Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been widely panned and ridiculed for ostensibly comparing Kerala to Somalia. But did he compare Kerala to Somalia? What were the metrics of comparison? And was he totally off the mark?
In the heat and dust of social media, hurry for instant outrage results in subversion of data. And if one proceeds from an erroneous premise to a fallacious argument, the conclusion cannot be anything but fatuous.
A careful look at the facts makes it clear that Modi never did compare the state to the country. He had balanced the infant mortality rate among the state’s scheduled tribe community with that of a sub-Saharan African nation, and in that, he wasn’t off the mark at all.
As it happens, such a comparison was done earlier by the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), a highly respected policy and governance publication as also by a rival political leader who happens to be a communist and a former Chief Minister of Kerala.
In an issue on “continuing deaths of infants and children due to malnutrition in Attappady” EPW focused on the state government’s indifference towards addressing issues affecting the tribals in the region.
Quoting several surveys and reports (some as recent as 2013) the publication states that “Attappady can be called Kerala’s sub-Saharan Africa”.
Here’s the particularly telling extract from the EPW report:
“A recent survey conducted by Thampu, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dealing with tribal rights, found that out of the 300 tribals affected by malnutrition 200 were children. K.Venugopal, the district medical officer, said that 412 cases of anaemia and 67 cases of malnutrition had been noticed by the health department (The Hindu: 2013). The Integrated Tribal Development Programme conducted a survey between 11 April 2013 and 19 April 2013 in Attappady, covering 7,565 households and a population of 23,599, and found that the number of tribal people with anaemia/malnutrition was 463/69, the number of children aged below five with anaemia/ malnutrition was 68/57 and lactating mothers with anaemia and malnutrition was 62/ 0 (The Hindu: 2013). The UNICEF Report (2013) observed that weight of the mothers at delivery ranged between 39 and 45 kgs. The Ekbal Committee (2013) said that most women had undergone abortion more than once and almost all children examined suffered from anaemia and malnutrition. Difference between the nutritional status of Kerala’s general rural populace and that of Attappady could be as high as 50% (Suchitra: 2013). Considering these dismal statistics, Attappady can be called Kerala’s “sub-Saharan Africa”.
Last Sunday, while referring to a picture showing four children in a garbage yard at Peravoor in Kannur seemingly foraging for food, Modi said at a rally in Thiruvananthapuram, “The situation with the child death ratio among Scheduled Tribes in Kerala is scarier than even Somalia. Recently, one came across a tragic picture in the media. In Peravoor, Scheduled Tribe children were seen foraging for food in a garbage dump… ”
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy took great umbrage at Modi’s comparison and in a hard-hitting letter said Modi’s comments were “unbecoming of a Prime Minister”.
CPIM general secretary Sitaram Yechury also condemned Modi for the comparison and the party’s politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan said the comparison with Somalia was a result of the vengeance BJP had towards Kerala where it has not been able to spread its roots.
Yet in 2013, when the plight of the tribals came to the fore after 41 infant deaths were reported from the village in 18 months, Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan, who at 93 is still a shoo-in for the Chief Minister’s post should LDF return to power, visited the village and described the situation there as “Somalia type” which needed immediate government attention.
So what exactly are we fulminating about? Does the fact that Kerala scores higher than the national average in most human development indices mean that we cannot talk about islands of depravity?
Or is it that certain things become unpalatable because Narendra Modi points them out?