As the 30th International Day of Families (May 15) passes by, The New Indian Express zooms in on the rise of individualism and the changing dynamics of familial bonding in Kerala. In the news, CPPR Chairman D Dhanuraj expresses his opinions.

KOCHI: Ramachandran (name changed) moved away from the harsh summer sun into the spacious hall of the senior living facility where he stays with his wife in Thiruvananthapuram. “It’s unusually hot this year; we are not used to this,” he says, launching into a soliloquy on the climate of Canada, from where he returned two months ago. His son is settled there. 

Ramachandran was a banker before he retired to the comfort of his family home at Sasthamangalam. “We have given it on rent now and moved in here. We cannot maintain a house like that, and we need support. Since our only son is abroad, this is the best arrangement,” he says, recollecting the memories that he left behind in that 80-year-old home that nurtured two generations of his kith and kin. 

“Families dispersing is a very painful thing, yet it seems to be the season here.”

Kerala’s complex and diverse family structure has been the topic of several studies worldwide. The matrilineal joint family homesteads; the Brahmin households, with patriline at its core; the family systems followed by the tribespeople; the pattern of families that existed among the migrants, which was a mishmash of whatever was brought in and whatever existed here….

Kerala was a crucible, where the social fabric was intact because the units, though complex, were firm and extended their foundations to social structure, architecture, inheritance laws, women’s rights, etc.

“The cracks in this structure probably began with the entry of land reforms,” says Prof M S Mahendarakumar, head of anthropology department, at Kannur University.

“Collective sharing of resources gave way to individual aspirations, which led to the breakage of joint family systems. The nuclear ones that were formed did have more space for individuals but also did some dismantling of the ecosystem that organically sustained many aspects of life and nature.” 

Yearly projects undertaken by his department to study families in different communities have shown a marked decrease in joint family units, which are about 5 per cent of the total units analysed.

The impact of the breakdown of family units went parallel with the “rise in individualisation” among the members of the units, and it has reached a proportion when the number of cracks in the family system is more than evident, notes senior psychiatrist Dr C J John, who is a member of the State Mental Health Authority. 

“We have proceeded one more step ahead from nuclearisation. Now, people are becoming islands under one roof,” he says.

“Many can be seen glued to their worlds on social media, and even pleasantries or unpleasantries are both exchanged via the networking platforms even if under one roof. Microworlds are created within the family.

“This erodes communication between the members. Many parents don’t know what is happening with their own kids. A tragic example was the recent infanticide case in Ernakulam, where the family members did not know that their daughter was pregnant.” 

Free expression is hindered, and the families do not even meet their mandate.

“The structure and functionality of the family suffers. Mutual respect and regard erodes, roles get diffused, and the outcome is often violence and abuses rising during conflicts in families. The resultant mental health issues are seen to be on a rise,” Dr John adds. 

“The other results of this trend is rise in behavioural disorders, faulty relationships, and substance abuse which grow to unforeseen proportions because they did not get treated properly at the nascent stage at home by responsible family members. Individualisation thus hampers handholding of senior family members, too.”

As per state government records, there are over 48 lakh people in Kerala aged over 60, and an estimated 24 lakh Keralites live in various countries. These are conservative figures as per the Kerala Migration Survey, 2014. A decade has passed; the numbers would have soared. 

The outcome is the increase in senior living facilities, both luxury and economical.

“My daughter has been in New Zealand for the last 20 years, she is retired, her family well-settled, yet she won’t be back. She has her world there and feels out of place here. I have been staying alone after my wife passed away. Kudumbasree members help me with food and other essentials,”” says 87-year-old Giriraj Sundar. 

The migrated population are also not keen to return due to better quality of life outside and also the inherent conservatism in Kerala, believes D Dhanuraj, chairman of Centre for Public Policy Research in Kochi.

“Our 2023 study on youth migration showed that the majority of the students interviewed did not want to return,” he says. 

“Our ongoing survey among women who have migrated also tells the same story. While lack of jobs and low pay are cited as reasons, the women especially spoke about the conservative mindset of the society, which did not allow them as much freedom as they experienced outside the state.”  

Besides migration, individualisation is also being reflected in the attitude of the youngsters who claim that they would rather be single than move towards a family setup conforming to societal norms.

“Family brings its own set of responsibilities. And then there are unreasonable curbs,”  says a 24-year-old woman who shifted out from her home in Malappuram to be away from her family that wanted her to marry young and follow the norms of the religion she was born into. 

“Even if we want to share our life with someone, it should be on terms that are equal, lenient and democratic. Dhanuraj believes the prevalent social structure is to be blamed for the evident streak of individualism in society. “The paradox is that even while we claim high levels of literacy, our school education system remains ill-equipped to prepare children for society and family living,” he says.

“Gender parity, for instance, is not effectively drilled in. We have to admit we are still a conservative society. The younger lot do not get the right direction, and they tend to rebel.” 

The result of such changes is that the dependent population suffers most. Not just elders, the problems among the children are also on the rise. “It is one of the fallouts of urbanisation,” says Dr John. 

“Holistic development of the upcoming generation hangs in balance. Our social structure is slowly turning fragile. Unhealthy parenting, ranging from over-involvement to total neglect, does not bode well for society. The idea of family might change with the times. But the core concept will remain paramount. “We need to preserve families, much like nature,” says Dr John.

Origin & theme

It was during the 1980s that the United Nations began focusing on issues related to the family. After much deliberation, in December 1989, the General Assembly proclaimed The International Year of the Family. However, it was after four years, i.e. in 1993, that the UN decided to observe May 15 as The International Day of Families. And this year marks the 30th family day. Today, one of the major challenges the organisation faces is the effects of climate change. It hugely impacts the health and well-being of families through increased pollution. At the same time, extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, such as hurricanes, droughts and floods, lead to forced displacement and loss of livelihoods for families and individuals. That is why this year’s theme for the day is families and climate change.

News Published in The New Indian Express

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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