Simplicity, Poverty, and Gender in the Indian State of Kerala

Puzzles fascinate me. When the Scientific American labeled Kerala a mystery inside an enigma, I was hooked. In this tiny South Indian state, 30,000,000 of the Earth’s very poor enjoy a good life, in terms of well-being equivalent to Europe. How can these poor humans live so well? And why, alone in all of India, are Kerala birth rates below replacement? I invested three years (1990-93) of my retirement as the principal investigator for Earthwatch Expeditions studying the efficient use of Earth resources in Kerala. I now feel led to explain the mystery of Kerala inside the enigma of India to my friends and neighbors. While solving the Kerala puzzle, I found a key to the efficient use of small amounts of the Earth’s resources to create a good life for all.

For those three years I looked about in Kerala and left without finding a good explanation for the mystery. Among the 14 major states of India, only in Kerala did I find long life—-10 years longer for men and 15 years longer for women. Only Kerala had low infant mortality rates (the most sensitive measure of whether a whole population is getting clean water, quality foods, good health care, adequate education, and good medical services). Infant mortality rates in Kerala are as low as in Europe, and four times lower than in all India. Only in Kerala were more girls than boys attending school even at the university level. And finally, only in Kerala were the family sizes small—-half the fertility rate of India as a whole and lower than North America. Why?

One clue was apparent. Both early and recent observers in India have noticed that Kerala women are more outgoing, or at least not so shy and retiring as the women of the other Indian states. Many writers have commented on this higher status of Kerala women.

While opening an ancient edition of Encyclopedia Britannica and looking up Travancore, a princely kingdom during the time of British Raj that became a part of modern Kerala in 1956, I experienced an "aha" moment. I knew that in less developed countries males survive better than females (census numbers show more males than females); and in industrialized countries there are more females than males. I was amazed to find that the Travancore census data for 1871 recorded more females than males. I immediately checked the Punjab, a very large part of North India during those times. Punjab was a typical underdeveloped country, with more males than females.

In every other Indian state besides Kerala, one cultural characteristic is especially influential in producing shy, retiring, less outgoing women. An experience in Northern India illustrates this social force. A mother of the Thakur caste gave birth to a fourth son. A neighboring grandmother was delighted to circulate the good news. Her broad smile announced her pleasure. "Every time a boy is born in the village, I feel happy. The whole day I can think of nothing else; I feel as happy as if a boy were born in my own family." This same grandmother was very downcast, however, when a daughter was born into her family soon thereafter. Several girls had arrived in her extended family in recent years, and their marriage needs threatened the family wealth and status.

This Thakur woman lifted her granddaughter up in the air saying, "Now she should die. I tell her she should die. She is growing bigger and soon there will be the problem of finding a husband for her. It’s a great worry." Often when she thought of the consequences of another girl in the family, she spoke in this way, but always in her personal relations with the infant she was loving and affectionate. If the baby were to die, she would have been greatly affected. No one could doubt this. But a girl baby is not just a person in her own right. She is also a member of her sex group, placing on her extended family heavy obligations and responsibilities in the Indian culture.

The grandmother voiced an ancient and well-known sentiment of India: the birth of a girl is a misfortune. When this infant was nursed, her mother reached a high point of efficiency in the creation of well-being. And then as the infant was weaned from her mother’s breast, the child entered the most hazardous period of her life. She would henceforth be cared for by an extended family that knew her as the family misfortune. Her share of the family attention would decline as the care for her brothers increased. Silently she suffered her fate: sex discrimination and neglect.

Public health studies have located deadly sex discrimination in the second through fifth years of a girl-child’s life. The root of the difference in survival of females versus males is reflected in the mortality rates of little girls ages one to four when contrasted to the deaths of little boys in the same age category. The conclusions are inescapable. As long as the girl-infants were breast-fed, they received needed life-sustaining nutrients about equally with the boys. Following this period and for up to five years, a time when children are dependent on others to feed them, the death rates of the girls in India was abnormally high. The girls did not receive the same quality of nutrition and healthcare as the boys.
The attitudes of patriarchal extended families in Northern India toward females were starkly displayed in the 19th century. As early as 1789 the commander of the British forces in India, Lord Cornwallis, was receiving reports of wholesale slaughter of female infants at the apex of the status hierarchy of Indian castes. In contrast, British officers noted that in the Kerala status hierarchy, daughters were more favored than sons.

The blatant female infanticide of the 19th century was replaced in the 20th century by accelerating girl-child neglect. The increasing shortage of females relative to males in the population of India throughout the past century caused by girl-child neglect is measured by the abnormal death rates of little girls. This family-neglect of little Indian girls is labeled fatal daughter syndrome—the rate of neglect-caused deaths of little girls contrasted to the mortality of little boys. These abnormal little-girl deaths are carried forward into diminished numbers of women within the whole population. The census of 1881 in India displayed a low female-to-male ratio; and in spite of many life-improving events in India since, the female life opportunity declined relative to men throughout the 20th century. The number of women missing from the current Indian count is huge—over 21 million. This loss, which has the appearance of reducing the numbers in India, has actually driven the doubling and redoubling of the Indian population.

This geometric increase may seem to satisfy the Biblical creation story—to fill the Earth. However, the same story also directs men and women to take dominion over all living things—perhaps a command to sustainability. As humans finish filling the Earth, our attention should turn to this larger responsibility—sustainability through dominion over all living things.

Experiencing fatal daughter syndrome within their own families, these surviving girls learned two lessons. First, as a survival imperative, they must care for themselves first, before they may sympathetically respond to the needs of others. And second, girls are not worthy and their contribution to the well-being of others is unimportant. This has caused a serious loss of efficiency by the hundreds of millions of girls who have survived. That is, loss of efficiency in the use of the scarce resources of India to create well-being for all Indians.

As these girls matured and became naturally attractive to men, they suffered further disempowerment. A host of family and community-enforced traditions and customs denied female influence over men by keeping them out of the sight of men. The absolute purity of female behavior was imperative as families arranged marriages to improve their wealth and status. Service to her husband’s family is the bride’s role—bearing and caring for sons. Daughters are unwanted.

Humans share with other social animals genes for a tending instinct—a mother’s imperative to care for and protect her infants. As tending is encouraged among humans, tending extends to others. To the contrary, the early survival experience of Indian girls everywhere but in Kerala—sex discrimination and neglect—has negated their tending instincts. Additionally, the denial of every opportunity to exercise their God-given attractiveness to men—power over men—further limited the efficiency of these women as they matured into responsibilities for creating and maintaining well-being in their families and communities.

We have recent experience showing how the Earth-filling part of our dominion responsibilities may be carried forward without destroying God’s creation. Consider the growth rates of large societies and nations. As the well-being of any society goes up, its rate of natural growth goes down. India appears as a society that has filled its part of the Earth: the caring element in dominion now needs emphasis, that is, a responsible goal is to seek to raise the well-being of the Indian peoples, thereby causing the human growth numbers to decline.

In the mighty United States, increasing well-being has been understood to mean raising living standards—greater and greater consumption of the Earth’s resources. In a full India, such endless resources do not exist. Living in India now may, as the century progresses, be like the 21st-century life experiences of U.S. grandchildren living on a full Earth.

As we search for the most efficient and successful means of fulfilling the biblical call for dominion/sustainability, let us try a non-material definition of well-being. Consider a package of measures commonly used by social scientists in the context of human sustainability—measures excluding increases in the use of material things. Let us put all material things into the resource side of an efficiency equation, and human well-being (without income measures) on the opposite side of our equation.

Efficiency is a process of mixing a modicum of resources to create a desired product (well-being) without wasting resources. Inefficiency is the mixing of a lot of resources to create a desired product with much waste. Our efficiency formula is the taking of small amounts of Earth resources and creating maximum human well-being.

