Until the beginning of the first world-war in 1914 and a decade or more thereafter,
Palghat was a sleepy village, overflowing with an insulated, priestly class of migrant brahmin families, mostly engaged in the performance of ritualistic obligations.
Most had neither steady income nor reserves to fall back during an emergency. The average mortality rate was very high and longevity age was very low – thanks to all kinds of epidemics and, many women died giving birth to children. Medical help was limited to the Ayurvedic and native remedies, allopathy was available only at the Govt, Hospital, in Fort Maidan. For a dog-bite one had to rush to Coonoor in the Nilgris and for eye ailments to Coimbatore.
Schooling facilities were limited to the primary level. There was a night school attached to the Victoria College, later becoming the Municipal High School. In 1920 or so, Kulapathi V.V.Parameswara Iyer from Vadakkanthara started the Native High School (now closed) and a similar school came up in Nurani village also. The Basel Mission had started the Mission School in 1910 or so, concurrently with their roof-tile factory. These enabled many villagers to study and qualify for clerical level jobs in the Registration, Revenue and other departments of the Govt., railway services etc. and as school-teachers. The Palghat business community, especially the Muslims and Chettiars, preferred to employ Brahmins to keep cash and accounts for them.
The 20th century was a game-changer, especially for the villagers, made possible by (1) the creation of the Palghat Municipality (2) the railway connectivity between Mangalore-Madras and Palghat-Pollachi, and (3) power-supply from the Pykara power station in the Nilgiris.
The villages got better, wider roads, conservancy and sanitary services, the road and rail bridges across the Kalpathy river, all adding value to the quality of life. Municipal Chairmen Dr. A.R. Menon ( later became Minister in Kerala), Mr.M.C.Menon (also founded Chandranagar settlement, named after him), Col. G.R.Parasuram (developed the areas bordering the villages) and Mr.N.N.Ananthanarayana Iyer (levelling of the roads) were prominent for their developmental efforts. Numerous printing presses imported from Germany, enabled the large-scale and cheap availability of books and newspapers in many languages and subjects.
The two World wars also helped significantly. Large British military camps were located at the foot-hills of the Western Ghats (Kottekad on the east and Mundur in the north) resulting in new roads and levelling of large areas for habitation. Added to this was the huge influx of refugees in the 1940s, from Burma, Malaya and other S.E. countries following their Japanese occupation. Hundreds of Palghat natives, who had settled in urban cities like Coimbatore, Chennai, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Nagpur, Jamshedpur, Poona etc. also sought their native villages for a safe haven. Admissions to schools/college were under pressure, also English medium teaching had to be introduced and new language classes started for Tamil, Hindi etc.
Houses were in great demand, adding to property values. There was also pressure built up on the supply-chain for food, accommodation, transport and all other requirements of life. Essentials were rationed, sold through Govt. ration-shops on the basis of family ration cards. The food ration was restricted to 6 oz of rice plus a little wheat per adult per day, resulting in a black-market for grains, sugar, textiles, paper, fuel of all sorts etc. Living was stressful, Govt. tried to ameliorate this for their employees through a ‘dearness allowance’, which continues to this day.
On the other hand, many educated, unemployed youth from the villages, some knowing type-writing, short-hand, Morse telegraphy etc. found jobs with the military establishments all over the country and in the metropolitan cities. This came as a breather for the families left behind. The Military also extended free educational facilities for dependent students, besides a preference for Govt. jobs, after the successful end of the war.
The Malampuzha dam completed in 1955 helped to make Palghat, a drought-prone taluk, to become the ‘rice-bowl of Kerala’, also ensuring protected water-supply for the homes. A large number of villagers and their temples were the immediate beneficiaries but, their dreams were short-lived and shattered by the Kerala land legislation of the 1960s, which took away their ownership and vested it on the cultivating tenants. This did reduce some families to penury and distress but the rest of the community offered help.
Another significant outcome of the foregoing developments was the increasing level of empowerment of the girls from the village. Once their recurring sanitary problem got solved with the availability of hygienic aids, they continued schooling in increasing numbers even upto the advanced stages and qualify professionally. As a result, the number of teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, accountants etc. amongst them saw a significant increase. To-day, in Palghat, there is hardly any difference between boys and girls beyond the biological. They are just everywhere as equals and contributing to family and social enrichment.
On the debit side, of course, to-day’s villagers are hardly religious beyond the acceptance of the suzerainty of the all-powerful Gods, temples and festivities. At the same time, their sense of right and wrong, networking abilities, tolerance levels, helpfulness and social awareness are truly idealistic.
The current generation is able to decide what’s good for them and the directions they will go!