Houses, houses everywhere, nor many homes to live!  Re-thinking housing in Kerala

biggest house

The largest residential house (40,000 SFT) in India’s Kerala state is in Wayanad district. It is owned by a businessman named Arackal Joy. Hailing from a farmer’s family, he made his fortunes through sheer hard work and of course with some luck. He has refineries in Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah in the UAE and supplied lubricants to ships and automobiles. A couple of days ago, Arackal Joy passed away in Dubai, possibly because of a heart attack. Due to COVID lockdown, I believe, he could not be brought back to his palatial house for performing the last rites.

Joy’s case is not an exception. Many Keralites build huge mansions mostly through remittances from overseas. In Kerala, 68% of the families occupy permanent and strong houses while at the national level, only about 52% of families have pucca houses. An average Keralite’s dream and life goal is to make a big house. In Kerala, each house has an average of three rooms, but at all India level the average is only two rooms. The irony is that many of these houses are unoccupied. According to the 2011 Census data, about 11% (1.19 million) houses in Kerala lie vacant. While 10% of the houses lie vacant in rural areas, 11.3% are vacant in urban areas of the state. This is much higher than the national average of 7.45%.

A big palatial house is a status symbol in Kerala state of India. Though the changes in the mode of housing from the traditional mud and leaf houses to modern elegant bungalows started from 1950s, it was from 1970s onwards, the state witnessed an unparalleled housing boom, thanks to the flow of remittances from Gulf countries, growth in the plantation economy and other socio-demographic factors such as disruptions which occurred in the joint family as well as increase in population. In 1961 about 74% of houses were thatched with palm leaves and grass and in 2001 its percentage has diminished to just 11 %. In 2001, houses built of cement and hardwood or similar material has risen to 72%. Today, the housing sector in Kerala is characterised by the disproportionate social priority given to housing with a distorted notion of using house as a status symbol manifested in extravagant designs through irrational and wasteful use of materials.

As the construction sector in the state imported 97% of the building materials from outside the state, over 25% of the investment in housing sector is being leaked out of the state. The lack of industrial production along with depletion of finance capital to outside eroded the state’s self-reliance.

Simultaneously, there was a steady rise in the wage rates of skilled workers. The wages recorded 16 times increase from 1960 to 1994. This has resulted in migration of agricultural workers from agricultural sector to construction sector, resulting in labour shortage in the agricultural sector.

The deficiency of construction and other workers prompted manual workers from other states of India to migrate to Kerala. Today Kerala has a significant number of migrant labourers. Though their presence is being looked down and objected by some, Kerala does not have any other option than deploying these ‘guest workers’ as a perennial source of manual labour mostly to cater the demand of ever booming house construction in Kerala. For migrant labourers, Kerala is a choice destination due to highest possible wages in India, mostly supportive social and administrative set up in the state, and favourable geographical conditions.

The increase in land value of urban areas forced the poor households to shift to suburban sites by ‘big money’ of the real estate lobby. As the marginal households could not afford purchase of land in cities, they moved to rural areas, purchased agricultural land and constructed houses. Most of these houses have huge courtyards, compound walls and approach roads, further depleting agricultural land. Thus, the growth of housing in Kerala partly contributed towards the present crisis in Agricultural and Food Sectors. Disappearance of agricultural land made the state dependant on neighbouring states. The recent nationwide lockdown triggered by COVID 19 witnessed neighbouring states closing borders leading to food scarcity, especially of vegetables, in the state.

The use of traditional materials as accessories for house construction increased their prices also. The fast depletion of naturally available building materials and the resultant price rise affected the marginalised groups as they were unable to purchase such materials for their own house construction. In fact, the entire tribal community in the state is deprived of better housing, in comparison to rest of Kerala.

The massive sand mining and quarrying, much in excess over the replenishment capacity caused heavy damage to the ecology and river systems. Clay soil mining not only made the land unsuitable for agriculture but also caused waterlogging. The fields which were left uncared after clay mining contained pits which get filled up with water during monsoons. These pits and curing tanks of construction sites provided a breeding zone for ‘anopheles stephensi’ which prefers to breed in clean water.  All these has also contributed towards growth of vector borne diseases in the state, whose entire landscape has been recently turned to a large construction site.

Owning better houses is not necessarily an indication of owner’s better health. K.R. Nayar, through extensive research had shown that better housing alone will not lead to better health as there is no consistent relationship between housing types and health. As houses are constructed on western models which are not suitable for the hot and humid weather conditions, either the residents have to submit themselves to sweat and thirst or they have to purchase further amenities such as electric fans and ‘coolers’ depriving them of more money. Thus, construction of large houses in fact harmed the health conditions and resources of the people rather than it is helping them to have more health and wellbeing.

Housing boom effected profound changes in the social and family structures. The earlier restrictions on the lower castes to construct pucca houses were defied with a vengeance and resulted in erasing social distances. There emerged a new class of professional and skilled workers. The most significant change is the change in the notion of housing itself. The organisation of domestic space has been radically altered. The ‘house’ is largely looked as a ‘status symbol’ rather than a living space to be constructed within the financial affordability of a family.

There was also a fundamental breaking down of the harmony that had existed between housing and nature. Large houses constructed within boundary walls broke up communitarian affiliations between neighbours and reduced social interaction and cooperative and supportive relationships which also precipitated mental health problems. A very significant change is the presence of large number of households with elderly parents staying alone as their migrant children work in other countries. Recently there is an increase in number of crimes around houses occupied by such elderly parents. It has also huge impact on the mental health of both parents, children and even on grant children who suffer the loss of traditional wisdom and knowledge.

As a large number of houses were constructed by taking loans from various agencies including private financiers by mortgaging land, the owners are under constant stress for several years to repay the loan and they are often forced to cut short their expenditure on food consumption and medical services.

The recent huge floods in 2018 and 2019 in the state has shown the unsustainable nature of the Kerala housing boom as it precipitated such ecological disasters of unprecedented nature.  The huge houses separated by huge walls was a challenge to rescue operations during recent the floods too.

It is already too late for the state to re-think its housing patterns as preventive measures are perhaps impossible now. Policy makers will have to think hard on remedial and rehabilitative measures before it is too late. It is high time for the people of state, especially the youth to reconsider their life goal of constructing a palatial house. Let them also listen to the philosopher who said, “we own nothing – not even our graves”.

(Kandathil Sebastian is a researcher, novelist, and commentator on social issues)




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