Once the lockdown is lifted, Kerala will face a new challenge with the expected return of a large section of Keralites from the Middle East. This throws the spotlight on the importance of out-migration in Kerala’s economy, and raises questions about its future.
Trends, then and now
Migration (both internal and international) has been the single most dynamic factor in the development of Kerala since its formation in 1956. Data available for the old Travancore-Cochin region suggests that it was characterised by a net inflow of persons until 1941. This reversed dramatically in succeeding decades with more people leaving than entering. Until 1971, most Keralites were migrating within India, mostly to emerging cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. This is partly due to the demand for skilled/educated persons, which Kerala could contribute due to its high literacy rate.
However, with the opening up of the Gulf economies to foreign workforces in the 1970s in the wake of a spike in oil prices, the tide of migration from Kerala moved decisively from internal to international. The rate of out-migration (estimated through an indirect method using Indian censuses) peaked in 1971-81, at approximately 250,000. The available data indicates that the outflow continued well into the 1980s and 1990s.
Consequently, many of the Malayalis who had left Kerala for other parts of the country in the earlier days, moved now to the Gulf. Till 1999, Kerala had only one international airport. Today, it has four, due to the importance of international migration and remittances to the economy and society at large.
Kerala Migration Survey
It was in this context that the Centre for Development Studies conducted its first Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) in 1998, coordinated by K C Zachariah and myself. Since then, we continue to monitor both internal and international migration, migration corridors, remittances, economic benefits and social costs. Thus far, we have completed eight rounds, the latest in 2018. Let us examine what the various surveys tell us.
The first study, in 1998, indicated that nearly 1.5 million Keralites were then living outside India, with another 750,000 former emigrants having returned. Over the years, the survey found that they live mostly on the savings, work experience, and skills brought with them from abroad. More than a million families depend on internal migrants’ earnings for subsistence, children’s education and other economic requirements. While the educationally backward Muslims from the Thrissur-Malappuram region provide the backbone of emigration, the educationally forward Ezhawas, Nairs and Syrian Christians from the former Travancore-Cochin State form the core of internal migration.
Emigration begets return emigration. Kerala has seen widespread return migration due to external shocks on at least three occasions — Gulf War, global economic crisis and Nitaqat policy of Saudi Arabia. We can say confidently that Kerala emigrants were resilient on all three occasions. For instance, when the global crisis hit the Gulf, the state government expected large return migration but our estimates put the number around just 50,000 in 2009.
Let us examine the 2018 KMS data. There are an estimated 2.12 million emigrants from Kerala across the world, which is 149,000 less than the 2016 KMS estimate and 278,000 less than the 2013 KMS estimate (see table). Overall, the data shows a continuously decreasing rate of growth of emigration since 2008. However, it should also be noted that there was a positive growth in some years, particularly 2011 and 2013 — 87,000 more people seem to have emigrated in the 2008-11 period, and 1.2 lakh more in 2011-13.
The inter-survey growth rate since 2013 has dropped. The inter-survey differences vary from one interval to another, from an increase of 4.7 lakh during 1998-2003 to a decline of 1.4 lakh during 2016-18. It has shown positive growth for the first four periods and negative growth for the last two periods. We can see the highest growth rate at the initial phase (1998-2003), which has been continuously decreasing (except during 2011-13), leading to a negative growth rate at the recent phase (2013-18).
The top destination is the Gulf region with 89.2 per cent of the total emigrants. The UAE has remained the favourite destination for Keralites from the beginning. About 1.89 million emigrants live in the Gulf countries.
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After KMS 2018, Kerala has experienced floods and we have predicted an increase in emigration because most the remittances were invested in works related to construction of houses. By 2020, we assume the Kerala migrants in six countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait) probably reached around 20 lakh (at the most 25 lakh). Our understanding indicates that about one of four in the Gulf is a Keralite.
Emigration after COVID-19
What is the future of emigration to and return emigration from the Gulf? My predictions are as follows: As of now, Kerala has 1 lakh return emigrants who could not go back due to the closure of airports in the Gulf earlier and in India later. Second, about 30,000 new emigrants could not go to the Gulf in spite of having employment visas. Third, once travel is allowed, we expect the first set of priority return emigrants —mostly dependants — to arrive in May 2020. The Gulf countries are already beginning to see the effects of the COVID crisis, with oil prices sinking to an all-time low. Most sectors will likely incur heavy job losses amid changing domestic policies. Thus, before September, we expect another 1 lakh to return.
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One more factor will play a major role. At any point of time, at least 10 per cent of Keralite migrants or 2 lakh are undocumentedi workers. Very recently, Kuwait announced amnesty allowing undocumented workers to leave the country without any fine. If other Gulf countries also grant amnesty to get rid of undocumented workers, most of them will have to return. In any case, we can expect an additional 3 lakh return migrants from the Gulf. It is a major challenge that the government has to take into consideration when deliberating over the future of migration from Kerala. However, the vital importance of migrants to Kerala’s economy and society means that the government will have to take careful steps to foster international migration in a post-COVID world.
As stated in the Report of Expert Committee on Strategy for Easing Lockdown Restrictions of Government of Kerala, “A comprehensive Kerala Migration Survey should be undertaken immediately after normalcy is restored for more effective policy formulation for this category in the State.”
S Irudaya Rajan is Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. He led the Kerala Migration Survey 2018 and is a Member of the Kerala Government Expert Committee on COVID-19