Cashing out of the money order economy

Written by Satya Naagesh Ayyagary | Updated: Nov 23 2007, 06:37am hrs
American socio-economist Thornstein Veblens theory of conspicuous consumption and leisure class is vindicated right here. The large, brightly-lit, multi-storied showrooms of Joy Alukkas, Francis Alukkas, Malabar Gold, Bhima Gold, and Kalyan Silksclaiming to be the worlds largest sari storewould put any ostentatious nouveau riche Punjabi to shame. Clearly, Dubais gold souks have some pretty well heeled cousins here.

The fact that Cochin was a kingdom is visible ironically in the Maharajahs numerous insti- tutions jostling in vain with new money steel and glass edifices. More ironical, though, are the red hammer-and-sickle flags fluttering alongside the neon lights of post-liberalisation.

Its all about migration and money. Migration has been an opportunity for Kerala. The reverse brain drain and migration, as in the case of Ireland, can also be an opportunity now, points out KK George, chairman of think-tank Centre for Socio-economic & Environmental Studies. What used to be known as a money order economy for decades (owing to the large remittances from Gulf-based Keralites) is now changing into a domestic-driven economy.

The port city, which once accounted for 13% of Indias exports, mainly spices, today reportedly now accounts for a paltry 5%. Economic activity has shifted from Port Cochin some say a ghost townto Ernakulam, thanks mainly to the Cochin International Airport (CIAL), the first greenfield airport to be set up under public-private partnership and which now serves as a template for success.

As one drives from Kochi airport in Nedumbaserry into the city, a distance of about 34 km through lush green coconut farms and fast-disappearing paddy fields, hoardings abound of real estate projects of every type advertising homes and dreams. Almost half the hoardings in Kerala are of real estate developers, points out Krishnaswamy A, an IIM Calicut alumnus, exporter and entrepreneur.

While the airport may have kick-started the citys economic revival after years of stagnation, Kochi is now attractive also as an IT destination. In a ripple effect, Wipros facilities at the Info Park in Kakkanad are convincing its peers to set up shop here, too. Projects to watch out for: Smart City and CIALs IT park at its planned airport special economic zone.

There is also a dichotomy of sorts. My fellow traveller on the ferry ride from the placid backwaters to the Cochin Shipyard one on side and a destroyer anchored in the Indian Navys Southern Command waters on the other as we enter the mouth of the Arabian Sea, is 24-year-old Aftab. A server administrator with an IT company in Kakkanad and a motorcycle-racing enthusiast, he feels that there are good opportunities here. But its getting competitive. Sure, I want to have a stint in the Gulf for a while. Clearly, the allure of the petro-dollar is still strong in these parts.

However, Maya Madhusudhanan, 21, a Lucknow-born Malayali working as a trainee at Spice Jet at Kochi airport is quite content with the opportunities thrown up by Kochis newfound development. I like the city. It is green, has great food, and is growing, she says.

Behind all the energy one also finds the stupor of the contentment: people guzzling rum or whisky, munching karimeen in dimly lit bars on a weekday afternoon. It may not be a business lunch, but some having the best of both worlds.