Is Kerala ready for a wave of counter migrants?

Is Kerala ready for a wave of counter migrants?

One of the big economic impacts of COVID-19 will be migration, both internal and external or cross-border. One area, specifically within that, that many are closely watching is the fate of migrants or immigrants in the Middle East who are likely to come back to India. One study or projection states that almost 300,000 Malayalees from the state of Kerala are likely to come back. So, what is going to happen and what is going to be the impact of this--on both the local economy and remittances? We speak to S Irudaya Rajan, professor, Centre for Development Studies, Kerala, who is on the government expert committee on COVID-19.

Edited excerpts:

Some 2 million Malayalees live in the Middle East. Kerala itself is a remittance economy and more than 36% of the state’s GDP is funded by remittances from Keralites who live outside. Together with these factors, the broader economy and oil are going to have an impact on both remittances and on jobs. This is building up to be a perfect storm. And you have predicted that almost 300,000 people could come home by September 2020. Please take us through what this means and how it is likely to play out.

As of today, when we talk about COVID-19, India has close to--what we call them--10 million migrants in the Gulf alone. If you look at it globally, there are 20 million Indians anywhere in the world, in 210 countries. And half of them are in the Gulf in six countries--Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.

Now, the problem is we do not have any database. We are only talking with whatever data are available. You rightly said that Kerala Migrant Survey has given some database, you do not have India migration survey to give you the trends in India. But if you look at the Kerala migration survey and the Indian data, out of 10 million in the Gulf, close to 2-2.5 million are Keralites. One out of four in any countries in the Gulf are Malayalees. That is why the Kerala government is pressurising even the Prime Minister to have a chartered flight. I do not think any other state chief minister is talking too much about the diaspora. I have seen it with the other CMs. But here, I am in the committee not because I belong to any political party, but I belong to ‘migration party’. Migration itself is a very big crisis now. The point is very clear: Kerala is very important because one-fourth of the Indian migrants are from Kerala.

But unfortunately, Kerala government can only push but cannot itself bring them back, unless the Indian government takes a decision. Basically, it is a crisis for India, but it will affect Kerala more. There is no Kerala passport, you only have Indian passport. So, Kerala cannot send a flight and bring Keralites. It is very unfortunate but that is a fact of life. If the Ministry of External Affairs or the Prime Minister decides to bring back all the Indians, like they had evacuated in the Kuwait crisis, in the war, they can do that. They can send all the flights in India to pick them up, but it must come from the central government. But Kerala only can tell them that if they come to Kerala we can look after them during the time of COVID-19. If 200,000 are coming, we need place to allow them to quarantine…

[Editor’s note: The Indian Navy and the Air Force are preparing to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Indians stranded in Gulf nations, the Financial Express reported on April 29, 2020. In 24 hours, about 50,000 Indians in the United Arab Emirates had registered on the government’s portal to return home.]

So, the first question is really: Are you expecting 300,000 people to come by September 2020, assuming that flights open and they can come? Do you think they will?

Even during the time of global crisis, only 50,000 came. That was our prediction and we know that we were correct. But now, we are talking that at least 10% will come from the Gulf. We are talking between 200,000-300,000, partly because Kuwait has opened up amnesty. Because in our mind, we do not talk about undocumented migrants in the Gulf. We talk about migrants who have proper documents. But even some high-skilled migrants in the Gulf are overstaying. Due to the fear of COVID-19, Kuwait has offered amnesty [to undocumented migrants] and I am hoping within the next 3-6 months, all the Gulf countries will follow suit. If anything happens in the Gulf in one country, every country will follow. And we know that undocumented migrants are required for their parallel labour market. They are like shadow labour. That shadow market will be very dull because there is no market even for the actual migrants. So those people are likely to come back. That is why we are putting the figure at 200,000-300,000. Some of them will be dependents.

So, what is the impact going to be? As these people come to Kerala, what is the past--if you are referring to the 2008 financial crisis and the reverse flow that we saw--what happened in the domestic economy?

When we talk about 300,000 people, we are talking about their families [as well]. No longer are migrants just individuals; that is why we are talking about even internal migrants. People are stranded in Kerala, they want to send money back home to Orissa or Rajasthan or North East. So, that means one Malayalee sitting in the Gulf is supporting four people in Kerala. So, we are talking about close to 1.5 million people, who will be directly affected by the 300,000.

But at the same time, I am not sure that all of them will stay here for quite a long time. The problem is that the Kerala society is somehow addicted to migration. Kerala’s inbuilt DNA, they do want to be in Kerala. Though they call Kerala as ‘God’s Own Country’, they want to leave for Mumbai or Delhi, but they will leave. But the problem is, the Gulf may be closing down for some people, not everybody; because Kerala’s migration history in the Gulf is 50-year old. They have been integrated into the Gulf society. Even if 300,000 people come in, you have 1.7 million people left there. It may take some time for them to wind up, but they may look for new opportunities, new destinations. Right now, 90% of the Malayalees [migrants] are in the Gulf, they may move to some other country. There may be a demand.

So, you are saying, in some way, the Malayalees are enterprising enough to take care of themselves, even if the state government or central government is not able to do much for them...if I have understood you right.

That is right. People are saying: you arrange for flights, we will pay. They are not looking for free flights. If it would have been other states, they would have said, “You please take us for free.” Some people say we can quarantine on our own money, but please take us back home. That is the reality.

So, this is one part. The other part is that incomes will drop even in the Gulf, even in Kerala, like in the rest of the world and in India. What impact are you envisaging of that, and how will it affect lifestyles and lives of people?

I think this 40-day lockdown is helping people [understand] how not to spend money. In fact, we are not spending any money now—everybody today is sitting at home, watching TV, cooking food, etc. I think all people’s actual expenditure has come down; even the income might have come down. There are many people who may not have any income at all… there are many people affected by the lockdown. So, we have downsized our expenditure. Now, what is going to happen, even the World Bank has predicted that there will be a 20% decline in remittances, globally. What we predict for Kerala is that there will be at least a 15% decline of remittances in 2020. To put this in a perspective, in 2018 we have estimated Rs 85,000 crore came to Kerala annually--this was the amount equivalent to 25% of Kerala state income. The income has changed because the government has changed the per-capita income formula—the Indian government. So, what we predicted, because Kerala had floods that no other state had, we had very big floods in 2018 and in 2019 also. When the flood came in, many of the migrants who had decided not to go, migrants who had decided to be in Kerala (returned migrants), because of the flood they lost their life’s savings, their houses. So, some of them moved back to the Gulf; what is called re-migration, in other words, some type of forced migration. Then we expected Rs 85,000 crore will increase to Rs 1 lakh crore by 2020. Now because of COVID-19, I am sure that many people are not getting full salary, many people are not being paid at all—we have to wait and see. So, we are expecting that remittances in 2020 in Kerala are going to be equal to 2018. We are coming back to square increase.

The World Bank figures that you referred to was $83 billion last year. The prediction is that it will come down to $64 billion for India as a whole. And a substantial part of that obviously goes to states like Kerala.

Let me put the internal migration question as well. Kerala also has a lot of internal migrants--people coming in from other parts of the country and working in Kerala. How do you see that changing? Are they going back to their states? Will the job market change? Or are you seeing any early trends there? What are you expecting?

Internal and international traffic are two-way traffic. I don’t think, as far as Kerala is concerned, we can talk of international migration without talking of internal migration. That is why, we are keen on the--we call them, ‘guest workers’ and not ‘anniyan’ (which is derogatory). That is why we are calling them guest workers. It is not that migrants need Kerala. Kerala needs internal migrants; we have come to that stage. So, what is happening is, to put it in numbers—we have 2 million Malayalees outside the country, 1 million inside the county (outside Kerala but within India in places such as Mumbai, Delhi including Lakshadweep and Andaman Nicobar Islands). So, you have 3 million Malayalees, who are supposed to be part of Kerala’s labour force, outside. So, we are getting almost 3 million other states’ people coming into Kerala, we call them… replacement migration: Kerala’s plumber is in Dubai, we get a replacement from Orissa; Kerala’s electrician is in Qatar, we get an electrician from the North East. A Kerala person may be getting some extra money in Dubai for the same job, he will not do that job in Kerala—anyway that is a problem with migration itself. Therefore, internal migration is heavy in Kerala.

Now, before the lockdown—we have three types of internal migrants in Kerala. Some of them who had left before the lockdown (after the janata curfew was announced there were two days, so people predicted and moved); migrants are intelligent people so they predicted there would be a lockdown and then moved out. I predict maybe 500,000 might have left Kerala. There are people stranded on the way. I spoke to the Tamil Nadu government. In Chennai, many trains that came from Kerala were parked there because the lockdown came into effect. So, they were all helped by the Tamil Nadu government—they were put in schools. They never belonged to them; they were working in Kerala and they were stranded migrants.

They are everywhere--that is why we have seen Maharashtra talking to send them back. The third group of people are those who are stuck here—the Kerala government is taking care of them. The Chief Minister of Kerala has instructed that at least they were feeding 500,000 people from the common kitchen. We are giving them food. Now, when the trains start to move, just like Malayalees want to come back, these people will go.

But what will happen is, there will be a scarcity of labour in Kerala to take the economy forward--because Kerala economy is integrated with the internal migrants. Malayalees doing the same thing in Dubai, they may not do the same work here--they may not make chapatis here, they may make it in Saudi Arabia. So automatically, if the 300,000 Malayalees who are returning can take the jobs that are available in Kerala, then we solve half the problem. The problem is that they do not do that, they call them ‘3D jobs’ or DDD jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs.

If they are willing to do that, Kerala’s economy will improve. Otherwise we are going to face the tough problem of scarcity of labour to run the economy even after opening up. You cannot open a hotel, because no one is there; the workers already want to leave the place. So, we are going to have a tough time in the tourism industry, construction industry and hotel industry because all these migrants will leave. If the Kerala migrants who are coming back can take this job, immediately then the Kerala economy will do [well]. So we need counselling for the migrants, not just health counselling, but counselling about the meaning of work. Telling them that do what you do there, maybe the salary will be a little less. I think if you do that, Kerala can match and be a new model for other states.

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.

Next Story