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No Ordinary Fight - Kerala, India

No Ordinary Fight
Kerala, India

By Nicola Pauling

They march in two parallel lines, rigid and uniformed, much like school children on a day trip, bar the hand holding. The communal chanting combined with synchronised salute (forehead to sky) would make an army man proud. Police stroll along in front, riot helmets not on heads but swung over backs, not a hint of concern. Even a scuffle outside the government’s regional office, the final destination for these protesters, is over within minutes, the group easily persuaded to sit down quietly – the cursory speeches are about to start.

This restrained scene belies the seriousness of the fight. The Student Federation of India (SFI) organised this march as they’ve done in the past to demand change. But this time the stakes are higher, so much more to lose say student leaders, who are preparing for their biggest fight yet.

But what is there to complain about? Literacy in the Indian State of Kerala is placed at almost 100 percent compared to the national rate of just 45%. Academics flock to study “The Kerala Model” of which education is key. Despite high unemployment, a stagnant economy and a budget deficit, it’s a model many say has made Kerala a decent place to live.

The push to educate Kerala’s 30 million began with Christian Missionaries and the British. But it was caste-reform groups and left-wing politicians that spread education to an exceptional extent.

“The Kerala Model is a sustainable and eco-friendly model for the whole world in the twenty-first century”, wrote one academic, another penned “thanks to the Kerala Model the state utterly lacks the squalid drama of the Third World”.

Students in Kerala appear comparatively blessed, so what’s the problem? The problem, says Kerala’s SFI spokesman M.B Rajesh, is change.

A year ago the right wing UDF coalition came to power in Kerala. Chief Minister Mr A.K. Anthony says his government wants to create a “new Kerala model”. The key: to maximise private participation in all sectors of the economy.

What that means, says Rajesh, is opening Kerala to the forces of globalisation and education is target number one.

More than 2000 schools are to close across the state in the next 12 months, 65 percent in low economic, mostly rural areas (more than two thirds of Kerala’s population live rurally). Some will be replaced, say SFI, but with institutions motivated by profit.

The government is trying to reign in a massive budget deficit in order to promote economic growth. Cuts to the country’s massive education budget is necessary, it says. Others argue Kerala has survived, in fact socially thrived, without adopting the Western obsession with a booming economy.

Fighting to prevent the inevitable some would say. This protest mirrors hundreds that have come before it. As governments around the world began withdrawing from fully funded education, students took to the streets. The protests may have been a little less orderly, a little more violent, but those involved thought they could win and didn’t.

I explain this to Rajesh and ask him if this fight will end differently. Yes he says. Why? Because we have a history, a rich and strong history of public movements. If we have to we will mobilise that movement again. If they ignore us this government will not see another term.

He’s almost flippant, like it will all be so easy “I’m confident” he says, “very confident, but we also realise this is no ordinary fight. We’re not just fighting a state policy we’re fighting a global policy. We’re fighting the IMF, the WTO, we’re fighting globalisation but we’ll win”.

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