Can Kerala learn to respect its non-resident millionaires and Bengali immigrants equally?

Managing a great migration.
Managing a great migration.
Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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Indian Railways train number 22642 is often a showcase of two very different groups of people flowing through the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The Shalimar-Trivandrum Express, which bridges West Bengal in India’s east to Kerala’s capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, ferries legions of immigrants who have been pouring into the southern state in the past few years looking for jobs.

This migration neatly seeps into gaps left by the other group that rides this train: The state’s native population, which has emigrated en masse to the Middle East and elsewhere since the 1960s, and sustained and nourished Kerala’s economy with billions of dollars in remittances.

On a sultry afternoon in May, Mohsin (who only gave his first name), a veteran of many such 40-hour journeys in recent years, described the nitty-gritties of life as a worker at building construction sites in Kerala. The rookie Bengal migrants in attendance inside the train compartment shot off queries on language, attire, and food.

Keenly observing the proceedings were three local Malayalis, speakers of Kerala’s native tongue, Malayalam. Two were “Gulf returnees” and one was preparing to move to Bahrain.

The conversation soon turned to jobs and the state of the economy in Kerala, where the campaign to elect the 14th legislative assembly is in its final phase. The Bengalis were palpably excited, while a sense of resignation about these “outsiders” took over the Malayalis.

For Kerala’s next chief minister, which the state will choose on May 16, bridging this demographic divide will be a challenge unlike any other.

“Kerala is a field for us to watch out how migration, ageing and demographics change the landscape,” said S Irudaya Rajan, a professor and expert on migration studies at Thiruvananthapuram’s Centre for Development Studies (CDS).

Kerala’s NRI economy

Since the 1960s, Malayalis have migrated to various parts of the world, especially the Middle East, for earning a livelihood.

In particular, the Malayali’s love affair with the Arabian Gulf is folklore, with nearly 90% of the state’s emigrants based there. Of these, 38% live in the UAE, 22% in Saudi Arabia, and rest in other smaller countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, according to the 2014 CDS survey.

“Till around 2000, joblessness in Kerala was the main reason for such migration. However, since the 2000s, it is more the notion that one can reap more money in the Gulf that is fuelling this migration. You could even say it is an addiction, to which people are falling slaves,” said Razak Orumanayoor, the Middle East bureau chief of Malayalam newspaper Chandrika, who himself has lived in Abu Dhabi for 30 years now.

In 2014, around 2.4 million natives of Kerala were living abroad, pumping in remittances of Rs71,000 crores ($10.6 billion). That’s about 15% of the India’s total remittances, and 36% of the state’s net domestic product, according to a working paper by CDS.

While the state’s per capita income was Rs86,180 in 2014, it would have been Rs63,491 without remittances. However, some believe that the Kerala migrants may not be really making more money by working in the Gulf.

K S Sanal Kumar, founder of the $327-million Classic Fashion Apparel Industry, a company based in Jordan, has around 1,000 Malayalis among his 15,000 employees.

“The way they (Malayalis) work is amazing. The same people, if they come back (to Kerala) are completely different. Are they earning anything better here? Not at all,” Kumar said. Workers in his apparel factory in Irbid, are paid around $240 (Rs16,000) a month on an average.

“Trust me, they can make that kind of money every month in Kerala,” said Kumar, who made his fortune in the Gulf over the past two-and-a-half decades. “But will they work? They will not.”

Nonetheless, non-resident Keralites, as such migrants are often called, have for long held considerable clout in shaping politics in the state—be it through funds or sheer force of ideology. So much so that electoral candidates even make trips to the Gulf to woo their constituencies. Of the 12,000 registered non-resident Indian voters, Malayalis reportedly numbered 11,488 in 2014.

But there’s a flip-side to this emigration boom.

“The state is benefiting from migration and at the same time haemorrhaging skilled workers to jobs elsewhere in the country and to other countries,” the CDS survey noted. For instance, in 2014, for every 100 engineers in the state, there were 127 Kerala engineers outside India.

That trend, though, could soon change. “We have reached the maximum level of migration in Kerala. I think we will see stabilisation. Maybe after five years it may even come down,” said Rajan from CDS. “It’s a good thing that people will come back. You can start thinking of policies for such a stage. Are we prepared to handle an ageing society like Europe’s?”

So what will reverse the migration trends? Demographics, according to Rajan.

“We have no people to send to the Gulf,” he said. Kerala’s population, according to Census 2011, grew by 4.91%—the lowest among all states in the country.

Enter, the immigrant.

Kerala’s “Bengalis”

“Bengali” is now an umbrella term for low-skilled immigrant labourers in Kerala.

There are 2.5 million such immigrants working in the state, according to government figures, roughly the same number as Kerala migrants abroad. Terming them “domestic migrant labour,” a government-commissioned study estimated that these migrants send out around Rs17,500 crores as remittances from Kerala to their home states every year, almost entirely through banking channels.

Kerala’s labour minister Shibu Baby John, in a February 2013 statement to the legislative assembly, said: “Domestic migrant labourers have become one of Kerala’s wealth creators.”

These workers are omnipresent, but they are not just Bengalis. According to Thiruvananthapuram’s Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), an autonomous institution, 75% of them come from five states: West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Odisha. And while close to 60% of them are employed in the construction industry, other avenues are opening up too.

Sushil Kumar Pandey, 26, has been in Kerala for close to eight months now. Till recently, in Kerala, it would have been simply unthinkable to have someone like him do the job he does right now. Pandey is a priest at the Thirumandhamkunnu temple in Palakkad district’s Cherpulassery town.

Trained in Vedic rites in Banaras, he underwent additional training for over two months to be qualified for Kerala. That’s because priestly rites here, unlike those in other states, are more Tantric in character. Pandey’s salary stands at about Rs9,000 a month, besides an additional Rs7,000 or more that he makes from offerings.

“I feel at peace here. People are nice,” Pandey said. “I have slight language issues. But there are many here who speak Hindi.”

When asked about employing a north Indian for a job traditionally performed by Namboothiris—Kerala’s own Brahmin community—temple officials simply cited the shortage of homegrown priests.

Pandey is not alone. He has over half a dozen friends doing the same job in temples across Palakkad. Many are hesitant to talk, but their circumspection was understandable.

Lately, there have been several instances of migrant workers facing harassment by local authorities. While a few may have indulged in illegal activities, the tendency in Kerala increasingly is to make migrants the first line of target every time a crime is reported.

“You cannot blame internal migrants for all the ills in Kerala,” Rajan argued. “When there is migration, there are bound to be some issues. That’s part of economics.”

These migrants are not competing with Malayalis for jobs, he points out. They are only filling in the gaps, taking up jobs that the locals do not want to do.

“You need migrants,” Rajan added. “So please respect them.”