Kerala migration shows downward trend as wages decline in West Asia, India offers better avenues, say surveys

The 2016 Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) had shown emigration from the state reaching the inflexion point in 2016. The latest survey has confirmed the trend of taking a concrete decreasing turn now.

According to the 2018 survey conducted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, the emigration from the state has declined by 11.6 percent between 2013 and 2018.

The number has come down from 2.4 million to 2.1 million during the period. As many as 89.2 percent of the total migrants are in the West Asian countries. The remaining 10 percent of the emigrants are concentrated in the other countries like the US, the UK, and Australia.

Indian workers in the Gulf . Image courtesy News18

Indian workers in the Gulf . Image courtesy News18

Migration to both the regions has been showing a declining trend. While the migrants in West Asia came down from 20.70 lakh in 2013 to 18.93 lakh in 2018, it fell from 3.3 lakh to 1.28 lakh in the rest of the world during the five-year period.

The biggest fall in the migrants was seen in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the most favourite destination of Keralites, with the number coming down from 8.98 lakh to 8.30 lakh. The country had seen a surge in migrants from Kerala between 2013 and 2016 with the figure touching 9.43 lakh in 2016.

The UAE is followed by Kuwait with a fall in migrants from 1.83 lakh in 2013 to 1.27 lakh in 2018. Saudi Arabia, which accounts for the second largest number of migrants from the state, has seen a fall of 35,000. The number of migrants in the kingdom came down from 5.22 lakh to 4.87 lakh between 2016 and 2018.

Migration experts are expecting a huge fall in the number of Keralites migrating to Saudi Arabia since it has started aggressively following a drive for naturalisation of labour and imposition of various taxes on the migrants.

S Irudaya Rajan, chair professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) Research Unit on International Migration at CDS, who led the survey said this was the first time the number of migrants from the state has shown such a huge decline since the CDS started conducting the survey in 2018.

The total number of emigrants living abroad in 1998 was 13.6 lakh. This went up to 18.4 lakh in 2003, 21.9 lakh in 2008, 22.8 lakh in 2011 and 24 lakh in 2013. Irudayarajan pointed out several trends — some directly related to emigration and others related to its determinants — playing a major role in the fall in migration.

The study found continuing demographic contraction of Kerala’s young working age population, the narrowing of wage differentials between Kerala and the Gulf as well as rising competition from other states in India as the major factor behind the decreasing migration from the state.

“The demographic changes have decreased the population in the migration prone age group (15-29 years). Kerala attained replacement level of fertility in 1987. Since then, the working age population in Kerala has grown at a decreasing rate leaving lesser people for migration,” Irudayarajan said.

Moreover, the migration to West Asia turned less attractive to the educated and skilled new generation with wages in Gulf economies showing steady decline against a steady increase in the domestic economy. City-based development and opportunities in the informal sector have risen as a result of which people tend to stay back.

“Decades of investment in education has made Keralites skilled. High skilled people tend to migrate to other parts of the world, especially the developed economies in the West, owing to better opportunities,” he said.

However, the study shows migration to the West is also declining. The migrants in the West declined from 3.30 lakhs to 2.02 lakh between 2013 and 2018. The US which accounted for the maximum number of migrants outside the Middle East has now only 46,535 migrants from the state compared to 69,559 in 2013.

Irudayarajan has attributed the decline to the anti-migrant policies of Trump presidency. He also anticipates setback to migration to Europe due to recent international events of cultural backlash such as Brexit.

He suggests a vibrant domestic economy as the only solution to deal with the change in migratory patterns. The first step is 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 health care, 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,” Irudayrajan said.

Interestingly, the decline in the migration has not led to a corresponding fall in foreign remittances. On the contrary, it has gone up. This is seen as an indication of the new generation migrants climbing the social ladder and earning higher wages.

The increase in household remittances during the period was 26 percent. The estimated total annual remittances to Kerala are placed at Rs 85,092 crore. This means an average per capita remittance of Rs 24,000. The corresponding per capita remittance in 2013 was Rs 21,000, in 2011, Rs 14,883 and Rs 12,840 in 2008.

The CDS scholar feels the recent devastating floods, and the massive loss of physical capital and land value may push migration at least in the short run. The importance for emigration for Kerala could not be more important for Kerala now than ever.

However, he said that it is obvious that the long-term future of Kerala is going to be less dependent 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 developed nations in the West, recent international events may make migration harder for Keralites looking for greener pastures abroad.


Updated Date: Sep 20, 2018 18:47 PM

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