Changing Lives in Northern Kerala

A dynamic charity of the Syro- Malabar Catholic Church tackles poverty

by Sean Sprague and Jomi Thomas

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A “roof over your head” is considered one of life’s basic necessities, and yet for many it remains out of reach.

“During the heavy rains, water would seep through the roof and fall on my face while I slept,” said Aleyama Luka, a widow from Wayanad, a district in northern Kerala.

“I would have to sit up all night sheltering the children under an umbrella.”

Poverty is not uncommon in Wayanad, a tiny hill area known for its spices and coffee. Though much of the local economy is tied to agriculture, the overuse of chemical fertilizers and insecticides and painful government-led economic reforms have devastated district farmers. In the period of a year, from May 2006 to June 2007, 101 farmers — all of whom faced bankruptcy — reportedly took their own lives.

But thanks to the Malabar Social Service Society (MASSS), an agency of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Kottayam, efforts are under way to improve the lot of tens of thousands of people in need throughout northern Kerala: needy children, senior citizens, tenant farmers, unskilled laborers, fishermen, artisans, tribals and dalits, the so-called “untouchables” of India.

Tears welled up in Mrs. Luka’s eyes as she described her family’s difficulties, not least the horror of watching her husband succumb recently to cancer after a long and expensive battle that depleted their meager savings. But she took comfort from her new three-room house — built by MASSS with funds from generous CNEWA donors — though it is still unfinished and the walls need plastering.

Mrs. Luka had already decorated her new home, hanging several religious prints, including the familiar image of Jesus knocking on a closed door and captioned, “Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

“I just can’t believe this,rdquo; Mrs. Luka said of her new home. “I cannot describe it as anything other than a dream come true.”

Kerala’s northern districts, collectively called Malabar, differ from the state’s southern regions of Cochin and Travancore. Merged to form Kerala by India’s States Reorganization Act of 1956, these northern and southern regions have different histories and cultures. In addition, the infrastructure of the north is not nearly so well developed as the south, while educational opportunities and services such as health care also lag behind.

Father Michael Nedumthuruthil, who directs MASSS, described the “Great Depression” that affected southern India during the mid-20th century, a depression that still hurts many Keralites: The impact of World War II, combined with Indian independence in 1947 (which made migration and emigration easier) and overpopulation in the south forced many southerners — Christian, Hindu and Muslim — to migrate north in search of work.

But from the start they encountered many problems: teeming wildlife, an adverse climate of extremes in heat and rainfall and communicable diseases. Difficulties continued as many of the descendants of those early migrants failed to secure their own land. Most now work as day laborers. And yet, the north continues to draw migrants from the south, especially from Kottayam, one of the few Indian districts experiencing a decline in population.

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Tags: Kerala Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Emigration Homes/housing