Development and Environment Linkages: Lessons from Kerala

There is a need for a set of actions to achieve an environmentally sustainable and welfare-enhancing future for the people of Kerala. These require the use of technological solutions; institutional changes; public investments to make the future environmentally benign, and; enabling policies at the state level.

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Kerala’s rapid economic progress in the last thirty years has seen it leapfrogging from one of the laggard states in economic performance to currently, a leading star among Indian states. Though Kerala’s economy has been growing at a rate which is less than the national average until 1990, it has witnessed an above-average growth from then onwards and it could achieve a per capita income of around Rs 1,40,000 in 2018.1 Much of this growth has been achieved due to the economic activities financed or driven by the remittances sent home by the migrants (skilled and unskilled) from the state.

This article assesses the linkages between development and environment in Kerala. Has Kerala achieved higher levels of economic development by degrading its natural environment? Is it possible for Keralites to achieve an improvement in their welfare without damaging its fragile ecosystem? These are the questions taken up in this article.

Environment in Kerala: Positive trends or unintended benefits

First, there are indications that the deforestation rate has come down and the land area under forest cover has somewhat stabilized within the state.

The area under forest cover during the last one decade is given in Table 1.2

YearTotal forest cover area (sq km)Percentage of total area (%)
2019not publishedNot published
Source: Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change

This slight increase in the land area under forest cover could be partly3 due to the increase in the tree cover in commercial plantations outside the forest areas. There is also an improvement in interpretation due to better radiometric resolution of satellite data.4 There could be some improvement in the quality or density of core forests too in different parts of the state. This has been the national trend currently (Santhakumar, 20175). However, there could be a few additional factors that have led to a higher level of deforestation in the past and a reversal of that trend currently in Kerala.

Land has been a very scarce resource in the state, and there was a period when people from the plains migrated to the hilly and forested areas and converted parts of these into agricultural land, causing a severe decline in the area under the forests. However, that trend of deforestation seemed to have ceased lately. There could be a number of enabling factors. There is a greater awareness of the need to protect forests and there are active environmentalists creating this awareness and also pushing the state for taking stringent measures to protect forests.

Most of these activist groups are from the plains, mid-lands and urban areas, and hence, most of them are not the beneficiaries of the extension of agriculture and plantations in the high ranges. Though there is a certain political interest in granting property rights to those who have encroached forests in the past, this does not aide further encroachment. The incentives of the forest officials have changed and they are keen to protect forests rather than use them for timber production or even for other social purposes. For example, they may even oppose the granting of rights to the tribal population in the name of forest protection, and this population is not in a position to assert their claims electorally or politically.6 The decline in the interest in agriculture (especially, seasonal crops), due to the shift of the workforce to industrial and service sectors has also contributed to the increase in tree cover in cultivated lands. For all these reasons, there has been a shift in the politics of forest use, and it is currently aiding the conservation rather than its destruction.

Though industrial pollution persists in certain localities, the level of this pollution has not gone up significantly (especially while considering the growth rate of the state’s economy), and this could be due to the nature of its economic development. Manufacturing industries, especially, the more polluting segment of these, have not been a major part of Kerala’s economic development during the last three to four decades. The state is also well ahead in comparison with other parts of India in terms of public awareness on the need to protect the environment, and that is also reflecting in the increasing number of public or citizen’s actions, including public interest litigations, for this purpose.

These citizens’ actions can impact in two ways, considering the other institutional weaknesses like the delay in getting judicial verdicts (Santhakumar, 20037). On the one hand, it may delay and hence, discourage the establishment of new factories even if these are planned with adequate measures to control pollution. On the other hand, these actions may not be that effective in controlling pollution from the existing industries since these too may use the institutional weaknesses (like the delays in courts) to their advantage. Moreover, employment in these industries may create a counter force that supports the continued operation. Despite this situation, the aggregate effect is that the industrial pollution has not increased in Kerala to the level that one would expect in a developing economy which has been growing at a rate of more than 6 – 7 percent during the last couple of decades.

There is no comprehensive database on air quality in Kerala.8 One gets the impression by looking at the real-time data that the pollution levels in Kerala rarely goes to the red’ category. This could be in the red range’ for more than half a month in a metropolitan city like Mumbai or Delhi. Though the presence of dust particles in the atmosphere need not be connected to industrial production, and the activities that contribute to this pollution, like the construction, are important in Kerala, that kind of pollution also does not seem to be a major issue in the state. Probably, the occasional rains reduce the presence of particulate matter in the atmosphere.

A major form of pollution leading to higher mortality and morbidity in poorer countries is caused by the burning of biomass as cooking fuel and its contribution to indoor air pollution. This has been a major issue in India. However, it does not seem to be a cause for concern in Kerala. This can be due to the use of LPG by a higher share of households within the state. Some accounts show the coverage of LPG as more than 100 percent in the state, but this need not necessarily mean a complete avoidance of biomass burning for cooking purposes. There could be more than one LPG connection in some households on the one hand, and some households without LPG connection on the other. Even those households which have access to LPG may not use it for all purposes and a part of the cooking (and heating water) may be carried out using biomass. However, even when biomass is used, the situation could be somewhat better in Kerala. This is so since there have been efforts to popularize chulahs which burn biomass efficiently without causing too much indoor pollution.

The use or ownership of motor cars per capita is much higher in Kerala compared to the all-India average and most other states.9 This should increase air pollution, especially carbon dioxide. However, because of the spread of human habitations throughout the state, the limited difference in per-capita incomes between rural and urban areas, and also in the use/​ownership of motor vehicles, the concentrated use/​ownership of vehicles in the cities is not that high in Kerala compared to other Indian cities. This may be moderating air pollution from vehicles to some extent, even though cities (like Kochi) are affected by it. The state is also not too affected by the use of older diesel vehicles due to the limited industrial production and also the minimal use of tractors in agriculture. The naturally high growth rate of trees (even in agricultural lands and public spaces) must be mitigating the environmental pollution including that caused by carbon dioxide to some extent.

There are similar trends with regard to water pollution too. We have noted the limited growth of polluting industries earlier and this can have a mitigating impact on water pollution. However, a major source of water pollution even at the national level could be households and other establishments, such as shops, hotels, and so on. The water quality data of rivers of the state are collected and compiled by the Central Pollution Control Board.10 The presence of E‑Coli bacteria is very high in the rivers of Kerala, and this could be due to the high population density within the state. However, the use of toilets is very high or almost a hundred percent in Kerala. Though the absence of safe sewage treatment is an issue and hence, the toilets can cause groundwater pollution,11 faecal matter in surface drainage may not be very high in Kerala, which may be reducing the pollution of water bodies to some extent.

The use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is not that high if we take the state as a whole (though there could be pockets where such use is high) for a number of reasons: there is a general declining trend or interest in agriculture; agriculture is not as remunerative as earlier; the majority of people do not derive their main income from this occupation; there is a predominance of tree-crops; there is also a certain awareness about the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and so on. For these reasons, the pollution caused by the drainage from farm fields (with a higher fertilizer content) and the consequent eutrophication of water bodies is also not that high in Kerala. One advantage of the distributed or scattered settlement (though there are many other disadvantages) is the availability of land for most people to absorb their domestic waste water (other than the sewage). Hence, one may not see much of the waste water from domestic uses flowing into public spaces as in settlements in the rural areas of other parts of India. To a great extent, higher rainfall and higher water flow in rivers and other water bodies during a significant part of the year also reduces the impact of water pollution or enhances the absorption capacity of water bodies. However, the practice of dumping solid waste into water bodies continues and this is discussed in the following section.

The connection between the environment and development of Kerala also needs to be noted. The human development achievements of Kerala are well known. Though the per-capita income of Kerala was below the national average before the 1990s, that has situation has changed, and the state has become one of the fastest growing states in India. In addition, the per-capita consumption expenditure is higher than that is possibly explained by the domestic GDP, and this gap could be due to the remittances of the Keralites working abroad. Though there is relatively higher inequality in the state,12 absolute poverty is very low. Though there are pockets of poverty (for example, among Scheduled Tribes), the basic consumption is assured for the majority of its population, and in that way too, Kerala is different from many other states of India. There is a relatively higher level of education among the majority and of consumption of public-oriented information (including environmental awareness) and willingness to participate in public actions. This relatively higher private consumption (and information) has increased the demand for environmental goods and services among Keralites. This is reflected in the microenvironment – relatively clean and hygienic houses, reduced indoor pollution, use of toilets, somewhat cleaner disposal of domestic waste water, and so on. This must also be reflecting in the concern to avoid pollution in the neighbourhood, say, by avoiding the establishment of a polluting factory. How much of this demand is reflecting in the willingness to pay for public services and the protection of macro-environment needs to be assessed and we take this up in a later section.

Kerala has been urbanizing at a very rapid rate and by 2017 more than 50 percent of Keralites were living in urban households. The impact of urbanization on the environment, so far, has been mixed. On one hand, urbanization has resulted in more population density, including construction of high-rise buildings leading to increased pressure on land for building construction. However, increased population density in urban areas without support of required urban services, such as public transport, solid waste management and waste water supply, has resulted in major urban environmental issues in Kerala, and we take up some of these issues too in a following section.

Environment in Kerala: Enabling institutions

The state has also put in place a set of regulations (and institutions) and organizations for the conservation of its natural environment. To some extent, this follows the national trend of adopting several legislations for the protection of the environment and some of these are similar to those existing in the developed world. The problem in India is the tardy enforcement of these laws and regulations. The situation is that there are laws and rules, but these are enforced only when there is a demand from people. That is the reason why public-interest litigations (PILs) and other citizens’ actions play an important role in persuading public agencies to enforce environmental legislations which are already in place. However, Kerala has an added advantage in this regard. There is generally a higher level of awareness and the demand for protecting the environment, which is forcing the state government to come up with additional or stringent measures wherever the national legislation is inadequate and to enforce of these legislations.

This can be explained with the help of two cases. First is about the conservation of biodiversity. One strategy for this purpose is the preparation of People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR). The PBRs document folk knowledge of the status, uses, history, ongoing changes and forces driving changes in biodiversity resources; the gainers and losers in these processes, and; people’s perceptions of how these resources should be managed (Mani et al, 2019). A number of PBRs have been prepared in different parts of India beginning 1995 through initiatives of NGOs and educational institutes working with local communities and village councils. However, Kerala has one of the best records with respect to the preparation of PBRs as about 85 percent of the elected governments have prepared PBRs.

Secondly, Kerala has also come up with stringent measures to protect a practice which it considers important for ecological conservation. This is the paddy cultivation in low lying lands which become waterlogged during the monsoon. The state has put in place a legislation that bans the conversion of paddy fields for other uses. (Whether such a ban is the most rational strategy is another issue but that can be taken up later in the essay). This ban is also enforced in a somewhat stringent manner, and this too demonstrates the existence and functioning of institutions for the protection of the environment in Kerala which are driven by local demand.

Kerala has also implemented the decentralization of governance to the local level in a manner that is much more impactful than that in other states. The local governments are also responsible for the creation and maintenance of local public goods and some of these (like the maintenance of water bodies, avoidance of pollution, excessive withdrawal of natural resources and solid waste disposal) are important for the protection of the environment. Though the actual provision of these services varies from one local government to the other, there are examples where such governments take an active interest in this regard. There are panchayats which have not allowed the establishment of polluting factories; which have taken notable efforts to protect local biodiversity,13 and which keep the public spaces relatively clean.

One can also see relatively successful collective actions by the state/​local governments, private firms and non-government organizations to reduce the pollution in certain areas. This is visible in tourist areas like Kumarakom (backwater) or Kovalam (beach). The maintenance of cleanliness in these localities is important for the sustenance of tourism and other business activities, but it was difficult to achieve collective action along with private parties even though each one of them would benefit from the clean environment. Here too the interest of the multiple stakeholders and the persuasion of the government could arrest the trend of environmental degradation.14

Environment in Kerala: Persisting Challenges

A major problem that Kerala has been facing is with regard to the use of land. Historically, this region has witnessed a very high density of population. When agriculture was the main source of income, there was a huge demand for land for cultivation. The nature of human settlements has also enhanced the demand for land. The natural environment of Kerala has facilitated a distributed settlement. The facilitating factors include the possibility of cultivation in small pieces of land around the house; the availability of water through open wells traditionally in each piece of land, and so on, and these may have also created a social environment that sustained distributed settlements all over the state. People generally want to have an independent house, probably within a piece of land that can be used for cultivation or planting of trees. An important implication for the high demand for land was the use of land that is not naturally suitable for human habitation such as hill slopes or areas that are prone to waterlogging.

In general, a major part of human settlements in Kerala continues to be in ecologically sensitive areas and blocks the functions of natural systems, like the wetlands and streams. This can have a direct and negative impact on human life. First, there can be landslides occasionally leading to the loss of property and life. There can also be a minimization of area for the temporary storage of water during the rains, and this can lead to flooding or not enough storage of water for recharge purposes. These changes may become costly to human life when there are changes in rainfall pattern as part of climate change. This is indicated by the floods that have occurred in Kerala during the last couple of years.

Though the higher probability of disasters should be influencing the decision of individuals regarding their choice of settlements, the nature of the problem could be such that people’s voluntary choices need not lead to socially efficient outcomes for a number of reasons. In certain cases, poverty and deprivation might have encouraged people to settle in disaster-prone areas (like hill slopes) in the past even though this can have a direct impact on their life and property. The relatively lower probability of such events may give a sense of expected safety in the minds of people, but there can be an increase in this probability over time due to natural events or global patterns (like climate change). There is a substantial social cost once the disaster happens. The actions of one individual, say in, reducing the water-storing area, has a negative externality, and this person may not bear the full cost of his/​her actions. These too may prevent private individuals from taking socially efficient actions all the time. There can also be issues of incorrect information, lack of awareness and so on. The collective action in this regard is also difficult due to the large number of small players (individual households). Some of the institutional measures like the prohibition of converting paddy fields (wetlands) into drylands have not been that effective. The net effect of all these is that the use of land for settlements in Kerala can create negative impacts on the environment and human life.

The state is yet to evolve a viable and sustainable solid-waste management system in its cities and other urban areas. There are a number of complexities here. The conventional model of centralized collection and disposal becomes almost socially unviable due to the non-availability of lands which are far away from human settlements. People live everywhere, and they object to the establishment of waste treatment facilities near their homes. The decentralized but safe treatment systems are yet to become a reality in non-rural parts of the state. Disposal could be an issue, especially in commercial establishments even in rural areas, due to the absence of enough land for decentralized disposal systems.15 The tendency to dispose of degradable and non-degradable waste (like plastics) together into public spaces continues. Though there were efforts to ban the use of certain types of plastics; the enforcement is not complete since the enforcement cost of such punitive measures could be very high. It is costly to use punitive measures when people throw away waste into public spaces especially in localities and times where other people are not around.

Though almost every household uses a toilet, the sewage disposal system is underdeveloped in Kerala. Though more than 75 percent of toilets used in Kerala have water closets,16 these are mostly connected to a pit or tanks for the storage of sewage. Even if these pits are plastered, there could be periodical overflow or inflow to the nearby land. Even when septic tanks are used, these are poorly designed.17 These can also lead to the overflow of contaminated water. This is especially so during the periods of high rainfall, which are common in the state. The stagnant sewage pits/​tanks can also breed mosquitoes, which is a major transmitter of viral infections, and Kerala faces such infections frequently.

Though the presence of the particulate matter and other chemicals in the atmosphere is not that high, there are other environmental problems, like noise pollution. There is an increase in this pollution associated with religious festivals and public events. People are not aware of the harmful effects of persistently high decibel sound. (These include that coming out of the use of crackers during festivals). Though there are court orders to moderate noise levels, these are not enforced properly. Enforcement during religious festivals is difficult without some broader social support.

The pockets with higher levels of industrial pollution like Eloor and nearby areas continue without adequate action for improvement of the situation. The public ownership of these factories, the employment there (especially given the limited opportunities for formal sector employment within the state), and the historical concentration of factories in these localities complicate the issue. All these require collective actions and changes in the behaviour of individuals, and these are discussed in the following section.

Though there is some successful collective action in tourist sites such as Kumarakom and Kovalam, the environmental problems created by the large number of visitors to Sabarimala temple continue to be severe. This is enhancing biological pollution not only in the vicinity of the temple and surrounding areas but also in distant places like Kuttanad due to the transmission of pollution through rivers. The number of visitors is also increasing over time, and it is difficult for the government to restrict the numbers. A major share of visitors come from other states in which the demand for protecting the environment is not that high. How to deal with pollution problems in Sabarimala continues to be an intractable issue in Kerala.

The decentralization of governance in the state has had its negative consequences on the environment too. Firstly, the level of technical expertise needed to deal with environmental issues is not available within local self-governed areas and hence, the decision on natural resource extraction and pollution management is done without the required technical knowledge. Secondly, many environmental issues transcend beyond one local self-governed area and often, multiple self-governed areas and managing these require an ecosystem-based approach rather than an artificial boundary-based approach. Local governments often see protecting their territorial authority as more important than co-operating for environmental protection.

Environmental governance in Kerala is fractured with no single entity having an overview of the environmental management in the state. While Department for Environment was established in 2006 and a Directorate for Environment and Climate Change in 2010, these lack the mandate and resources to be an effective body to deal with environmental challenges faced by the state. The State Pollution Control Board, established in 1974, on the other hand, has significant powers to monitor and control environmental pollution in the state. However, the Board is not well known for its competence or efficiency and as such, pollution of water and groundwater remains a major environmental concern in the state. While Suchitwa Kerala Mission, Green Kerala Mission and Clean Kerala Company all share a mandate to work in the area of solid and liquid waste management, as of now, there is no single local self-government area in Kerala where waste management could be termed as satisfactory, much less meet good international standards.

Need for collective and state action; changes in behaviour of individuals18

Though Kerala is known for taking adversarial public action on issues relating to the environment (such as actions against a polluting factory) and for taking collective actions during emergencies (such as severe floods), actions that can address recurring problems caused by households and individuals are inadequate, such as in the case of poor waste management and disposal habits. A combination of economic difficulties and past habits encourage sections of people to live on high slopes or construct independent houses in areas prone to water-logging, which increases social costs during natural disasters.

There is a recognition of the need to prohibit the construction of houses in the ecologically sensitive areas of Kerala. These include steep slopes which are likely to experience landslides and low-lying areas which are prone to floods. During the recent floods, the maximum number of human casualties were a result of landslides in residential areas. Marking out such areas based on local altitude or proximity to water bodies is not technically challenging. There is, however, a need to introduce and enforce regulations that discourage the construction of all kinds of buildings in these areas. People who own land in such areas will need to be compensated for it and financial assistance will have to be provided to them to build their houses elsewhere. This may be a new category of people who require such support in Kerala, a state that has been fairly successful in addressing the conventional landlessness or homelessness. Group housing schemes are a viable option that can be considered for these people.

The preference of Keralites to construct independent houses and the consequent horizontal expansion of human settlements is not desirable in the long run. The cost of provision of public services such as electricity, safe water supply, hygienic sewage-disposal, etc., will be higher. There is a need to encourage vertical growth of human settlements in the state. The advantages of living in independent houses and homesteads with farms can be retained if more apartment buildings are promoted in rural areas, so people can live close to their low-lying homesteads or fields. This movement towards a vertical settlement can be facilitated in a number of ways such as the following:

  • Discouraging all kinds of construction in vulnerable areas (such as low-lying paddy fields). Those who are affected by such regulation and require financial support can be rehabilitated in apartments.
  • Regulating that all independent houses pay for or bear the actual cost of public services including electricity supply; actual connection-cost of safe water supply and sewage disposal (not pit toilets). There can also be a rationalization of subsidies for needy households. This may enhance the demand for apartments.
  • The design of building tax can be tweaked to make vertical settlements attractive. Instead of the prevailing practice of fixing the tax on the basis of the plinth area of a building, it can be based on the land area used for its construction. This will increase the effective tax on independent houses.

Fiscal incentives or legal instruments alone may not encourage a substantial section of Keralites to prefer vertical settlements. It may require a cultural change facilitated by social and behavioural change. Consequences of flouting regulations must also be given adequate publicity at the time of acquiring requisite permissions for undertaking any activity on these lands. The idea of being able to undertake whatever activity befits the needs of the landowner needs to be rectified. The subjectivity of such a right to the land-use permissions, ideally developed for all territory in Kerala, needs to be highlighted to foster an attitudinal shift among the people in Kerala.

The transition to vertical settlements may require quality private investments in apartment construction. If we look at the real estate sector in Kerala, we can see certain trends. There are very few reliable and financially sound apartment builders, the rest are fly-by-night operators. A major part of the purchase of land and buildings continues to be funded by unaccounted money (that without paying due taxes). The regulation of building construction in Kerala, though marginally better than that in most Indian states, is marred by corruption. This is evident from the recent incidents in Maradu, near Ernakulam.19 If we take housing as an important component of infrastructure in an emerging Kerala, there is a need for better regulation and transparency in real-estate activities. Housing is a private asset and scrupulous private companies that are willing to play by the rule of the land must be encouraged. These companies should get protection from the rent-seeking elements of the administration. Moving up the equilibrium of the real-estate sector is an important governance reform that needs to happen in Kerala.

There are a number of activities which reduce the functional capacities of natural or man-made water channels. These include the dumping of solid waste, construction and other activities close to these channels, the absence of periodical cleaning, uncontrolled vegetable growth, etc. Though the local self-governments are responsible for the maintenance, this is not done in earnest and their focus is on the taking up new projects and the expansion of social security schemes. There has to be a tangible improvement in local governance for this purpose. It must be analysed whether the mechanism of allocation of public resources to local governments inhibits their will to carry out maintenance. The expenditure for maintenance may not come under plan funds’, and most local governments may not have enough local revenue to meet the maintenance expenses. How to reform the functioning of local governments so that these become more sensitive to the issues of maintenance of public services is a crucial question.

Adequate investments in public transportation need to be made to make private cars less attractive. In addition, there should be an enabling approach towards taxi aggregators (two- and four-wheelers) as an ancillary public transportation medium within cities and towns, and to connect with rail (and metro) transport. The benefits of such a transport solution are well known. Cab and scooter taxies, though a little more expensive than public buses, are more flexible and time-saving. The operation by aggregators enhances the capacity utilization of the fleet of cars and scooters, which reduces the cost to the customer and increases the revenue to the operator (through an increase in the number of trips per vehicle, per day). This reform would lead to an increase in taxi operations, leading to a consequent increase in employment. The easy availability of taxi may also reduce the number of private vehicles and consequently, a section of people may stop buying/​owning cars or scooters for personal use. The clout of the trade unions of taxi-drivers may be dissuading the government from taking an enabling approach towards aggregators. An attitudinal change is required in this matter, as has been evidenced by the unsuccessful attempts by trade unions to create locally controlled aggregators. We may have to view this as a transitional problem, and the state will benefit from taking a pro-active approach in facilitating cab- and scooter-taxi aggregators.

To a significant extent, this problem is seen in the regulation for the protection of paddy fields or wetlands in Kerala. What is the ultimate objective of this regulation? Is it the protection of paddy cultivation or that of the wetlands? If the latter is the goal, encouraging farmers to keep low-lying lands uncultivated would be a much better approach. Do we have a compensation mechanism to prohibit construction and other agricultural activities in the low-lying fields? No. This is so since some of those who are affected by such prohibition are also from the economically weaker sections of the society. If we plan to provide compensation to some people, is that accounted for as part of the cost of enforcement of this regulation? Do we have a workable enforcement mechanism for this purpose? In general, there should be a clear goal for each regulation and the articulation of this goal has to be the main role of political functionaries. We should be selecting the regulatory route which imposes a minimum cost on society to achieve a pre-determined goal. The ease of enforcement and the ability to respond to the changing socio-economic conditions and other such considerations should be taken into account while selecting a particular legal or regulatory mechanism to achieve a specific social goal. This is rarely attempted in Kerala leading to adverse consequences.

There is a need for an appropriate land management strategy. There is a need to classify land all over the state into a few categories of possible development activities that can be permitted there. The need for the prohibition of construction of houses on steep slopes, flood-prone and low-lying areas has already been mentioned. Certain low-lying areas may be used for appropriate agriculture, like paddy cultivation, or semi-intensive aquaculture. Similarly, some of the steep slopes may be used for soil conserving plantations. However, a majority of the land within the state could fall under what can be termed a restrictive development zone. These may include environmentally vulnerable areas/​fragile areas/​ecologically sensitive zones in the high ranges and areas vulnerable to climate change.20 There are other areas where development, including the construction of high-rise buildings, can be permitted. Such restrictions on certain types of land and enabling provisions on others would reflect in the land prices (as these are a reflection of the future investment potential of the land).

We should be able to appreciate that the restriction on development in certain areas is for the benefit of the state. Those who benefit from land-development restrictions may have to compensate those who are likely to incur losses due to these restrictions. This may be operationalized through a development tax on lands where development is allowed, and by providing financial support to those whose land cannot be used for construction and other such purposes due to the regulations. Such financial support can be used in a way that people move towards settlements where the provision of public goods and rescue efforts during possible disasters can be carried out promptly and easily.

In summary, there is a need for a set of actions to achieve an environmentally sustainable and welfare-enhancing future for the people of Kerala. These require the use of technological solutions (including the use of a citizen science, remote sensing, GIS, social media and state-wide monitoring systems); institutional changes (for example, incentives/​disincentives needed to change the settlement pattern), public investments to make the future environmentally benign; and enabling policies at the state level.

Epilogue: Combining development and environmental conservation

There is a tendency among certain environmentalists and activists to argue for the reduction of consumption as an important way to protect the natural environment. While such a reduction is desirable in the developed world, that need not necessarily be the best way forward in a developing society like Kerala. In fact, there may be a need for enhancing private consumption for sections of society within Kerala. Despite its achievements in human development, there are still sections of people who live in or are close to poverty, and whose lives are precarious and vulnerable at times. Moreover, the economy of Kerala does not generate enough quality jobs currently and these can also contribute to the unsustainability of its human development achievements. Hence, the suggestions to reduce consumption, in general, are not only impractical (in the sense that the majority may not accept these) but also can lead to unsustainability in other aspects of human development. Thus, there is a need to combine environmental conservation and the improvement in the quality of life of the people of Kerala.

Our analysis shows that the pursuit of a sensible path towards development or an improvement in the quality of life, along with environmental conservation is attainable in Kerala. This is indicated by a couple of reasons. First, some of the improvements that have happened in Kerala relating to the natural environment are due to certain affluence (and the distribution of such affluence among the wider sections) acquired by Keralites. Concurrently, the reduction in the burning of biomass as a fuel, the increase in the use of toilets, and the reduction in particulate matter in the atmosphere are due to the limited affluence achieved by the majority of people of Kerala. Though the increase in the awareness about environmental pollution and the consequent actions have contributed to the non-establishment of polluting factories within the state, we do not see such factories as an inevitable requirement for improving the affluence or the quality of life or even employment opportunities for Keralites. There could be many economic activities in non-polluting industries and also in the service sector which can create jobs, and it is somewhat obvious that the availability of such jobs would be a better path towards higher prosperity within Kerala, given its density of population and its natural environment which is fragile on the one hand, but advantageous on the other. Such activities include those in the service sector (financial services, banking, information technology, health-care, education, tourism), the design and pilot production of technology products, and an agriculture sector that is environment friendly and one that meets the healthier consumption needs and demands within and outside India, and also that can promote tourism. A less polluted Kerala may also attract environmentally conscious tourists, and that can also contribute to the economic growth of Kerala. The demand for such tourism may go up as part of the income growth in India as a whole.

We have also seen that the persisting environmental problems in Kerala are not due to an inevitable outcome of the so-called development activities in the state. The changes in resource allocation, individual behaviour and governance that are required to address these persisting challenges do not have any major negative impact on the prospects for achieving a higher level of prosperity for Keralites. What is missing is a certain collective action on normal day-to-day activities like solid waste management, attitudinal changes which may enable (vertical) settlements which would reduce the pressure on land and water-conserving areas and facilitation of the economic provision of public services, such as sewage treatment, and the provision of better quality infrastructure, including fast and comfortable public transport which would reduce the need for private expenditure (like the use of private cars) which can have a negative impact on the natural environment. These changes which are needed for a better quality environment are, in our view, much more compatible, with a path for building a higher level of prosperity for Keralites. Moreover, further development of the financial sector and (non-polluting industries), as part of the economic development, may encourage Keralites to reduce their dependence 21 on agriculture and to move towards urban localities, and these may help to reduce the pressure on land (and water-retaining areas) and the provision of public services, like public transport or sewage treatment.

Kerala, given its human development achievements and relatively better distribution of basic welfare among most of its people, may have another advantage in terms of environmental conservation. One driving force of excessive consumption leading to environmental damage is the persistence of a higher level of visible inequality, which may encourage the less affluent to enhance their private consumption to signal their social status. Though such a status-oriented consumption pattern has taken roots in Kerala, its relative advantage in terms of a certain distribution of welfare among most sections of the society may enable people, theoretically, to lead a satisfying life without the excessive consumption of environmentally harmful goods and services, and to participate in the collective actions for the welfare of all and also for the conservation of natural environment. Let us hope that this theoretical possibility becomes a practical reality.


