A fortnight ago, I wrote that Kerala, contrary to its reputation, was not a welfarist socialist paradise with low crime and excellent treatment of women. In fact, its development model had used globalisation and private provision of education to achieve rapid GDP growth, along with associated inequality and rising crime.
The column attracted a storm of comments. Many people expressed outrage over my table showing Kerala with the highest crime rate among states, and unexpectedly high rates of crimes against women.
Critics claimed that Kerala’s rates looked high entirely because its police were more honest in recording crimes. Sorry, but that’s too facile an excuse. As I said last fortnight, better reporting is certainly part of the story, but not the whole story. The state’s own crime data show a terrible deterioration over time. The rate of all crimes per-lakh population has risen steadily from 230.5 in 1990 to 294.1 in 1997 and 455.8 in 2012.
This virtual doubling over 22 years cannot be attributed to galloping honesty in Kerala: it had superior crime reporting compared with other states even in 1990. Back in 1990, Kerala’s crime rate was only the eight-highest among states.
In 2012, it was clear No. 1. While crime reportage is grossly incomplete in all states, especially in the Hindi belt, there is no reason at all to think that the differentials between states have widened greatly. Indeed, governance in states such as Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has greatly improved in the last decade, so reportage has probably become much more honest there.
Safer, But Only Relatively
Similar logic applies to data on crimes against women. Surely, Kerala is more honest in reporting these crimes than many northern states and women there feel relatively safe.
Even so, I said in my last column, I am uncomfortable that Kerala’s rates are rising fast, and sometimes overtaking the national average. Kerala’s rate of rapes per-lakh population has quadrupled: up from 0.7 in 1990 to 1.9 in 1997 and 2.9 in 2012. In 1990, Kerala’s rape rate was well below the national average of 1.2 but, by 2012, its rate was far above the national average of 2.1.
It has deteriorated in relation to other states as well as its own historical record. Detailed data on crimes against women is not available for 1990, but is available for 1997. Between 1997 and 2012, the rate of female molestation in Kerala went up from 5.0 per lakh to 10.7; of sexual harassment from 0.2 to 1.4; and of cruelty by husbands and relatives from 5.3 to 15.
The gap between Kerala’s rates and the national average has worsened hugely. This worsening should make everybody uncomfortable, whatever the data problems may be. Some critics point out that rape rates globally are far higher than in India. Wikipedia says rapes per lakh population in 2010 were 63.5 in Sweden, 28.8 in the UK and 27.3 in the US.
India’s recorded rate is just 2.1, and Kerala’s is 2.9. But it is plain silly to conclude from this that Kerala is 20 times safer than Sweden or 10 times safer than the US. Rape reportage is very incomplete even in the US, and extremely incomplete in Kerala and all Indian states. All surveys show that the bulk of rapes are committed by relatives, friends and others who know the victim, and in Indian society, such incidents are swept under the carpet. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kochi is safer for girls than Delhi, but is it really 10 times safer than London?
Make it God’s Own State
During 1997-2012, Kerala’s crime rate per-lakh population worsened for riots (from 20.6 to 31.4), criminal hurt (from 56.3 to 60.7), cheating (from 7.5 to 13.4) and arson (from 1.2 to 1.6).
However, there was improvement in the rate of murder (from 1.4 to 1.1) and theft (from 12.7 to 11.7). That’s a silver lining, but not reason for ignoring the dark cloud. Instead of simply expressing outrage at the crime data I have collected, the people of Kerala should ask themselves what’s going wrong, and what the remedies are.