'Messy hybrids' in Kerala: welfarism meets neoliberalism
My doctoral research at Cambridge explored state-led development of information technology (IT) parks and special economic zones (SEZs) for the purpose of promoting regional economic development. My investigations focused on Kerala, a South Indian State known for its distinct redistributive history of development, radical politics, and influential trade unions (a recipe that has complicated its ability to attract investors).
Most of the work was conducted in the State capital Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), where I was based between 2011 - 2012. Through a combination of interviews with elites, policy analysis, discourse analysis, and event analysis, I found that several 'exceptional' features of the export-oriented IT industry have made it a suitable driver of economic growth in the very specific site of Kerala, and this industry is tightly linked to Kerala's approach to SEZs. I also found that Kerala's experience with SEZ development has taken place largely 'under the radar', unlike elsewhere in India, where SEZs have been a source of tension.
State governments in Kerala have been active in regulating the 'types' of SEZs being developed, opting for those that require smaller tracts of land and house tertiary sector industries. Land acquisition and displacement has been minimized through the repurposing of state-owned lands.
Absence of trade unionism in IT sector
The absence of politically aligned trade unions within the IT industry minimizes disruption due to political protests or strike action - issues that have detracted from Kerala's image as an investment destination
Employee retention and low operational costs
Low attrition rates amongst IT workers as well as relatively low operational costs have been deemed highly attractive by domestic and global firms
Alignment with aspirations of workforce
The export-oriented IT industry is perceived as 'global' and 'modern', closely aligning to the career aspirations of Kerala's highly educated and upwardly mobile workforce