K Vijayachandran FIE


A dwelling without compound around was unthinkable for a Malayalee. It could be even plot as small as a cent and half: What is important was the smell of raw earth around. This life style is costing our society dear: Unplanned growth of our population centres substantially increases the cost of basic infrastructure and civic amenities. Road density in Kerala is 414 km/100 sqkm and it is far ahead of the national average of 75 km. Road length per lakh population in Kerala is 506 km against the national average of 259 km.

Kerala with a population density of more than double the national average has already set aside large land areas for road construction. Economy of the state finds it difficult to maintain these vast quantities of roads constructed year after year. Higher road length per person is also an indicator of the higher outlays subsumed for power and fuel supplies, water supply, sewerage and drainage as well as other utilities. Urbanisation is inevitable, and it was high time that, some sort of discipline was brought into the anarchic situation.

The apartment culture that is slowly setting in Kerala has, therefore, a definite social and economic rationale and the mushrooming real estate and property development business, undoubtedly, are creating real values. I may quote here the personal example of a close friend and comrade-in-arm Kunju Krishnan: we may refer him as KK for convenience. He was a poor man by any standard and working as a helper in a mechanical workshop near his ancestral home, frequently used as shelter by senior leaders of left movement, during the dark years of head-hunt by a blood-thirsty police.

KK along with his wife and three children was holed up in a small tiled hut, along with his aged ailing mother, when I came across him in the early eighties. He was a known leader in the locality, sincere to the core, and as usual rewarded less and respected more for his stubborn honesty. On dividing the family assets, bulk of his ancestral property went to his sisters, married and properly settled elsewhere: Title of the 40 cents of land and the house, where KK lived was held by his ailing mother who was under pressure to divide it once again as family property. He, however, was lucky on the legal front, after the mother died and within no time property developers closed in on him.

For the prices prevailing during late eighties, he got a good bargain: With the cash compensation received for the land, KK could purchase an acre of agricultural land in nearby village where he built a small farm-house, the two daughters were comfortably married off, and son got educated to work as an accountant in a respectable firm. In addition he was allotted three apartments: As on now, he lives in one and the others are rented out. KK was overnight catapulted into an altogether different social orbit.

More interesting part of this story of large value addition was the bankruptcy of KK’s builder, even before the apartments were completed and handed over. The hard liquidity problem of the early nineties, that brought to a complete halt the booming property business, had forced the builder to flee the country. Fortunately for KK, there was enough number of apartment aspirants who had fully paid up for the apartments and ready to go for legal remedies. KK as a man of public interest assembled the necessary expertise, legal, financial as well as technical, to form a cooperative enterprise for raising the balance money and completing the building project.

True, he could move into the new flat only four years behind the schedule: However, as per the contract entitlements with the builder, KK continued to stay in his good old place, from where he managed to marry off his two daughters. Despite all odds, he conducted the house warming ceremonies in grand style in the new flat in 1995. Possibly KK’s example was more of an exemption: several among the martyrs of the building industry of nineties are yet to recover and a good many among those who invested for apartments continue to wait indefinitely. Moral of the story is obvious: KK and others helped themselves using their collective endeavor.

Belonging to the collective of some eighty and odd apartment dwellers bring in several advantages and privileges. Managing electricity, phone, gas, water, drainage, sewerage and waste disposal collectively is of great advantage. Most apartment collectives have developed their own arrangements for paying up the utility bills and some are offering even internet connections. Convenience shops, common washing and ironing centres are developing as common amenities. A well-kept small garden and children’s playground are real luxuries even for the middle class. Instant geriatric care of the old, first aid and emergency medical help are within the reach of the collectives of apartment dwellers. Cultural evenings and festival celebrations are bringing people together in many apartments that simply strengthen our age old secular traditions.  Common garages, car parking and 24 hour security at the gate are the new civic amenities that are now taken for granted by every apartment dweller: However these were simply the privileges of the elite classes till yesterday!

The new culture that is developing around our apartments are sure to stay: it is not a passing fad, simply because of the enormous advantages offered by it at very low costs. However, these are sure to face several serious problems, thanks to their unplanned growth. Servicing the apartments with utilities and infrastructure are likely to be a serious problem, which need to be pre-empted with the help of careful planning at intracity as well as intercity levels. Mushrooming of the apartments in almost all cities and major towns is sure to discipline us.

We will be forced to redesign our population centers in a far more rational way, sooner than later, consistent with the unique features of our land and waters. Kerala, as we know, is a narrow strip of land with a 560 Kilometer coastline on the West, and mountain reliefs on the East. Every 14 kilometer on the average, there is a river system flowing Westward, and forty-one drainage basins rush their heavy monsoon run-off, into a huge inland water body, stretching along the coastline and shaking hands with the Arabian sea, at half a dozen locations called pozhi.

Thanks to this unique hydrology, more than half of Kerala population live on its coastal planes, measuring only a third of total land area. This coastal plane, on the two sides of the backwaters network, with its lakes, canals and estuaries, numerous seaports of antiquity and large population centers, is developing into a single modern metro of some twenty million people; population densities crossing the level of 3000 persons per sqkm, for several long stretches. The North-South inland waterway along this backwater system, and the several kilometers of navigable stretches upstream of the forty-one rivers, were developed by several generations of Kerala rulers, before and after the great Cheraman Perumal took to Islam.

This 1700 Kilometer long inland waterway network was the backbone of Kerala economy and served the culture and commerce of the region for centuries, turning Parasurama legend into a living reality. Due to a variety of factors beyond our control, neglect and ignorance in the main, these arteries of history had turned totally dysfunctional, within a few decades of national independence, inflicting heavy damages on our economy and culture.

These are the unique features of Kerala and historical facts that had encouraged our President to recommend us to develop some sort of mysterious smart waterways. Even water supply and drainage systems as well as power and fuel lines could be built around such smart waterways and transportation network along the backwater system.

Reconstruction of Kerala economy and culture along its ancient waterways, with the help of modern Science and Technology, should be the twenty-first century dream project of Malayalees: Why not re-design our population centers by developing a master plan for the building of apartments for the 560 KM long metro that is emerging along Kerala coast? Perhaps, even our builders’ community could be asked to step in!