Gender and Development in Kerala

by Yasushi Uchiyamada

In Hindu mythology, the goddess Lakshmi is the divine consort of Lord Vishnu. She is represented throughout contemporary Indian popular culture (especially on calendars) as a young, fair-skinned, slightly plump--though many young Indian men seemed to think she was "slim" --beauty, often wearing jewelry and smiling calmly and contentedly. As the wife of Vishnu, the ideal king in Hinduism, the image of Lakshmi embodies domestic auspiciousness and controlled fertility, which is equated with prosperity. Today, an icon of Lakshmi can be found in many Hindu homes, a result of the spread of color printing technology that popularized Indian calendar art.

Behind the house in which I lived in 1992-93 squatted an untouchable woman named Lakshmi. She was about 50 years old, a widow with three daughters and two grandchildren. She was small and thin with a dark complexion, and earned her living weaving baskets. She was indebted to a high caste merchant with whom she had to sleep occasionally. Her second daughter was a concubine of a high-caste farmer. My neighbors called her "Echimi" (a corrupt form of Lakshmi), because they thought that the poor untouchable widow did not deserve to be called by the name of the goddess of auspiciousness and prosperity.

During the monsoon season (June - August), many untouchables were without sufficient work and food. It was raining as usual one morning as I prepared my coffee and looked at the wet roofs of my neighbors from the veranda when I noticed that smoke was not coming up through the thatched roof of Lakshmi's mud hut. Lakshmi hadn't bothered to light her hearth because she had no rice to boil. On the following morning too, no smoke. The local shopkeepers wouldn't sell her rice on credit; she had no means to repay her debt. After exhausting all means to borrow either money or rice in the neighborhood (she had already borrowed money from me and rice from her untouchable neighbor), she decided to apply for the Kerala widow's pension scheme. She had previously applied to the punchayat office for the pension, but her application was turned down: she unfortunately did not have the death certificate of her husband, because obtaining it requires a substantial "gift" for the doctor issuing the document. This time she visited a man known for his ability to extract political favors in a desperate attempt to seek help, but she later came back empty handed.

In mainstream development discourse, Kerala is considered a showcase of successful public actions in alleviating poverty and hunger.1 But what this school of thought fails to see is the interfacing of public policies and the everyday lives of people. Public policies are never translated automatically into practice--they are mediated by institutions. As is clear from Lakshmi's case, institutions as "distinct frameworks of rules for doing things"2 prevented Lakshmi from exercising her legitimate right. That Kerala has a progressive widow pension scheme does not guarantee that widows like Lakshmi benefit from the policy. Lakshmi became invisible; every time she stepped into a government office, she was a persona non grata.

Gender Inequality and the Female-Male Ratio

The data from Dreze and Sen tell us that there are far fewer females than males in large areas of northern India, especially in the northwestern states, averaging around 89 females per 100 males. In the south, the situation is much closer to equity (97 females per 100 males). However, Kerala's figures--at 104 females per 100 males--are roughly similar to those of Europe and North America.

Dreze and Sen argue that women in India fare badly compared with men in education, nutrition, health, and survival, and that a low "female-male ratio," or FMR, is a result of such gender inequality. The authors contend that Kerala's high FMR reflects its success in alleviating gender-based inequality. However, thes high FMR may well be related to something else entirely: its superior basic nutritional and health standards, for example. A high FMR does not necessarily mean more equal gender relations. Moreover, the assumption that high FMR figures in Europe and North America mean gender equality among women in the developed world is deeply flawed. That higher FMR rates are often conflated with gender equality signifies cultural and institutional bias: institutions are mistaken for natural laws and are thus often taken for granted. The point is that the conflation of rates and relations by Dreze and Sen tells us more about the embeddedness of their reasoning than about the nature of gender relations in Kerala.

Perhaps it may be more useful to talk about gender equity instead of gender equality, for the very use of the notion of gender equality conceals rather than reveals the specific needs and interests of women and men. The notion of gender equality assumes that the needs and interests of women and men are identical, whereas the notion of gender equity presumes they are different. Thus the principle of gender equality is something like assuming that cranes and foxes should eat from plates. On the other hand, the principle of gender equity is analogous to cranes eating from vessels and foxes from plates (see Kabeer, page 96). What becomes clear from the replacement of equality with equity is that the "objective" language conceals rather than reveals the crucial issue of different gender needs and interests, both of which stem from gender difference. In this light it is useful to look at relations between language and institutions.

Barbra Tomlinson argues that an aggrieved woman who articulates her anxieties within the academic establishment is perceived as an angry child; she will be told the equivalent of "You need to calm down before I listen to you. Go to your room until you learn how to act."3 In her view, institutions marginalize and exclude certain point of view and subject positions by making the people speak through dominant narrative styles, ones that have the ideological effects of silencing marginal voices. Women are not always silenced by the powerful institutions that resonate with particular language styles, however; women often do articulate through the dominant narrative forms. Yet when they do so, their own self-representations, told in the dominant discourse, are often "masculinized" and conform to the expectations of men. Women's own tales, told in the dominant forms of discourse, often conform to the expectations of men. The adopted narrative form, in other words, has an effect on the interlocutor and her narratives.

James Ferguson, in his book The Anti-Politics Machine, discusses how the World Bank's development discourse constructs the "underdevelopment" in Lesotho, South Africa, as the object of development intervention. This "development" discourse conflates two different meanings of the term: the development of modern society and the improvement of quality of life. Because these two different meanings are conflated, it becomes possible to prescribe the construction of roads, for instance, as synonymous with the improved quality of life. The project failure is predictable, and Ferguson brilliantly demonstrates that the aim of the project--poverty alleviation--was of secondary importance from the viewpoint of the state bureaucracy. Ferguson believes that " . . . because 'failed' development projects can so successfully help to accomplish important strategic tasks behind the back of the most sincere participants, it does become less mysterious why 'failed' development projects should end up being replicated again and again."4 The primary objective of the "failed" development projects was to expand the power of the state over society in Lesotho.

I returned to Kerala in April 1996 after a three-year absence and immediately found Lakshmi, listening to a radio blasting at full volume, perhaps to impress us with her ability to afford the modern device. Her second and third daughters, standing in front of her hut, were wearing much better clothes than they had been three years ago. What had happened?

Lakshmi told me that she was still not successful in securing the pension from the panchayat office. I learned that her daughters had found jobs as migrant workers at a prawn processing factory in Orissa, the proceeds from which enabled the squatter family to buy the radio and the new nylon saris. Progressive public policy was still out of Lakshmi's reach. What is urgently needed for women like Lakshmi is not a new gender and development policy. Marginalized women need institutions that listen and respond to their suppressed voices. It is through the transformation of the state bureaucracy and its discourses that the needs and interests of women like Lakshmi--and the spirit of gender and development--will be realistically met.


  1. See the work of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, especially their India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (Oxford University Press, 1989).
  2. See Nalia Kabeer's Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought (Verso, 1994).
  3. Tomlison, Barbra, "The Politics of Textual Vehemence, or Go To Your Room Until You Learn How To Act." Signs 22:1, pp.86-114.
  4. Ferguson, Page 256.

    Yasushi Uchiyamada is a senior researcher in anthropology at the Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, in Tokyo. He is currently working on a book on late modernity and Untouchables in Kerala.