Early July, a member of Parliament wishing to shift Kerala’s capital stirred a controversy.
Speaking to the media after news of his March 2023 private bill about moving Kerala’s capital from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi got out, Hibi Eden reportedly said that private bills are intended to spark ideas and encourage debate. Eden is an MP from Ernakulam (Kochi). His argument for shifting the capital was rooted in Kochi’s location: it is in central Kerala while Thiruvananthapuram is at the southern end.
Compared to some other states and how they focussed on their capital city, Thiruvananthapuram’s case has been different.
Families in Thiruvananthapuram have rued the manner in which the city has gained little except a truckload of strikes for being Kerala’s capital. While Thiruvananthapuram was where the rest of Kerala headed to protest, the city’s airport declined for want of state interest, its struggle to have a seaport dragged on, and it didn’t merit a metro. Kochi inherited the port built by the British, got a modern airport as well as the state’s first metro rail system. Kochi is the trade and shipment-end of hill produce from Idukki and, when combined with nearby places like Thrissur, Alappuzha and Kottayam, among the wealthiest urban sprawls in the state. In these, a central location would have helped only the airport. But it mustn’t be forgotten that the airport in Thiruvananthapuram never received as much attention from state authorities as Kochi’s, nor was its southern location supported through adequate, affordable, intra-state aerial connectivity. Similarly, Thiruvananthapuram was once coveted for its medical facilities. Now Kochi and Malabar have their own battery of advanced hospitals.
Even in the field of information technology, where Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark gave the city a head start, subsequent moves sought to spread such opportunities more widely in Kerala. So, what is Eden’s grievance? If anything, he may have just sowed the seeds of a politically exploitable discontent in Thiruvananthapuram and aspiration in Kochi.
Eden forgets that these are not the days of Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq when being the geographical centre counted. Modern-day methods of e-governance and decentralised administration work around geography. Otherwise, India should shift its capital to Nagpur. Eden should know that; he travels all the way from Kochi to Delhi at taxpayers’ expense to attend Parliament sessions. But there is no hue and cry among taxpayers (or Eden) seeking a shift of India’s capital. What about Mumbai, a giant revenue generator in Maharashtra, also its capital and located at the northern end of the state? More relevant to Kerala — would the state’s response to the 2018 floods have been different if Kochi was the capital? Does the solution for administrative lapses therein requires a shift of capital to Kochi or does it require greater decentralisation of power with suitable empowerment of administrators and real-time monitoring?
We can’t shift a capital without building a new secretariat, legislature complex and associated infrastructure. Thiruvananthapuram already has these; Kochi will need to build from scratch. Both shifting a capital and the lustre of being a capital city have monetary connotations on real estate prices. When a city becomes the capital, it clothes its neighbours in a shared sheen of marketability with commensurate impact on land price. It’s a familiar paradigm.
Eden, who is from the Congress, is within his rights to table the private bill. As of July second week, the Congress’ reaction to the controversy gifted by Eden resembled rolling around. The chairperson of the Congress’ state committee, V.D. Satheesan, reportedly asked Eden to withdraw the bill. Shashi Tharoor, Thiruvananthapuram’s serving member of parliament, rejected the bill but suspected mischief in the Centre seeking the state’s opinion on a private bill. Which, in turn, doesn’t agree with Eden’s claim that private bills are meant to spark ideas and encourage debate.
What should Thiruvananthapuram believe?
Shyam G. Menon is a freelance journalist