The story of two migrations

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

labour   -  KK Mustafah

Strength in numbers: Migrant workers today constitute the primary labour force of Kerala in sectors ranging from construction and agriculture to the services industry. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Strength in numbers: Migrant workers today constitute the primary labour force of Kerala in sectors ranging from construction and agriculture to the services industry. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   -  The Hindu

God’s own melting pot: There are over 25 lakh internal migrant workers in Kerala, according to a 2013 report. Photo: H Vibhu

God’s own melting pot: There are over 25 lakh internal migrant workers in Kerala, according to a 2013 report. Photo: H Vibhu   -  The Hindu

Everywhere people: Keralite Shailaja reuniting with her son Aswin after arriving in Kochi by a ship from war-torn Yemen in 2015. The average Malayali’s love for migration is seen to be indefatigable even in the face of strife. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Everywhere people: Keralite Shailaja reuniting with her son Aswin after arriving in Kochi by a ship from war-torn Yemen in 2015. The average Malayali’s love for migration is seen to be indefatigable even in the face of strife. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   -  The Hindu

Migration has been a way of life in Kerala for decades. As waves of Keralites left for the Gulf, their place was taken by a corresponding wave of workers from north India. But will the Gulf crisis alter the State’s labour dynamics?

“Look out for a big iron gate,” Sister Grace tells me. In the few hundred times I have passed that road, I haven’t spotted that gate even once. It’s late evening in June, and Kozhikode, the northern Kerala city, is damp and dark. Sister Grace is not familiar with Malaparamba, the neighbourhood we are visiting, or for that matter Kozhikode. She knows the localities not by name but by their distance from Christ Hall, the provincial house where she stays. A handy skill, Hindi has brought her here from Jharkhand. The Socio Religious Centre at Christ Hall is documenting the lives of the migrant labourers in the district for a study, and helping them acquire labour identity cards.

We finally spot the gate, large enough for trucks to pass through. The yard serves as a storage space for construction material and Devaraj Mahapatra from Odisha is its watchman. Making our way through overgrown grass and piles of iron and steel sheets, poles and buzzing mosquitoes, we reach the small, tiled-roof house in which Mahapatra lives with his brother, son and four others. In his tenth year in Kerala, he looks every bit a Malayali in his mundu and shirt, even managing a smattering of Malayalam. Employees of a construction company, these men pitch tent wherever work takes them in the State. Mahapatra’s 17-year-old son, Dilip Kumar, is the latest addition to this group from Khurda.

Mahapatra minds the yard, and the rest work at the construction sites. His brother Narayan is a mason. While a local mason earns ₹800 a day, migrant labourers like Narayan get ₹550. He earns roughly ₹12,000 a month and sends a bulk of it home. Narayan’s wife lived here with him for a few months, but returned home eventually as there wasn’t enough room for everyone. The men have a labour card, and Mahapatra says he would like to live in Kerala.

In the adjoining aluminium shed, the scene is different. This batch of men from Odisha is new to Kerala. There’s a constant coming and going of migrant workers every few months, says Mahapatra. Some leave after working a few months, cash in pocket, and new ones immediately take their place. In the shed, dinner is being readied, sliced onions and split green chillies are piled onto a plate. Outside, men await their turn to shower in the open.

There are over 25 lakh internal migrant workers in Kerala, according to the 2013 report from the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, and they send home over ₹14,000 crore each year. They are mainly semi-skilled and unskilled workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and can be found in sectors ranging from construction and agriculture to manufacturing ndustry.

There is another face of migration too in Kozhikode, that of people like Usman Chattamchira, who moved to the Gulf when he was in his twenties and has returned 15 years later. Chattamchira lost his supermarket job in Saudi Arabia due to its nationalisation policy. His immigrant life had begun in the Saudi deserts, handling searing hot cement blocks in the construction sector. He later moved to mechanical jobs in workshops and then the supermarket. Now settled into the two-acre rubber plantation he bought on the outskirts of Kozhikode, Chattamchira’s worry is his 27-year-old son, who had to give up his salesman job in Saudi Arabia after the Nitaqat laws became tougher. “He now works as a driver in a small company. We have to sustain ourselves. His wedding had been arranged, but didn’t happen because he returned from the Gulf. I hope my son will be able to go back one day,” he says. Chattamchira has enough technical knowledge, but no certificates to show. “A rehabilitation programme for us should look to tap our skills,” he adds.

Kerala’s history of migration is peopled by the Mahapatras and the Chattamchiras alike. The Keralites migrating within the country and abroad, significantly the Gulf region, opened up job opportunities back home, which the impoverished migrant labourers from north India stepped in to fill.

