THE AIR is sultry. And in Kottakkal, a small town in Kerala’s Malabar region, a modest conference hall on the first floor of a hotel is filling up quickly. As the clock ticks towards 2 pm, close to 300 people, mostly men, are crammed inside. Dressed in formals and standing on a small dais, Hamza Anchumukkil says, “Sorry brothers… We had expected 50-100 people.”
Anchumukkil, a motivational speaker and self-made businessman, is holding a free seminar on the basics of running a business and the strategies to follow. “A lot of expatriate Malayalis who are returning from the Gulf to set up businesses in Kerala are failing. So it’s important to know the basics before starting an enterprise,” he says.
The turnout he is addressing underscores a problem that Kerala has long feared: the return of the pravasi (expatriate) Gulf Malayali and the bleak future they face.
The oil boom in the 1970s provided the perfect conditions
As Gulf dream sours, Kerala wakes up to grim homecoming for the average Malayali to prosper, eager to escape the poverty and joblessness back home. The stream of cheap labour was harnessed by the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries as they utilised the oil money to set up industries and infrastructure.
By 2013, Kerala had an estimated 2.4 million emigrants, 85 per cent of them working in the Gulf. The US was a distant second with just 3 per cent. In 2014, remittances were 36.3 per cent of Kerala’s net domestic product and last year, close to Rs 85,000 crore swept into the state.
But then, as a report published last September by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS) confirms, emigration from Kerala has begun to fall. A reduction of 3 lakh emigrants has been observed in the period of 2013-18, which is one-tenth of the total emigrants in 2013. According to the 2018 study, emigration figures showed a negative growth of 11.6 per cent compared to 2013.
The CDS study lists five key reasons. One, Kerala reaching replacement-level fertility as early as 1987 has ensured a population reduction in the migration-prone age group. Two, oil prices have been on a decline since 2010. Three, nationalisation policies like Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have ensured that local citizens are employed in sectors once dominated by migrants. Four, there has been a sharp fall in wage levels in the Gulf, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis. And five, wages have improved domestically, especially in the informal sector.
Says K V Abdul Khader, a CPM legislator from Guruvayur in Thrissur: “Our estimate is that most of those returning are unskilled or semi-skilled workers and traders. They are people who may have been working as domestic help in Saudi Arabia or Oman, driving cars, managing shops or running stores. Once the nationalisation process kicked in, they lost their jobs.”
Among those attending Anchumukkil’s seminar is 42-year-old Rajkumar from Punalur in southern Kerala. He took a train from his hometown, nearly 300 km away, to attend the seminar.
In 2009, Rajkumar migrated to Muscat, the capital of Oman, after completing Class 12. There, he landed a job at a computer service centre with a salary of 250 Omani Rials (close to Rs 46,000). “Life was really tough, but the good thing was I was able to send money back home. I would spend about 50 OMR for my expenses and send the rest every month,” he says.
For the next eight years, Rajkumar lived the Malayali dream. But in early 2018, his Arab boss informed him that he would be laid off as a result of the ‘Omanisation’ policy, through which the government aims to replace migrant workers with native Omanis. “The shop owners had no choice. They know that the natives would not work with as much dedication as we do, but they had to follow the law. I looked for other jobs, but it was difficult,” he says. Six months ago, he returned home.
According to experts, the long line of migrants returning to Kerala, mostly from the Gulf, is adding to the fear of an economic crisis in a state already reeling under high unemployment and the fallout of the century’s worst floods.
S Irudaya Rajan, co-author of the CDS study, paints a grim picture of the social impact. “(On an average) one Malayali supports 4-5 people at home. If he’s coming back and is not employed, what will happen to his household? We are talking of about 2 lakh households who were earlier getting Rs 20,000 as monthly income,” he says.
In the conference hall, Anchumukkil says the bottom line for returnees who hope to set up a business is the need to innovate instead of copying each other’s ideas.
“If one man starts a kuzhimanthi restaurant, five others will start the same business on the same street,” he says, referring to the popular Yemeni chicken-rice dish. “I know many of you are more talented than me. Many of you have the potential to grow much more,” he says, to applause.