The Sustainability Report Card below scores the populations of the United States, India, and Kerala consuming the resources of the Earth in processes creating well-being. In column 1, a better letter grade represents modest resource consumption per capita. The huge consumption per capita in the United States is so high (ten times India or Kerala) that on this sustainability score the United States must be marked a failure. Both India and Kerala earn an A for their modest per capita consumption. In column 2, the efficiency of sustainability is calculated as well-being divided by consumption. The huge consumption of the United States divided into the desirable well-being measures produces a very low efficiency rating. For opposite reasons, India also earns a low efficiency score—although Indian resource consumption is modest, its well-being measures are far too low. Kerala, combining both modest consumption and desired well-being, scores highest among the large populations worldwide. The efficiency contrast between India and Kerala defines the simplicity of Kerala within India.

Sustainability Report Card

Resource Consumption Desired Well-being Measures
Modest Efficient Life Expect. Infant Death Fertility
U.S.A. F F A A B
India A D D D D
Kerala A A B B A

The United States scores highest in column 3 on life expectancy with 78 years. Kerala is close behind, and India drops dramatically below Kerala (10 years less for men and 15 years less for women). In column 4, infant deaths are measured as infant mortality rate (IMR)—the number of infants who die per 1,000 live births between 0 and 1 years. The United States again scores high, closely followed by Kerala, and the IMR of India is four times worse than in Kerala. In column 5, fertility is measured as total fertility rate (TFR)—an average of the number of children born to each woman in her lifetime. In lifetime averages, sometimes called completed family size, some women may have several children provided others have one or none. A TFR declining to 2 will produce the zero population growth required for sustainability. This critical sustainability measure is 1.9 for the United States, 1.8 for Kerala, and 3.2 for India.

In Kerala, where there is no fatal daughter syndrome negating tending instincts, there is a normally increasing female-to-male ratio, the expression of the sexual power of women over men is not denied, and the unimpaired tending instincts of women efficiently create well-being.

After the birth of her second child, a woman asked an attending physician for a tubectomy, a common method of birth control in Kerala. The doctor immediately agreed, saying he would seek her husband’s consent. This mother’s retort could have been heard only from a self-reliant woman of Kerala: "That’s none of his business. I have the babies."

The experiences of women in Kerala reflect their efficient creation of well-being, a necessary process in the dominion of men and women over other living creatures with sustainability.

And so, there are still more questions to be asked. How may the efficiency seen in Kerala be learned in order to raise the well-being and to lower the population growth in all India? And just as I asked myself when I began my study of Kerala 14 years ago: How can we in the United States learn simplicity from the people of Kerala?

Asking this question, I was able to see a bit more of God’s revealed truth. My work during the recent ten years telling the story of simplicity in Kerala has revealed to me further truth. I found wisdom in the assertion of my Malayalam translator: "You will never get Americans to consume less." I then asked myself: Why do the citizens of Kerala consume so little? Most importantly, they have no more resources to consume; but as I’ve seen, that’s not the whole story.

Should I content myself with the conclusion that people in the United States will wait until the natural environment is so stressed that no more resources are available? As a scientist I could accept that, shrug my shoulders, and go on to another task. As a Quaker I can say no; I am responsible to share with other men and women dominion over all living creatures including humans. In the earliest history of Quakers, poverty of material things was a common condition. Within this poverty of things, Quakers created a discipline: the efficient use of the few resources available to them to maximize well-being—a discipline of efficient sharing we nostalgically call simplicity. Our Quaker faith can lead us to human solutions beyond the box of our economic ideology.

God has provided us with a very sturdy human example in Kerala. Dominion was taught by men in past centuries; let women lead it in the 21st century.

William M. Alexander

William M. Alexander retired in 1988 as emeritus professor of World Food Politics from California State Polytechnic University. He is a member of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif.