Work on the North overbridge, for the metro rail project, has overturned lives. Meet those whose businesses have taken a beating , yet are optimistic about life, once the project is completed

Machinery, half and semi-finished concrete grids, iron rods protruding upwards dominate what once used to be a hub of activity. There are signs cautioning pedestrians in the area. Clusters of businesses on both sides of the bridge and under the bridge have been affected. There is access only for pedestrians and none for vehicles. Most shops in the area are either shut or are doing next to zero business.

Development

We are talking about the North overbridge and the Kochi Metro Rail Project which has just been given the green signal by the Union Cabinet. The go-ahead is cause for cheer across the entire State.

As part of the work the area under the overbridge has been closed.

On the day of the Cabinet decision there is a sense of ‘let’s wait and see’ in the air. What is development for the majority may well turn out to be disaster for some when any new project is envisaged. This is the experience of the few who have shops around the North overbridge. Life has turned on its head for them but development is non-negotiable. “How can we object to development?” asks N.C. Kurup, an employee of A.K.I. Stationery in Dr. Kartha Complex, who is suffering the pangs of not having a proper livelihood any more.

Business in this building, adjacent to the Paramara Temple, has been most affected. “Development is good for the city. We cannot stand in its way,” say Sithara Shukla of Shukla Books and Sathyan K.V of Aparna Jewellery in the same complex. In the same breath Sithara says, “Of course business has been affected. Up to 70 per cent of our business is gone because there is hardly any access to this area. But we cannot write off something without seeing how it will eventually work out.” Their neighbour Jayan M.V. has it tough. His motorcycle repair shop doesn’t get much business because bikes cannot get to the shop. He used to have seven employees, now there is just him and an assistant. Tenants are vacating, says Rukmini Kunjamma who owns the building.

The area used to be prime real estate, “but today it has the value of garbage,” Rukmini Kunjamma laments. “Maybe once the roads come there will be some thing to look forward to,” she adds sceptically. Many shops in the building have shut shop or have shifted to more ‘viable’ areas. Binil R. Raj of Cochin Photo Emporium, for instance, has taken up a space in the adjacent Paramara Road. “We have been affected but people who know us still come to us. We haven’t been as affected as Jayaprakash.”

Jayaprakash’s shop does not seem to be anywhere around. Why? It is behind the area closed in by aluminium sheets, on one side of the bridge, that’s why. One has to get in from behind another roadside eatery through a two-foot space to enter his ‘shop’.

Never-say-die approach

“It was either this or suicide. We had no option,” Jayaprakash says. His wife, Ajitha, cheerfully fries pappadums and piles them in a plastic container. ‘This’ is the tea-shop-cum-‘kanji kada’. ‘This’ used to be a stationery shop under the North Overbridge before work started.

A refrigerator, a glass case filled with vadas and samosas, a gas stove etc occupy the counter. There is no natural light but the plus side is that when it rains the shop is covered. His life changed without warning, for the worse. “I was among the first people who appeared before television cameras saying that nobody should object to the development that will change the city,” he says. And he accepts that some people have to make sacrifices for the greater good. The shop has been his livelihood and there is nothing else that he can turn to. “I am 53, I give myself another 10 years. I will somehow survive here,” he says.

He and his wife travel daily from Karlam, near Irinjalakuda, to Kochi. Her day starts at 3 a.m. She returns home by 7 p.m. “Our daughter has to be alone in the house till I get home. That is a ‘tension’,” she says.

Of the businesses under the North overbridge, mostly second hand tyres and machine spare parts, almost 15 were licensed. They have been shifted to a temporary area close to Specialist’s Hospital. They say they had 1000 sq.ft shops and now they have 100 sq. foot shops (rent free for the time being). Abi C.I. and V.M. Ali say, “We willingly gave up the space. We have been told that this is a temporary arrangement and that we will be given proper shops. We hope it happens soon.” Making ends meet is a struggle. They have taken gold loans, “anyway we will not be able to redeem the gold. We can’t get loans now because this is a temporary space…”

The displaced were compensated financially or with shops on alternate sites. The plight of the ones who were not displaced is fraught with uncertainty. On the other side of the overbridge, the fate of the shops on the stretch next to the Town Hall is worse. O.G. Madhavan who has been running an electronics (radio, stereo, DVD player) repair shop for the last 37 years says, “it is very bad. There is no income. How can there be? There is no way anyone can get here. I depend on my children and my savings. I will hold on till the work finishes.” T. H. Safwan, who works in a tyre shop, used to earn Rs. 650 daily, it is now down to Rs. 350. “My boss doesn’t even come everyday. What is there to come and do?” This stretch of road looks like a ghost town.

A tiny portion of the Udupi Hotel has gone. Sundar Rao of Udupi Hotel says, “There is no denying that business has been affected. Our hope is that once the road is built things will change.”

The burden of change is very heavy for some, but they are willing bear it with courage and a sense of humour. Says a business owner on the SRM Road side of the overbridge, “One business is least affected, just .2 per cent…the Beverages Corporation outlet!”