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As number of vacant houses mounts in Kerala

Feb 26, 2023 12:17 AM IST

With high migration rate and ageing population, the repercussion is quite visible in the state.

Thiruvananthapuram: Driving along the coastal belt of Kerala one can see big houses in the middle of coconut-palm-filled plots. With a peek at some of these big mansions, you can see no trace of human movements. Some of them are closed for years and in some often a caretaker or relative makes occasional cleaning -- wild creepers, worn out paint, and wear and tear tell all.

A vacant house in state capital Thiruvananthapuram (Picture taken by Vivek Nair)
A vacant house in state capital Thiruvananthapuram (Picture taken by Vivek Nair)

With high migration rate and ageing population, the repercussion is quite visible in Kerala. Situation is acute in rich districts, such as Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, and people often call these closed concrete and traditional tiled structures “Bhargavi Nilayam, ” a popular Malayalam ghost movie of 1960s. True, vacant houses dot green landscape, colleges seats are vacant, star-rated old age homes mushroom, recruitment agencies and IELTS coaching joints pop up even in countryside.

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According to an estimate of the local-self government, there are 1.3 million vacant houses in the state. And the cash-strapped government (total debt of the state is 4 lakh crore) that is on a race to find new avenues found a way to tap these houses -- in the budget for 2023-24, which was presented in the assembly in the first week of February, there is a proposal to impose an additional tax on vacant houses. Though NRIs cry foul, government mandarins admit these closed houses are a burden on environment and they have to pay up.

“There is a proposal in this regard. It is in initial stages and modalities are yet to be worked out. Since the budget is not passed, I cannot comment more on the proposal,” said state finance minister K N Balagopal.

But people close to the government said this proposal came from the local self-government and that it is a move aimed at checking fragile environment and penalise people who simply consider big houses as their status symbols. In the budget speech, the minister had said an additional revenue of 1000 crore was expected through taxing vacant houses and this will be a big boost to local bodies.

It is a fact that the state is an extended urban landscape -- there is no boundary that separates rural and urban periphery. For nearly half a century remittances flew to the state from the Middle-East unhindered and nurses, teachers and skilled workers swarmed western countries also in a big way, and palatial houses mushroomed everywhere. Now with better economic status, second and third generation youth are leaving the state in a big way in search of greener pastures leaving their aged parents and grannies back home. And many aged parents also love to don the role of baby sitters in the faraway US and UK leaving their houses.

“If a family has three children, all three need separate houses and land is being divided ruthlessly and misused. Concrete structures are coming up everywhere and water table of the state is also dipping alarmingly. Many consider their house a status symbol. And it mounted during the height of oil boom in the Gulf,” a senior revenue official who did not want to be quoted said,adding that a new initiative is a must to discourage the building craze.

According to a data of the state local-self government, about 11%of (1. 19 million) of total 10 million plus houses lie vacant -- this is much higher than national average of 7.45%. It is a fact most NRIs who fly from Kerala return with better returns and they spend a lion’s share of their income, as part of their societal pressure, to build a grand abode here, sociologists said, adding mindless migration has affected interpersonal relationship with little affinity to one’s own roots, and nuclear family is one of the main causes for high suicide rate in the state. According to 2021 NCRB data, national suicide rate is 6.2 per 100,000 while it is 26.9 in Kerala.

Aged most affected

Sitting on the veranda of her old house, Anamma Kurian (68), a resident of Kumbanad in Pathanamathitta, is browsing through the newspaper of the day. She is set for another 18-hour non-stop flight to Toronto (Canada) from Delhi and swollen right knee gives her much worries. A widow, her two children are abroad, one in Canada and another in Germany.

“I returned from Germany four months back and now I plan to go to youngest one. Though I am keen to stay back, my children are not. They cite security issues and my failing health. What to do, I have to leave next month,” she lamented. Her traditional house with 12 rooms will remain close for another spell.

Many expatriate parents who toiled their youth in deserts of the Middle-East wish to return to their nests in their autumn but their children prefer to take up education in western countries and settle there, leaving little choice for them. Kurian has entrusted her house with one of her distant relatives once she leaves. There are many mansions in Pathanamthitta and Kottayam where only aged live.

A UK-returned medical officer, K Chandrasekhan owns three houses in Kumbazha in Pathanamthitta -- first, his 120-year-old traditional home he inherited and two he bought for his two children. Since both children are settled aboard, two mansions remained closed for last eight years.

“I bought these houses as investment for my children. I am scared to rent them out also. It is a dead investment now. The government plan to impose additional tax on closed houses is a rude jolt,” he said. Chandrasekhan said if the government can make use of these homes under a written agreement, it will be useful for them. But many others said government takeover will do more harm.

“More than dwelling units usually houses are seen as investment in Kerala. With the government’s new proposal to impose additional tax on vacant houses, people will be reluctant to invest in housing sector and it will hit investment prospects of the state,” said author and social observer Rejimon Kuttappan, adding it was unfair to tax NRIs alone who earn enough for the country.

Migration back on rail

According to the latest Kerala migration survey, an estimated 2.1 million people from the state are working abroad and 70% of them are in oil-rich GCC countries. After Covid-induced lull, things are slowly brightening up, said migration experts and bankers. Many expats who lost their jobs in the Gulf during the pandemic have returned and thinned remittances are getting stronger after a break.

A silver lining in Kerala’s great migration story is that many techies are coming back to the state after acquiring enough exposure and wherewithal -- more than 30% of the thriving start-ups in the state belonged to such returnees, said a senior IT professional, adding greying state has some hope. Five years ago 19% of total NRI remittance came to Kerala but now Maharashtra pushed the state to second -- in 2021 Maharashtra topped the list with 35.2%, Kerala 10.2% and Tamil Nadu 9.7%.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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