Friday, April 29, 2011

Kuttanad, a weeping beauty


Kuttanad near Alleppey in Kerala is a fascinatingly beautiful area. It provides 40% of Kerala’s paddy production and has tremendous tourism potential that includes excellent cuisine. (The visitors are unaware that the water is awfully polluted but anyway they use packaged pure water.)

It is only the second place in the world where large scale cultivation is done below sea level. The Government of India has sanctioned for the all round development of the area a Rs.1840 crores Kuttanad Package conceived by the world famous agricultural scientist Dr. MS Swaminathan who is a native of the place. 

The original area under paddy cultivation in Kuttanad was 55,000 hectares but due to various reasons it is only 37,000 hectares now. It is all part of a continuing tragic story. This year a good crop was ready to be harvested but summer rains came and washed out large areas.

The natural question is why the harvest not done in time. No labor. But this is the 21st century. Machines do harvesting. Sorry, Kerala does not have such machines. We get them from neighboring states when their harvesting season does not clash with ours like this year. Even when they are available rent has to be paid, there are agent’s fees and finally the local politicians reportedly take their cut for allowing priority in usage.

You can have the best of schemes and all the money needed but there have to be committed people to do the work under committed people who allow them to work. But in Kerala who bothers? If something goes wrong blame the Central Government and hold bandhs. Or let the machines (when bought) go to rot. Some time back the Kerala Police got a few most modern boats to fight smuggling and seaborne terrorism. You can see them tied to the piers. They have not been used. Nobody knows how to.

Before the land limitation laws came in 1970, Kuttanad had families who owned hundreds or even thousands of hectares of land. It was the owner’s responsibility to ensure regular cultivation. People from almost the entire district came for the harvests. But quite often the crops failed. The landowners had to borrow money for the next season. Many a famous Kuttanad family were indebted almost continuously to a particular money lending family.

Now there is an interesting change. The land owners do not directly cultivate any more. They lease the fields on seasonal basis to others, mostly agricultural workers. The rent is collected in advance. If a crop fails the landowner loses nothing. The tears that follow are that of the poor agricultural worker. Some people have formed associations for combined operations, but it is not easy for them to keep fighting the powerful trade unions and the elements.

Kerala Leftists fought the introduction of tractors, mechanization of coir factories, and even the use of computers by the Government. That kind of negative approach has done enough harm to Kerala in many ways. How much hold will they have over the Kuttanad Package? Why blame the Reds alone. There are others also who can make the scheme a mess.

There is something that the users, trade unions and responsible government officials have to be alert about. I understand that the charge for harvesters (as and when available) is per working hour. This leaves a huge potential for corruption. Part of the working time is recorded as “breakdown”. The “ghost money” would be shared. Another method, where the user loses, is spare parts money. The classic one is ‘Go buy a new one, or I can repair if you pay.” I know a couple of such cases..

I am shocked to learn that Kuttanad is earning names like ‘poison bowl’ and ‘drowning granary’ in the media and studies.

We must save this beautiful land.

Also read Kerala: Left with empty granaries written two years ago.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Back to nalukettus?

The revival of interest in the old Kerala style nalukettu houses (structure on all four sides around an open space called nadumuttam in the middle) is quite amazing. I had posted several articles and photos on the subject and they still draw many visitors. That must be so too for other bloggers who also handle the subject, and for architects. 

Two of my popular articles on nalukettu are, I think,

This is Thekkanatt at Olavipe one of the five existing Parayil Tharakan Heritage Homes, Cherthala Thaluk. The other four are larger, older and ettukettus. In this building the single storied portion is the nalukettu. The second picture is of the eastern veranda of the nalukettu where local women normally come to meet the ladies of the house.

Anyone planning to built a nalukettu should first understand that this type of houses were meant for a different era, diverse lifestyle and a social system that was so contrasting to what we have today. Only people of a certain status could build a nalukettu, ettukettu and pathinarukettu. There were even rules about who could enter the house and which part.


Even within the family normally the women dominated the nalukettu side while the front area was for the men. They were meant for large families to live in with an army of servants to support them, starting at dawn with ‘muttamadi’ (sweeping the compound). They are so far removed from the nuclear houses we see mostly now.

Are large buildings with nalukettus going to be part of the changing scenario? Even if you build one of them, where would you get the employees for the upkeep? The solution is to have scaled down, space fully utilized structures, a kind of fusion of the old and the new. This requires quality architects.

Size of the nadumuttam would have a considerable effect on the cost of the house. The bigger the inner court, the larger would be the built up area around it and therefore the cost. Start with a reasonably sized open space in the centre and start planning around. Depending on the size of the nadumuttam (open space within the building) the built area and therefore the cost would be more.

How many bedrooms on the same level can you have in a nalukettu? You can have normally two, three or four. The design possibilities are many depending on the money you are willing to spend, the land you have and the conveniences you want.

Recently I stayed in the modified portion of an old nalukettu for a few days. The ambiance was beautiful. I simply had to congratulate the young lady architect who did the work.

I have seen advertisements of individual villas/gated communities of nalukettus. Wonder how they are to live in.

(Photos copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vishu Greetings

 Wishing you all happiness, health and prosperity for this VISHU.

 Kani Konna (Golden Shower or cassia fistula) is the symbol of VISHU, one of Kerala’s important festivals. This beautiful photograph of a floret of Kani Konna is by Jim Conrad

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