Despite their successes when in power, the fate of governments in Kerala has always stood on shaky ground. Any government in power faces the threat of anti-incumbency, however, in Kerala this threat is more pronounced—as Nidheesh M.K. reports in LiveMint, “no state government has been re-elected [here], except in 1977.”
Whether Kerala’s ruling government—constituted by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in 2016 and led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—will face a similar fate or not is hard to tell. The LDF, helmed by Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has been at the receiving end of wave after wave of disasters in the state: from back to back Monsoon floods between 2018 to 2019, to the Nipah virus outbreak in 2019, onto the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Temperamental exit polls do little to inform us of how voters perceive the government’s response efforts during these periods or what possible electoral outcomes could be.
However, throughout these different crises, a sector wherein the LDF government has visibly excelled in over the past five years is Education.
Although Kerala’s education system has historically performed well at the national level, over the past five years, this position has been seemingly cemented. In 2018, the National Statistics Office reported the state’s literacy rate to be 96.2%, the highest in the country. A year later, the NITI Aayog’s 2019 “School Education Quality Index” report (SEQI) ranked Kerala first out of 20 states when it came to the quality of education provided at its government schools.
Could the LDF’s provision of affordable, accessible education bolster its chances of winning over the electorate come May 2nd? On the surface level, one would think so. However, what is fueling these successes is a potentially heavy financial burden to the state’s exchequer in the long term. The reasons lie in the way Kerala has been financing this educational transformation. What implications does the LDF’s model of development have on education and spending for whichever alliance inherits leadership over the state?
Education Under the LDF: From 2016 to 2021
For many years now Kerala has been considered a model state for development. Among other factors, these perceptions are premised on centuries of widespread social and religious reform, as well as the rule of Left-inspired governments in the state since independence. The LDF’s term from 2016 to 2021 marks one more milestone in this history of progressive education policies.
When contesting for the 2016 Assembly Elections, the LDF promised to develop the state, and bring about a “Nava Kerala” (New Kerala) if elected. The LDF’s 2016 manifesto, further promised to digitise the education system, in an attempt to reinstate public faith in its facilities of government schools and create world-class educational infrastructure.
The people had spoken: Pinarayi Vijayan assumed the Chief Minister’s position on the 25th of May in 2016. By November that year, the LDF had inaugurated four missions to transform the state across six developmental aspects. They included waste management, environment, housing, farming, health, and importantly for us, education.
The plans for education were executed under the ambitiously titled “Comprehensive Education Modernisation Mission”. The aim was to overhaul school education for Grades 1 to 8 in the state, by improving infrastructure (both digital and physical), and developing globally competitive public schools.
Vijayan seems to have made good on his 2016 promises. The numbers speak for themselves.
All of the state’s 16,030 schools have been equipped with over 3 lakh technological devices (ranging from laptops, to projectors, to cameras, printers), while larger schools (with enrolments of over 1000 students) have been provided extra infrastructural development funds running into crores. Akin to the Delhi model of education pioneered by the Aam Aadmi Party in the mid-2010s, the LDF also sought the opinions of parents, members of the public, and politicians when making educational decisions—a model called the ‘Janakeeya Vidyabhyasa Mathruka’, or the People’s Education Model.
The successes of these developments are best seen in the enrolments to government schools: a gargantuan 3.3 lakh children were newly enrolled in the state’s public schools between 2017-2018. By 2019-2020, a further 1.64 lakh enrolled; and by 2020-2021, the year of the pandemic, 1.77 lakh students joined the state’s education system.
Efforts to modernise Kerala’s classrooms were undertaken by the Kerala Infrastructure and Technology Education (KITE) wing. In November of last year, NITI Aayog recognised KITE’s work as one of the “best models in human development” in India to date.
Every day, Kerala is moving closer towards its goal of building a #NavaKerala. 111 new school buildings inaugurated today. The works are part of the mission to strengthen public education. pic.twitter.com/NgabagOXcn
— Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) February 6, 2021
Why? Because once the pandemic struck, KITE focused on engaging all stakeholders within the system. When the first lockdown struck last March, KITE immediately kickstarted training sessions for over 81,000 teachers across 11,274 schools in online learning. It also ensured that the two lakh students who didn’t have access to technology at home were identified and supported. Specific strides towards accessibility were made this year as well, marked by the release of audiobooks and sign-language adapted revision classes for students of grades 10 and 12. These cater to visually and hearing impaired children—an underrepresented demographic nationally, whose lives have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The lockdowns also saw the launch of the ‘VICTERS’ TV channel by the state education department, where lessons were broadcast daily. KITE also released a Free and Open Source Software—”KITE GNU-Linux Lite 2020”—which will now be pre-installed on the free laptops handed out by the state government. In a bid to improve computing in regional languages, the software also includes Malayalam fonts and a Malayalam-to-English dictionary.
To do all of this is incredibly impressive, especially given Kerala’s economic health. Although the state economy has outpaced national growth rates of late, it has also remained in a persistent state of fiscal distress for decades now.
So, how did the state government rally crores of rupees to improve its education system? Who financed the LDF’s Nava Kerala?
Enter: the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board
The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) is the apex body responsible for bringing about the LDF’s infrastructural successes, especially when it comes to education.
The KIIFB appears to be an attempt to satisfy the aspirations of Kerala’s (loosely defined) middle classes: a group that has benefited from the billions in remittances from the Gulf over the years but one that still faces a crisis of educated unemployment. “These aspirations of the middle class are for better education and healthcare and quality jobs,” says Kerala’s sitting Finance Minister Thomas Isaac in an interview with The New Indian Express. To meet them would “require a change in the state’s economic base.”
However, in the same interview, Isaac singled out a hurdle in creating this change: the state was already spending on revenue expenditure to carry out its operations, which meant there was little money left in the Budget to actually spend on wide-scale infrastructure. How would the LDF’s Nava Kerala be brought about without investments in infrastructure then?
There were two possible pathways ahead. The first was to seek private investment in state projects. However, “they would want a much higher return, which means a very high user fee. That is unacceptable,” said Isaac.
That is why the LDF government went the KIIFB route—it allowed for developing public infrastructure that was affordable and thus accessible to all.
“In the context of persistent fiscal crisis and the inability of the State to mobilize funds for development, the LDF government announced an out-of-budget financing scheme, the KIIFB, for implementing development projects in the revised budget for FY 2016-17,” says Jerry Alwin, Assistant Professor of Economics at Sree Narayana College, Varkala, and the co-author of Kerala’s Economic Development. This marked the resuscitation of the KIIFB, originally created by the E.K. Nayanar-led 1999 LDF government to financially aid investments by Public Sector Undertakings. In 2016, Isaac described the KIIFB’s new avatar as a “fund mobiliser for infrastructure projects.”
If you’re wondering where the money comes from, it is partially raised from shares of “petroleum cess and motor vehicle tax collected by the state government,” says Professor Alwin. “The rest of the funds are borrowed from financial institutions and the open market.” The state government then utilises these funds to expedite development projects, which otherwise stagnate for years due to Kerala’s prolonged budgetary deficit. The state government is responsible for the repayment of the principal loan amount and interest incurred.
Kerala used over 70% of its taxes to pay salaries&pensions last fiscal, and almost cannot take any fresh loans bcoz of FRBM limits on borrowing. Yet, it needs to build infra, which is already lagging far behind its neighbours. KIIFB helps here, bcoz it’s not on the budget books.
— Nidheesh M K (@mknid) June 20, 2018
For most of us finance non-experts, this sounds a little vague, if not incomprehensible. Yet, the model seems to be working. The KIIFB has raised up to ₹63,249 crore from both domestic and international markets to finance over 450 development projects in the state. Funds from the KIIFB were used to fund KITE: which is what led to the remarkable achievements in educational infrastructure seen above. In October of 2020, Vijayan announced that the “total digitalisation of education” in Kerala had taken place with the help of “Rs 793.50 crore financial assistance sanctioned from the KIIFB.”
