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.
It's 9 am and six flights are scheduled to depart from Kozhikode International Airport to different countries in West Asia and four are scheduled to arrive in the next one hour. The airport is teeming with relatives and family members of the passengers.
Yahu Bappu, who came to receive his son arriving from Dubai, recalled his own journey to Dubai. The memory of the journey on an ‘Uru’, a dhow-type wooden boat, 47 years ago is still fresh in his mind. The boat that set sail from Beypore in Kozhikode on 9 September, 1970 took 22 days to take the 150-member group to Dubai compared to his son's four-hour flight.
“The journey through the Arabian Sea was perilous. Many, who had sailed before us, did not make it. We took the risk due to extreme poverty. There were no employment opportunities in Malappuram then. We could have died of starvation,” says Bappu, who returned to Kerala after 36 years of backbreaking work.
Bappu is among the thousands of semi-literate Keralites, who migrated to the Gulf, in the wake of discovery of oil in 1930s and 1940s. Soon, thousands of educated young men and women, and skilled workers started migrating, making Gulf the most sought-after destination for migration.
Kerala was a net in-migrating state till 1930s. The state’s rich natural wealth of spices, coconut, teak and ivory brought foreigners to the state from as early as third millennium BCE. Different merchant communities from within the country also came to the state from 19th Century onwards.
Though Keralites are regarded as a highly mobile class of people, the migratory movements from the state are of comparatively recent origin, according to KV Joseph, who studied the pattern of migration from the state. In his study entitled ‘Factors and Pattern of Migration: The Kerala Experience’, he said that census reports till the end of the 19th Century had portrayed Keralites as home-bound people who don't stir out of their village moorings.
“Simple mode of life with the bulk of the people meeting the bare subsistence needs formed the style of living in Kerala for centuries. At the same time any urge for improving their living conditions by acquiring new goods, or by exerting more effort seemed to be missing among Keralites,” the study noted.
Joseph has attributed this to the absence of favourable conditions for migration such as frequent droughts, famines, poor economic conditions and population pressure. When these conditions forced millions of people from rest of India to move out under ‘indenture’ and ‘kangani’ systems of labour recruitment, Keralites stayed put in the state.
According to the study, 1.36 crores Indians crossed the borders of India and migrated to various parts of the world between 1824-25 and 1896-1900. Most of them were from Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Andhra regions where conditions of abject poverty and misery prevailed.
Historians believe that Keralites did not prefer the assisted migration because of their great sense of independence and higher levels of literacy. They started migrating only when semi-skilled and quasi professional jobs became available in early 20th Century. However, it acquired the characteristics of a stream since then leading to different waves of migration.
Large-scale migration from Kerala started after the World War II, when the army and other defence forces started recruiting large number of young men. This gave educated Keralites employment opportunities. More than 1.5 lakh people joined the army and civilian labour force from Travancore alone in the initial phase of the recruitment. Hundreds of thousands of young men were enrolled in the army from Cochin and Malabar regions also.
Demand for labour came not only from army but also from other sectors of the economy connected with the war. This, along with massive development programme launched soon after Independence also opened up huge opportunities for educated Keralites. The surge in industrial activity led to huge demand for skilled workers and educated persons in various states of the country.
According to Joseph, this served as pull factors to the migratory movements from Kerala which was in the forefront of educational development. This transformed the state from a net in-migration area to net out-migration area. Out-migrants from Kerala as a percentage to state population accounted for only 3.69 percent in 1961. This went up to 4.44 percent by 1981. The state accounted for 4.74 of the total inter-state migrants in the country in 1981.
Though migrants from Kerala can be found in almost all types of occupations, their presence is more conspicuous in the "employment of' office personnel as typists, stenographers, accountants and clerks".
After breaking off the initial inertia, there was no stopping for the home-bound Keralites. They started exploring opportunities everywhere. Soon, educated young men started moving to the West as well with the US becoming a favourite destination for engineers, doctors, business executives, accountants and paramedical professionals like nurses. Keralites, who started moving to the US after Independence, formed roughly 10 percent of the Indian population there, according to studies.
However, the discovery of oil in the Gulf in 1966 was the major trigger for the biggest stream of migration from Kerala. This came when potential migrants from the state were put in a predicament by the shrinking employment opportunities in other parts of India. The massive construction activities spurred by the oil boom in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and United Arab Emirates also attracted the migrants.
The ethnic connections between the Mappilla Muslims of Malabar and the Arabs (the former is believed to be descendants of Arab merchants) and the maritime trade relations Kerala had with countries in the West Asia since ancient times made matters easy for the potential migrants in Kerala.
The migrants made best use of these favourable conditions by working hard without complaining about the working conditions, said S Irudaya Rajan, who has done a number of studies on migration from and its impact, dispelling stereotypes associated with Malayalis being lazy and complaining.
While a Malayali considers manual job inferior to his status and always fight for their rights in Kerala, he transforms completely once he steps out of the state, says Rajan, who is the chair professor of the research unit on International Migration under the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. Once he is outside, the Malayali is ready to do any job, including the manual jobs without complaining about the remuneration or his rights, Rajan tells Firstpost.
Apollo Tyres chairman Onkar Kanwar, who is struggling to keep two tyre manufacturing units running in Kerala in the face of frequent labour struggles, is amazed by this transformation; “If Malyalis are ready to do half the work that they do in Gulf, Kerala can easily become another Dubai.” This observation made by the Apollo group head at an investors’ meet at Kochi a few years ago is perhaps the best testimony to the goodwill enjoyed the Malayali Diaspora.
The migration to the Gulf has left a deep impact on the socio-economic front of the state. Though the remittances they brought has helped the state in reducing poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation, its fallout on the people depending on the migrants both directly and indirectly is huge. The Gulf migration has adversely affected one million married women, two million children and four million aged people, who have been left behind by the migrants.