Kerala has, since the 1970s, assumed an undisputed position for being a ‘model’ of Third World development. The pillars of this model are a well-rehearsed litany—favourable sex ratios, high literacy, high life expectancy, low child mortality, and, yes, . . . low fertility. Till the 1970s, Kerala had the highest population growth in the country. While birth rates declined only marginally from 40 to 31 between 1930–1970, there was a phenomenal drop from 31 to 19.6 between 1970 and 1990 (Government of Kerala website information). This centrepiece of the Kerala Model has been attributed variously to higher female status and literacy, a well established health and family planning system, and political commitment to development. Certainly, birth control has, in recent history, come to symbolize the Malayali people’s ability to exercise rational choices for a better society.
- Devika’s Individuals, Householders, Citizens takes an axe to this well-embedded development maxim and—make no mistake—she makes a pretty decent gash. Through a historical analysis of Kerala society and its values in the four decades directly preceding the 1970s, she argues (and convincingly demonstrates) that Kerala’s ‘development’ (through family planning) was not an unequivocal and naturally evolving pathway readily adopted by Malayali women and men. Rather, this particular form of development actively emerged against a teeming background of social transitions, economic considerations, and realignment of gender relations. In unravelling some of these transitions, Devika shows how particular meanings of modernity, sexuality, family, masculinity and femininity, and citizenship began to take hold between the 1930s and 1970s – notions that aided the perception of small families as the norm for the modern era and birth control as the dominant ‘rational strategy for upward mobility’ (p. 4).
Take, for example, the changing notions around sexuality. In the 1930s, artificial birth control was strongly opposed in public opinion; it was inimical to ‘self control’ and there was a danger that the availability of artificial forms of fertility control would unleash promiscuity in men and women. The 1930s were also the period when the matrilineal form of family prevailed, albeit on its last legs, in the majority Nayar community. The complex matrilineal arrangement of the time did not require the presence of the father in the upbringing of his children, and neither were there moral proscriptions against Nayar women having lovers outside of marriage. By the 1940s and 50s, a public debate ensued on the appropriate nature and role of sex in conjugal relations. In influential writings, the distinction between kamam (lust) and premam (romantic love) began to take shape. The latter, of a higher order, was seen as proper for the relationship between rational men and women; it was progressive and apposite for the modern times that Kerala was nudging itself into. What was inadvertently being forged, argues Devika, was a particular sexual morality that encouraged monogamy and the nuclear family—a confluence of transformations in social norms and structures, and individual behaviours in which artificial birth control became acceptable and a rational practice.
Similarly, Devika deconstructs the Malayali sense of citizenship in the larger Indian State in the twentieth century. Kerala, in the 1950s and 60s was deemed a ‘failure’ (its economy was in shambles and food security was a serious concern), and worse still, felt disenfranchised in the funding allocated to it by the Indian State. In the public debate that was carried on during the early years of the century several alternative viewpoints advocated how Kerala could reverse its dismal fortunes, including, modernizing its agriculture and industries, re-substituting cash crop plantations with food crops, changing the Kerala diet, and limiting outside migrant labour. Yet, of all these options, Family Planning and the limitation of population gained dominance edging out other voices. As she writes, ‘. . . FP appeared to be the one developmentalist activity that could be effectively mediated by civil society. Easily classifiable under ‘health’ or ‘domestic wellbeing’, FP somehow seemed less prone to contention and politics’ (p. 152). Furthermore, since FP was also a concern of the Indian state at the time, Malayalis were able to redeem themselves as good and valued citizens in the Indian union.
Individuals, Householders, Citizens is a critique at various levels. At one level, it falls into that genre of writing loosely referred to as ‘post-developmentalism’, emergent since the 1990s, that is critical of the underlying norms and values that frame development goals and practice. In such writing, the discourses of modernization and development reflect (western-led) global, capitalist interests. The populace that is to be ‘developed’ is recruited, using the imagination of empowerment and freedom, into the development juggernaut. Whether these recruits are truly agents of their own development or subjects constituted by the power of development ideologies is open to question. It is this very doubt that Devika raises in the reader about Malayali society—the middle-class, the wannabe middle class, the elite, the Nayars, the Christians, the scholars and the social activists, the communists, the politicians, the feminists and the philosophers . . . did they inscribe their own path to modernity or were they moulded by a convenient ideology? As she points out, it is not exclusion from the development process that disempowered; rather, ‘those who were included were themselves subjected to distinct forms of power . . .’ (p. 2).
At another level, this work is also a critique of demography and development studies. As disciplines that found their raison d’etre in the wake of post-World War II ‘modernity’, these fields are, as Devika shows us, either ignorant of the complexities of power in social transitions or complicit in ensuring that only certain transitions are legitimized. As she notes towards the end of the book, ‘[f]or instance, it is certainly true to say that high female literacy made possible the acceptance of FP. Nevertheless, to stop there would be to ignore the wider politico-economic conditions, the new ways of viewing the self, the new forms of hierarchy, and the transformation of the domestic space within which FP came to be perceived as not only desirable but also necessary’ (p. 170).
An important book, Individuals, Householders, Citizens offers an erudite study of the complexities of a developmental society in transition. Those who are familiar with the lingua franca of poststructuralism (particularly, a la Michel Foucault) will recognize the building blocks used to frame Devika’s mode of argument—discourse and power, governmentality, regulation, discipline, surveillance, inclusion and exclusion. Devika’s strengths as a researcher are revealed in her marshalling together a fascinating array of historical documentation (parliamentary debates, media articles, fiction, popular journals, pamphlets and brochures) and contemporary academic writing, in order to develop a convincing thesis. Her work is an example of successful inter/multi/cross disciplinary work. Most importantly, her work reminds us of the value of continually questioning the foundations of what is ‘normal’ and ‘desirable’.
Rachel Simon-Kumar is at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.