  1. http://​spb​.ker​ala​.gov​.in/​i​m​a​g​e​s​/​p​d​f​/​w​h​a​t​s​_​n​e​w​/​V​o​l​1​_​E.pdf

  2. The information on area under forests (or forest cover) can be found in the State of the Forest Report published biennially by the Forest Survey of India under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.

  3. See the State of Forest Report (2017)

  4. An area is designated as forests when an area which is more than 1 ha area with canopy density of over 10%.

  5. Santhakumar, V (2017), The state of India’s environment: reflecting its underdevelopment, Sustainability in Debate, 8, 3, p. 75 – 83

  6. See, CDS and APU (2019) Strengthening Local Governments for the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Kerala, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum.

  7. Santhakumar, V. (2003), Citizens- Action for Protecting the Environment in Developing Countries: An economic analysis of the outcome with empirical cases from India, Environment and Development Economics, 8: 505 – 528.

  8. Air quality is measured in two locations in Kerala: Plammoodu,Thiruvananthapuram and Udyogamandal, Eloor. The Central Pollution Control Board does not have time series data on these areas; only real time readings are available. However, one can check on https://​app​.cpcbc​cr​.com/​c​c​r​/​#​/​c​a​a​q​m​-​d​a​s​h​b​o​a​r​d​-​a​l​l​/​c​a​a​q​m​-​l​a​nding with necessary parameters.

  9. The number of vehicles per 1,000 populations for Kerala as on March 2018 is 361. According to world development indicators (2015), number of vehicles per 1,000 people in India is 18, China 47 and United States 507. The growth of vehicle population in Kerala is eight percent over the previous year. Read more at: http://​www​.keren​vis​.nic​.in/​D​a​t​a​b​a​s​e​/​I​N​F​R​A​S​T​R​U​C​T​U​R​E​_​812​.aspx

  10. https://​cpcb​.nic​.in/​w​q​m​/​2016​/​W​a​t​e​r​_​M​i​n​o​r​_​R​i​v​e​r​_​2016.pdf

  11. This is evident from the data on ground water quality. See https://​cpcb​.nic​.in/​w​q​m​/​2016​/​W​a​t​e​r​_​G​r​o​u​n​d​_​W​a​t​e​r​_​2016.pdf

  12. The indicator of inequality – Gini coefficient – is higher in Kerala compared to a number of other Indian states. However, the poverty rate is significantly low.

  13. See Mani et al (2019) Conservation of agrobiodiversity: Assessing the policies and institutions in Kerala, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum for a detailed discussion on this issue.

  14. For example, such actions lead to the non-dumping sewage and waste in backwater, and also the regulation of boat service in backwaters to certain number of hours in Kumarakom.

  15. Such as the use in biogas plants or vermicomposting.

  16. Background research paper conducted by M. Dileep Kumar (Pollution Control Board, Government of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram) on Achieving Total Sanitation in Thiruvananthapuram City in 2017 states that as per 2011 Census, only 81.4% of households in Kerala have latrine facilities within premises, which includes 72.6% households having water closets, 7.1% households having pit latrines and 1.7% households using other types of latrines. Out of 72.6% households with water closet facilities, 32.7% households are linked to piped sewer system and the rest of the households use pit latrines. The remaining 18.6% household are sharing public latrines (6%) and defecate in open (12.60%).’

  17. This is noted in the Kerala State Sanitation Strategy developed in 2017 under the National Urban Sanitation Policy of 2008

  18. A part of this write up is based on the article of V Santhakumar published in Governance of Post-Disaster Kerala: Some Crucial Aspects

  19. Where a couple of apartment complexes have to be demolished for the violation of Coastal Zone Regulations.

  20. A New Jersey-based science organization, Climate Central, published its findings based on a new digital elevation model called CoastalDEM that uses machine learning. According to this model, the coastlines of the world are significantly lower and populations in these regions are more vulnerable to rise in sea level than previously understood. Read the full report here. The tool developed allows one to check the impact of sea level rise on one’s own land. Find it here.

  21. Which is much lower than that in other states of India.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru
Muralee Thummarukudy, Operations Manager, Crisis Management Branch, UN Environment, Geneva
Devashree Pillai, Consultant, Disaster Management, Crisis Management Branch, Policy and Program Division, United Nations Environment Program, Geneva