Development amid Disasters: How Decentralisation works in Kerala

22nd June 2020 | Meenu Joseph

Development amid Disasters: How Decentralisation works in Kerala

I think growing up in North India, I never really knew what a phenomenon Kerala was. In fact, this was true for most kids growing up outside Kerala. For me, Kerala was always a place to go for long summer vacations and be with our extended family. And of course, a heavy dose of state news on Asianet and Manorma TV which my dad would play on loop for hours kept me remotely aware of what happened there. It’s only in the past decade that I truly started understanding the soul of Kerala and now while being in the state for more than a year as part of my role at Indus Action. 

The past three years have undoubtedly been the most difficult time in the history of the state. The real test to the state’s resilience and character came with a spate of natural disasters starting from the massive floods in 2018. Those few days in the month of August was something extraordinary for me personally and for most in the state. Every Malayali irrespective of whether in Kerala or outside became associated with the disaster relief activities in the state in some form or the other. Most people were working in relief camps or assisting in the evacuation of people affected by floods. 

People outside the state quickly came together through various social media platforms and before we knew there were countless teams operating collection centers or coordinating relief operations from different parts of the world. Like several others, I distinctly remember working frantically day in and out for the relief operations. I don’t have a count of the number of strangers I spoke to during those days for coordinating various relief operations and most likely I will never be able to see them in my lifetime but it was unlike anything I had seen before.

Before the state could settle from the destructive floods, another unforeseen challenge came in the form of Nipah virus which struck the northern districts of Kozhikode and Malappuram in 2018. This was an unprecedented health emergency. What came to the rescue of the state was the robust public health care system developed over the years and it was also a chance to build the art of contact tracing which later proved to be a defining factor in the state’s effort to deal with another emergency which came in the form of Covid-19 in 2020.

Kerala was the first state in India to report a Covid-19 positive case way back in January and was quick to declare it as a health emergency before the rest of the country took cognizance of the crisis awaiting us. While many within the state called it an announcement in haste but were later proved wrong as in a few weeks the virus played havoc with the lives of people. From the last week of February, the state saw a steep rise in the number of cases and was at the top of charts along with Maharashtra. In the second wave of the virus which started off from Pathanamthitta, the key was contact tracing of patients, ensuring strict home isolation of primary/secondary contacts, and beef up the testing numbers.

I had a chance to notice this closely as one of my family members had returned from abroad when the second wave started in Kerala. He had to undergo a compulsory home quarantine and would receive two calls every day from the Health Department asking about his health and if any kind of assistance is required for the family at this time. For families which required assistance, food and other essential items were dropped by the volunteers. Food was provided by the community kitchens set up in all the panchayats across the state and simultaneously ration kits worth Rs.1000 were provided to those in quarantine as well as to all 87 lakh families across the state. 


In Picture: Kit with 17 essential items provided to 87 lakh families 


The state was able to act quickly without wasting any time and it didn’t happen overnight. The Kerala model and its response to crisis after crisis has been achieved through systems which have been carefully built over the years. The cornerstone of Kerala’s development model has been the effective decentralization through the 73rd and the 74th amendment of the Indian constitution coupled with the Kerala specific legislation in 1994 which devolved power, personnel, and funds to the local self-governments

Another important instrument has been Kudumbashree, the flagship poverty eradication programme of the Kerala government. Women were recognized as the most suitable drivers for bringing about poverty eradication. Even though women emancipation was an unintended consequence, Kudumbashree ensured one of the most successful examples in independent India of women empowerment along with the elimination of poverty. Today, with the participation of more than 43 lakh women, Kudumbashree is the biggest Community-Based Organisation (CBO) in Asia. This ensures that there is a well-oiled machinery which works round the clock in the state.


Transparency of Information Flow

In my experience, one of the defining features in Kerala’s response to Covid-19 and all the crises it dealt with in the past three years has been the transparency of information flow. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan conducts a daily one-hour press conference along with Health Minister KK Shailaja ever since Covid-19 infections started spreading across the state. From updating the number of new and recovered cases, laying out the decisions taken by the state, and addressing a range of issues which affect the daily lives of people, these press conferences have become a regular staple for people including me. It has been interesting to observe how daily updates during a time of crisis by the head of the state can go a long way in developing a sense of security among the citizenry and more importantly ensure accountability.

Another feature has been the use of social media campaigns run by the Health Department and the various District Administrations. One such campaign was ‘Break the Chain’ which was launched by KK Shailaja teacher in March and has now been accepted as Kerala’s slogan for fighting this crisis. Since Kerala dealt with the crisis much early, it was important to make people aware about the virus quickly and the ways to ensure preventive care. Post the launch of the campaign, I could quickly see awareness posters across lanes, water taps, and soap dispensers in public places and the provision of sanitizers outside all shops and establishments.


In Picture: Kerala Government leveraging tools of communication on social media to spread awareness | Source: Caravan Magazine


One of the things that we recognize by now is that this virus is here to stay for a while. The state was able to successfully contain the spread of the virus in the second stage and was widely appreciated for its containment strategy with an impressive recovery and mortality rate. From the first week of May, the state geared up for another challenge as Malayalis from other states and countries started travelling back to Kerala. In recent weeks, there has once again been a surge of cases among those returning, and the numbers are expected to rise again as nearly 1 lakh expatriates will return to the state in the coming weeks.

The road ahead for the state is not easy but what the floods of 2018 taught us is that there is nothing that the state can’t fight, if we stand together. Ending with the roughly translated lines of a song ‘Karalurappulla Keralam’ written by Joy Thamalam and composed by Ishaan Dev, which has now become the anthem of the spirit of Kerala- 


“Oh,  world filled with goodness,

Wait and see

Will not fall with a broken heart

This is a strong Kerala.”


  1. It’s great to hear from a malayali who brought up in North India. Really a beautifully written words…make me proud again to say that I am malayali

  2. Nicely articulated… Earlier Kerala was known as state with the highest literacy…must visit tourist place..land of kathakali… kalari payuttu..God’s own country… but now the soul of Kerala has been bared to all. Yes, the strong, resilient, honest and persevering people of Kerala who do not have the ” chalta hai” attitude which helps them to achieve excellence in everything…anything and anywhere..
    Kudos to Meenu Joseph…

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