Working in Kerala, India

Self-Reliance and Gandhi's Ideas

It was mid afternoon of May 11, 2002. I stood at the edge of the soccer field at Saint Michael’s College in Kerala, India.  The temperature had been in the upper nineties for hours.  My longtime colleague and friend, economist Dr. T. M. Thomas Isaac, had just finished his speech.  The thirty thousand women who had filled the field cheered and chanted slogans about self reliance and about following the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi.  It was a moment of high drama I had never expected to experience in an academic career of mostly research, writing, and classroom teaching.

Over the next several months I visited many of the villages from which these women had come to publicly recite the self-reliance pledge that day.  They were Kerala’s version of the now famous Grameen Bank microfinance program. Founded by Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus in 1976, the Grameen Bank has become one of the most formidable models for fueling economic growth and – to its supporters – a model for overcoming extreme poverty.  The Bank lends small amounts to cells of five poor women who pledge together to repay their loans. Grameen Bank interest rates of 20-30% are still far below private lending rates and paybacks have been above 90%. The Ford Foundation, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Bank have all become supporters of Grameen style micro-credit. In 2006 Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his brilliant innovation.  But here in Kerala activists and policy makers chose not to use social groups to enforce repayment of individual loans.  Instead, the microfinancing went from local cooperative banks to groups of ten or twenty women who set up manufacturing cooperatives, cooperative tea shops, or cooperative day care centers.  To qualify at the lowest savings level of a few pennies a month it was necessary to have a family income below the local poverty line.  Each group had to elect officers including a treasurer, something possible in Kerala where almost the entire adult population is literate.  Every Sunday afternoon there would be public accounting meetings – a form of transparency that almost eliminates corruption. Although men were encouraged to take on child care for these Sunday women’s coop meetings, many just brought the children to the meetings.  Eventually the kids got to perform songs and dances.  Many of the mothers and aunts willy-nilly got back into childcare.

I was trained in one of the many coop groups set up to produce soap.  Kerala is truly a “land of coconuts” and soap can be made with coconut oil.  In fact, soap can be 90% coconut oil. Technicians from the Kerala People’s Science Movement taught us everything from the theory of soap (a long carbon chain that connects the dirt with the water) to getting the right consistency – through saponification – with 8-10% sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.  Twenty women could manufacture soap for a neighborhood of a few hundred households.  They worked one day to produce it and one day to market it door-to-door.  Soap is an ideal device with which to resist multinational corporate domination in Kerala: it can be produced in small quantities with local materials using local labor and can be sold to politically sophisticated consumers without advertising or packaging.  Similar possibilities exist for school uniforms, school supplies, some electrical equipment and umbrellas – and of course, food.

 Kerala is a state within the Indian national federation.  It lies in the far southwest corner of the country.  Many observers believe that the term “Kerala” means “land of coconuts.”  Almost all the people speak Malayalam, a Dravidian language whose origins are not well understood by historical linguists.  The word Malayalam – the only language name that is a palindrome (crossword puzzle addicts note!) – probably means “hills and valleys,” an apt description of the geography of the state.  English is widely spoken in Kerala, even in remote villages.

 My collaboration with Kerala economist T. M. Thomas Isaac has run for 24 years.  We have written three books and several articles together, documenting the creative development approaches Kerala State’s activists have implemented.

Articles about soap coops and more are available at my Kerala publications webpage: