ON AN unusually hot and sticky January weekend, Priyanka Joe was looking forward to nothing in particular when her father-in-law suddenly ordered her out of home. “‘Go and learn how to shop. The mall has come to our doorstep’, he shouted,” recalls Joe about how she was introduced to the floating mall in Kerala’s Kuttanadu. A clump of earth spattered all over the vast Vembanadu Lake, the largest water body in Kerala, Kuttanadu itself is a perpetually floating piece of land. With its crisscrossing canals and deep rivers, the region depends on water for everything, including sporting—snakeboat race is perhaps the only sport known to its people. Shopping, too, is no exception, thanks to what the residents of Kuttanadu have come to believe as “the first floating mall in the world”.
Designed by a homegrown engineering company, the floating mall is operated by the state government’s Consumerfed, a cooperative founded nearly four decades ago with the aim of selling essential commodities to families at prices less than the market rates. Consumerfed commissioned its first floating mall four years ago when it realised the only way to meet the needs of the people in the backwaters region of the state was to set up markets on a travelling boat. Called ‘Floating Triveni’, compared to its land-based ‘Triveni’ shops, the mall on the water keeps just about everything a home needs. And people keep filling every day into the floating malls that are helping a whole population cut off by nature from the rest of the world.
The elders in Kuttanadu recall early days of trading by boatmen, who used to barter their wares like kitchen utensils and earthen pots for chicken and duck eggs, a household farming in the area. Consumerfed’s Alappuzha regional manager Anil P Zacharia, who oversees three Floating Trivenis in Kuttanadu and its surrounding places and another one in nearby Kottayam, says there have been instances of similar selling in tiny traditional boats in Thailand too. “But our floating malls, stocked with a variety of essential commodities, are big, like supermarkets,” says Zacharia. “Everyone is happy to shop seven days a week, saving time and money in going to big shops in faraway towns,” he adds. Agrees Greeshma Ratheesh, who bought a bottle of perfume from the floating mall in Naluchira, an island village 15km from Alappuzha, on New Year’s day. “I didn’t have to go to the town for buying it,” she says. Measuring 55 ft long and 20 ft wide, the floating malls boast wall-mounted shelves, electronic cash counters, fans and even a computer that helps raise online demands for fresh stock. Solar panels on the rooftop supply much of the power to the boat, whose outboard engine is fed by kerosene. Some, like the floating mall in Naluchira, also sport flowerpots, gifted by villagers to show gratitude.
Since 2009, when the first floating mall came to Alappuzha, backwater districts like Kochi, Kollam and Kottayam have got their own boats. The last one in Kottayam, inaugurated in April 2012 by Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy, has taken the total number of Trivenis on water to six across the state. Constantly on the move, each floating mall caters to thousands of families in dozens of villages, anchoring at a place for a day or sometimes two, depending on the demand. “During festivals, our sales reach R1 lakh a day,” says shop manager Sreejith Gopalakrishnan in Naluchira about sales that rival figures of many shops in city malls. The backwaters in Malabar, in the north of Kerala, will get a floating mall later this year when a boat, currently under construction in Kasargode, is ready. “Unlike conventional boats made of wood and steel, the floating malls, with a polymer and cement combination as the main building material, is non-corrosive and need almost no maintenance,” says MR Narayanan, managing director of Floatell India, which has built all the Floating Trivenis. At R28 lakh apiece, the floating malls are far cheaper than similarly-sized boats made of steel and wood that cost “up to R80 lakh” to build. “We have received enquiries recently from Sri Lanka about building floating malls for its inaccessible regions,” adds Narayanan.
The great backwaters
The canals of Alappuzha, called the ‘Venice of the East’, have always been the arteries of a healthy economy in central Kerala by propping up trade for centuries. A coastal town and coir capital of the world, Alappuzha received much of its goods for trade from the hilly eastern districts of Kerala through large vessels called ‘kettuvallam’. Later, construction of roads reduced the dependence on these boats for transporting goods, a twist in the socio-economic history of Kuttanadu that led to the transformation of the ‘kettuvallam’ into today’s houseboat. The arrival of the first floating mall in 2009 also helped the houseboats that dot the backwaters in getting groceries for their guests. The floating malls have thus also become a tourist attraction in the backwaters that once reportedly beat the Taj Mahal as India’s most preferred destination in an online poll.
Even the big oil companies have realised how easy it is to move their products by the waterways within the state instead of using the clogged highways. All the major oil companies, like the Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation and Indo-Burma Petroleum Corporation, have bought land near the national waterway from Kochi to Kollam. Also, for the first time, the Kerala tourism department, a few months ago, sent helicopter-mounted cameras into the sky to film the backwaters spread across 10 of the state’s 14 districts to help a campaign to present the natural entity as a “single destination like the Great Wall of China”. “Income generation through employment opportunities from the tourism sector helps in the economy of the backwaters region,” says VC Asokan, associate professor in the economics department of the 109-year-old Sanatana Dharma College in Alappuzha.
The strides of the backwaters region in tourism and other industries are expected to help in the economic development of the region. Already a big-league foreign remittance destination because of the lakhs of Malayali immigrants in the Gulf countries (non-resident Indians sent home $71 billion in 2013, making India the largest recipient of foreign remittances, says a World Bank report last October), Kerala is also drawing young hospitality talent from other states to its new luxury resorts like those coming up every month in the backwaters. As per a recent survey by ratings company Crisil, tourism has contributed to an inclusive growth in Kerala that ranks on the top in social equity. It is a kind of development that would make several young people step out of their homes in the backwaters region for a first-time shopping experience on the floating malls.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer