Editor’s Note: The migrant workers of Kerala contribute to two-third of the State Domestic Product - directly and indirectly. While migration is considered as one of the most productive industries, it is the stories of the families that get overlooked in the telling of Kerala's economic progress. In this multi-part series, Firstpost looks at these migrant populations and its socio-economic impact.
Discovery of oil in the Gulf in the 1930s was a landmark event in the history of Kerala. The commercial exploitation of oil in the 1950s and 60s opened up big job opportunities for Keralites.
The massive developmental activities undertaken by the Arab countries needed all types of workers — unskilled and skilled labourers, office workers, salesmen and professionals like doctors, nurses and engineers — to oil their booming economy which lured the Keralites across the Arabian Sea.
The boom came at a time when employment opportunities in other states were also diminishing. After Independence, many Keralites found job opportunities in cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and New Delhi.
However, the inter-state flow slowed down in the 70s when opportunities began to diminish after the initial buoyancy. The flow was also affected by the nativist mentality that started gaining strength in various parts of the country, according to KV Joseph, a migration expert.
“With the rise of the nativist mentality, the native population of states like Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Goa began to look upon the immigrants from other states with suspicion and even enmity. Agitations against Malayalees took a violent turn in Mumbai, Goa and Chennai,” he added.
The openings in the Gulf thus came as a golden opportunity to Keralites, who grabbed the opportunity by shirking their aversion to manual labour and leaving in large numbers to various Gulf countries. The number of Keralites living in West Asia as on 2014 is nearly two million, according to Kerala Migration Survey (KMS).
The survey conducted by noted demographers KC Zachariah and S Irudayarajan for the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram puts the total number of Keralites living abroad in 2014 at 2.40 million. Ninety percent of the emigrants are in West Asia.
According to the survey, the number of emigrants has been on a steady increase. It was 2.28 million in 2011, 2.19 million in 2008, 1.84 million in 2003 and 1.36 million in 1998. The number of Non-Resident Keralites (NRK), that is, Kerala residents who have ever lived outside India, is estimated to be 3.65 million, up from 2.1 million in 1998.
This shows that over five percent of the population of Kerala lives outside the state, in various parts of India, in the Gulf region, the US, Europe and other countries around the world. According to the survey, 19 percent of the Kerala households had an emigrant in 2014 and 29 percent had an NRK.
The KMS found a steady improvement in the average educational level of the emigrants. It noted that the disadvantage which the external migrants had over the internal migrants in respect of educational level in the past has been gradually wiped out. By 2014, the emigrants are more or less on a par with the out-migrants in educational attainment.
The survey found that 75.1 percent of the emigrants have Class X or higher levels of education. Over 35 percent of the migrants have received a diploma or a degree of higher levels of education. Migrants are better educated than the general population.
An interesting finding of the KMS is the Hinduisation of emigration in Kerala. The survey found a slow but steady rise in the number of Hindu migrants lately. The share of Hindus, who account for 55 percent of the total population in the state, was 29.5 percent in 1998. It rose to 36.3 in 2014. The share of Hindus in 2011 was 37.4 percent. Muslims had led the table with 41.3 percent although their share in the population was only about 26 percent.
However, the number of Muslim emigrants has witnessed a decline from 45 percent in 2011. In the past, the gain among the Hindus was mostly at the expense of the Christians, but more recently (particularly after naturalisation of labour in Saudi Arabia) it was also partly at the expense of the Muslims, says the KMS.
The survey noted that Hindus were still lagging considerably behind the other two communities with respect to emigrants per household. While there were nearly 60 emigrants per 100 households among the Muslims in 2014 and nearly 30 among the Christians, the Hindus had only 18 emigrants per 100 households. Emigration from Hindu households has a long way to go before it can catch up with the sustained flows from other major religious communities in Kerala, KMS observes.