Change Comes to ‘God’s Own Country’

Urban sprawl threatens a tradition

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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On a warm Sunday evening, Father Jose Kuriedath enjoys a relaxing stroll through the manicured lawn and blooming garden of his residence in Kakkanad, a sleepy suburb east of Cochin — Kerala’s largest city and commercial hub. Nestled atop a hill, the grounds offer sweeping views of the verdant wetlands below.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic priest pauses to watch the sun set over Kerala’s idyllic countryside, often called “God’s Own Country.” But this sociologist by training cannot relax.

“Do you hear that?” he asks.

Off in the distance, the cacophony of hammers against metal and the lively chatter of construction workers can be heard, disrupting an otherwise serene moment.

Father Jose heads down the slope to a clearing and gazes at the nearby construction site, where work remains in full throttle even as dusk sets in on this supposed day of rest.

“They’re on contract,” says the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, explaining the long weekend hours.

When complete, the development will include 100 brand-new luxury villas, furnished with marble floors and wired for fiber-optic communication.

“See those buildings,” says Father Jose, pointing to a cluster of newly built, multi-story apartment complexes on the horizon. “It’s practically dark outside, but you hardly see any lights on. No one lives there. That tells you this investment in land is speculation, mainly by N.R.I.’s.” N.R.I.’s (“non-resident Indians”) generally refer to those who have migrated to other countries.

“We are on the eastern side of Cochin,” he continues. “It’s a port city. So, development can’t grow to the west because you have the Arabian Sea, or to the south where you have backwaters. And to the north, toward Aluva and the airport, any development activity can only be undertaken with permission from the Greater Cochin Development Authority. Growing to the east means Kakkanad, here, where land was rather cheap and less occupied.”

Kakkanad serves as a case study for the rapid urbanization of Kerala in recent years. The suburb is home to two 100-acre industrial parks: the Cochin Special Economic Zone and the Infopark Smart Space Kochi.

Established in 1984, the former offers commercial space to a wide range of private companies, including manufacturers of electronics and textiles, a food-processing plant and firms offering information technology and engineering services. In total, some 15,000 people work in the industrial park.

The nearby Infopark Smart Space Kochi opened its doors in 2004 and now houses more than 100 companies, which combined employ 15,000 workers. The gated, campus-like property consists of sleek high-rise office buildings, whose tenants include some of the state’s most successful information technology companies.

A boom in commercial developments in suburban areas such as Kakkanad across Kerala has sent local property values soaring. The businesses also attract waves of well- educated professionals, many from rural areas, increasing the demand for affordable housing. To meet the demand, developers now speculate on land further and further from city centers, resulting in unprecedented sprawl.

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