It is just February, but the air was already sultry. In Kottakkal, a small nondescript town in the heart of Kerala’s Malabar region, a modest non-air conditioned conference hall on the first floor of a hotel was quickly filling up with people. As the clock slipped towards 2 pm, close to 300 people, mostly men, had crammed into the hall, which could hardly accommodate half that number.
A short man dressed in a formal shirt and pants who identified himself as Hamza Anchumukkil, standing on a small dais, turned towards them and said, “Sorry brothers for making you stand like that. We had expected 50-100 people and had arranged chairs for them. Clearly, the response has been overwhelming. I know it’s very hot today, so please adjust.”
The large crowd had gathered to attend a ‘business seminar’ by Anchumukkil, who prides himself a motivational speaker and a successful self-made businessman. A few days earlier, Anchumukkil had announced through his much-popular Facebook page that he would be holding a free business seminar for all those who wanted to know the basics of running a business, assessing its profits and strategies to promote it on social media.
“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 had pointed out in his Facebook post.
That day, Anchumukkil himself was stunned by the turnout in Kottakkal. That an overwhelming section of the people who turned out that day to listen to him were ‘pravasi’ (expatriate) Malayalis was hardly a coincidence. But more than anything, it underscored in stark detail a problem that Kerala has long feared to address: the return of the ‘pravasi’ Gulf Malayali and the tragedy that’s waiting to take place in the absence of proper, corrective steps.
Kerala has a special relationship with the Gulf countries, that go back thousands of years. As early as 3000 BC, the region of present-day Kerala was an important spice trade centre, dealing extensively with major ports across the Arabian Sea, all the way to Europe. In the Middle Ages, historical accounts have pointed to strong trade links between kingdoms in Kerala and the Arabs, a relationship which manifested in strong cultural and social influence on the region. The monopoly was broken only with the arrival of the Portuguese on the shores of the state in the 15th century, followed by the Dutch and much later, the British.
Post-independence, the wave of migration from Kerala began in the early 60s in the form of poor, unskilled Malayalis traversing the sea and braving great dangers in search of employment. The earliest accounts talked of large groups of men boarding dhows, a kind of traditional sailing vessel, from the coasts of Kerala to migrate to the Gulf. Many perished in the sea as the risks were too high. But it didn’t dampen hopes of the others, for the reward at the end of the journey was priceless.
The oil boom in the Gulf in the 70s provided the perfect economic conditions for the average Malayali to prosper, who were only too eager to escape the poverty and joblessness back home. In return, the stream of cheap, hard-working Malayali labour became the perfect ingredient for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries as they utilised the oil money to spend big on setting up industries and expanding infrastructure. Through the 80s and the 90s, it became a pattern as streams of mostly young, unskilled men made their way to the Gulf, later helping to translocate their families and friends as well.
By 2013, Kerala had an estimated 2.4 million immigrants, 85 per cent of whom were living and working in the Gulf. The United States of America, the next best choice for Malayalis, was a far distant choice with just 3 per cent.
More importantly, the money they sent home from the Gulf became the foundation of Kerala’s economic growth. In 2014, remittances touched 36.3 per cent of Kerala’s net domestic product and last year, close to Rs 85,000 crore swept into the state from abroad. The sudden affluence also served to buttress any feeling of ill-will and overall resentment in the state during the 70s and 80s when unemployment figures touched the roof.
In a state that lacked any serious industrial investment by previous regimes and notorious for its trade union culture and frequent shutdowns, the remittances from abroad served as much-needed capital to fund its infrastructure projects and welfare schemes on health and education. Last year, the state’s fourth international airport in Kannur, home to thousands of migrants, opened doors to the public, with a slew of Gulf-based airlines waiting in line to begin services.
Entire districts such as Malappuram, where 71 per cent of households have either an emigrant or a return migrant, prospered on ‘Gulf money’ with shiny shopping complexes and glitzy jewellery stores dotting small towns and villages. A walk through towns like Kottakkal, Tirur, Manjeri and Ponnani takes you into a world of Arab influence, where you will find shops selling expensive perfume and ‘ittar’ in exquisite glass cases with their names in Arabic, restaurants serving everything from ‘al-faham’ to ‘shawarma’ and expansive chain-stores selling imported dates, plums and nuts.
All in all, it has been a great run for the state and it’s large, diverse expatriate Gulf Malayali population. Until now.
A report, published in September last year, by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS), confirmed that emigration from Kerala is indeed falling, the number of return migrants is increasing every year and that the ‘long history of migration from Kerala to the Gulf is in its last phase’. 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.
The CDS study, eighth in a series of migration surveys that began in 1998, lists five key reasons for the fall in emigration: One, Kerala reaching replacement-level fertility as early as 1987 has ensured the reduction in population in migration-prone age group. Second, oil prices in the Gulf have been on a decline since 2010 thereby affecting key sectors such as real estate and construction. Third, naturalisation policies like Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere ensured that native youths are employed in sectors once dominated by migrants. Fourth, a fall in wage levels in the Gulf, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, de-motivates people to migrate. Fifth, wages have improved domestically with Kerala providing the highest rate in the informal sector.
“…it is obvious that the long-term future of the state 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… a vibrant domestic economy is the only solution to deal with the change in migratory patterns,” the CDS study concluded.
S. Irudaya Rajan, co-author of the study, doesn’t think the Gulf dream is over for a Malayali as opportunities still exist for educated, skilled persons. It’s just that people from Kerala are increasingly being forced to compete for low wages in the unorganised sector with migrants from other states of India.
