Kochi no more seems to be the City an ordinary man can afford. Each and every thing that is made available in the markets of Kochi are priced so high that it is beyond logical reason. Having had the privilege of knowing more rapidly developing cities in other South Indian states and living in one of them for a while before returning to the Metro of Kerala, this city sure has gone to dogs when it comes to providing the amenities of day to day life. Clothes, essential commodities, items of low repeatable use, but of fashionable value have all been priced ridiculously high in this city advertised by most tour operators of Kerala to be the most happening place in God’s Own Country. I fail to understand one thing – Whose greed are we, the ordinary citizen on the street, satisfying? Why are most things which sell for half or even one-third the price in other larger cities of India being sold at double or triple the price value they are worth? Even then, you get a quality which is far lower than you would get in malls of other metros which sell similar stuff.
Lately I had an opportunity to visit two of the most well-known malls in the city. The first thing that I was welcomed with was a column in beautifully scripted Malayalam that told me to pay up Rs.100/- as a parking fee, which would be refunded inside the mall. The mall authorities have taken the pains to justify their outrageous demand on another banner that sported a 10-point justification as why they should collect the money. I remembered the fashionable malls of Visakhapatnam which offered much better choice to their costumers that included well-educated men, women and children than both Kochi’s elite malls taken together had on offer. Yet those malls never ever charged a single pie as parking fees. Parking is as tricky a proposition there as much as it is here. Browsing around in the elite malls of MG Road for something that fit my bill and at the same time made an appeal to my mind, I wasted six precious hours of my valuable Sunday in the lifeless interiors of the widely advertised arcades. The shop floor assistant clad in carefully crafted uniform saree seemed to mockingly say: “Do you know where you are standing? Do you think you deserve to shop here? “ Disgusted with the attitude of the floor assistant, who was more interested in me picking up something which need not matter to me at all, I finally had to pick up some make-believe stuff to get my parking fees back as promised at the entry point. I regretted how foolish I was to move out of my previous work place and return to my home state with lots of stars in my eyes. It was a bitter realization that all that glitters is not gold. This city seems to have changed forever. Money is the only thing that seems to bring a smile to the people here. There is no humanitarian touch whatsoever. Even if a shopkeeper has seen you for the umpteenth time, he would be as tight lipped and straight faced as he was the first time one did business with him. And this they say is ‘God’s Own Country’. Dear God! Are you listening??
The way this city and the people have changed, made me compare Kochi with Vizag, the fastest developing city on the east coast where I stayed for four years before returning to Kochi. That city is developing at such a feverish pace that many national and international companies are vying for a place to open shop in its beautiful locales. The amount of money that is in circulation in that city is far far higher than any Kochiite can imagine. There are filthy rich businessmen who own lands as much and more as the size of two or three districts of Kerala and also the ordinary casual labourer who is more respectable about his profession than the union-led monster labourers of Kerala. The rich never show off their riches except for the posh cars they drive around and the poor never bother to conceal their penury. They seem to be equally happy and surprisingly, their youngsters seem to be quite disciplined and humble – incomparable to the wards of similar parents of Kerala. All through my four years of stay in that city, not a single day’s work was affected by something called a ‘bandh’ or a ‘hartal’ which has become a routine affair in the daily life of each Keralite. The VMC busted many buildings and land owned by the rich and the powerful to make way for top-class roads and avenues inside the city prior to the President’s Fleet Review that the city hosted with pride in 2006. Private buses are unheard of in that city which lives on the regular schedule of city buses run by the APSRTC. I never saw a bus that was grossly untidy and unkempt among the city buses. The long distance buses are far more luxurious and less cheaper than the ones our very own KSRTC flouts around with pride. All routes are numbered and it has been like that for a very long time. People, though far less educated – I mean here the ordinary lot – than the extra geniuses of Kerala, show much discipline and social amity on public transports and public places.
The traffic sense of the average Gulte youngster is atrocious but much balanced when compared to the murderous monster drivers of the Red Killer buses of Kochi. But I must confess that the auto drivers in all cities are a common breed. I wonder whether they undergo organized cross-training sessions!! They behave the same everywhere. The smarter you are with them, the better they behave with you. But, unlike in God’s Own Kochi, no auto driver was heard of taking his passengers on a joy ride before dropping them off at the location which was actually only a few hundred meters ahead of the hiring spot. Ladies and children can safely walk on the roads even past midnight in Vizag city without fear of mugging and rape. All this would seem unbelievable when you would recollect that the city is pretty much close to the highly active Agency area which teems with Naxalites. The city boasts of huge as well as small Spencer’s outlets, Magna shopping plazas, the cheap and best choice called Big Bazaar all co-existing cosily with the city’s very own small grocery shops which are patronized by the public that also shop at the big names. I never saw any small time shopkeeper shut shop because of the large number of hi-tech shopping malls that came up in that city in a very short span of two years. There are places near the beach where people could safely spend the whole night without any thug daring to touch them. There is a beautifully maintained Submarine museum right on the beach – the only one in India and probably in the whole of Asia. People have ample places to just sit and while away a holiday afternoon in the cosy locales of VUDA park, Kailasagiri, RK Beach, MGM Park or just stroll along the aesthetically maintained beach side walkways. The only comparable site in Kochi is the cozy walkways along the residential accommodation of Port Trust Captains on Wellington Island, which now-a-days have many barricades in between.
Coming to daily life : Vegetables and groceries are one of the cheapest I have ever seen. Cheaper even than Bombay, Delhi and Goa. The reason, the farm produce is first distributed to feed Andhra before it is allocated for sale outside the State. Clothes – although branded clothes come at the same price tag as is elsewhere, there are equally good materials manufactured and marketed by small industries in and around Vizag which excel in quality but compete less in terms of pricing. These allow the normal man to choose from a wide variety. I experimented many times by picking up sarees for my good lady from Vizag and then comparing the price of the same item in the elite malls of Kochi through my friends. The difference was mind-boggling. There is at least a difference of 50% on all fashionable clothing stuff that is sold in more organized malls of Vizag and their far cousins of Kochi. Vizag turned out to be cheaper buy always and in every aspect. Coming to education : I would have an army of parents lined up behind me to say ‘Aye Aye’ when I make the statement that school education in Vizag is a far better bet than that of Kochi or anywhere else in Kerala. The statistics itself is proof. Take the number of toppers in ITT-JEE and All India Medical and Engineering Entrance tests that +2 students appear for every year. Take the results of the Civil Services Mains and Interviews that select the best administrators of the country. Most of them are from Andhra. The need to study hard and excel is driven into the brains of children across financial classes very early in their childhood. The teachers excel in their profession, so do the students. The fees are high, of course. But one can afford to pay a higher fee for his or her child’s education when he or she need not pay exorbitantly high prices for filling up their stomachs each day or to provide a roof over their head. Vizag has the cheapest rates of house rents in most of South India.
All this doesn’t mean that the politicians and administrators are the first cousins of the legendary upright kings of our famous epics. They hog quite a bit of taxpayers money in the name of development. But, then, they are able to showcase development and bring them to the benefit of the masses. As long as the common man is taken care of, there are no cribs. The government agencies do their best to make life in the city as comfortable as possible for the citizens. No protest marches or 'dharnas' are required to achieve this aim. They seem to be counting them as part of the crowd even when they were eating a chunk of bread behind their backs. The few upright souls in the political and administrative fibre were able to move the machinery with their single-minded and unflinching efforts. That probably is the success of Vizag. There is much to emulate. But are our white cotton dhoti-clad revolutionaries and babus listening ??