Provisional census figures for Kerala 2011 states that Kerala is urbanised up to 47.7%. This is a quantum jump from the 26 % recorded in 2001. This is largely caused by the growth is in what are defined as census towns and not those declared by the administration. Though this approach has been new in the latest census, the above signifies the kind of urbanisation in Kerala that was not reflected in the official figures all that long ago. Significant returns from education and health has flattened the urbanisation over these decades. In that respect, Kerala’s urbanisation is different from the rest of the country. It is a continuous metro from north to south.
Census towns or areas like Thiruvalla and Perumbavoor signifies the Kerala model of township encircling a few schools, hospital, an industry and a few commercial establishments with a conservative shopping mall near to a bus stand. But the question is whether we have accepted urbanisation as a reality or our government (read political leadership here) have set their eyes on addressing the challenges in urbanisation and not confine the same to a waste treatment plant or a metro rail project. We need to go beyond the confines of conventional thinking and start looking for out-of-the-box solutions wherever necessary. There was a furious debate not that long ago on whether we ought to keep both urban and rural portfolios under the same ministry. But here, what we need to understand is that Kerala’s urbanisation has a different back ground and requires focussed solutions to overcome these challenges.
Kerala has always had its own unique feature when it comes to the domains of Governance and development. The Kerala Model of Development has been a study topic across the world – there is a raging debate on its sustainability, and the financial typesetting it has canvassed. In a recent article, Arvind Panagariya (Professor at Columbia University) reasoned that education and health had been widely indentified and accepted as the key elements for the social development by the local rulers much before independence, and that this led to the larger investment in these sectors a century ago itself. According to Panagariya, this had set the trend in the outlook and set the norms for the post independent governments in Kerala.
Today, there are seamless establishments of schools and hospitals in Kerala compared to many other states in India. In the recent times, there is a surge in higher education sector also. All these factors resulted in better societal indices like low infant mortality rates, higher literacy rates and so on. Money was spent to send the kids to schools and to take care of health care. Kerala championed the international circuits with the comparable attributes in health and education to those of developed countries. Naturally, this has raised the purchasing power and social engineering of the individuals compounded by the social movements of early 20th century. Keralites started moving across the globe to find their own niche areas. In the last quarter of 20th century, Kerala economy was turned out to be a Gulf economy. ‘Malayalees will be there in Moon also’ has been the order of the day.
In the mean time, land reforms created a new breed of middle class in Kerala society. In most of cases, the land was claimed by middlemen and not by poor peasants. Peasants become more politically oriented and unionised in the whole deal. Powerful unions championed for the hike in daily wages and empowered the peasants with financial security. Gulf money and booming consumption market helped them to raise their demands. There was a larger migratory movement within the state from the Central Travencore to the northern part of Kerala also. They invested and laboured to make the remote areas of hilly districts a much more prosperous and exciting destinations. This has also led to the development of the economy. The middle men who were awarded with land during the reform years did not venture into agriculture; rather, they bypassed the same in favour of the tertiary sector, offering services like hospitals, education, hotels etc. In summary, it was all this has led to the urbanised growth of Kerala as a state. One can conclude that it is the economic well-being that has provided the much needed momentum for urbanization in Kerala.
Today, the urban growth has received a different turn for two reasons; a) Malayalees getting back to Kerala via Singapore or Hong Kong wants their ‘God’s own country’ to also be in the same league; and b) the infrastructure projects that the Government of India proposes, and the opposition to such investments in Kerala. Both are valid but needs to be studied and examined within the socio-cultural settings of Kerala. What we need is a focused Urban Department which can facilitate the local government bodies to initiate and implement the needs and demands locally. We need hardware and software for a sustainable urban system. We cannot stay be away from raising standards and demands locally and globally. Urban centres shall focus on institutional strengthening as the primary ingredient of improved service delivery. Financial viability and sustainability shall be prioritised as the principle components of institutional strengthening. As in the past, the thrust should be towards market-oriented modes of service delivery and financing. This orientation determines the meanings and goals of institutional strengthening and financial sustainability. In a Kerala-specific context, encouragement of private sector participation in as so many aspects of urban governance may be a difficult political choice, but one needs to get into that type of hard bargaining. Further, the State Government has to give functional autonomy to all units of urban governance so that they can operate as independent economic and financial entities with well-developed capacities.
Urbanisation is not a bane but a boon. It is because of urbanisation (the Kerala way), that we have seen a positive economic growth. Time has come for us to accept it and focus on the solutions to overcome the challenges it poses. If we were successful in health and education indicators for a while, we can also lead in the urban indices as well. It is good to remember that both in education and health it is the private initiatives supported by the State that made a huge difference. If so, why don’t we approach urbanisation in the same way?