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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Change Comes to ‘God’s Own Country’

Urban sprawl threatens a traditional way of life in Kerala

On a warm Sunday evening, Father Jose Kuriedath enjoys a relaxing stroll through the manicured lawn and blooming garden of his residence in Kakkanad, a sleepy suburb east of Cochin — Kerala’s largest city and commercial hub. Nestled atop a hill, the grounds offer sweeping views of the verdant wetlands below.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic priest pauses to watch the sun set over Kerala’s idyllic countryside, often called “God’s Own Country.” But this sociologist by training cannot relax.

“Do you hear that?” he asks.

Off in the distance, the cacophony of hammers against metal and the lively chatter of construction workers can be heard, disrupting an otherwise serene moment.

Father Jose heads down the slope to a clearing and gazes at the nearby construction site, where work remains in full throttle even as dusk sets in on this supposed day of rest.

“They’re on contract,” says the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, explaining the long weekend hours.

When complete, the development will include 100 brand-new luxury villas, furnished with marble floors and wired for fiber-optic communication.

“See those buildings,” says Father Jose, pointing to a cluster of newly built, multi-story apartment complexes on the horizon. “It’s practically dark outside, but you hardly see any lights on. No one lives there. That tells you this investment in land is speculation, mainly by N.R.I.’s.” N.R.I.’s (“non-resident Indians”) generally refer to those who have migrated to other countries.

“We are on the eastern side of Cochin,” he continues. “It’s a port city. So, development can’t grow to the west because you have the Arabian Sea, or to the south where you have backwaters. And to the north, toward Aluva and the airport, any development activity can only be undertaken with permission from the Greater Cochin Development Authority. Growing to the east means Kakkanad, here, where land was rather cheap and less occupied.”

Kakkanad serves as a case study for the rapid urbanization of Kerala in recent years. The suburb is home to two 100-acre industrial parks: the Cochin Special Economic Zone and the Infopark Smart Space Kochi.

Established in 1984, the former offers commercial space to a wide range of private companies, including manufacturers of electronics and textiles, a food-processing plant and firms offering information technology and engineering services. In total, some 15,000 people work in the industrial park.

The nearby Infopark Smart Space Kochi opened its doors in 2004 and now houses more than 100 companies, which combined employ 15,000 workers. The gated, campus-like property consists of sleek high-rise office buildings, whose tenants include some of the state’s most successful information technology companies.

A boom in commercial developments in suburban areas such as Kakkanad across Kerala has sent local property values soaring. The businesses also attract waves of well- educated professionals, many from rural areas, increasing the demand for affordable housing. To meet the demand, developers now speculate on land further and further from city centers, resulting in unprecedented sprawl.

India’s 2011 census revealed just how strikingly Kerala’s landscape has transformed in the past decade. In 2001, 26 percent of Kerala’s total population lived in urban areas. By 2011, that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent. While during the same decade India on a whole underwent urbanization on a massive scale, particularly in its southern region, no state has experienced a more dramatic rate of growth in urban population than Kerala.

“In 50 years, Kerala will be one single town,” says Father Jose. “You see it now. Cities are getting connected. Aluva was one town. Cochin was another town. Now, they are practically merging into one. Legally, they’re two entities. But sociologically, they’re becoming one urban continuum. People are moving up and down, to and fro, for anything and everything. Business is coming here because it’s congested in Cochin. We don’t have enough space for our 33 million people.”

This shift from a rural to urban society in Kerala, however, has not been associated with great strides in human development, as is often the case in other parts of India and the world. For decades, even with a predominantly agrarian economy, Kerala has boasted per capita literacy rates, levels of education, life expectancy and infant mortality rates on par with most developed countries.

“Geographically speaking, Kerala may not have more urban area than many other states,” says Father Jose.

“But as a result of education and many other factors, even those people who are living in so-called ’villages’ have an urban mentality and an urban way of life. That is quite different from the situation in many other states where you can easily demarcate the urban way of life that is confined to cities and townships and a typical village way of life in the countryside. Here even in the countryside, people have the mentality, style and attitude of urban people. You see it in our way of dressing and eating, our hygiene consciousness and our access to medicine and health care. We can’t even make a comparison between the village and the city in Kerala except maybe in the lower bottom tier of the population. Among the rest, you will not find much difference.”

Differences among rural and urban Keralites on the whole may not be as stark as elsewhere in the country. However, Kerala still grapples with its share of economic and educational inequalities.

“Our society is not a level society,” says Father Jose. “When those who have more economic power and opportunities compete with those with less economic power and opportunities, naturally the latter loses out.”

Residents of Moolampilly Island, located within a maze of backwater lagoons four miles from Cochin’s port, know this brutal truth all too well. Some 600 families — most of whom are Latin Catholic — call the island home, having tended their family coconut groves and paddies for generations.

In 2008, the government broke ground on the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal — an ambitious project to deepen the port’s channel to allow for the docking of mega-ships and to build a connecting four-lane highway. At present, India does not have such a port. Instead, it ships some 60 percent of its goods through larger foreign ports, such as those in Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates, at a high cost to the country.

The project, however, cut right through Moolampilly Island, displacing 316 families. Despite residents’ outspoken protest, police arrived at their doors holding eviction notices on Ash Wednesday. Bulldozers and a crew of laborers stood outside awaiting orders.

Ten families refused to vacate their homes, barricading themselves inside. In an effort to mediate the standoff, Father Martin Kuttikkatt, vicar of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, pleaded with police to delay demolition. In response, the police assaulted the priest, which local news media captured on camera. By evening, the bulldozers razed the homes and the newly displaced families took shelter in the parish school.

The police brutality against the priest sent shockwaves through Kerala.

“It started as a fight for oneself, but became a cause for society,” says Father Francis Kalathungal, director of Kerala’s committee for people displaced by development projects.

The 316 evicted families from six different villages on the island formed an action committee, demanding monetary compensation and comprehensive resettlement packages, including land with basic infrastructure such as access to water, energy and roads.

For five years, the displaced families lived in limbo. Some squatted in huts made of scrap materials on parts of their property the government did not seize. Others found refuge with relatives.

Only recently did the action committee and government reach an amicable agreement. All families now have been fully compensated and resettled on new land.

While the urbanization underway in Kerala may not involve all the classic socioeconomic upheavals, it certainly has meant profound changes in the state’s traditional social fabric. These days, few disagree the once tightly woven rural extended families and parish communities look frayed and threadbare.

“In Kerala, we’ve always had a strong family tradition rooted in our agrarian culture. Family was never disconnected. There was a family oneness,” explains Father Joseph Makothakat, pastor of Little Flower Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Fort Cochin. “But these days, we’re a professional society. Families don’t find time to be together. They work six days a week. Husband works in one place, wife works in another. They come home late at night and don’t even have time for evening prayer, nor do their children, who are too busy with their private tutors. The lifestyle is much different now.”

Father Makothakat, however, knows well the pressures Keralites face these days and is careful not to cast too much blame.

“They have to work hard. They have to earn money,” he says. “School expenses are very high. Medical expenses are very high. They have to find money for that and to lead a comfortable life.”

The 70-year-old priest is as qualified as anyone to weigh in on this subject. He grew up on a paddy farm in the village of Alleppy, 30 miles south of Cochin. He studied civil engineering before entering the priesthood and has spent the past 45 years ministering to faithful in and around Cochin.

“I come from a village family,” says Father Makothakat, seated at his office desk among stacks of papers.

“And today I see an entirely different outlook on life from when I was born and brought up to be a priest.”

Perhaps no other parish copes with the consequences of Kerala’s increasingly urban landscape as much as Little Flower. Located in the heart of the city’s manufacturing and trading district, the church serves a congregation that on a day-to-day basis must negotiate between traditional values and modern-day realities.

“This is the number one spot of industrialization in Kerala. It’s the main port, so all the exporting and importing starts here,” he says. “And all the corruption starts here too,” he adds with a laugh.

The good-humored priest, however, takes no delight in the sobering insights he reveals about his parish. As in the rest of Kerala, rates of divorce, suicide and alcoholism have increased steadily in Cochin over the past decade.

“Eighty to 85 percent of the families in my parish are dealing with these issues, especially alcoholism. Drugs, too,” says the priest.

In the same time period, the Little Flower congregation has shrunk in size, from 198 families in 2000 to 145 today. For the most part, Father Makothakat attributes the decline to the many new commercial developments that have sprouted up in Fort Cochin and the consequent rise in property values and rent.

“People have had to sell their property and move out to villages where land is cheaper,” says Father Makothakat.

However, he also observes an alarming change in how parishioners live out their Christian faith. “They’re not anti-religious. They’re just indifferent to religion,” he says. “They see the priest. They say, ’Hello. Good morning.’ They’re happy with me. I’m also happy with them. But once we try to enter into their life or their family, then we’re not welcome and they’re not happy. They have a good relation to the church. They give money. And if there’s no program on TV, they’ll say the Rosary. But it’s not the same deep feeling we had when I was growing up.”

Back in Kakkanad, night has fallen on the house of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate. Father Jose, however, shows no sign of fatigue. Engaged in conversation, he expresses some of the same concerns as Father Makothakat about the future of the faith in Kerala.

He notes membership in once-vibrant lay Catholic organizations, such as the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement, Christian Life Communities, Cherupushpa Mission League and Jesus Youth Movement, has dwindled in recent years.

The priest also worries about a waning number of vocations. “When I was growing up, it was considered a disgrace for parents to send their girls into the nursing profession,” says Father Jose. “And for men, there were limited opportunities for higher studies and a career. But that trend has been reversed. Today, religious life is just one among them, rather than the best among them. Less religious motivation, more professional opportunity, fewer children per family, a more secular mentality — all of these affect vocations.”

Father Jose and his fellow Carmelites often debate the role of the church in modern-day Kerala.

“Just this morning, we were discussing that we religious need to get out of Kerala, to where we’re needed more,” he says. “Kerala has become saturated in institutions and personnel. Religious priests, we’re not needed here anymore. The diocese is sufficient. They don’t need us for our pastoral ministry.

“Maybe we need to focus on ‘frontier ministries’ — work in prisons or care for persons living with H.I.V., street children or vulnerable women,” he continues. “It would be better to get out where there’s a great need for priests in tougher ministries — places like North India or abroad, especially Africa or Latin America.”

Father Jose pauses and gazes out at the moonlit wetlands. Darkness shrouds the nearby construction site and housing development. After a hard day’s work, the laborers have gone home, leaving behind a near total silence. Only the sound of chirping crickets fills the air, and for a moment the now- suburban Kakkanad feels as though it were the pristine countryside of yesteryear.

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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