From ONE Magazine

Building Hope

Until recently, there was little about Sudha Surendran’s life to give her hope for her future in Trivandrum, the capital of the Indian state of Kerala. Her husband ran out on her five years ago, when she was 22, and left her with nothing. She has since learned he has another wife and is living several hundred miles away.

Mrs. Surendran works at a cashew factory to provide for her two children, Sujin, 8, and Sujith, 5. She also takes care of her mother-in-law, Ponnamma, an 80-year-old widow. Despite her husband’s abandonment, Sudha bears her no ill will: “She’s a mother to me, and I look after her as if she were my own.”

Mrs. Surendran and her family live in Vazhavilakam, an impoverished area about 25 miles south of Trivandrum. They share a dilapidated hut without electricity. Mrs. Surendran wakes at dawn and hikes to get the day’s supply of drinking water. She cooks for the family, prepares the children for school and then makes her way to the factory. The money she earns is barely sufficient to cover food and medicine for Ponnamma. Mrs. Surendran falls behind on rent often, and her landlord is threatening to evict her. By any standard, it is a difficult life.

However, that is about to change. Mrs. Surendran’s family is one of 25 selected to participate in a home-building project of the Trivandrum Archdiocese of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The $75,000 project, funded in part by CNEWA, originated from plans to mark the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios’ consecration as bishop. Rather than spend money on lavish festivities, why not help the poor, the archbishop suggested. “Since we were celebrating my silver jubilee, we decided to finance the construction of 25 homes for the poor,” said Mar Baselios, who is 69.

In international development circles, Kerala is held up as a model of development. Life expectancy in the state of 30 million is 74 years, well above the Indian average of 64 years. The birthrate in Kerala is 18.5 per 1,000, as compared to 29.5 per 1,000 throughout India. Literacy is nearly 100 percent in Kerala, the only one of India’s states for which this can be said. Much of this success can be attributed to the social policies of the Communist governments that have held power in Kerala since it first became a state in 1956, passing agrarian reforms, launching mass literacy campaigns and encouraging the education of women.

When economists refer to the “Kerala miracle” they marvel at the state’s ability to raise living standards without a concurrent rise in wealth. The per capita income of Kerala is $473, only slightly better than the national average. Miracle or not, most Keralites live impoverished, difficult lives.

This is particularly true for Christians with roots in the Nadar and Dalit castes, who are most of the beneficiaries of the housing program. Christian Nadars and Dalits do not receive the same government entitlements as other lower castes. Thus, many of India’s poor Christians rely on the church.

Mrs. Surendran, a Nadar, earns less than $300 a year, which is why she is so overjoyed at the thought of having a new home.

“I prayed fervently for this home,” she said. “When it is done, I will be a bit more secure. At least I can save on my rent, which can go instead toward my children’s education.”

Mar Baselios was committed to spreading the funds as far as possible, while building quality homes. “We had to have houses that would last at least 25 to 30 years,” he said.

To control costs, the project managers decided on a standard design for the houses: 332-square-foot brick-and-cement structure, with a bedroom, living room, kitchen and toilet. Each home is wired and painted.

The church relied on local contractors. “I tell them, ‘This is the plan, this is the amount, can you do it?’ ” said Father Geeverghese Nediyath, who oversees the project. “To cut costs, the contractors are paid in installments, so that money for each stage is contingent on the completion of the previous one.”

Typically, it takes around three months to complete a house, Father Nediyath said.

Deciding which families would benefit from the program was difficult given the limited resources and widespread demand. The archdiocese gives special consideration to families with school-going children. About 700 applications came in from 519 parishes and mission stations in the area.

Recipients must also own a small plot of land, about 0.04 acre, Father Nediyath said. While this rules out some of Kerala’s most impoverished, it was a necessary stipulation given the limited funds available for house construction. Many of the recipients owned small plots but were living in shacks of straw, corrugated metal or plastic. Others borrowed money to buy a plot. Mrs. Surendran received her plot from her mother-in-law.

Most of the 25 recipients are Christian, but Father Nediyath said a person’s religion had nothing to do with the decision. “No applicant or local parish priest could influence the allotment in any way,” he said.

While the homes are standardized to save money, some recipients make efforts to add extras. “Some enterprising folks make the money stretch farther,” said Suresh Therivilayil, the archbishop’s secretary.

One recipient, Thomas Rajan, a plumber, made every effort toward frugality. After he borrowed $22 from his parish priest to buy a tiny plot of land, Mr. Rajan worked alongside the contractor to cut labor costs. He also sought out used materials. Such measures allowed Mr. Rajan to make several improvements to the standard plan.

With 25 homes nearly completed, construction is under way on an additional 16, said Mar Baselios.

Soon, Mrs. Surendran and her family will begin a new life in their new home. All it needs now is some plaster work and finishing.

“This was a small, but fruitful gesture,” Cyril Mar Baselios said. “I am very happy with its achievements and am only too glad to continue. Funds permitting, this could be an ongoing enterprise.”

Anthony Kurian is a Bangalore-based journalist.