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Changing Lives in Northern Kerala

A Syro-Malabar charity reaches the poor in remote Kerala

A “roof over your head” is considered one of life’s basic necessities, and yet for many it remains out of reach.

“During the heavy rains, water would seep through the roof and fall on my face while I slept,” said Aleyama Luka, a widow from Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala.

“I would have to sit up all night sheltering the children under an umbrella.”

Poverty is not uncommon in Wayanad, a tiny hill area known for its spices and coffee. Though much of the local economy is tied to agriculture, the overuse of chemical fertilizers and insecticides and painful government-led economic reforms have devastated district farmers. In the period of a year, from May 2006 to June 2007, 101 farmers — all of whom faced bankruptcy — reportedly took their own lives.

But thanks to the Malabar Social Service Society (MASSS), an agency of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Kottayam, efforts are under way to improve the lot of tens of thousands of people in need throughout northern Kerala: needy children, senior citizens, tenant farmers, unskilled laborers, fishermen, artisans, tribals and dalits, the so-called “untouchables” of India.

Tears welled up in Mrs. Luka’s eyes as she described her family’s difficulties, not least the horror of watching her husband succumb recently to cancer after a long and expensive battle that depleted their meager savings. But she took comfort from her new three-room house — built by MASSS with funds from generous CNEWA donors — though it is still unfinished and the walls need plastering.

Mrs. Luka had already decorated her new home, hanging several religious prints, including the familiar image of Jesus knocking on a closed door and captioned, “Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

“I just can’t believe this,rdquo; Mrs. Luka said of her new home. “I cannot describe it as anything other than a dream come true.”

Kerala’s northern districts, collectively called Malabar, differ from the state’s southern regions of Cochin and Travancore. Merged to form Kerala by India’s States Reorganization Act of 1956, these northern and southern regions have different histories and cultures. In addition, the infrastructure of the north is not nearly so well developed as the south, while educational opportunities and services such as health care also lag behind.

Father Michael Nedumthuruthil, who directs MASSS, described the “Great Depression” that affected southern India during the mid-20th century, a depression that still hurts many Keralites: The impact of World War II, combined with Indian independence in 1947 (which made migration and emigration easier) and overpopulation in the south forced many southerners — Christian, Hindu and Muslim — to migrate north in search of work.

But from the start they encountered many problems: teeming wildlife, an adverse climate of extremes in heat and rainfall and communicable diseases. Difficulties continued as many of the descendants of those early migrants failed to secure their own land. Most now work as day laborers. And yet, the north continues to draw migrants from the south, especially from Kottayam, one of the few Indian districts experiencing a decline in population.

Many of the migrants to Kerala’s Malabar region are “Southists” or “Knaniya” Catholics, a distinct ethnic group whose members descend from 72 Jewish-Christian families from Mesopotamia who settled in southern India in A.D. 345. The Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam shepherds an estimated 172,000 Southists, most of whom live in Kerala’s southern regions of Cochin and Travancore. But those who have migrated north, scattered throughout some 50 parishes in Malabar and the adjacent state of Karnataka, have not been forgotten.

The Southists are a closed community, prohibiting intermarriage or conversion, but this commitment to ethnic identity (which is not unusual in India) does not remove them from serving the needs of the greater community, irrespective of caste or creed.

“[We] aim at social transformation,” MASSS states on its web site, “empowering people … without any discrimination.”

Employing professional social workers, MASSS selects beneficiaries for its many programs from research gathered by an extensive network of field animators, as well as from recommendations made by priests of the archeparchy. MASSS’s housing initiative is part of its overall sustainable development strategy that also includes giving selected beneficiaries access to savings accounts, credit and affordable housing.

Mary Mathai borrowed 3,000 rupees (about $75) toward the cost of her new family home and pays only a nominal interest rate of 1.2 percent.

“Our old mud house just melted away in the rains … and we used to get sick,” she said. “We sleep so much sounder now. The house changed our outlook toward life.”

So far, MASSS has provided low-cost housing to 40 impoverished families scattered throughout Malabar’s five districts on small (about 350 square feet) plots of land. Some families were homeless. Others lived in temporary structures, often nothing more than a mud enclosure, without toilet facilities, that dissolved under heavy rain.

MASSS homes follow a similar floor plan and are made of brick, cement, wood and tiles. They feature shuttered windows without glass panes and tiled roofs. The homes also include a well-ventilated cooking hearth and pit latrine.

Each home costs about $1,750 to build, of which CNEWA donors contribute about half. MASSS and the new owners, who in all but a few cases are expected to contribute something, pay the remainder.

Across the wooded valley from the Luka family lives Omana Radharakrishnan, a Hindu mother of two. Mrs. Radharakrishnan, her husband and their children live in a simple hut on the tiny parcel of land owned by her family. She sells schoolbooks doorto door; her husband builds furniture.

“Our new house will be a great improvement,” Mrs. Radharakrishnan said. “Now we all sleep in one room, but soon the girls will have their own space.”

The family is looking forward to having a proper bathroom, as well as solid doors and windows that will improve security.

The girls, Mrs. Radharakrishnan added, “will now be safe when we are out at work.”

The professionals who administer the Malabar Social Service Society know they lack the means to help all those in need.

“If we approach a family … we know there will be at least four families in the area living in the same condition,” said Father Michael Nedumthuruthil.

“It is really painful to turn our faces from them.”

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages. Jomi Thomas is a staff writer for CNEWA’s Ernakulam office.

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