As Kerala diaspora in Gulf sees downturn of fortunes, migration experts warn of 5 to 10 percent fall in remittances

The central focus of Loka Kerala Sabha (LKS), a general assembly of Malayali diaspora held in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram on 12-13 January, was on channelising a part of the estimated Rs 90,000 crore the state receives as remittances every year towards the development of the state.

But the shrinking job opportunities in the Gulf region, the principal job destination of Keralites, in the wake of a slide in oil prices and the plight of emigrants forced to return home dominated the two-day session.

 As Kerala diaspora in Gulf sees downturn of fortunes, migration experts warn of 5 to 10 percent fall in remittances

File image of migrant workers flocking at Kannur railway station. Image courtesy: SK Mohan

The government, which organised the event in a bid to make the emigrants partners of its ambitious scheme to raise Rs 50,000 crores outside the state budget for the infrastructure development, had no immediate solution to the burning issue.

A cross-section of the overseas members Firstpost interacted with exuded hope that their demand for a pragmatic scheme for rehabilitation of returnees may find a place in the government’s scheme of things since the LKS is designed and structured like a legislative body unlike the NRK conclaves that the government used to organise from time to time in the past.

The Loka Kerala Sabha, which includes 177 members of the diaspora from across the world, 33 members of Parliament and all 141 MLAs, is a permanent body with a secretariat of its own and subject committees to deal with specific issues.

However, a section of the members has expressed apprehension about the seriousness of the government in solving the problems faced by the diaspora since it could not ensure the participation of all the MLAs and MPs at the summit.

“The majority of the MLAs and MPs stayed away from the summit. This is a clear indication that they are not attaching any importance to the NRKs, who contribute about 35 percent of the state’s income,” says Varghese Puthukulangara, a member from Kuwait.

He said that the initiative will bear fruit only if the legislators take active participation in the activities of the sabha. If all MLAs and MPs were present at the summit, they could have got first-hand information about the issues faced by the NRKs and take them to the Assembly and Parliament for the solution, he added.

Doubt about a fair deal to the emigrants, who have returned from abroad, has also been expressed since only six of them have been given representation in the sabha. This is inadequate considering their number. The number of emigrants returning to Kerala in 2014 was 1.24 million, about 52 percent of the total number of emigrants, according to the Kerala Migration Survey, 2014.

Most of them, who have returned to the state after losing their jobs, are struggling to make both ends meet. KT Kunhumuhammad, chairman of the Non-Resident Keralite Welfare Board, said he was surprised to learn that many Gulf returnees were doing jobs of night watchmen.

A survey conducted by the Sharjah-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust showed that 95 percent of the estimated 2.2 million NRKs in the Gulf region had no saving at all. They have nothing left to sustain their lives if they lose their job and return to the state, says trust chairman KV Shamsudheen.

The return till 2014 was part of the natural process. But it has assumed the dimension of a reverse exodus in the last three years due to the fall in the oil prices and the consequent job localisation undertaken by many Gulf countries. With no improvement in oil prices in sight, the reverse exodus is expected to gain momentum in the coming years.

Ashraf Vengath from Saudi Arabia said that the slump in oil prices, Nitaqat policy and new taxes being introduced by the Saudi government will force 70 percent of the NRKs to return to the state in a short period. Those who return will be the unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who will not be able to find a job anywhere in the Gulf as the employment scene throughout the region is changing fast.

No wonder one of the main concerns expressed by members at the summit was about the plight of the returnees. The concern was shared even by business tycoons like Yusuf Ali, Ravi Pillai and Dr Azad Moopen. They stressed on the need for a well-planned strategy to rehabilitate the returnees.

The task is not easy with the changing job scene in the Gulf countries reducing chances for fresh migration. Studies have revealed that migration from the state has been showing a steady decline over the years. The Kerala Migration Survey 2016 has revealed that migration had declined by 1.54 lakh between 2014 and 2016.

According to the survey, the total number of Keralite emigrants declined from 2.4 million in 2014 to 2.24 million in 2016. This is the first time that the migration has shown such a decline since Gulf emerged as the principal destination for unemployed Kerala youths in the wake of the 1960s oil boom.

The decline in migration will put additional pressure on the job market in the state already burdened with 7.4 percent unemployment compared to a national average of 2.3 percent. Under the circumstances, it will not be easy for the government to spend much money on the rehabilitation of the Gulf returnees.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has, therefore, appealed to the wealthy NRKs to bail out the hapless returnees. He has asked them to share the responsibility by pumping money into the government’s welfare schemes for the NRKs.

The depression in the Gulf may also affect the government’s plan to raise funds from the NRKs to fund various projects drawn up by it for the development of the state. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who is struggling to pay salaries and pension to employees on time, is counting heavily on the NRKs for the successful functioning of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), a dream body he has conceived to raise funds outside the budget for executing infrastructure projects.

Isaac has mooted a Pravasi Chitty as a key tool to mop up the money. He has targeted mobilisation of Rs 20,000 crores from 10 lakh NRKs through the chit scheme in the next two years. Many think it is too tall a target considering the fact that only 1 lakh NRKs had joined the pension scheme launched by the government with a minor subscription nearly a decade ago.

Shamsudheen said that the NRKs in Dubai did not show much enthusiasm to the scheme when a team of officials from the state made a presentation recently. Many who attended the event expressed several apprehensions about the scheme, which is scheduled to be launched in April 2018.

But what is worrying economists is the overall impact of the decrease in migration. They feel that this will bring down the remittances, which fuelled the economy to a big extent. Migration experts have already warned a 5 to 10 percent decrease in remittances this year due to the decrease in the outflow of emigrants.

S Irudaya Rajan, head of the migration unit at Centre for Development Studies (CDS), feels that Kerala’s Gulf connection could end in another 10 to 15 years. According to him, the only option for the state’s unemployed youths is to upgrade their skills and look out for opportunities in new destinations.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2018 16:58:29 IST