This delicate balance is now in danger of being disrupted by a reversal of Gulf fortunes. Saudi Arabia’s nationalisation policies, beginning with the 2013 Nitaqat law, the continuing slump in oil prices and the resulting economic slowdown have directly dented the Keralite’s Gulf dream. The layoffs at distressed construction firm Saudi Oger is the latest episode in this painful saga. “Of the 24 Indians who returned, none are Malayalis,” says Najeeb H, general manager of the Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department (NORKA)-Roots, which acts as an interface with the Kerala government. He says that the Keralites at Oger have opted to stay back and wait for the company’s fortunes to turn. Nevertheless, Najeeb is only too aware that a large-scale reverse migration from the Gulf may be inevitable in the near-future — the “terrible truth” is how he describes it. That, in turn, raises the issue of the rehabilitation of those returning.


S Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS), has for decades studied the migration patterns to and from Kerala. Internal migration from north India began about 20 years ago. “It became prominent in the last 10 years and now we have labourers from every State in India,” he says. Though it was only construction in the beginning, today migrant labourers can be found doing an array of jobs. The CDS’s 2012 Interstate Migrant Survey documents their presence in gold work, industrial factories, road repair, hotel industry, domestic help and as casual labour. They are familiar faces at hair salons, petrol pumps, supermarkets, paddy fields... they can even be found helping with directions in some of the most remote towns. “There aren’t any jobs now that are completely maintained by the Keralite,” says Rajan.

Seated in his cramped office in the annexe of Paragon Restaurant, proprietor Sumesh Govind says migrant workers constitute 30 per cent of the workforce at his outlets in India and abroad. “It has been so for eight years,” he says. Higher education and improved standards of living among the local populace put them beyond reach for restaurant work, he says. “The average Malayali is looking to go abroad and is obsessed about job security. Also, they do not take pride in labour such as these,” he adds. Though his workers come from across north India, Govind is seeing a surge from Tripura. New workers undergo training, are roomed with local staff and encouraged to engage with them in, what Govind calls, the buddy system.

Though initially limited to kitchen and cleaning work, the migrant workers have moved up to more coveted jobs. “Whenever we see hard work, we promote it,” says Govind. He calls out to Arun, a deputy to the supervisor in the restaurant’s ‘deluxe section’. Wearing a meticulously pressed shirt and creased trousers, Arun appears a little intimidated and answers in monosyllables. A graduate from Odisha, he arrived with his brother to work at the restaurant seven years ago, started off in the billing and parcel section before moving to his current position. His cousin works here too, while his young wife lives with his parents in Jharsuguda. Govind hopes to be able to provide family accommodation to the migrant workers among his staff.


Belonging to a farming family in distant Kottapadam, a village in Pattithara panchayat in Palakkad, KT Rema has been tracking the role of migrant workers in the local life. ‘Bengalis’ is the broad term used for any migrant worker in Kerala. For the past six years, Bengalis, she says, have been active during the paddy planting season. She began employing them last year and is impressed with their work. “They’re out in the field at six in the morning and 10 people clear 10 acres a day. It would take 20 locals to do the same work,” she says. She describes her panchayat as a mini-Gulf, where signs of affluence are plenty. “There just aren’t enough local women to do field work... those available are all aged 45-60. The next generation is not interested in farming,” she says.

Internal migration to Kerala is a growing area of study for researchers and social and cultural organisations. In their research paper ‘Socio-Economic Conditions of Migrant Labourers in Kerala’, authors Manoj PK and Vidya Viswanath highlight “the reluctance of the indigenous Malayali people to perform manual labour as there is social stigma attached to it”. The Gulati Institute report observes that “the large international migration, precipitous falls in fertility, and rapid urbanisation” in Kerala have served to attract domestic migrant labour in large numbers.

Rajan brings in a historic context. Ever since the State was formed, Keralites have migrated, first within the country and then abroad. “Though the Gulf opened up in the 1970s, we were in full form in the 1980s and ’90s.” An estimated 24-26 lakh Keralites now work in the Gulf and their annual remittance touches nearly ₹1 lakh crore. This money, as Rajan points out, played a big role in creating jobs, particularly in construction, which in turn triggered internal migration — one which he calls “replacement migration”.

“Our plumbers and electricians were in Qatar. So the migrant workers replaced them,” he says. Pointing out that locals did not step in to fill these openings for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, S Sajikumar, a New India Foundation fellow focusing on the survival and livelihood issues of the migrant labourer, throws light on the caste factor simmering beneath the surface. The traditional jobs were largely divided among the workforce on the basis of caste. The lower caste men ventured beyond the traditional jobs earmarked for them and broke the mould, while the upper caste found it degrading and shied away from such jobs, he says.


