how the world sees america

Kerala's Communists Balk at U.S. Stores -- and U.S. Jobs

backpack.jpg
A highway or a river? On the road in Kerala, India during ferocious monsoons.
Trivandrum, Kerala - It's raining so hard the highway looks like a river and the windshield wipers can't move fast enough to clear the glass. But Reji Shokla, my fearless driver, races on past a woman swimming to her house, a grove of battered coconut trees, a Western Union billboard and a poster of Che Guevarra. Was that a cow with blue horns mooing at me? Welcome to Kerala.

At the southernmost tip of India, this diverse state is grappling with change -- and resisting, as well as it can. Citizens have mounted campaigns against liberalization, globalization and Westernization, while benefiting from them as well. I've talked to a lot of different people over the past few days, and what I hear is: change brings good and bad; but when bad comes, America is most often the face of it.

First the good: Kerala has the highest literacy rate (for men and women), life expectancy and standard of living in India. It has a religiously mixed population of roughly 55% Hindu, 25% Muslim and 20% Christian, and is relatively peaceful (though there is evidence of mounting extremism in the north). The economy is driven largely by remittances from overseas, which account for about one fifth of the state's income. Kerala educates workers who go abroad as nurses and technicians and send cash home.

Now the bad: Kerala has relatively high unemployment (20%), domestic abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. Tourism creates a somewhat unstable economy that, for example, was badly shaken by September 11, 2001 and by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Farmers are losing their livelihoods to competition. Remitted money is often spent on huge houses for lucky individuals with relatives abroad rather than on infrastructure development for the community.

Mohammad Sajid sees it as his "duty to resist neo-imperialism" and American aggression. His current fight is against a phenomenon sweeping India: the retail boom.

He's spent the past year gathering students to protest the arrival of retail stores in Kerala. He says they'll bankrupt local businesses and exacerbate consumerist culture. "I'm going to stop American cultural imperialism." Though this retail boom is largely driven by big Indian businesses like Reliance, an American company is the focus of protests: Wal-Mart, which is teaming up with Bharti, a leading telecom service. Before Wal-Mart, Mohammad participated in protests against a Coca-Cola plant which he says depleted a village's water supply and polluted what was left. I'm visiting the site in a few days. In both cases, American corporate interests were seen as diametrically opposed, or at least indifferent to the goals of average citizens. Mohammad voted for the Communists, not the Muslim League, because he believes the former is doing a better job resisting Western encroachment (more on the Muslim-Communist alliance in later posts).

Reji Shokla, who is driving me, tells a different story: "there are no jobs here." Reji is 29, short, with a mustache and big smile. He has an engineering degree and a girlfriend who's training to be a nurse. But he can only find work as a driver, and she's worried too. They're desperate to go to the Persian Gulf.

He blames the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM), which is currently in control of the state government, for driving away foreign businesses, and supports the Indian National Congress instead.

I ask M.A. Baby, the Communist Minister of Education, if America really affects Kerala and what his party needs to do about it: "resist neo-imperialism" he replies. But longtime Kerala journalist M.G. Radhakrishnan helped me look beneath the rhetoric: "There is a clash between old world ideology and slogans and new world needs [within the CPIM.]" Reformist communists worry about being labeled "Gorbachevians" if they appear too pro-West or pro-liberalization by their central party. So, Radhakrishnan tells me, "they pay lip service to old ideologies but slip in reforms through the back door to create jobs that keep them in power."

Reji hasn't seen the jobs. Mohammad doesn't think foreign jobs would be anything other than exploitative. But, oddly enough, both seem content to educate themselves and then travel abroad to the Gulf, Europe or America to earn a living and send money home to Kerala to keep its standard of living up until indigenous development gives the community the means to do so at home.

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Comments (19)

Tony:

Mr. Amar may have written this while travelling in Kerala. So it is superficial and like a blind seeing an Elephant.
The main problems are (1) The entries of multinational giants into the country who are squeezing out the resources of the youth of the country and discarding them when the energy is drained. (2) The educational system here with the support of World Bank which has turned the people to the so called white collar jobs and created an aversion to farming. So most of the states especially kerala has only cash crops and no food. If there is a petroleium shortage of block of lorry trafic kerala will starve (3) the gulf money is creating havoc. The coming gulf money people only want to have huge constructions and the money is not used creatively. more over they will pay any amount as wages to have their intention finished within time. So the local farmers become helpless to even cultivate their farms due to the increased labor cost and other commodities.

krishna:

Amar Bakshi seems to be currently touring India, and probably would write articles like this from various locales. By definition it is a foreigner's perspective, gathered very quickly, and as such, incomplete and imprecise.

However, I don't think he is deliberately trying to denigrate Kerala in this article. Or another region in another piece.

I am looking forward to the rest of Amar's articles from other parts of India.

