Malappuram (Kerala)/New Delhi/Chennai: Two- and three-storey terraced houses lining the roads, and rocketing sales of cement and steel stand testimony to the construction boom in Koottilangadi, where there’s no lack of Italian marble for those who prefer a touch of opulence.
Remittances from locals domiciled in West Asia have fuelled the boom in Koottilangadi, in Malappuram district of Kerala, where the all-too-evident change led to its classification in 2011 as a census town—one of about 2,500 large villages to be categorized so because farming has nearly entirely been replaced by other sources of livelihood.
“We are running on Gulf money over here,” says Aalukkal Aiyappan, a local panchayat member. “Ten years ago, there were only narrow roads and small buildings.”
It’s not just Gulf money that’s being imported to Kerala’s rapidly urbanizing coast, but some culinary habits too. In Koottilangadi, stalls serving the Arab preparation shawarma are everywhere, the meat rotating vertically on its spit throughout the day. Other outlets, modelled on American franchises such as KFC, serve poultry that has been pressure cooked and then deep fried—a process known as broasting.
Ahmed Nisar, proprietor of one such outlet, procured his broasting equipment from Muscat through his brother-in-law, who works there.
In Kottakkal, another census town 20km away that has just been upgraded to a municipality, there are now 20 Arab perfumeries. These oudh (perfume oil) and attar shops appeared with migrants from West Asia who would stay for three months at a time, said O. Rahman, proprietor of Khaleej Perfumes.
“The first shops that opened here were started by relatives of immigrants in the Gulf, who were familiar with the attar culture over there,” said Rahman, 42, who set up his shop 10 years ago when Kottakkal’s Ayurveda hospital began to attract a large number of medical tourists from West Asia.
He began with a loan of Rs.20 lakh from his brother-in-law, who runs a restaurant in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “I brushed up on my Arabic, and my business was doing quite well, but these days there are just too many of these shops,” he said.
Koottilangadi and Kottakkal mirror the rapid urbanization in Kerala, where growing affluence has further blurred the distinction between urban and rural in a state where, in any case, contiguity has always been the norm. With an urban population that has jumped from 25.96% to 47.72% in the past decade, Kerala is one of the most important sites of urbanization in India.
“Kerala is a different story to the rest,” said Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior research fellow at think tank Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “There it’s desakota, the border between rural and urban is very hazy. The physical agglomeration was always there, but these were villages and so, from the census point of view, they were never part of an urban agglomeration. In the last 10 years, they have all reached that point and become urban.”
The term desakota (from the Indonesian words meaning village-city) describes a mix of agricultural and non-agricultural areas that sprawl in corridors between cities.
Boom in census towns
Population densities are high and labour is diverse—desakota are the perfect breeding grounds for census towns.
Census towns mimic statutory towns. While the latter are ordained by the state and hence acquires a governance mechanism through municipalities, census towns are largely an outcome of the local populace forcing a change in their rural settings.
In Kerala, with its pre-existing phenomenon of contiguity, this process has seen a natural acceleration in the last decade as people became more affluent, thanks to remittances from the Gulf, and the local economy prospered.
Not surprisingly then, Kerala saw the creation of 360 new census towns between 2001 and 2011, second only to West Bengal. According to Mukhopadhyay, the spurt of urbanization in the past decade in Kerala has been almost entirely powered by census towns. Their population is growing as migrants—from as far away as Assam, West Bengal and Orissa—move in.
Two districts—Thrissur and Malappuram—stand out, although their economies are driven by different factors.
Thrissur, whose coastal plains are conducive to the spread of urban agglomerations, has been boosted by internal migration within the state. Places such as the census town Puzzakhal, home to India’s largest convention centre and soon to be the site of a 55-acre Sobha City township project, draw migrants from other parts of Kerala.
Neighbouring Adat, also a census town, has seen an influx of people from outside the state, said the 49-year-old president of the local panchayat, T. Jayalakshmi. “We have a lot of new people, doctors and professionals, who are coming here to settle down.”
