My ancestral village in Kerala nestles in the foothills of a mountain range contiguous to the Western Ghats. Up in the hills there is an ancient tribal shrine maintained by a nomadic tribe. I like the ambience there and visit the shrine whenever I get the time.
Recently I was surprised to find a small group of youths from Assam there. They were employed as daily wagers by the forest department. They get Rs 240 daily and are happy with their stay in Kerala, they told me.
That set me thinking. Until three decades ago, youths from Kerala used to migrate to Assam, Bengal and every nook and cranny of the country in search of work. Before the Gulf boom they went to Ceylon, Singapore and half way across the globe to the South and North Americas. (We've heard the joke about Neil Armstrong and his team being greeted by a Malayali with a kettle of tea on the moon.)
Well, the trend has reversed. Today Kerala is home to over 25 lakh registered migrants and a large number of unregistered, floating population from other parts of the country. Cities such as Thiruvananthapuram are teeming with migrants.
Kerala is their Gulf. They fill the vacuum created by the mass migration of Malayali youth to the Gulf countries. The relatively higher wages, pleasant weather and social acceptance by the local populace here are attractive propositions for the migrants with varying skill sets.
Kerala has a long tradition of tolerance to migrants. From ancient times, it welcomed people from distant lands that enriched the State's social and cultural milieu. Arabs, Jews and Christian missionaries all found a fertile ground here. Yes, till the middle of the last century, Arabs came to Kerala in large numbers not only for trade but also for jobs such as khasis in local mosques. Just as Brahmins from other southern States came here for jobs in temples and royal households.
A study just published by the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre (PAC), confirms the trend reversal. According to the study, migration of Southerners to the northern States has declined and Northerners are moving in large numbers to the South in search of jobs.
The study attributes the shift to better leadership and governance in the southern States. Per capita incomes in the South have risen faster and poverty has declined. The South has also forged ahead in education, healthcare and urbanisation.
The PAC study notes that powerful social movements in the South since the beginning of the last century brought about the changes conducive to more equitable distribution of scarce resources. The better leadership and governance in the southern States is the result of the pressure exerted by these mass movements. People sure get the government they deserve!
A few years ago, the US Embassy staff in Colombo got a raise. Later it was noticed that everyone except a toilet cleaner had got a raise. It was immediately reported to Washington. Someone in the State Department there looked up the median salary of sanitary workers in the US and added it to the rolls in Colombo. The toilet cleaner soon became the richest man in his locality. He bought a car and hired a chauffer to drive him to the embassy to clean the toilets!