Kozhikode: Confusing Identities’ Due to Fluctuating Political Regimes and Changing Economic Policies



The history of Kozhikode dates back to the middle ages when it was dubbed the title ‘the city of spices’ due to its role as a major trading centre for the Arabs and later for the British. The city geographically situated towards the north of Kerala was the capital kingdom ruled independently by the Samoothiris’ who were enthusiastic about trade and exchange and hence the city transformed into one of the prime trade centre’s in Kerala of the time. The city has a strong presence of Muslims, though population statistics may show an almost equal percentage of Hindus who are residing in the outer regions. This disparity is due to the large urban population of Muslims and hence their activities in the city are prime and always in focus. A large percentage of the population (60%) depends either directly or indirectly on gulf countries for its job opportunities, and hence the migration rates are very high. The city stands second in its number of gulf migrants and hence most of the city’s economy is dependent on this cash flow from the Arab nations.

Kozhikode is next to Cochin in terms of its development concentration considering major cities in Kerala. Around 15 years back, the situation was quite different. Kozhikode is the centre of activities for the northern Kerala, whether it be trade, commerce, education or medical facilities, the city is in the spotlight. The Muslim population from the city is culturally strong and intact, and conservative in nature. Major functional role of the city is that of trade and commerce as the city was known for it from the middle ages. Tertiary sector or the service class also feature a large proportion in the urban areas. It is one of the strong city centres of northern Kerala were the crop from the Western Ghats is collected and distributed to the rest of the world.

The city as other cities in Kerala always witness the political duals between the Communist Party and the Indian National Congress. The politically distinct ideologies directly impact the development directions and pace of development. Though the Muslim League, an alliance of Congress party has a strong hold in the city politics anchoring the entire development spur, it doesn’t come without resistance.

Once known for the black money market from Gulf countries the policy liberalisations in NRI money led to drastic changes in the investment patterns in the city. The people of the city started investing, especially in real estate. The new FDI policy is what the city investors is looking forward to capitalize on in the near future. ‘Deregulation has been a crucial mechanism to negotiate the juxtaposition of the global and the national…the emphasis on the transnational and hypermobile character of capital has contributed to a sense of powerlessness among the local actors, a sense of futility of resistance’ (Sassen, 1996) Thus as Sassen puts it the deregulation came with strong resistance from the public. Liberalisation was opposed to an extent that at one point in time, the people forced to shut down all the retail outlets like that of Reliance, More and KFC. This is an end product of the sense of fear within the minds of the people.

The political ties and the new development surge

The scenarios have changed after these liberalisation policies. But the back bone of the city’s economy is still the NRI funds which flows from overseas and come to the city. This is the drive for the cities development process. The new foreign investment policies, IT boom and the ever green real estate business is banking on these NRI cash flows to invest in Kozhikode.

But interestingly the state ruled by Congress party at present hasn’t given green signal to the FDI policy which was the brainchild of UPA Government at the centre. This shows the influence the opposition party has on the government as well as the people. While the talks on FDI is going on in the state, organized Global Investors Meet at Cochin to attract big investments to the state. Though strongly opposed by the Communist party it was acclaimed a great success by the media. Though the outcomes are yet to be seen it was a definite signal to the directions in which the cities in Kerala are going to grow. Kozhikode was one of the prime cities which were brought to the investors focus due to the good reputation of the city. The city ranked second as the best liveable city in India by the Assocham Survey, was a good boost to the city as a whole.

The new projects like cyber city, proposed monorail for the city, industrial suburb at Kinaloor, Beypore port, Kerala’s largest integrated township, South India’s tallest residential tower, and Knowledge city by Birla are some of the prime developments which triggered the sudden development boom in the city. New investors from the reality sector look up at Kozhikode as a city of the future. As the bank records suggest, the number of deposits and loans has increased tremendously over the last 10 years.

The changing ideologies

Apart from these visible changes in the capital accumulation and investing strategy there has been a change in the way people think. During the past 20 years the city witnessed drastic shift in the thought process with education bringing ‘forward thinking’ to an otherwise conservative society. The thrust given on education and the need for good education can be felt in the school and college admissions in the city. This was due to the strong political bias shown by the then ‘educational minister’ who happens to be from the minority of the city. His influences brought forth the establishment of IIM and NIT in the city which was followed by the coming up of many schools and private colleges. Kozhikode was identified as a place for good and quality education. The women from the minority coming to the forefront, is definitely the change the city has witnessed as an aftereffect of this education. This can be very much be felt by the presence of more women during evening hours in the beaches and the shopping centres which once used to be a male dominated realm. Muslim women participation in employment sectors and other services have increased tremendously. Also the 74th amendment has made sure that more women come to anchor significant positions in the making of the city. The restrictions behind the veil are slowly getting dissolved and they are in search of new realms of life.

The confusing identities

Given these changing ideologies the city still doesn’t really know where it stands as a religiously strong nexus of the northern Kerala. Cultural hegemony in multiracial societies is in part ensured through the socio-historical construction of racialised categories in and through place.’ (Anderson, 1991) But the city still doesn’t have this multitude of people.  Unlike other global cities facing issues like contestation of spaces between the ‘self and the other’, Kozhikode is not yet a migrant’s paradise. It neither has any suburbia’s occupied by the ‘weak’ that are dislocated or a core city which is heavily infested with the upper class. But yet the city is confused….

‘The politics of identity- however they may be defined around gender or race or neighbourhood-are an inescapable and important aspect of dealing with the urban built environment.’– (Hayden) Hence it is important to know what the real city is going to be as it will define the urbanity of the city.

The city is struggling in a confusing territory where the new development drive is focusing on giving new image to the city, but the inherent cultural roots of the city are so strong that the city at some points discards this development surge. Be it the denial of the malls or the retail outlets which came as part of liberalization, the city was not welcoming change with open hands. There was constant questioning of each and every development policies introduced by different political regimes. The foreign direct investment for example is still not accepted by the people of the state, even when the government is organizing Global Investor Meet (GIM) to attract investors to Gods own country. This shows the clear disjuncture between the policy level initiatives and the people’s view over these issues.

The urban transformations and social life

 x‘Destruction, invasion and restructuring of places of an unprecedented scale’ (Harvey, 1989) is what Harvey mentions as the end result of the entire globalisation process. But again the city of Kozhikode is different from other globalized cities. This contrasting behaviour of the city is due to the specificities of Kerala. The economic diversities in Kozhikode or for that matter in any other city in Kerala is not as stark as in other cities like Delhi or Mumbai or any other cities. What Kerala defines and demarcates as slums are still having satisfactory neighbourhoods. People still are within a similar range of economic background and the city still doesn’t depend on fortified enclaves (gated colonies) to differentiate between the rich and the poor. This is in contrast to cities like Bangalore or Hyderabad were the diversities are very distinctly visible. Again the ethnic diversities are not so strong in Kozhikode like other cites. Even when cities like Cochin, Kollam or Trivandrum feature large ethnic mix of people, mostly who came in search of labour work from other states, Kozhikode still doesn’t feature much of migrant workers. Only very recently markets for Bengali workers picked up in Kozhikode showing traces of this in-migration. ‘Trans-nationalisation of labour and the formation of transnational identities which are sites for new types of political operations.’ (Sassen, 1996) This trans nationalisation will bring forth new issues for the city to deal with. A recent example being the eviction of the entire Bangla community settled in Kollam, sending them back to their hometown as the people from the hometown found their presence dominating. These are constant contestations the city will have to deal with in its process of transformation.

Other than these intangible aspects of the city, Kozhikode has a linear growth pattern. This has been the identity of many cities in Kerala were the development is along the movement corridors and not radial or concentric in nature. This leads to very different patterns of territorialisation in the city contrast to other developing cities were the rich slowly pushes out the poor to the suburbs. The city of Kozhikode doesn’t have suburbia. It is uniformly urban as well as rural, as the growth is along the movement corridors. We see the rich staying in houses close by to the poor in the city core as well as in the outskirts. Thus the urban form is not an end product of a desperate need for territorialisation. There is constant life enriched by a mix of people from all classes along the development corridor. This doesn’t mean there are no territories or boundaries. The territories are well defined by religious structures or cultural precincts or natural boundaries like rivers or ridges.

