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.


Geographic distribution by district of origin shows that the largest number of emigrants originated from the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district, a position it retained throughout the entire 1998-2014 period. However, its share of the pie has shrunk in recent years, from 21.8 percent in 1998 to 19.0 percent in 2014. Malappuram is followed by Pathanamthitta and Thrissur. The survey has found a northward shift in the district-wise origin of emigrants with the northern districts of Kasargod and Kannur gaining considerably over the years.

The principal destination countries of Kerala emigrants have remained more or less unchanged over these years, with nearly 90 percent of the Kerala emigrants going towards the Gulf countries. Within the Gulf region, the UAE retained its number one rank, with Saudi Arabia coming in the second position. Nearly 38 percent of Kerala’s emigrants live in the UAE and 22 percent live in Saudi Arabia.

The total remittances to Kerala in 2014 are estimated to be Rs 71,142 crores, according to KMS. However, banking data showed that the NRI deposits in scheduled commercial banks had crossed Rs 1 lakh crores in 2015. Banking statistics released by the State Level Bankers Committee showed that the deposits had touched Rs 121,619 crores in September in 2015. It was Rs 80,809 crores in September 2013.

Among the districts in the state, Malappuram received the largest amount of remittances, i.e., Rs 10,245 crores which works out to Rs 121,000 per household. The survey found that the Muslim households received Rs 25,767 crores or 36.2 percent of the total remittances in 2014. Even though Hindus lag behind Muslims in the number of emigrants, they got the biggest share of the remittances. According to KMS, Hindus received Rs 28,137 crores or 39.6 percent of the total in 2014 and the Christian community received Rs 17, 238 crores or 24.2 percent.

Irudaya Rajan, who is the chair professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) Research Unit on International Migration at the CDS, told Firstpost that remittances, which accounts for 36.3 percent of Kerala’s net domestic product (NSDP) had played a major role in sustaining the state’s economy.

“Remittances are 1.2 times the revenue receipt of the government and over five times the amount the state gets from the Centre as revenue transfer. It is 1.5 times the government’s annual expenditure. It is 60 percent of the state’s public debt. Thus remittances are a significant source of development income to the state,” he added.

He said that Kerala economy was called a money order economy during the 1970s and 1980s when people from the state found employment in various states within the country. The present economy can easily be called as a remittance economy. The remittances sent by emigrants have led to huge developments in the state. If the remittances stop the economy will crawl.

“Migration has been a significant factor in helping reduce poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation in Kerala. If there were no migration Keralites would have starved to death or the state would have become vulnerable to terror. The rise of Naxal movement in Kerala in 1975 sprouted from unemployment and hunger,” he said.

Economists feel that migration would have benefitted the state much more if conditions were created for productive utilisation of the remittances. In the absence of avenues for productive investment in the state, the emigrants used the remittances to build posh houses and consumer durables such as cars, motorcycles and other luxury items.

The migration survey revealed that the proportion of households possessing 'luxurious' or 'very good' houses shows a steady increase with the number of emigrants in the household. It was 30.4 percent for household without an emigrant and 45.6 percent for households with one emigrant, 52.6 percent for households with two emigrants and 61.5 percent for households with more than two migrants.

The percentage of households possessing these consumer durables such as a car or motorcycle, phone, television set, refrigerator and computer is much higher among households with an emigrant than among households without an emigrant. For example, in 2014, 72.0 percent of households with an emigrant possess a refrigerator, compared with only 48.5 percent of households without an emigrant. This shows that migration has contributed to consumption inequality between households with migrants and those without.

Part 1: Opportunity, discovery and how Kerala embraced migration

Part 2: Gulf lures many from Kerala, but few make it big