Gopher :

Amar,

That was an interesting snapshot of Kerala. I am amazed at the defensiveness of the comments to your article. You have written your article from an outsiders viewpoint and you are entirely entitled to do so without being denigrated. I would suggest some of the people who have commented read the article for what was written and not for what they wanted written. Love of one's heritage does not mean the application of blinders - a lesson that the writers of some of the comments readily seem to apply to the US but not to themselves. Kerala, as I am sure Amar would agree is a beautiful place with warts and all. To say otherwise is not journalism and would be propaganda (a la communists).

simplymailin@gmail.com:

An excellent example of opportunistic, rhetoric narrative. The Picture of Kerala painted by author is true, but partial, inconsistent and ahistorical. The road to salvation adopted and lived by the keralites included eduction, enterprising and sacrifice. While the story of remittance remains a reality, the author fails to capture the long standing history the same and the personal and communal sacrifices it encapsulate. While the western neo-liberals invest in capital, the intellectual Indians/ keralites invested in human capital, which is an integral reason where it is and where it is headed in the current and future socio-political and economic landscape. The hand of the neo-liberal interventions in transformation of one of the prosperous agrarian society into consumerist paradise can't be under estimated. While the so called 'land or prosperity' it self is retracing or reinventing itself spiritually, they trace back the same roads which they opposed ones. Accurately pointed out by one of the other responder, when the US 'capital' couldn't save their own in New Orleans, where the lower 9th ward still remains as deserted, it is hypocritical to say that it could do wonders to some one far away.

While the same capital investment and foreign relations interventions play havoc from South America to Middle east and somalia to Sudan. in the same context, India and china, as neo neo-liberals investments in these countries become oil hungry, energy hungry, overpopulated expansionists visa vi propagators of conflict and economic distress. Then again, these interpretations fall short in brining in the long standing colonial oppressions and drafting of divisionist independences and era of cold-war and Non Alignment movement.

With no personal attack intended, I would suggest the author get our of his air conditioned office in DC and take a stroll down New Orleans rather than trying to come up with ahistorical narrative of a far flung land to justify noble cause propagated by the neo-colonialists, during one of his pleasure trip to the 'Gods own Country'.

Keralite:

A well fabricated story which is far far away from Truth or Reality. Also a deliberate attempt to hide some facts and figures like this:

* The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a Keralite male is 70.

* After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate. Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as high in Kerala as in Kansas.

* Kerala's birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with 16 per thousand in the United States--and is falling faster.

Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash. Development experts use an index they call PQLI, for "physical quality of life index," a composite that runs on a scale from zero to a hundred and combines most of the basic indicators of a decent human life.

In 1981, Kerala's score of 82 far exceeded all of Africa's, and in Asia only the incomparably richer South Korea (85), Taiwan (87), and Japan (98) ranked higher. And Kerala kept improving. By 1989, its score had risen to 88, compared with a total of 60 for the rest of India. It has managed all this even though it's among the most densely crowded places on earth--the population of California squeezed into a state the size of Switzerland.

Amar:

Good point about that caption. I'm changing it now. It's very important to make clear this is monsoon season and the rains here are tough for anyone to contend with! The picture was just meant to illustrate my travels through the state. Many thanks for your feedback. - Amar

Anonymous:

Fantastic Comments from fellow reader!

The writer needs to look at his own backyard first before he writes about kerala. The newspaper needs to realise it doesn't take much for non-keralite to slander Kerala.

Mate are you trying to say it is much better out there than in good old beautiful Kerala. Oops forgot to add I do not send home a penny though I have been living abroad for the last 12 years and trust me the folks back home live better than people who live in the western world, well at least the kids go to school for a change and not go working in Mc. Donald’s or KFCs.

Ciao- leave kerala alone gents….

Paulose :

Fantastic comments from fellow reader.

As a Keralite who has been living in Europe for quite some time I am not able to comment whether MNCs will harm the economy I am sure people living in kerala can comment better.

But have to say the writer needs to have a look at his own backyard before he comments about kerala.

Having visited quite a few parts of the world I still belive in the magic of Kerala we are blessed in every sense.

Ooops forgot to add I do not send a euro back home and my folks back in kerala enjoy a much better lifestyle than most of us in Europe.

ciao

Mathai Fenn:

The wheels of the Jaggernaught turns again. Crushing those under its huge wheels. Pulled by devotees who believe that this is their strong duty.

Walmart will come to india as surely as computers came. The same guys opposed that too. Instead of fighting Tsunami, lets figure out where its going and what can be done. I am tired of people who pick losing battles. Lets pick a battle we CAN win. As long as there are coca colas and walmarts, they will keep on pushing for expansion mercilessly. What is sustainable development? The KOAN (paradox) of modern world is, can social justice go hand in hand, if so how?

