Hammer-and-sickle in Kochi, the largest city of Kerala, a state that has elected several Marxist-Leninist governments
The view from the train window on the trip between Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of India’s Kerala State, and Kochi, its biggest city, is one of nearly continuous development. As I looked out the open windows I kept waiting for the countryside to begin. I shouldn’t have been surprised: what I didn’t properly appreciate was that Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, has a complex, centuries-old pattern of mixing rural and urban that may look like suburban sprawl but, until recently at least, hasn’t been.
Kochi, formerly called Cochin, is the largest city in Kerala state, with a population of about 2.5 million. The region had one of the most strictly-enforced versions of the caste system until end of the 19th century, but now it has made amazing strides toward equality and equity which is the reason I decided it to include Kochi among the cities explored in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006).
Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India — 94 per cent for men and 86 per cent for women, according to the 2001 Indian census — and the lowest infant mortality rates, 14 per 100,000 births in 2000. Other indicators suggest life is pretty good—without state coercion women have decided to have fewer babies than needed to maintain the population numbers, while life expectancy is right up there with that of developed countries.
Four times — most recently in 2006 — Keralites have elected a coalition government led by Marxist-Leninists, but the ambient political style is far from that seen in Communist bloc countries — or even in the authoritarian democracy of Singapore. In Kerala the emphasis is on community-based action: the great surge in literacy came in the 1980s when local groups worked on the grass roots level to teach people to read. Newspaper readership — a good measure of literacy in action — is now the highest in India. In fact, even though Kerala’s main language, Malayalam, is spoken by only about five percent of India’s population, a Malayalam newspaper has the largest circulation of any daily in any language in the country.
It also is an incredibly green place. More than 40 rivers wander across the Kerala plain, toward the Arabian Sea from the Western Ghat mountains. A network of lakes, lagoons and water courses form Kerala’s a vast network of waterways — called backwaters — so that nowhere are you very far from water. This abundance has profoundly affected the way people live and have lived for hundreds of years. In the 14th century, Marco Polo’s Muslim counterpart Ibn Battuta, took two months to travel down the long coast . “The road the whole distance runs beneath the shade of trees,” he wrote, and “there is not a foot of ground but is cultivated. Every man has his own orchard, with his house in the middle and a wooden palisade all round it.”
The many watercourses of Kerala’s backwaters historically made boats the major way to get around. Roads and bridges linking islands now encurage increasing use of cars, trucks and motorbikes, but some goods still move by boat
Six hundred years later, Louise Ouwerkerk, a British academic who spent more than 25 years in Kerala, wrote in the middle of the twentieth century:
You can describe Kerala either as having no villages or as consisting of one vast scattered village. The villages, such as they are, are slightly denser groupings of houses at crossroads where markets have sprung up…Geography is responsible for this phenomenon. There is so much water that there is no need to combine for the purposes of irrigation…The result is that homesteads are separate, each surrounded by its own (rice) paddy fields in the long green valleys, coconut groves, tapioca fields on the hill sides, each house standing in a compound surrounded by mud walls, within which grow the mangoes, jack fruit trees, vegetables and spices used by the family.
Much has changed since then — India has transformed itself from a British colony and a collection of princely states to a nation with a population of one billion — but Kerala still bears the imprint of this unique pattern of development as witnessed by the view from the train window. There are rice fields — some of them being converted into coconut groves — and backwaters, but for the lion’s share of the distance what I saw was one homestead after another. Some were modest — mud brick buildings with thatched roofs, an outhouse some distance from the main building, washing hung out to dry, children playing in the shade of the coconuts. Others were more impressive–pink or cream concrete with tile roofs and air conditioners in windows, probably financed by money earned abroad. All bear witness to the desire for people to have their own small holding, and to the circumstances — political as well as geographic — which have allowed them to do so here.
Greenpeace is one of the environmental groups trying to stop pollution of waterways in Kochi and throughout Kerala State
The remnants of the homestead pattern is still visible in the center of Kochi. The signature low stone wall indicating old homestead lines surround many city blocks. Inside the blocks walkways and alleys frequently form a dense urban fabric, with houses squeezed together on tiny lots. Ruins of country houses sit next to new houses with satellite dishes and corrugated double roofs for catching rain water. Trees like bananas, coconuts and mangos grow everywhere.
This lovely place is threatened by pollution, though. The vast network of backwaters is being filled in and the water itself is polluted in many places because of inadequate sewage treatment. Kochi’s streets are full of cars, motorbikes and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, spewing fumes into the air, while travel from place to place by boat through the network of canals is declining.
By the time my train arrived in Kochi I realized that what I saw from my window was far different from the sprawl that I knew from my childhood in Southern California, or which I’ve seen develop around Montreal and Toronto. My talks and travels around Kochi confirmed that realization. The climate and the abundance of water had produced a kind of settlement seen rarely elsewhere. But the longer I stayed the clearer it became that population pressures — Kochi is attracting people from other parts of India because of its relative prosperity — and rising expectations of what decent housing is — “villas” or single family houses are much prized by the growing middle class — threaten to bring sprawl in the North American sense in a short time.
Will the people of Kochi be able to head off pollution problems as successfully as Kerala State created a literate, relatively healthy society? I don’t know, but given the education level and the widespread commitment to making life better I encountered there, I’d like to think they have a chance.
Kochi’s annual horticultural show is always crowded as residents enjoy the wealth of flowers which grow here easily. There is relatively little dedicated park land for its 2.5 million population, but gardens and vacant lots are full of banana, mango and coconut trees
Next: Shanghai: what happens when a government sets out to make 35 per cent of a city green space by 2010.
Tags: Green City, India, Kerala, Kochi