The Manarcadu-Ettumanoor Bypass that skirts Kottayam town in central Kerala slices through lush green fields for a short stretch, providing a feast for the eyes. Rivulets snake down the green expanse and coconut palms sway in the breeze. And then there is the aroma of fresh, home-cooked food emanating from the many, many food stalls that do brisk business on this half-kilometre stretch. The gentle breeze that blows every evening has earned this stunningly beautiful location the name ‘Naalumanikkaattu’ (Malayalam for 4 o’clock breeze).
The stalls, under a canopy of colourful umbrellas, sell kappa and meen (tapioca and fish curry), kozhukatta, ela ada and ottada (traditional delicacies made of rice flour, coconut and jaggery), vattayappam (rice cake), thiruvathira puzhuku (boiled roots served with chutney), dosas, bajjis, vadas, payasams and a rustic black coffee sweetened with jaggery. On weekends, when the crowds swell to thousands, food is sold late into the night.
Naalumanikkaattu is being hailed as India’s first community-powered roadside ecotourism project — responsible tourism that addresses environmental conservation and the needs of the local community. Residents have gotten together to turn a garbage dump into an eat-out destination, in the bargain creating jobs and showcasing Kerala’s traditional foods.
“Naalumanikkaattu is a throwback to a time when villagers came together on the embankments of their paddy fields at sundown with snacks from home,” says Punnen Kurian, the force behind this initiative. “We see much less of this bonding nowadays,” he rues. Dr. Kurian is the president of the 280-member Manaracadu-Ettumanoor Bypass Residents’ Association that oversees day-to-day operations at Naalumanikkaattu.
The food stalls are run by economically-deprived women from the area, who take home daily earnings after contributing a share to the Association’s corpus fund. Vanaja, whose alcoholic husband has harassed her for 17 years, is now free. Her life was transformed at Naalumanikkaattu, she says. With the women becoming empowered and financially secure, their husbands, many of them alcoholics, have reformed and now assist their wives in cleaning up the area.
The food is cooked at home and is served hot at the food stalls. “Together, we ensure the food served is healthy and affordable,” says Dr. Kurian. While a single bajji, vada or banana fritter costs Rs. 6, a cup of payasam is sold for Rs. 10. A plate of kappa and meen is sold at Rs. 25.
It’s not about food alone. Benches, solar lamps and a playpen have come up on the roadside so that families with children can relax in the picturesque environs in the evenings. There is also a market for local produce and a lending library on wheels. Street plays and nature treks are also conducted.
It was in 2011 that the Association turned Naalumanikkaattu into a leisure destination in technical collaboration with the Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences in Kottayam. It runs largely on public donations from individuals and organisations. “The panchayat and State governments back us,” says Dr. Kurian. In 2012-13, Naalumanikkaattu won Kerala’s award for ‘the most innovative project in the tourism sector’.
Close on the heels of that came the Sustainable Tourism Award in 2014 from Skal International, a body fostering global tourism. And, according to The Limca Book of Records and the Guinness Book of World Records, this initiative combining nature conservation and rural tourism may be the first of its kind worldwide.
More than a year ago, the project was shut down due to road-widening work. It has now resumed partially, but a grand re-launch is on the anvil. “We are not looking at scaling up because that would dilute the aura of a roadside tourist destination,” says Dr. Kurian.
“With its fame spreading, other residents’ associations are queuing up to emulate the Naalumanikkaattu success formula. Sustainability is key,” he adds.
First published by The Hindu