Report on a webinar with Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty, on Kerala’s CoVid 19 response

Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty

A short report by Rajat Kanti Sur on  a Webinar on Public Policy Lessons from Kerala’s COVID-19 Response by Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty, Rural Development Expert, World Bank and special envoy to Kerala, organised by USIEF on 8th May, 2020. 

The steps taken by the provincial government of Kerala, a southern Indian state, has been acknowledged all over the world, being called the Kerala model. Although became one of the top states for spreading the COVID-19 at the beginning, Kerala, not only managed to check the spread of the virus but also managed to improve the public health condition of the entire state. A webinar was organised USIEF, India to know the story behind this success. Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty, a specialist on rural development at the World Bank and an adviser to the government of Kerala was the speaker of the webinar.

Kutty began his talk with the history of the public administration system in Kerala during the pre-independence period. He emphasized on two things. The policy to spread free basic modern education by the native states with the help from the colonial government since 1817 and a rule for compulsory vaccination to the students and public servants (1879), with the help from the Rockefeller Foundation. According to Kutty, these two steps can be considered as the stepping stones to improve the quality of public life in this part of the country. He acknowledged the role of the Catholic missionaries as one of the catalysts to pursue the developmental activities of the state. The colonial government’s step to nominate Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose, as the first women surgeon general of the state in 1915. Her decisions to improve the public health of the state especially the maternity health condition made Kerala one of the foremost states in public and maternal health. The health reform movement was followed by various social reform movements conducted by reformists and political leaders gradually made Kerala as a model of the modern state system even before India’s independence.

The four important elements to understand the social development conditions of Kerala are: first, social reform movements by various socio-political activists, pressurising state government of the post-independence period to improve the social development index in the state. This was followed by several civil rights movements to ensure the basic fundamental rights of the people. A successful application of competitive party system made the governments of two major coalitions (the United Democratic Front or UDF by the centre to right parties and Left Democratic Front or LDF by the left-wing parties) liable to the people of the state. Decentralisation of the governance system was also one of the four major steps to ensure the basic public services to the peoples of every village. Thus, Kerala became one of the leading examples of good governance systems since the formative years of post-independence India. The land reform policy (1957), huge investments in the multi-layered public healthcare system (1960-1980), ensuring social security through the public pension schemes and the mass literacy movements in the 1990s, were the other influences enabling Kerala’s response to public disasters. Apart from that the policy to ensure the involvement of ordinary people in local governance was one of the first few steps towards democratic decentralization. This model was later taken by the central government and makes the local bodies (panchayats) responsible through the involvement of gram-sabhas (a body of the people of a village to decide the development activities of a village). According to Kutty, these kinds of citizen-oriented administrative policies empowered the Kerala government to fight successfully against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kerala found its first patient of COVID-19 in the month of January. Since then, the state government was prepared to fight for flattening the curve of COVID-19 affected patients. As a result, the death ratio in Kerala is very low. Only 4 persons died out of 512 COVID-19 affected patients. The death ratio (0.5%) is even lower than the national average of 3.1% and the global average of 7%. According to Kutty, the strong public health system with the help of a rapid action response team for health and family welfare system made the government of Kerala capable to fight against any kind of epidemic situations. This preparedness came out from the long experiences to fight with the support of an epidemic infested health research. The model was successfully tested during the Nipah virus outbreak in the state in 2018. Apart from building a model healthcare system, the state government of Kerala became the first state to announce a social protection package of rupees twenty crores for the ordinary citizens of the state (20th March). Kerala also became the first state in India to announce the campaign to break the chain of Coronavirus infection on March 15. The method was followed by the other state governments only after the beginning of the countrywide lockdown from 23rd of March, 2020.

Kutty said that the government of Kerala attempted to secure the socio-economic conditions of the ordinary citizens since the beginning of the epidemic. Apart from fighting with the epidemic, the state government is trying to improve the mental health conditions of the citizens. As a result, they started printing textbooks and other storybooks, fictions for the children and young adults since the end of March. The public libraries open once a week and they home deliver books. The government is also running several entertainment programmes for the children to make them engaged. The state government reviewed the social security measures to secure the economic condition of the citizens, revising the social security pension scheme and deferring the payment of electric bills until the end of the crisis. A moratorium on several state government loan schemes was imposed much before the announcement came from the RBI. Thus, Kerala becomes successful to fight against several challenges faced by the COVID-19 epidemic and give a useful model for the entire country as well as the world.

However, Kutty pointed out several challenges. Preparing a detailed order in local dialects to fight with the COVID-19 at the village level was one of them. The state government tried very hard to deal with every challenge faced by an ordinary citizen. The state government took steps to distribute nutritious food to the health-workers, sanitization workers, patients and all the inhabitants facing the crisis. Therefore they opened up community kitchens. These kitchens are operated by women. A team of volunteers are prepared to collect data, distribute food and medicines, delivering library books and taking care of the senior citizens. According to Kutty, the preparation to protect and taking care of those women and youth volunteers are one of the major challenges to the state government. But no such person has been infected till date, proving the efficacy of government measures.

The webinar was chaired by Diya Dutt on behalf of USIEF and the closing remarks were given by Sudarshan Das.

Rajat Kanti Sur is a Research Fellow with Calcutta Research Group. He can be reached at rajatkantisur@gmail.com. 

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