Something extraordinary was strikingly visible while we were journeying across the small to medium-sized towns and villages in Central Kerala. Shopping and street activities largely stopped, and shutters went down by dusk. The roads became silent and the parking lots were mostly empty.
A similar lethargic atmosphere was evident in Idukki's Thodupuzha, the 'gateway to the high ranges' and considered a fast-growing municipal town with high development prospects. A popular family restaurant by the eponymous river had only two customers at 7.15 pm on a weekday, though the dining hall had seats for 80.
We were inclined to ask if there was a hartal in town or was there a lack of adequate public transport. However, residents and traders portrayed a concerning image.
Struggling local economies
After settling his declining daily accounts, a 60-year-old grocer said, "Our younger generation has migrated to Canada and Europe. The remaining residents show no inclination to venture into town after sunset".
Another resident in his mid-60s said that the last bus to his village at Moolamattom, 22 km from Thodupuzha, is at 8.30 pm. In the 1990s, it was at 9.30 pm. "The bus at 8.30 pm does not start from the bus stand because there is no one around," he said.
Several people attributed the slumber quietness on the shopping streets to other factors such as financial strain resulting from the collapse of the agricultural economy, a reduction in remittances, and the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The number of medium-sized towns shutting down early is increasing, while major cities boast of late-night shopping, powered by the state government's efforts to infuse nightlife and round-the-clock shopping experiences in cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, and Kozhikode.
The contrast is unfamiliarly stark because, unlike other parts of India, Kerala exhibits little rural-urban disparity. Residents of villages and small towns in Kerala have access to advanced amenities without the necessity of travelling to major cities, and the lifestyles in rural and urban areas are similar.
That is changing. Numerous shops and business establishments in Kerala’s small to medium-sized towns will be forced to close in the near future as moneyed people stay away.
The solution is to infuse money and people into the local economies of Kerala, adopting the same strategy as Western countries where Malayali youth find refuge.
The Portuguese Model
Positioning themselves as 'second-home destinations' played a pivotal role in the economic recovery of Spain and Portugal during the European sovereign debt crisis that started in 2009 and lingered till the late 2010s.
Portugal, recently recognised as the top global destination for investing in a second home, is a particularly compelling example.
Portugal succeeded in branding itself as an appealing 'second-home destination' to retirees, families, digital nomads, and cultural enthusiasts worldwide by capitalising on its inherent advantages such as a subtropical climate, enchanting landscapes, and captivating history.
The Portuguese government has implemented the Golden Visa scheme, providing a residence visa to individuals purchasing real estate in the country, with special incentives for those investing in low-density areas.
The surge in second-home buyers extends beyond the popular tourist beachside regions of Lisbon and Algarve.
"The second-home phenomenon in Portugal has indeed become a remarkable new spatial occupation and population mobility feature evident in diverse parts of the country. They can be found not only in the highly urbanised and dynamic littoral but also in the aged and stagnating rural interior, as well as in areas with attractive natural and cultural landscapes...,” said a research paper titled 'Second Home Expansion in Portugal: Spatial Features and Impacts'. It was published by Routledge in the book 'Contested Spatialities, Lifestyle Migration and Residential Tourism'.
When we arrived in Portugal as tourists, we entered a world of warmth and friendliness. We immediately felt at home in the relaxed Portuguese culture, which welcomed diversity and embraced differences. Portugal’s touristically popular streets are dotted with authentic family-run restaurants that offer cozy hospitality and genuine local dishes at a reasonable price. The same characteristics that draw occasional visitors to Portugal also entice those who want to buy a second home.
In Kerala, around 10% of the 1.12 crore houses are vacant because of mass migration, according to the 2011 Census. The number will increase because, unlike the previous generations, the next generation of Keralites prefers to 'settle down' in Western countries.
But what works in favour of Kerala is that it is already celebrated as a tourist destination and has the potential to establish itself as a notable 'second-home destination' on both national and global scales.
Besides being a peaceful and safe state in India to live in, Kerala has other advantages such as access to quality healthcare even in rural areas, the highest internet penetration in the country, high levels of personal hygiene, a long coastline, lush mountains, and four international airports.
Nevertheless, Kerala must enhance public hygiene significantly by adopting sustainable waste management practices and consistently maintaining a minimum standard of cleanliness in all restaurants. In Portugal and Spain, we enjoyed a wide variety of food without worrying about stomach upsets, regardless of the type of restaurant.
The state government can initiate an 'Own a Second Home in Kerala' drive to attract tourists visiting Kerala from other Indian states, gradually expanding the campaign to a global audience.
From January to June 2023, Kerala saw a 20% surge in domestic tourist numbers, surpassing one crore visitors, compared with the same period in the previous year.
According to a report from Savills, a globally renowned property advisory firm, Goa has already emerged as a highly sought-after second home destination in India. Kerala can follow the Goan path and capitalise on its inherent advantages to become a popular second-home destination as well.
Need global solutions
Some Keralites may frown at the Portuguese way of reviving their hometowns and villages by attracting settlers from other places. However, it's important to remember that the massive migration of Kerala youth to Western countries is a direct result of Malayalis' increasing integration with the globalised world. The younger generation, despite their deep-rooted connection to their homeland, has larger ambitions regarding education, jobs, and way of life. Unfortunately, Kerala’s constrained social and economic landscape is unable to meet these lifestyle aspirations.
The younger generation will seek better opportunities abroad unless Kerala experiences a significant economic boom that creates well-paying jobs for them. No government can prevent them from 'escaping' God’s own Country.
A potential solution is to leverage Kerala’s tranquil and lush landscapes, along with its global reputation as a tourist haven, to attract non-Keralites for long-term stays and thereby rejuvenate the struggling local economies.
Globalising times call for innovative global solutions, even for local problems.
(Social anthropologist and novelist Thomas Sajan and US-trained neurologist Titto Idicula write on politics, culture, economy and medicine)