After virtually feeding the economy of India’s fifth richest state for years through remittance, over 300,000 migrants have been forced to return home from the Gulf. Kerala today, has no place for these natives.
- The forced repatriation started in 2010 with the decline of the Arab oil economy which brought a slowdown in Gulf economies.
- The return of 300,000 expatriates between 2013 and 2018 has disrupted a society which heavily depended on foreign remittances
- Policies like naturalization in Middle East Countries and a decline in the Arab Oil economy has resulted in thousands of Keralites being laid off
- Approximately USD 12.15 Billion of remittances were channeled to Kerala by Arab expatriates between March 2017 and March 2018.
If it rains in the Gulf, a Malayali in Kerala catches a cold. – A famous pun among Keralites
Keralites have a special relationship with the Gulf. What started with the burgeoning oil economy of the Middle East in the mid-1960s, saw millions of Keralites head for the obscure land of opportunities.
The Kerala-Gulf link dates back to almost 3000 years. What once manifested strong cultural and social influence in the region is now fading away.
Keralites awaiting in line to return home after being laid off in the Middle East. Credits: Amnesty
The crisis germinated with the general slowdown in the Gulf that began in 2010 when the Gulf nations witnessed a
decline in oil prices. It further accelerated when the Gulf nations initiated naturalization policies.
The state has registered the return of over 300,000 expatriates from the Middle East between 2013 and 2018. This has disrupted a society struggling with local employment opportunities and heavy reliance on remittances from natives working abroad.
Contributing to the economy while living away
Working for in the Arab states, regardless of the stature of the job, would make an attractive prospect for many Keralites. Gulf expatriates sending their lucrative salaries back home form a major share of the state’s GDP.
Kerala has seen a decline in the number of migrations to Gulf for the first time in over two decades. Credits: CDS
In a state plagued with
lack of serious industrial investment by government, notorious trade unions and frequent shutdowns, the remittances played an important role in funding infrastructure projects and welfare schemes.
Malappuram district in North Kerala received 20 percent of the total remittances from the Gulf over the past decade. 71 percent of the households in Malappuram have either an emigrant or a return migrant. Abundance of foreign remittance has seen the smallest of towns prosper . Towns like Kottakkal, Tirur, Manjeri and Ponnani live under a strong Arab influence which shows in their taste.
India has the highest amount of remittance from the GCC countries; but has seen a decline since 2016. Credits: World Bank
Reasons for Repatriation
The exodus of migrant workers from Gulf and their return to Kerala has a number of reasons. Due to the
crisis suffered by the crude oil industry in the Middle East, the declining oil prices affected other sectors like real estate and construction which had large numbers of Keralites workers.
Naturalization in the Gulf states meant that these tireless workers, who carried the burden of rapid growth on their shoulders for decades, were shunned in favor of native youths.
The subsequent years saw a dire fall in wage levels in the region which has seen a decrease in fresh migration to Gulf countries from the state. A report from Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS), in September 2018, stated that emigration from Kerala is on the decline.
However, opportunities still exist for educated, skilled Keralites in Gulf. But increasing pressure to compete for low wages in the unorganized sector has become a deterrent for future migration. S. Irudaya Rajan, co-author of the study opined:
“The Gulf economy still needs a lot of unskilled workers. It’s just that the salary levels are much lower than what people were getting in 2008 because of the global crisis. Now for Malayalis, this is not an income for them to go there.”
Opportunities still exist in the Middle East for highly skilled and technically qualified Keralites such as doctors, engineers, architects, and teachers. But with the much lower levels of salaries in the unskilled sector, working in Arab countries is no more an attractive proposition for Keralites.
From remitters to aid seekers
With the growing number of repatriates, Kerala government has been
underprepared to provide adequate employment opportunities and rehabilitation.
In 2014, the government earmarked Rs. 100 Million welfare project Santhwanam, which is run by Norka-Roots, a PSU under Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department (Norka).
The Kerala government passed a Rs. 100 Million kitty for NRI Keralites returning from Gulf in 2014. Credits: Arab News
Another initiative has seen the government offer financial support for returnees to start their own businesses having increased the limit of capital subsidy to Rs. 1 Million under the rehabilitation scheme Norka Department Project for Returned Emigrants (NDPREM).
The gravity of the situation can be understood by the fact that the Kerala government has sought special grants of around Rs 50 Billion from the 15th Finance Commission of India, which includes Rs. 15 Billion for rehabilitation of returnees.
KV Abdul Khader, CPI(M) legislator from Guruvayur and key office-bearer of an expatriate collective, voiced his fears:
“Our estimate is that most of them returning are still unskilled or semi-skilled workers and traders. Once the nationalization process kicked in, they lost their jobs. It’s definitely one of the big challenges facing Kerala today. I frankly don’t have an answer what we can do.”
Legislators in the state admit that it’s scary to contemplate a situation when all of the migrants would have to come back.
NRI Keralites community gathered to listen to Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala during his visit to UAE . Credits: Gulf News
With the number of return migrants increasing the CDS report had claimed that the ‘long history of migration from Kerala to the Gulf is in its last phase’. The study concluded: “…it is obvious that the long-term future of Kerala is going to be less dependent on emigration and remittances. With an unfavourable demographic dividend, it is impossible for Kerala to regain the dominance it had in migration to the Gulf… a vibrant domestic economy is the only solution to deal with the change in migratory patterns,”
Most of the expatriates are still unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Individuals and NGOs are trying to assist them in understanding basics to start and operate a business through workshops and seminars.
Wages have improved in Kerala, providing the highest rate in the informal sector. However, most of these jobs are already filled by migrants from other states. Kerala has the highest number of migrated labour among all Indian states.
Over 300,000 expatriates who were once the jewel in Kerala’s crown are now its biggest headache. The charm of the Gulf dream might have come to an end. But remittance or not, the state of Kerala has
no option but to rehabilitate the unwanted citizens coming home.
- The Kerala government has sought special grants of around Rs. 50 Billion from the 15th Finance Commission, 15 Billion of which is for rehabilitation of expatriates.
- Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department (Norka) has been allotted an additional fund of Rs. 100 million for its welfare project Santhwanam to help returnees
- The legislators in the state fear a situation if the two million Keralites still working in Gulf return home and have to be catered to
- Building a vibrant domestic economy in the state which has work for all is the only solution to deal with the crisis in Kerala
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