“Gulf is not dead, it is still surviving,” he said, over the phone.
“The Gulf economy still needs a lot of unskilled workers. It’s just that the salary levels are much lower than what people were getting in 2008 because of the global crisis. Now for Malayalis, this is not an income for them to go there. It’s competitively better for people from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and countries like Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.”
KV Abdul Khader, a CPI(M) legislator from Guruvayur and a key office-bearer of an expatriate collective, voiced the same fears. His constituency in Thrissur district of the state comprises of small clusters of coastal villages that continue to send people to the Gulf in search of jobs.
“Our estimate is that most of them returning are still unskilled or semi-skilled workers and traders. They are people who may have been working as help in houses in Saudi or Oman, driving cars, managing textile shops or running stores selling cell-phones. Once the nationalisation process kicked in, they lost their jobs,” said Khader over phone.
“So a lot of the technically qualified and highly-educated Malayalis are still sticking to their jobs there. Similarly, of the people now migrating, most of them are skilled in some way.”
Khader admits that he cannot contemplate a situation when all of them would have to come back.
“It’s definitely one of the big challenges facing Kerala today. I frankly don’t have an answer what we can do.”
Back in the stuffed conference hall in Kottakkal, Anchumukkil, in a conversational, thick-Malappuram accent, is laying it out for his audience about how he, a return migrant from the Gulf, built a steady business from scratch in Kerala. His humble origins coupled with a certain burlesque humour makes him a crowd favourite.
“I started a small shop, just two doors away from this hotel, renting out mobile phones in the late 90s for rich Arabs who came here for Ayurvedic treatment. It was a time when everything was rented out, cars, phones, bikes, cameras,” Anchumukkil said.
From renting, Anchumukkil says, he moved on to mobile-phone servicing and then later to training young people to repair cell-phones. Today, he heads, ‘Britco & Bridco’ – a company which offers courses on mobile phone repairing and has technicians dedicated to the same cause. On its website, the company claims to have 14 affiliated institutes in Kerala alone, one in Delhi and four abroad.
The bottom line, he affirms, is the need to constantly innovate instead of copying each other’s ideas and replicating them. “That’s the problem with all of you,” he almost scolds them.
“If one man starts a kuzhimanthi restaurant, five others will start the same business on the same street. Today, I can’t walk the street without seeing a kuzhimanthi restaurant,” he says, referring to the popular Yemeni chicken-rice dish among gastronomists in Kerala.
“I know many of you are more talented than me. Many of you have the potential to grow much higher,” he remarked to a round of applause.
Among those who sat in the front-row chairs for Anchumukkil’s seminar was 42-year-old Rajkumar, who hailed from Punalur in the western fringes of southern Kerala. He had seen the former’s Facebook post and had taken a train, all the way from his hometown nearly 300 kilometres away, to attend the event in the hope of taking home some valuable business strategies and ideas.
In 2009, Rajkumar, who left studies after the 12th grade, had migrated to Muscat, the capital of Oman, via a friend in search of a job. The financial crisis notwithstanding, there were plenty of jobs for unskilled migrants at that point of time in Oman and other GCC countries. Soon enough, Rajkumar landed a job at a computer service centre where his salary was fixed at 250 Omani Rial (close to Rs 46,000).
“My Arab owner provided for my accommodation. Since the cost of living in Muscat is not as high as Dubai, so savings are possible. Life was really tough, but the good thing was I was able to send some money back home. I would spend about 50 OMR for my expenses and send the rest home every month,” he said.
For the next eight years, Rajkumar worked at the same establishment, alongside three other Malayalis, servicing computers and other electronics. The pay remained the same and even if he tried to change jobs, he knew he couldn’t expect a massive hike considering his educational level.
But things came to a head in early 2018 when his Arab owner informed him that he would be laid off as a result of the ‘Omanisation’ policy, through which the government aimed to replace migrant workers with native Omanis to stem unemployment and domestic slump. Government authorities would carry out searches at shops and establishments to check whether the policy was being implemented. Licenses were slashed if the rules were found to be violated.
“The situation was really tense. There were frequent burglaries and shoplifting by the Omanis themselves. They had large families to take care of and unemployment was a big issue,” said Rajkumar.
“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 really difficult for foreigners,” he continued. Six months ago, opting out of visa-renewal, he returned home with a heavy heart.
Back in Kerala, Rajkumar hasn’t set his mind on what he wants to do in life. Having entered his 40s, with a wife, daughter and aged parents to take care of, he can’t afford to invest his savings in a business that would go kaput. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t have loans to repay or liabilities to take care of, unlike many of his friends who have returned in recent weeks from countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. Around him, he says, restaurants and ‘thattu-kadas’ (roadside eateries) have bloomed and waned in equal measure, almost all of them financed by return migrants.
“Marketing is good, it’s safe. I think I will do that,” he said.
In mid-March, he plans to go on a ‘business trip’ with Anchumukkil and three dozen people to Malaysia to get a first-hand account of enterprise ideas and sourcing the southeast Asian region for products that would sell like hot cakes in Kerala.
“Malaysia is a hub for electronic products. If we can find a market for them here (in Kerala), I’m sure they will work. Technology is changing everyday and Kerala is after all a consumer state,” he quipped.
Even as the Gulf dream may be fading for thousands of Malayalis, people like Rajkumar are proof that it doesn’t deter them from exploring new frontiers to find work.
(In Part 2, tomorrow, a look at the social and economic costs facing Kerala with the return of migrants)