MIGRATION: The Story of Kerala

by Nikhil Panicker (IMN Researcher)

Pablo Picasso once said that the purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily life off our souls. This year, Malayalam cinema celebrates the return of composer AR Rahman to the film adaptation of Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) — a literary masterpiece; a universal tale of loneliness and alienation; the story of a Malayali migrant in Saudi Arabia.

For the past two years, I have had the good fortune to hear from migrants and their families, political leaders, researchers, policy makers and advocacy groups, and one thing is clear to me — the nature of migration in Kerala is the nature of daily life itself. It is a story of highs and lows, of joy and pain and of pride and regret — all at once.


Most discussions on migration start with numbers.

The discovery of oil in the Gulf countries and the subsequent oil boom in 1970s initiated a massive wave of emigration from Kerala. Over 90 percent of emigration from Kerala is to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. In 1998, when the first Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) was conducted, Malayali emigrants to the Gulf stood at 1.4 million, and remittances from these emigrants to the state exceeded Rs. 13,000 crores. By 2004, the number of emigrants had increased to 2.4 million, and remittances had increased more than five times to Rs. 71,000 crores. And in 2016, KMS showed that for the first time in 20 years, the Malayali migrant community got smaller by 10 percent to 2.2 million.

This was on account of nationalisation policies in the GCC countries, and due to the fact that decades of migration had made Malayalis educated and skilled enough to aim for more specialised professions. Unskilled and semi-skilled migrants from Kerala were not only replaced by migrants from other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Nepal, but also by other Indian migrants from Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. This 10 percent decrease in migration was expected to result in a similar decrease in remittances to the State. Today, in 2018, experts say this downward trend in emigration and remittances continues. At the same time, between 1998 and 2016, the number of return migrants increased from 0.74 million to 1.4 million.

It is not unfair to say that without remittances, Kerala would have had to adopt an entirely different economic growth path. Presently, remittances amount to over 35 percent of the state’s domestic product. Kerala is unique in this sense as no other large state in India depends so much on remittances. Remittance flows to Kerala had seen a sharp rise of over 40 percent between 2011 and 2014.

More than a third of remittances to Kerala are household remittances. A migrant supports three to four family members back home. A third of the population of Kerala directly benefits through migration, while another third benefits indirectly through multiplier effects. As the remittances are coming down, the state has started to identify alternative means of employment and revenue generation.


The Modern Malayali Emigrant

The average Malayali emigrant is male, young, and has a secondary level of education. However, in the last twenty years, emigration from Kerala has become more inclusive and the shares of women and the more educated have risen. In 1998, while only 9 percent of emigrants were women, it has increased to 15 percent by 2016. It is important to mention here that in two cases — among students and high skilled migrants — the share of women is considerably higher, although men are still over-represented among the most educated. On average, female emigrants are also more educated than their male counterparts. A high share of nurses among woman emigrants is the main reason this is so. It is also noteworthy that over a third of out-migrants from Kerala (migrants to other parts of India) are women.

Emigrants from Kerala are highly engaged with the society of Kerala. They maintain deep familial, cultural and economic ties with the source society. The nature of their engagement has changed dramatically with technological improvements. For instance, during the recent devastating floods in Kerala, emigrants moved swiftly to organise an internet driven response. They were the first to urge the people of Kerala to use Facebook’s ‘Safety Check’ feature. By sharing and re-sharing vital information on affected regions and people, supplies, and precautionary measures on various social media platforms, they were instrumental in expanding the flow of information that would later be used by politicians, private and military rescue operations, and relief workers. Their engagement on social media also created an unprecedented level of awareness of the gravity of the situation in Kerala among the rest of India as well as the world.

In addition, some Malayali emigrants and the Malayali diaspora in general have become successful and highly influential. This is evident from the extraordinary support Kerala received from other sovereign states with large diaspora populations such as in the Middle East, multinational corporations employing Malayalis, and by the diaspora itself. Emigrants are also the largest contributors to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund (CMDRF). The prominence of emigration is further strengthened in Malayali minds during hard times such as this, when their engagement proves invaluable.


Replacement Migration

With emigration rates revealing a continued decrease the last few years, the next major chapter in the story of migration in Kerala is in-migration into the state from other parts of the country. It is estimated that there are close to 3 million internal migrants in Kerala, mainly from the states of West Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In-migration to the state is on the rise as Kerala has the best wage rates in the country in the unorganised sector. This is mainly due to the fact that emigration from Kerala, a rapidly ageing society, has created a deficit in the supply of labour. Moreover, being a state with a rich communist tradition, Kerala has a good record when it comes to providing rights and welfare to migrants. It is fair to say that, although undoubtedly prevalent to some extent, oppression and exploitation of migrant labourers is kept under bay due to the political and cultural traditions of the state. It is unfortunate that this phenomenon of rampant internal migration to the state still has not gained prime importance in economic and sociological research in the country.


The Future

It is obvious that the long term future of the state of Kerala will be less dependant 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. Although, there is still a possibility of improving skilled migration to the developed nations in the West, recent international events of cultural backlash such as Brexit and the Trump presidency have made it harder in general. Thus, the State has the huge task of formulating and executing measures to utilise the local resources to create jobs and provide employment. In this context, the state government has started to revive traditional sectors of economic opportunity.

Thus, it is time that Kerala starts looking inwards. A vibrant domestic economy is the only solution to deal with the change in migratory patterns. The first step may be to create an inclusive society for return migrants. This will improve trust in the government which will urge the migrant community to invest more in social schemes and policies. These investments, coupled with creative solutions such as low cost housing, digital infrastructure in education and healthcare, and an overall engagement with the migrant community will help chart a new growth path for the state — one that relies more on the strengths of the domestic economy. The steps taken by the government to strengthen the economy including identifying potential areas of growth such as tourism, agriculture, and higher education is to be appreciated. Leaders of communities also need to assuage the people of Kerala that reduced migration and inflow of return migrants can be a cause for celebration and not worry. Furthermore, the state should employ better macroeconomic tools and policies to combat large scale changes that can happen. For example, the return of migrants will inevitably drive up prices causing inflation. If the government is unable to manage this, it will cause fissures in the political setup of the state. Migrants should also be urged to make smarter investments such as in shares and other financial instruments. Kerala already has a big problem waiting to erupt because of the high rate of investment in non-performing assets such as land and gold. The impending change can be combatted effectively only by gradually changing the views and opinions on migration.

Finally, it is time to contemplate on the pronounced change that migration has brought to the social fabric of the state. During the earlier days, migration helped level class structures, social hierarchies and differences in religion and religiosity. It helped reduce income, wealth and socioeconomic inequalities in education and healthcare. However, today, there is a feeling in Kerala that migration is widening these differences. It is also true that the social costs of migration is gaining influence in public discourse. Women, children and the elderly left behind deal with many issues such as loneliness, anxiety and depression. Family planning is harder among migrant families and have nudged fertility rates in Kerala on a downward spiral. Return migrants also suffer from many ailments owing to their difficult working conditions in the Gulf.

The next chapter of Kerala’s economic story will undoubtedly be different from this. Nevertheless, in a world influenced by populist and right wing ideas of nationalism and isolation, Kerala’s success story, with all its imperfections and despair, can encourage the world to be more open to the idea of an economic and political system where the free movement of people is seen as a means to help and seek help from fellow men to fulfil both personal and group ambitions.

Nikhil is a researcher at India Migration Now. Working towards making migration a key part of India’s development agenda.