Million ‘Gulf Wives’: Social cost of Tamil Nadu’s Rs 60,000 crore ‘blood money’

Million ‘Gulf Wives’: Social cost of Tamil Nadu’s Rs 60,000 crore ‘blood money’

First-of-its-kind migration study goes beyond just the economy of remittances; collects a wealth of data on impact on families, children, elderly; draws a detailed profile of the state’s emigrant population

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Indian workers often do backbreaking work in the Gulf, in extreme heat and humidity. Reuters Photo

A million married women left to look after families, about 2 million children growing up with perhaps just 1 parent around, and about the same number of aged parents struggling alone, far from their children abroad: this snapshot of emigration from Tamil Nadu sums up the social cost of getting an annual remittance of Rs 61,843 crore into the state.

It is a large sum — 14% of Tamil Nadu’s state domestic product, 6.8 times the money it received from the Centre as revenue transfer in 2014-15, and 1.8 times the entire expenditure of the state government — earned in exchange for a heavy price.

According to the Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015, the first comprehensive study on emigration from the state, carried out by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Thiruvananthapuram, roughly every tenth household in Tamil Nadu has one or more workers abroad. (The ratio is higher in Kerala, where every fifth household has an emigrant worker.)

Of the more than 2.2 million emigrants from the state, almost 75% are Hindu, 15% Muslim, and 10% Christian. Roughly 15% of emigrants are women.


Prof S Irudaya Rajan, who carried out the study along with Prof Bernard D’Sami and Prof Samuel Asir Raj, said Tamil Nadu’s migration patterns — and their social impact — have been mapped for the first time, with the only comparable study having been carried out in Kerala back in 1998. The Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015 had a sample of 20,000 households spread across all 32 districts of the state, double the size of samples used in the National Sample Survey or India Human Development Survey (IHDS), Prof Rajan said.

The largest number of emigrants from Tamil Nadu — 4.1 lakh — are in Singapore, says the study, quoting official figures. The Gulf, comprising the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, has 1.1 million emigrants in all — about half of all Tamil Nadu emigrants.

Men make up an overwhelming 85% of the emigrant Tamil community. The community is spread across both West Asia and Southeast Asia, making the Tamil emigrant economy more resistant to turbulence in the Gulf than the Kerala migrant economy, Rajan said. Some 86% of migrants from Kerala work in the Gulf countries.

While migration is mostly studied through the lens of remittances and economy, the new survey has revealed its huge social impact as well, Rajan said. Many emigrant households are run by ‘Gulf Wives’ — “we call them female-headed households”, Rajan said, “where women handle everything from buying groceries to medical needs to education of children, while facing alienation in society because their husbands are away for many years”.

The social cost of migration is rarely studied or factored into policy decisions, Rajan said. “In Tamil Nadu, there are some 2 million children who haven’t seen 1 parent or both parents for a long time, some 1 million wives who are coping with the prolonged absence of their husbands, and nearly 2 million old parents living alone with their children abroad — these three categories are paying the price of the remittances back home,” he said.

According to Rajan, over 70% of remittances was “blood money” that emigrants earned while working in extreme climatic conditions.

“During a recent visit to West Asia, I saw government records showed the temperature at 49.1 degrees Celsius when the actual temperature was about 51 degrees. They are supposed to suspend work if the temperature cross 50 degrees, so the government record rarely crosses 50,” he said.

“Lakhs of unskilled or semi-skilled workers send money to their families back in India. By contrast, many NRIs who earn much more mostly spend their earnings abroad,” Rajan noted.

The survey notes the peculiar character of Tamil Nadu’s emigration, where a migrant spends Rs 1.08 lakh on the process on average, more than the Rs 76,243 that an individual spends on average in Kerala.

Prof D’ Sami, who studies migration and co-authored the study, said that unlike Kerala where emigration mostly happens through close relatives or known persons, Tamil Nadu emigrants mostly take the help of agents, which leads to the higher cost.

According to the report, about 52% of the emigrant population was between the ages of 20 and 34. While women were less than 15% of the emigrant population, the most women emigrants were from Tirupur (43.9%) and Namakkal (40.9%), two highly industrialised districts known for their textile and small-scale industries. Likewise, the districts with the smaller shares of the emigrant women population — Perambalur (1.8%), Ramanathapuram (2%), Ariyalur (2%) — were also the districts with the highest share of male emigrants.


The report also contains data and analysis on internal migration. The most migration from Tamil Nadu is to Karnataka, it says. In 2015, the largest number of emigrants, 3.22 lakh, were from Chennai , while the less densely populated Ramanathapuram district, known for agrarian crises and drought, ranked third at 1.37 lakh.