Adat is a short distance from Thrissur city, where many professionals are employed and, according to Jayalakshmi, nearly 80% of the new constructions in the area has been bought by people from outside the panchayat. Five new schools have been built in the last two years alone, catering largely to the new migrants.
To the north, Malappuram district has made an even greater leap, from 9.82% urbanized to 44.19% in 10 years—a decadal growth rate of 410%. According to a study by K.C. Zachariah and S. Irudaya Rajan from the Centre for Development Studies that was released in January, Malappuram district received nearly 20% of the total remittances to Kerala.
The study, funded by the ministry of oversees affairs, estimated total remittances to Kerala at Rs.49,695 crore in 2011, of which Malappuram’s share was Rs.9,040 crore, or Rs.1.14 lakh per household.
The Malappuram urban agglomeration is made up of four municipalities, Malappuram city, Majeri, Tirur and Ponnani, webbed together by 37 census towns. The influx of migrant population, seasonal in nature, in Malappuram has affected the economy and labour force in subtle and diverse ways.
In Kottakkal, which has become used to a reliable influx of migrants, one village official said the locals are reluctant to do any physical labour at all. Instead, they rely on migrants from places such as West Bengal or Orissa, he said.
Tamil Nadu’s story
The kind of economic and cultural change that migrant communities have brought to Kerala’s coastal region also exists in census towns around Tamil Nadu. Data from the 2001 and 2011 census and the 64th round of the National Sample Survey show significant inter-state migration flows between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu trails Kerala in the number of new census towns, with 265.
In census towns around Chennai, migration has worked with equal and opposite force. Some towns, such as Padappai in Kancheepuram district, have seen the near loss of the landowning population as land prices have risen. “Many of the Mudaliars (the landowning community) have sold their land and left for cities,” said 50-year-old R. Sundarambal, a long-time resident of Padappai, who is a stay-at-home grandmother to her grandchildren. “Things have changed quite fast.”
Padappai is 10km from Oragadam, home to Renault-Nissan Automotive India Pvt. Ltd. In April, Germany’s Daimler AG, the world’s largest truck maker, inaugurated a Rs.4,400 crore facility there. While the factory’s arrival has contributed to rising land prices, and, therefore, to some of the out-migration in the area, it has also brought in workers, mainly from outside the state, with the relevant experience and skills.
Tushar Biswas is one of them. A confident 23-year-old from Maldah in West Bengal, Biswas came to Padappai from Bangalore, where he made car chassis and earned Rs.7,000 a month, he said. When a friend told him about a job at bus and truck body building company JCBL Pvt. Ltd, Biswas quit his job and travelled south to Padappai.
For the last nine months, he has worked both day and night shifts in the factory, earning as much as Rs.18,000 a month. It’s good money, and he saves a lot of it. Biswas lives in a shared accommodation in Padappai. He and his four roommates pay just over Rs.1,000 each to their landlady as monthly rent, including for power and water charges.
Biswas is saving as much as he can so that he can return home to open a small garage. “I won’t earn as much there, but I’ll be home,” he said. “I’ve not been back in four years, so I feel what I have done is enough and it’s time to return.”
Amitabh Kundu, dean of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues that increased mobility has boosted migration rates, but the exact contribution of net rural-urban migration is difficult to judge.
Indeed, migration in census towns tends to be transient and fluctuating, but its effect on the economy of the urbanizing area is more measurable. Both in Kerala and in the environs of Chennai, migrant labour has contributed to burgeoning local economies.
But there are some migrants who do stay on, reinforcing the social transformation. Ten years ago, 25-year-old Satish Kumar travelled nearly 300km from Tiruchirappalli in central Tamil Nadu to Padappai for a job. Kumar now drives and operates construction equipment, including diggers.
“Earlier, Padappai wasn’t on any migrant’s radar,” he said. “But now, because of the companies, people are coming here to work.” Until three years ago, he would travel all over the Chennai region to get work, but now, with the construction boom showing no signs of ending, Kumar has found steady demand for his services. He plans to stay.
This is the fifth in a six-part series on India’s census towns. The sixth part will focus on the problems involved with administration in census towns and the difficulties faced by panchayats, with a dearth of funds and mandates to cater to their growing population.