With the wheel turning and the Gulf hardly the Mecca of jobs it once was, there’s bound to be pressure on Kerala’s labour scene. Those forced to curtail their Gulf dream are returning to a State in which the workforce is unrecognisable from what it was two decades ago. In 2013, there were 31,213 registered Gulf returnees, of whom 24,800 were from Saudi Arabia, according to NORKA. The NDPREM (NORKA Department Project for Return Emigrants) — offering subsidised loans to Gulf returnees for entrepreneurship received 19,000 applications till January 1, 2016.

Kolakkadan Ghulam is the president of the Global Pravasi Welfare Society, one of the many groups that have now materialised to help rehabilitate the Gulf returnee. The organisation has so far helped 23 returnees find employment. “It’s important to bring them to the mainstream. People think Gulf returnees have made money and hence are self-sufficient. It’s not so,” says Ghulam.

Jamaal Nechykkatt gave up his administrative job in the UAE after the slowdown. His friends lost their jobs. “Small hotels in the UAE and Dubai inevitably employed Keralites. They have now been replaced by employees from Sri Lanka and Nepal, who work for less pay,” he says. Those returning to Kerala must be prepared to take up all kinds of jobs, he says. “The other day, we got a washroom built at a school. After some tough bargaining with migrant workers, we managed to get the work done for ₹1,400. When I discussed this with my friends, many of whom are Gulf returnees, they said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us? We could have done the work for much less’.” Nechykkatt insists the Gulf returnees are willing to work. “They are willing to change. Once the savings dry up, they would have no option,” he adds and hopes they are given priority in construction and other sectors.

Forty-four-year-old Abbas Kalathil returned from Saudi Arabia after his accountant’s job went to a national. The past months have brought news of other young men who have similarly lost their job. “A 35-year-old friend had to shut down his mobile shop. It can now be managed only by Arab nationals. The gold shops were the first to employ nationals. People are left with no option than to come back,” he says. Pointing to the considerable remittance from the Gulf Keralite for over 40 odd, he says, “At least a part of it should be used to rehabilitate those forced to return.”

Rajan believes that the Gulf returnees are unlikely to impact the prevailing labour dynamics in Kerala. Nearly 12-14 lakh Keralites have returned from the Gulf over the years. Like Sajikumar, he observes that the Keralite is unlikely to seek the unskilled or semi-skilled work taken up by the migrant workforce. Sajikumar picks two districts — Wayanad and Palakkad —which have few migrant labourers despite high rural unemployment, to make his point. “These districts have a large tribal and Dalit population. It shows the kind of jobs migrant labourers have naturally taken on.” Only a minuscule section of the Gulf returnees may want that kind of jobs, he adds. “I know people who worked in construction, went to the Gulf and were forced to return and rejoin the old job. But they are very few. On the other hand, only a small number of migrant labourers have moved up the ranks, say to become labour contractors.”

However, there is one segment of migrant workers that the Gulf returnee is likely to find himself in competition with — those from the North-East, says Sajikumar. Working mostly in the service sectors such as restaurants and parlours, the North-East worker may find the Gulf returnee vying for these jobs. “Workers from the North-East have invested in beauty parlours in some places. But they aren’t present in strong numbers yet,” he adds.

Kerala has also witnessed a spurt in violence against migrant workers in recent times. When a worker from Assam was mistaken for a thief and left to die in the sweltering May sun, his hands and feet tied, it laid bare the shocking insensitivity of the locals. The finger of suspicion is always first pointed at the migrant worker whenever a crime occurs; the gruesome murder of a young Dalit girl, Jisha, in June and the subsequent arrest of a worker from Assam have further deepened the mistrust.

After years of studying the Keralites’ Gulf migration patterns, Rajan maintains that it is not the end of the road yet. After the Gulf crisis in 2008, for instance, “about 40,000 people came back. But in a year’s time, they all went back. Similarly, in 2014, 16,000 returned from Saudi Arabia, but they also went abroad in a short while,” he says. Keralites are addicted to migration and will explore opportunities further afield — Southeast Asia, Australia or even Europe. Just last month, Najeeb was at Thiruvananthapuram airport to receive Keralites fleeing Sudan’s escalating ethnic violence. “All they wanted to know was when they could get back. Even in countries with travel bans such as Libya or Lebanon, people are trying to make it on the sly.”

Whether the anticipated exodus from the Gulf will rock Kerala’s now well-settled labour dynamics remains unclear. But the migrant labourer is sparing no effort to turn indispensable — his latest conquest is the coconut tree, climbing up which was a near-acrobatic skill that the Malayali loved to show off.

Published on August 19, 2016

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