Clearly, the KIIFB, described in The Print as the “Left Front’s most important instrument for economic and social change,” has brought increased development and well-being to the people of Kerala, which could well help the coalition buck the anti-incumbency trend prevailing in the state. However, there is more to its achievements and successes than meets the eye. These consequences do not necessarily warrant alarm; yet, they raise questions on the ways in which we construe ‘quality’ development in India, and more importantly, financing it.
Is the KIIFB Model Too Good To Be True?
“The KIIFB has many contradictions,” Professor Alwin explains to me, on a rather ominous note. Why?
Because the “repayment obligations are not met from levying a toll or user charge from the completed infrastructure projects. [Instead] It is proposed that the entire repayment of the KIIFB obligation will have to be paid from the state budget. It is likely that this will push the state into a debt trap,” concludes Professor Alwin. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman echoed similar sentiments while campaigning in the state in February of this year, which Isaac rebuked as “utter foolishness”.
If such critique is to be taken at face value though, this has precarious implications for the state’s finances, and for the functioning of whichever government is set to take over amidst bankrolling COVID-19 vaccines. As per a CAG report tabled in the state Assembly in January 2021, the total state debts have increased from ₹1,41,947 crore in 2014-15, to ₹2,41,615 crore in 2018-19. The report further added that “the state didn’t achieve any of the fiscal targets set in the medium-term fiscal plan or Kerala Fiscal Responsibility Act during 2018-19.”
Along with much bickering typical of fraught pre-poll climates, Isaac termed the report “one-sided” and an “attempt to hamper the state’s growth” by the Union government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Opposition in the state—which includes the Congress-led United Democratic Front, and the BJP—have jumped on the anti-KIIFB bandwagon, in an attempt to muddy the successes of the LDF.
It is a direct assault on the development of the state and an attempt to tarnish the credibility of a financial institution: Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac on IT raid at Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) headquarters pic.twitter.com/rNg2Wd7nqq
— ANI (@ANI) March 26, 2021
However, according to Professor Alwin, “most of the KIIFB projects are routine investment projects included in the budget which have no revenue-generating potential.” So, even if the Union is playing politics with its constituents through audits (which in today’s political climate may not be an untoward assumption), mounting fiscal burdens remain as burning issues not only for the state government, but also for the continued financing of development projects, especially educational ones. This is especially because now that the first hurdle of building new schools and developing old ones has been crossed, much more is left to do to fully develop education in the state.
What Does Quality Education for Kerala Really Mean?
“At the school level, quality is being confined to infrastructure. That perception has to be changed,” says Dr. G. Amruth Kumar, Professor and Head of the Department of Education at the University of Kerala, in Kasargod. “Education is not something that can just be improved by bringing in a civil engineer,” he says.
Professor Kumar’s comments come off the back of the major focus of Kerala’s educational overhaul under the KIIFB: that it is primarily infrastructural. “By only developing infrastructure, which is indeed critical, people will believe education has improved,” he adds. “Yet, such a model of education follows from the private sector, which focuses on building a better quality of infrastructure, creating a convention among people that quality equals better buildings.”
That’s not to say that quality infrastructure doesn’t impact educational outcomes: The Bastion has previously reported on how better-developed schools can directly improve the willingness of students to attend them. However, if the quality of learning in these new-and-improved premises stagnates, then the overall ability of these schools to educate will remain limited. Notwithstanding the state’s impressive literacy rates, this is a real concern for any state government, given the huge learning losses faced by children across the country this year in spite of efforts to bridge the digital divide.