Cherian:

Nice article, but opposing retail chains doesn't mean that we Keralites, or communists for that matter dislike American ideas totally. What we say is that, what worked fine half way around the globe, in a different socio-economic-geographic context need not work here the same way in kerala. Mass retailers is a marketing machine that sees customers just as cogs in their global logistic pipeline. When was the last time you found somebody in a supermarket rally knowing a product well enough to explain it to you? Compare that with the small shop ("we call them petti kada") where the experience of buying could be something quite personal. What happened to those indian cool drinks in the 80s, that were wiped out entirely by the cola invasion?

ken:

There is nothing wrong with the photo. But whats the point in having such a photo and the caption in the wrong article. The article definitely was not on Keral's infrastructure. To the picture aims to portray Kerala in bad light ( may be due to its communist lineage.. i dont know.).Western media pokes at developing countries at every opportunity. Even if they are reporting Bangladesh defeating Australia in cricket they never forget to mention that Bangladesh is an impoverished country (of course there wont be mention of Australia's convict legacy).

urchin barren:

As someone who has never been to kerala or india in general, I didn't read anything untoward into the caption of the picture. I think it's obvious that that's normally a dry road, you can see a flooded road after bad weather nearly anywhere in the world. Who are these people that are taking offense? I don't really understand.

If anything is presumptuous in this posting, it's more likely to be the html address.

sunesh:

Dear Amar,
I am living in Kerala for the last last 32 years. I have seen the plight of the land before 1990's. If you had visited this land that time, I wonder, what would have been your reaction. Kerala is now changing, at a tremendous pace. I am disappointed because you havn't tried to see the better side of a civilised soceity in Kerala. I fear its your mission to balk at communists in Kerala.

Greg:

I too strongly disagree with comment along with the picture. The roads in kerala normally floods after heavy rains. The peculiarity of roads in kerala they are almost on the level of ground. So its normal in kerala and it will drain within few hours unlike US or even other parts of India. And now a days even the village roads are on a better condition which can be some rarein US. The comment shows the ' opportunistic arrogance of a so called civilized society'. They are showing their true colour. We have seen this lot of times.

The present day communists are always lacked vision atleast for the past 20 years. They are always double standarded. When they were in opposition they will (pretend) be idealistic, socilistic and lots of thing like that...But when they are in power, they simply forgets what thay said earlier as if somebody else had said it and they are completely unaware of it.

This doble standardness has already created friction inside the party itself creating distict groups within the party. One the so called partymen(always an eye on money and loves the party to be a coporate) and the idealist(the realy partymen). If you take the communists in india as whole, it seems like the communist party doesnt have a policy at all. they are different in different parts in India. Now it seems that they are more on to Imperialist side (internally) than on common peoples side. The party men are getting more and more confused as time elapses. I fear that under present leadership the communist party is gradually losing ( eventhough they have very small pockets) its hold from peoples mind, (calling their own death). In between they will raise issues like 'retail boom', may not be full heartedly but since they have to do...but how long this backdoor imperialistic love will thrive on?

Tenny Tomas:

"....Remitted money is often spent on huge houses for lucky individuals with relatives abroad rather than on infrastructure development for the community..."

In Kerala, about 50 years ago, a wind called communism swept, changing the land ownership and economic patterns of the then feudal society (even the congress in Kerala is socialists, there is only one ideology for the Keralites- socialism). The ideology gave the people- dream and pride. With the new dreams, the hardworking Keralite went around the world in search of better opportunities. With the money they earned they got what their father under the ‘Janmi’/feudal lord did not have- own land. On that land each one build houses bigger than their former lords as though that was the goal of their lives. You can see the monstrosities all over Kerala. If you look at them with sympathy they dreams of a generation that the ideology called socialism enabled.

tintin:

Your article is to the point on the political corner. I think you landed on a wrong time in kerala. Kerala has by far the best roads in country. I live in a village and even the roads here are far better than what we see in Mumbai city.

People still rely on dubai money and so they are not really protesting the politicians acts against the companies.

It is the communist party thats creating trouble here. There are huge confusion within the party and they don know what to do. They are just stupids who wrongly landed in the 21st century. They should be deported to Africa!!!!

Reddy:

Amar,

You hardly scratched the surface of Kerala or may be this is the first of many posts. Anyway good job so far.

I dont see anything offending about the photo it is a common sight in India and there is nothing inferior about it. The roads serve more than just the automobiles.

I am posting a link to a very interesting article on Indian Muslims here.

http://deccan.com/Columnists/Columnists.asp?#Madrasa%20law%20will%20isolate%20Muslims%20further

Anonymous:

Naturally Americans are ignorants of slums and rural poverty in America. Go out about 50 miles from the city and you will be shocked to see the dirty trailer parks, crumbling buildings, and dirt roads unfit for any automobile. It's not much different than in the third world.

As an American I agree with Sajid that Wal-Mart is not good for any community.

Coca-Cola is not good for anything except to clean toilets. Who's stupid enough to drink it?

Joice:

Your article was to the point and largely true. But I strongly disagree with the picture displayed along with the article. The caption to the picture is out of context and very mean. The roads in Kerala were flooded after torrential rains and your caption is nothing but the opportunistic arrogance of a so called civilized society. I dont think the Keralites ever poked fun at the distraught americans who were suffering in New Orleans (I know they were the leasser privilaged blacks). It is time the media grow up to differentiate a natural calamity and act accordingly.

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