gave them access to Marxist ideas – began organizing and engaging in mass demonstrations that were highly successful in bringing about reform in land ownership, governance, and the distribution of wealth. Popular protest as a tool for holding public officials accountable is a vital part of Keralan life.

Those cheering the demise of Communism in Central Europe may be surprised to learn that Kerala’s Communist Party has been freely elected into (and out of) power on several occasions, and early Communist cadres deserve much credit for the improved condition of the poorest.

But the success story of Kerala remains largely unsung. There is much that an industrial world – reeling from the effects of overconsumption – could learn from a place like Kerala. How do we learn it?


Enter Will Alexander, Emeritus Professor at California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo). In 1979 Will took unpaid leave from his University post to join the Peace Corps. While working for the Ministry of Agriculture in Kenya, he established a nursery for avocado trees which were sold at low prices to farmers, who then planted the trees on steep slopes for staple food and soil conservation.

These trees are now bearing fruit and feeding Kenyan children. But the results of that two-year stint also bore fruit in Will’s professional life. Inspired by what he learned in Africa, Will began teaching about the problems in world food distribution and population growth and in effect developed a new teaching field: World Food Politics.

After retirement, Will began looking for ways to communicate alternatives to the high-consumption lifestyle that drives the engine of unfair food distribution. Kerala, which he has visted several times, often came up in his research since the state had established a network of "fair price shops" that make food available equitably. So Will created the Good Life Study Tours – to get other people to visit Kerala.

Will reasoned that his own "academic habits of thought" were a handicap to telling the story of Kerala effectively. Program participants, he felt, "may be able to understand a lot of the things which my left-brain training excludes." For Will, Kerala is a puzzle because the relatively high quality of life there simply doesn’t fit with the tenets of economic science: "It’s an absolute non sequitur that people could be happy and satisfied at consumption levels which are half that of Haiti."

To gain a more holistic understanding, participants in the program spend one month living with a Keralan family and learning about the culture, with the aid of a full-time translator and cultural guide. They live as Keralans do. "This is not a thinking person’s Club Med," says Will. Ways of eating, bathing, and even using the toilet may all seem primitive and unfamiliar. But the people go out of their way to make sure visitors feel well cared for, and conversation can range over the most sophisticated social and philosophical topics.

Although their way of life may in some ways seem exemplary to an environmentally concerned Westerner, Keralans don’t see themselves as paragons of thrifty virtue or "green" living. They would probably report, according to Will Alexander, that "everybody here is just trying to get richer." And Ben and Carol Kjelshus, the first couple to go to Kerala on the program, also reported that Kerala has its share of environmental and social problems – including disappearing landfill space and unfair wages for working women. "But it really brought home for us that we in the US and the Western world have to reduce our consumption," said Ben, noting that experiencing the lifestyle in Kerala was much different from reading or talking about it. They were impressed by the closeness of family and community life in Kerala, and since their return, they’ve been looking for ways to live more simply and in closer community.

But the main purpose of a visit to Kerala isn’t to feel guilty about American consumerism – it’s to experience an alternative. Kerala may not hold the answers to all our problems, but it is a tremendously important clue that we should not ignore. Nor should the complex politics of the state automatically repel those who cringe at the term "Communist." "It was the good luck of Kerala that the Marxists there were genuinely Gandhian," says Will. "That is, they were genuinely interested in the poorest people."

As the world’s richest people, we in the West have a great responsibility for changing the high-consumption lifestyle that is destroying the integrity of the planet’s living systems. Yet many of us were simply born into this way of life. We may not even know where to start to simplify our lives. A month with a family in Kerala, on the Good Life Study Tour program, would be an excellent place to begin.

For information on the Good Life Study Tours, write to Will Alexander at 30 El Mirador Court, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, Tel. (805) 541-3101. A more detailed portrait of Kerala is available from the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) in their 1989 development report, Kerala: Radical Reform As Development in an Indian State, by Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin for $6 plus $2 postage. Write Food First at 145 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.

Current information on Kerala is available at Kerala Online.

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