The focus on infrastructural upkeep is a common trend when it comes to assessing quality education in India. Even the 2019 SEQI report which Kerala topped falls prey to this vacuum—out of the five outcomes measures, four assess infrastructure and access to schools, while only one assesses the quality of student learning itself.
While limited data is available on the effects of an infrastructure-driven approach on school learning in Kerala, the consequences are visible for higher education institutes in the state.
An employment crisis that is not necessarily pandemic-induced is gripping Kerala, and it has only worsened under the LDF’s five-year tenure. The state’s 2020 Economic Review stated that while the national average rate of unemployment among youth (aged between 15-29) stood at 17.3%, in Kerala, it stood at 36%. This problem seems to affect both rural and urban areas equally: unemployment affects 35.8% of rural Kerala, and 34.6% of its urban centres. The same cannot be said when it comes to gender: 57.8% of rural women in Kerala are unemployed as opposed to 23.4% of rural men.
Our economy which used to be our strength is today a disaster. Unemployment is on the rise, Kerala’s youngsters no longer have jobs. What type of future are we going to give to the youngsters of Kerala, will we be able to give them jobs?: Shri @RahulGandhi#UDFforKerala pic.twitter.com/lhjmUnOw0L
— Congress (@INCIndia) March 27, 2021
For Professor Kumar, the quality of higher education in the state is largely to blame for this employment crisis. “The threshold to employment is higher education,” he says. “However the rigid, regimented functioning of higher education institutions in Kerala—be it in terms of the implementation of syllabi, course design, or examinations—has not adapted to the changing needs of the global labour market currently. That has a pull-back in creating better employment opportunities.”
Professor Kumar’s comments have credence. In the 2020 National Institutional Ranking Framework, which rates the best higher education institutions in the country, Kerala University ranked 23rd nationally. However, it performed poorly in critical indicators of robust quality, such as “research, publications, patents and ‘peer perception’ that is (..) the preference of employers and academics for graduates from the particular institution.” Research from 2019 on Kerala’s higher education institutions comes to similar general conclusions: that in spite of a relatively well-developed school education system, higher education in Kerala is suffering due to fewer professional institutes of quality, and unequal access to the institutes due to caste barriers.
This has in part contributed to a prolonged unemployment crisis among the state’s youth: which the LDF inherited when it came to power, and which has only increased during its tenure.
It is no wonder then, that the LDF’s manifesto, and indeed its 2021 Budget presented by Finance Minister Isaac in the state Assembly in January, focused heavily on higher education. Promises were made to accommodate 3 to 4 lakh new students in the state’s universities, along with 1,000 new faculty members. To aid research, 500 post-doctoral positions have been mentioned in the outlay, to be paid with monthly stipends of up to ₹1 lakh. As always, the KIIFB has been brought in to aid the infrastructural development of these universities (and presumably improve their ‘quality’) with a promised outlay of ₹200 crore.
All of these promises were made a mere two months before the state went to the polls, despite there being no guarantee that the CPI(M) would return to power beyond May. Members of the Opposition criticised the move, stating that the CPI(M) had “tried to make the Assembly a venue to announce its election manifesto.”
Nevertheless, should the LDF come back to power, it will have its hands full: having addressed the critical question of infrastructure, now comes the trickier question of harnessing that infrastructure to create innovative, flexible, and effective systems of learning, that students—be they in schools or universities—actually benefit from. Scaling such a model is not only critical for the futures of Kerala’s students. Without successful long-term economic growth spurred by educated, skilled, and employed youth, the abilities of any elected government to foot the hefty bills of the KIIFB is somewhat circumspect. Given the economic downturn caused by the pandemic and questionable federal vaccine economics, Kerala cannot afford any more losses.
The LDF’s Kerala educational successes have been spurred by brave investments in infrastructure; whether the nature of these investments will be able to uplift a generation and economy stilted by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic in the long term remains to be seen.
Featured image: Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan interacting with school students at an annual day function. Courtesy of Subin Dennis via Twitter.