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Kerala needs to chart her own course, feel experts

Thiruvananthapuram, February 4 2021: “Kerala Looks Ahead,” a global virtual conference organised by the Kerala State Planning Board (February 1-3) has attracted leading  international experts who shared their insights about the development dorections of  the state.
Nobel laureate-economist Prof Joseph E Stiglitz said that the factors that have contributed to Kerala's success are "competent Govt institutions, competent administration, participatory democracy and decentralisation, a reliance on Science and the continued importance given to planning "and advised Kerala to reduce its dependence on remittances from the Gulf countries as the world was moving away from oil and started using renewable energy sources as part of the efforts to deal with global warming.
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Other learnings from the Kerala Looks Ahead conference:

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Delivering the Keynote Address at he emphasised the importance of planning by arguing that "markets are short-sighted", and "that's why need Government leadership working with the private sector and civil society" to address future challenges. It is important for Kerala therefore to formulate its own economic strategy. Two key principles for Kerala are "diversification" and "building on current strengths", he added.
Prof Stiglitz added: “Kerala needs to work ahead as by 2050 the world will be largely dependent on renewable energy. It is imperative for Kerala to think ahead and create more jobs within the state. It cannot be dependent on remittances. Kerala should strengthen its own productive capacity and generate employment in diverse areas within the state", he added.The noted economist said the Covid-19 pandemic would change the global economy, necessitating drastic changes in international trade and in governance and local administration.The pandemic had brought to the fore the importance of international cooperation for dealing with such situations and other challenges like global warming and, at the same time, highlighted the need for being self-reliant in the production of essential items.Lauding the Kerala government for its governance model of giving importance to health and education and five-year planning, he said the state had also handled the pandemic situation efficiently.

In her keynote address, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO), noted that health outcomes in Kerala were "comparable to the highest in the world", and that "recent data from NFHS-5 showed progress in many indicators such as IMR and MMR".
Observing that COVID pandemic has taught us the importance of investing in public health,  Dr Soumya charted out a three-pronged strategy for the state to deal with its health issues. “In Kerala, there are pockets of under development, pockets of poverty and pockets where there are highly vulnerable people whose health outcomes are far worse than the rest of the population. This has to be addressed. The second is sustainability; anything we do would need to be sustainable. And the third is resilience in the face of health shocks that come from time to time.”
Kerala has had an experience with NIPAH which was handled excellently and actually the outbreak was contained and controlled, with minimal impact and loss of lives. “The COVID pandemic, however, has overtaken the capacity of the best health systems in the world. Therefore, this is a good time to identify where policies could be improved and also the gaps in human resources and institutional capacity," she said
Observing that the pandemic has brought to the fore the accelerated use of digital tools and technology, she made a strong case for using tele-medicine on a wider scale. “We have a shortage of specialists, and in order to reach more people with specialist care, the use of tele-medicine is a very good option.”

The investments made in public education and healthcare that helped Kerala emerge as a strong state in human development over decades can be the springboard for the state to look ahead, said Nobel laureate economist Prof Amartya Sen. “This reliance on humanity, reliance on reasoning and reliance on public discussion are central assets, which I think Kerala will have use for in the future,” said Prof Sen in his address to the Valedictory session of the three-day Kerala Looks Ahead (KLA) Conference and Consultation hosted by the State Planning Board.
Recalling his long association with the State dating back to 1950s, Prof Sen said many thought at the time that Kerala’s quest for universal education and healthcare was going to be a disaster, though he was optimistic that it would succeed.
“Kerala was one of the three poorest economies in India at that time. There was a question, and I had some quarrels, or differences of opinion, within the Delhi School of Economics, on whether Kerala could afford to have education for all, health care for all, and social security for all, given the fact that the State was so very poor. And of course I told them to look at many factors, including the fact that being poor means that labour costs were also rather low. And on the one hand you need to spend more, but the spending was moderated by the fact that the wages were lower in Kerala.”
“I am talking about all that because I was then told that Kerala wouldn’t succeed. Well, then it so happened that, within a couple of decades, Kerala had not only moved away from that position, but was competing for being one of the top three rather than the bottom three in terms of per capita expenditure, which is the subject on which we have data, but constitutes per capita income in fact. Therefore, in a while, of course Kerala also became the richest state in India in terms of per capita income,” Prof Sen said.
“Now, when we look at the successes and failures today, this focus on labour has to be seen as being very, very important because of the fact that nothing is as important productively as what happens to the attitude of human beings to change, to progress”, he said.

“So I would say that the successful use of humanity, the concentration on human reasoning, the particular focus on public discussion whereby we learn from each other and if there is a different view and then, we criticise each other for it -- these are features that have been part of the Kerala economic strategy.”
In this context, he said he would be personally very optimistic about Kerala looking to the future. But optimistic not just because it has been successful in the past, but also because we can understand why it has been successful, what it is that made it different, Prof Sen said.
“I was fortunate when I was in those early days in Delhi -- when I was arguing with my colleagues in the Delhi School of Economics that Kerala could be a world-beater -- when I was being told that I was being blinded by political prejudice.
Recalling that he had the opportunity to meet and talk with leaders like EMS Namboodiripad a lot, he said there is no substitute to an enquiring mind, a mind that has, as Rabindranath Tagore said, that has not been blocked off, by free flows being choked.  “In Kerala, the free flow has not been choked, and I hope it will not be choked. But in order to pursue the future with the same success and more than in the past, it needs to keep the mind open, to ask the question again and again: are we doing the right thing?