Social life structures territory and territory shapes social life.’(Dear & Woltch). They are never a resultant of economic diversities. But this situation is changing over a period of time due to the slow establishment of the real estate sector in the city. They, as in any other city promote exclusivity as their market tag to force people to opt for villas or even high-rise apartments. ‘The images of the enclaves as opposed to image of the city as a deteriorated world pervaded not only by pollution and noise, but more important, confusion and mixture that is social heterogeneity.’ (Calderia) Though not as blunt as Calderia puts it, the market forces are very much capitalizing on the self-predicted future of the city. But interestingly what is different from the gated colonies of other cities like Bangalore to that in Kozhikode is the mix of uses brought into these exclusive domains. Thus they are not entirely Ghettos but are to some extent are a good mix of uses. They may probably be used by people from similar classes but an inherent character of the city where everything is mixed use is maintained. This is due to the small plot sizes of the apartments and also the linear developmental pattern giving commercial value to each plot unlike gated colonies of the inner areas.

New directions of growth

So what is in the box for a city like Kozhikode which is going to witness one of the biggest & fastest transformations in its entire history? This is something which will interest us to think about the future directions for the same. No city has accepted change so easily and will not, as it is the inherent nature of every city to counter the pressures put on it, by different means whether it be social, political or cultural.  Given the political condition of a state like Kerala with strong communist roots, accepting change is never going to be easy. It is an inherent nature of every Malayali to question what is given and to accept only after questioning. This has by time become an unsaid method of accepting change in the state. True that it has its minuses given the time it takes for the entire public to come to terms with the change. Also the constant strikes and protests have made life miserable. But the entire process of filtering and cross-scrutinizing each and every small change within the city can be seen as a better model or way in which the development should be carried forward. By this process most of the contestations which we expect to see after implementation is carried out beforehand. It is, in short the Kerala model of the implication of the 74th amendment.

Now considering future scenario for the city of Kozhikode given all these complex political conditions, the reforms like foreign direct investment and SEZ’s will become an inevitable  part of the city though after a lot of contestations. The city is going to witness the strong contestation between the global image of the liberalized market and the cultural identity projected by the strong cultural rooting’s of the city. The new tendential urban meaning is the spatial and cultural separation of people from their product and from their history.’ (Castells) Thus this entire process will bring more conflicts into the city. They will produce new spaces of urbanism which are different from what we see in cities like Delhi or Mumbai which are more susceptible to change. ‘New developments associated with the dynamic of valorisation that has sharply increased the disparity between the valorised sectors of the economy and the revalorized sectors.’ (Sassen, 1996) Unlike these developments which create disparity in spaces, the new spaces created are an end product of constant questioning, scrutiny, modifications, reworking and rejecting. Hence they will not be spaces of direct contestations, but a more reliable, meaningful space. ‘Both actors, increasingly transnational and in contestation, find in the city the strategic terrain for their operations. But it is hardly the terrain of a balanced playing field.’ (Sassen, 1996) But again as Sassen puts it, there is no balance which can be achieved between these forces as it is these very forces which make the city grow. ‘The stasis cannot be read as gentlemanly stability: nor can the movements and transactions be read as grassroots resistance. What is at work is a regime seeking to reinvent its forms of hegemony at the margins of global change.’– (Roy) Thus they need not be seen as contestations which destroy a city but, contestations which make a city, the contestations which strengthen the existing identity as well as giving new identities. ‘Unmooring of identities from what have been traditional sources of identity, such as nature or geography. This unmooring process engenders new notions of community, of membership and of entitlement.’ (Sassen, 1996) There will be new notions of identity created which are neither based on the geographies nor the cultural roots of the city. They will be more holistic in its outlook. One example specific to the city of Kozhikode can be its new identity as a knowledge hub which doesn’t anchor on any specific cultures, ethnicity or geographies. It is an identity created by the culmination of students coming from different places, from different backgrounds to the city for education. They give new dimensions to the city. The city starts understanding and responding to their growing needs. The gaining prominence of new libraries, Edumart, student clubs etc. in the city are impacts of these transformation. They give a new dimension to the city which is of youth and celebration.

The struggles that emerged around these urban transformations produced a conflictual identity politics in which a variety of interest groups mobilized often contradictory notions of what Spitalfields stood for as a neighbourhood and what constituted the rightful Spitalfield community.’ (Roy) As Ananya Roy through the example of Spitalfields puts across, the transformations are bound to bring conflictual identity politics to the forefront. But will the city contest with the new global spirits to re-establish its identity or will the city be ready for that one giant leap of faith is something which needs to be seen.