Since the formation of Kerala State on 1st November 1956, the State Government has taken several innovative and revolutionary measures which have had humongous impact on Kerala society. During the 60 years, the State had been under President’s rule for almost four years – for a long stretch of two and a half years from September 1964 to March 1967, and for short periods in 1956-57, 1959-60, 1970 and 1979-80. The major policy decisions have been taken by the elected governments. It is a tough task to identify ten decisions of the Government that have had the biggest impact on society. Any such effort is bound to suffer from subjectivity; the choices are therefore personal.
- Land Reforms: The Communist Government of 1957 headed by EMS Namboodiripad pioneered the land reforms in Kerala with the Agrarian Relations Bill, passed in 1959. However this law did not survive judicial scrutiny; the next legislation for land reforms was the Land Reforms Act of 1963, enacted by the R Sankar government. The enforcement of the Act had to wait till amendments in 1969 and legal protection by getting it included in the Ninth Schedule to the Constitution of India. The actual implementation was done during the period of the Achutha Menon Ministry in the early seventies. The two big outcomes of this were the conferment of ownership of land on the tenants who were cultivating the land, and the government’s takeover of land held by any family in excess of the limits prescribed in the Act and distribution to the landless. The direct impact on the life of a large section of society was massive – there were clear winners and losers. And there was one section of society untouched by the law – the owners of plantations.
- School Education: The attempted reform in the private school education sector was perhaps the single direct cause of the liberation struggle of 1959 and the subsequent dismissal of the EMS Namboodiripad Ministry. The Kerala Education Act 1958 introduced several measures for the improvement of school education in the State, bringing in systems for the regulation of aided schools, especially in respect of the qualifications and appointment of teachers. Some of these were diluted by the amendments made by the successor Pattom Thanu Pillai government in 1960. The aided schools managers and the teachers were the ultimate winners in the game – the managers select and appoint the teachers who receive their salaries and pensions from the government and enjoy all political freedom.
- Local Governments: The biggest administrative reform witnessed by the State was the decentralisation of powers through the Panchayat Raj Act and the Municipalities Act of 1994, enacted during the Chief Ministership of K Karunakaran. The District Councils created by the previous EK Nayanar government had become legally unsustainable following the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India. The 1994 Act introduced a three tier Panchayatraj system and made the Village Panchayats extremely powerful units of administration. The Kerala enactments went well beyond what was contemplated in the Constitution; the E K Nayanar government (1996-2001) made further amendments to improve and streamline the systems for democratic decentralisation.
- Self financing Professional Education: The AK Antony government’s decision in 2001 to open up the professional education sector for private investment had far reaching consequences. Kerala had limited opportunities for professional education and students from the State had to migrate to the neighbouring States. The policy also facilitated huge investments in the State, creating substantial employment opportunities. However, it has been an unending judicial battle for the government to make the private managements respect merit, fix affordable fees and avoid capitation fee.
- Indirect Taxation: Kerala adopted Value Added Tax in lieu of Sales Tax in 2005, along with the majority of the other Indian States. VAT affects every person, but, being an indirect tax, its impact is not directly felt by the citizen. The manufacturers and the traders are the government’s agents for collection of this tax. A good system of VAT makes tax administration simple and transparent, reducing chances of evasion. It is the precursor to a further reform, the introduction of Goods and Services Tax, expected to be introduced with effect from April 1, 2017.
- Secondary Education: The shifting of the pre degree course of two years from colleges to schools has a chequered history. The decision was first taken in 1986 when K Karunakaran was the Chief Minister and TM Jacob the Minister for Education. College teachers and University office staff were naturally aggrieved, and there was violent political opposition to the move. As it often happens in Kerala, the interests of the organised few took precedence over public interest. The landmark action for the reform came in 1997-98 when the Nayanar Government enacted the Pre Degree Abolition Act. The shabby manner in which the +2 programme has been handled by successive governments is recent history.
- Kudumbasree: Kudumbasree is community action at its best. An organised system for creating neighbourhood groups of women from poor families, and a hierarchy of area development societies at the ward levels and community development societies at the local body levels, was started in 1992. The programme that started in Alapuzha Municipality was globally recognised with the UN’s ‘We the People’ award in 1995. Malappuram was the first district to be targeted for full coverage in 1995. This mega programme for the socio-economic empowerment of women was rechristened ‘Kudumbasree’ in 1998 by the Nayanar Government, and it has grown as a model for several societies within India and abroad.
- Total Literacy: Kerala has had a tradition of high levels of school enrolment when compared to the rest of the country. There have also been well organised efforts for non formal education of the illiterate. Perhaps the highlight of the initiatives for spreading non formal education was the campaign for total literacy in 1990-91 under the Nayanar government. The challenges were perhaps not very formidable, considering that the base level of literacy was already high, but the achievement of total literacy definitely adds further prestige to Kerala’s reputation for social development.
- Liquor Policy: Several parts of Kerala had prohibition of the consumption of alcohol until 1967; the EMS government, with the Muslim League as coalition partner, lifted prohibition fully. The next big reform in State Excise was the banning of arrack by the A K Antony government in 1996. However, one of the most clumsy decisions by any government was the decision of the Oommen Chandy government in 2014 in respect of Bar licences and Beverages Corporation outlets. Several State governments have tried implementation of prohibition at different points of time and the experiences are well known. The direct effects are that the States lose considerable revenue, and that bootlegging and consequent crime increase. In Kerala, alcohol consumption had been breaking records, and several families have suffered solely due to the addiction to alcohol. While prohibition would bring relief to such families, there would be massive loss for the booming tourism industry, resulting in reduced investment and employment. Perhaps it would be interesting to have a case study on the ‘process’ – the cavalier manner in which the Oommen Chandy government took such a major policy decision with a huge impact on the State’s society and economy.
- Bloated Administration: The bureaucracy has grown massively over the years. Almost every meeting of the Cabinet has in its agenda, proposals for creation and upgradation of posts, in spite of ‘economy orders’ having been in force since the early sixties. Pay revision every five years adds to the financial burden of the State. Then there are the statutory authorities and the parastatals, in the form of Commissions, autonomous bodies and public sector undertakings. The Government should make a dispassionate assessment of the contribution of several holy cows like the Human Rights Commission, Women’s Commission, Backward Classes Commission, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Rights Commission, Minorities’ Commission, Child Rights Commission, Farmers’ Debt Relief Commission, Fishermen Debt Relief Commission and the Police Complaints authority. Even the Administrative Reforms Commission set up by the present government is a clear waste of public money.
There are several other decisions of Government over the last six decades, which have had a wide variety of implications for the public at large; some of these are associated with veteran politicians who were Ministers at the relevant time. These include the Rationing system, State lotteries (P K Kunju), Direct payment of salaries to college teachers, the One Lakh Houses scheme (M N Govindan Nair), Industrial single window clearance (Suseela Gopalan), Industrial parks, Agricultural labourers’ pension, vesting of private forests and Resurvey (or the nuisance caused by it). There are several other socially beneficial matters that could have happened, but has not happened yet – development of road infrastructure, quality improvement in education, utilisation of natural resources including minerals, adequate power generation and supply, citizen’s right to services (in spite of enactment of a law), and most important, E-governance.