A megalopolis in making on India’s southwest coast (Letter from Kerala)

August 15th, 2008 - 12:29 pm ICT by IANS  

By B.R.P. Bhaskar
Propelled largely by funds sent home by people working abroad, mostly in the Gulf countries, Kerala’s coastal belt is undergoing rapid urbanisation of a kind not witnessed elsewhere. Kerala has five cities, 53 towns and about 1,000 village panchayats. The division into urban and rural areas is arbitrary. Many urban areas retain their rural character and many villages boast of urban amenities. Continuous habitation from one end to the other gives the state the character of a rural-urban continuum.

At the time of the 2001 census, the state’s urban population was 26 percent, slightly below the national average of 27 percent. However, as an official document points out, unlike in other parts of the country, urbanisation in the state is not limited to designated cities and towns and “Kerala society by and large can be termed as urbanised”.

All along the coast, frenetic construction is going on and it may well wipe out the rural spaces between the urban centres dotting the highway that runs north to south. Similar activity is visible also on either side of the inland Main Central Road, which runs almost parallel to it.

If the process continues uninterrupted, the state may end up as an urban continuum — a 550-km-long ribbon-like megalopolis, which will subsume all existing cities and most of the towns and account for two-thirds of the population.

Fifty years ago, there was only one small town on the 70 km route between Thiruvananthapuram, the capital, and Kollam, headquarters of the adjacent district. Now there are a dozen small towns on this stretch, and many of them are still growing. Evidently the days of the surviving villages on the route are numbered.

Coastal Kerala has a rich history. Its ancient ports had traded with Greece in the west and China in the east. It was through them that Christianity entered India. According to local tradition, St. Thomas, one of Christ’s 12 disciples, landed here in 52 AD and built several churches. The Vatican does not endorse this, but it is not in doubt that Kerala already had a long-established Christian community when Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498.

Islam too entered India through this coast. A mosque at Kodungallur, north of Kochi, is the oldest Muslim place of worship on the subcontinent. Jews, fleeing persecution, also landed here and lived peaceably for centuries.

The small Jewish community is now close to extinction, most of the younger members having joined co-religionists in Israel. But Muslims (25 percent) and Christians (19 percent) constitute a sizable chunk of the population, which stood at 31.8 million in 2001.

As modern education spread, lack of employment opportunities at home forced people to migrate in search of jobs. By early 20th century, the British colonies of Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait and Bahrain were attracting people from the state.

Those who worked abroad returned home on retirement to live and die as their forebears had done. Kerala, therefore, remained rural in spite of its long contacts with foreign lands.

Things began to change in the 1960s when boats from the Gulf ports started arriving with contraband. Enterprising men in Dubai, keeping track of London market rates supplied by Reuters, would order gold bars from England when the price was attractive. The consignment which arrived by air would be transferred to boats and sent to the Indian coast.

The operators soon discovered that the Kerala coast was quite hospitable. At the Gulf end, theirs was a legitimate business: re-export. At the Indian end, it had another name: smuggling.

Adventurous young men clambered on board the returning boats and reached Dubai, where they discovered a job market that was growing fast as petrodollars brought prosperity. In course of time, Kerala became a favourite recruiting ground of employers in the Gulf region.

Today more than two million people from the state are working abroad, 90 percent of them in the Gulf countries. Since the 1970s, remittances from expatriates have been piling up in the state’s banks. A World Bank study of 2006 found it one of the top 20 remittance-receiving regions.

Latest figures put non-resident Keralites’ bank deposits at about Rs.320 billion, which is about 20 percent of all NRI deposits in India. Kerala accounts for only 3.44 percent of the country’s population.

A large chunk of NRK remittances has gone into construction activity. In the early phase of Gulf migration, construction activity was limited to residential buildings. Later, the more affluent among them started developing commercial property. Now there has emerged a group of super-rich expatriates who are looking for investment opportunities and cultivating political contacts to further their plans.

The Dubai-financed Smart City and Vallarpadam container terminal projects at Kochi and the Vizhinjam harbor project coming up near the capital are sure to speed up the pace of urbanisation.

At present, urbanisation is only skin-deep. This means the authorities can intervene effectively and ensure that it proceeds on healthy lines. But they seem to be diffident. They are not able to provide enough water and power to meet even the population’s current, modest needs.

(B.R.P. Bhaskar can be contacted at brpbhaskar@gmail.com)

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