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09.06.2019

"Mattancherry Residents welcome Urban Typhoon workshop"

"Mattancherry Residents welcomes Urban Typhoon workshop"

On the fifth day of the Urban Typhoon Workshop Series, Urbz and GIZ found itself in Mattancherry, the first trade hub in Kochi and what used to be an International Trade Centre. This area has an interestingly multicultural and sometimes turbulent past. The old buildings lining the streets – many of which date back to the 17th century, lend a medieval feel to the place. In the discussions, some common issues related to waste management, water quality, flooding, and the canal systems emerged as in the rest of Ernakulam. A previously undiscussed topic was unemployment and youth.

Housing is a complex issue in the area. Several types of living situations can be observed at first glance, including new villa construction along the main streets, rooms in colonies provided by the Muslim WAQF Board and adapted housing spaces in unused store-houses, etc. A huge difference in maintenance and upkeep can be observed between the private villa owners and the rest. The WAQF Board areas are inhabited by residents who do not have the financial capacity to upgrade their housing. Moreover, they have no land deeds and do not pay rent (and consequently, no taxes). Without ownership of the property or tax papers, they are unable to obtain even small loans from the banks.

Moreover, a gradual decrease in trade can be observed over the years. The Bazaar road used to be a 4km stretch of continuous and very vigorous economic activity. The reduction of water transport through the canals started the change of the traditional work structures. However, for several years, the main store-houses and businesses still operated from this area. With the establishment of the container terminal in 2011, the focus has shifted from Willington Island and Mattancherry. The traders have shifted to other parts of Ernakulam. Today, the once-flourishing Bazaar road is a far call from its illustrious past. Several of the store-houses remain empty as an indication of the decrease of trade in the area. The only surviving trade revolves around basmati rice and chilies. The settlement lays suspended in a limbo between the past and the present. The buildings remain, but there is no activity within it. Several of the storage spaces are being used as housing.

One resident who works in loading and unloading goods pointed out, “if we need to bring back the tourism to the area, good connectivity is a huge issue. The roads need to be wide enough for the trucks to enter. In today’s condition, the market will only deteriorate further.” Several residents were in support of the coastal road, planned about 30 years back as a connection from the harbor. This would serve as the main spine for tourism. However, the proposal hasn’t been executed, and there is an effort to make the Bazaar road the main tourism spine. Some new construction and souvenir shops are already in place. Some of the old store-houses have already been converted into hotels, spas, and homestays by private enterprises. Tourism is taking the focus away from traditional industries. Additionally, there is no absorption of the unemployed working population into the new industry.

There is a rising drug culture among the new generation, which has been one of the most harmful impacts of unemployment. Many educated young men of the area waste away their days. In the general spectrum, it is perceived that unemployment is higher among men than women. Many men have lost jobs in traditional industries such as fishing. The women we talked to say their “their egos are hurt and they are picky about work so they sit around all day and drink instead of working.” The women claim that they manage all household expenses and the men do nothing. They also explained that the market for migrant workers is strong because they tend to work harder and cheaper in comparison to the local men.

There is a lot of concern about the future of the area in terms of employment. The residents, in general, seemed open to new investment from tourism and hotels but wanted to make sure it was balanced with local and traditional jobs and that the current residents don’t get displaced. The women expressed a need for more public open spaces for women, where they can have agency and a sense of belonging. These would be open spaces, full of greenery. They reiterated that they wouldn’t exclude the men.

Mattancherry, Fort Kochi and other island settlements towards the west remain one of the few places that have maintained a human scale of space. This is an aspect that several urbanized cities are struggling to achieve. The fact that rapid urban development hasn’t taken hold in these areas can be seen as a great advantage. Urban Planning becomes a way of reorganizing space in certain ways. Looking forward, provision of essential housing, infrastructure, and activities for employment and economic stability while maintaining this human scale can provide a unique quality of life. The “Urban Typhoon” series next travels to EPJ Warehouse, Market Canal, Ernakulam on Sunday, June 9th.

“EnteKochi” – coming soon to your street!