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Migration from Kerala: The end of an era?

Kerala is on the threshold of a transition: with income from remittances set to decline and emigration to the Gulf decreasing, the remittance-based and largely service sector-oriented growth process will not be sustainable, writes John Samuel

It is estimated that today over 10% 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. In spite of various estimates, there is no agreement among researchers on the exact number of people of Kerala origin (PKO) living in the different states of India, and the world; estimates vary between 3-4 million. This is partly because it is not easy to count second- and third-generation Keralites who have been living in different parts of India and the world for years.

There is greater clarity, however, on the number of migrants to the Gulf region and patterns of migration over the last 40 years.

Migration has been a significant factor in helping reduce poverty, unemployment and relative deprivation in Kerala. For over three decades there has been steady migration from the state to countries in the Gulf and different parts of India and the world. A recent survey (Migration and Development: Kerala Experience’, S Irudaya Rajan, K C Zacharia, CDS, 2007) by the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, points out that there are around 2.27-3 million non-resident workers from Kerala. The proportion of migrant workers to the Gulf dropped from 95% in 1998 to 89% in 2007.

According to the study, international migrants sent around Rs 24,000 crore as remittances to Kerala in 2006-07. That same year, remittances accounted for around 20% of the state’s NSDP.

Highlights of the study include:

  • The number of emigrants was 18.4 lakh in 2003 and 18.5 lakh in 2007. The number of return emigrants was 8.9 lakh in 2003; in 2007 it was also 8.9 lakh. The number of non-resident Keralites (NRK) was 27.3 lakh in 2003; it was 27.4 lakh in 2007. The rate of migration, however, experienced a significant decline, dropping from 26.7 per 100 households in 2003 to 24.5 per 100 households in 2007.
  • The proportion of households in Kerala with a NRK each in them has remained more or less the same as in 2007; it was 25.8% in 2003.
  • Northern districts of Kerala are gaining importance as areas of emigration. As the years pass, more and more Kerala emigrants emanate from districts such as Malappuram, Kannur and Kasaragod. In Malappuram, 71% of households have in them either an emigrant or a return emigrant each. Malappuram district had the distinction of sending out the largest number of emigrants from Kerala in 1998 and in 2003. It retained this distinction in 2007. In fact, in 2007, Malappuram district was the place of origin of 336,000 emigrants, or around 18.2% of the total number of emigrants from Kerala.
  • Nearly half the number of emigrants were Muslims. Among Muslims, three out of every four households (74%) have an NRK each; among Hindus, less than one in five households (22%) has an NRK each in them.
  • The Muslim community that forms nearly 25% of the state’s population received 50% of all remittances during 2006-07. The share of the seven northern districts of Kerala in total remittances (61%) was almost double the share of the seven southern districts (39%).
  • The number of “Gulf wives” (married women in Kerala whose husbands live in other countries) is estimated to be around 1.2 million. They form about 10% of married women in the state.

Migration has been a key engine of social, political and economic change in Kerala in the last 30 years. Migration patterns and their socio-economic impact have significantly influenced the culture and political process in Kerala. High remittances helped decrease unemployment and poverty whilst also paradoxically giving rise to a consumerist culture and commoditisation of public services such as education and health. The remittances of over 2 million migrant workers provided indirect employment to around 4-5 million people (according to various estimates) in Kerala. The remittance economy also changed patterns of land ownership and agriculture, besides impacting the environment and ecology due to an unprecedented boom in the construction sector and the pressure on land and paddy fields for new constructions.

Kerala is on the threshold of a transition, and the consequences (positive and negative) of migration will play an important role in shaping the state’s future. Income from remittances will decline and the extent of migration to the Gulf decrease as the region sees a saturation of the labour market. There will be greater competition for skilled and semi-skilled jobs in India and elsewhere. Hence, a remittance-based and largely service sector-oriented growth process may not be sustainable for Kerala in the long run.

It is important to understand the five different waves of migration from Kerala, and how each of these patterns influenced the state’s social and political process. There are three issues here: socio-cultural shifts due to migration; economic and social consequences of a remittance-based economy; and the political consequences of migration.

Among the various states of India, people from Punjab, Gujarat and Kerala tend to migrate more across the world. This has some historical precedent as these states were exposed to cultures and people from outside through trade. Kerala has a history of over 2,300 years of exposure to different cultures through maritime trade; Gujarat possibly more than 3,000 years; Punjab, at the crossroads between south Asia and central Asia, was on the cusp of major trade routes and wars. There was a different kind of migration from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to Southeast Asia: present-day Cambodia, parts of Thailand, Indonesia, south Vietnam, etc. And there were Chola trade-based kingdoms in the south of present-day Thailand. All this cultural exposure shaped our historical worldview and influence.

The first generation of migrants from Kerala, in the early-20th century, were semi-skilled or quasi-professional workers to Ceylon, parts of Malaya (to work on plantations), Burma, Madras, Calcutta, Karachi and Bombay. The knowledge and money they brought back influenced Kerala’s architecture and cooking, to some extent.

The second wave of migration after the Second World War was to Singapore, Malaysia and different parts of India -- to big cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, and Bangalore. Most of the people who migrated during the second wave, from 1945 to 1960, were high-school-educated, semi-skilled workers (typists, secretaries, office workers, and army personnel).

The third wave of migrants, from 1960 to 1975, consisted of people with technical skills and professional training (technology professionals, nurses, clerks, technicians, etc).

These three waves of migration, and the consequent remittances, helped influence land relationships and instil a sense of “Indianess”, as a significant number of Malayalees joined the pan-Indian middle class.

The fourth wave, from 1975 to 1992 (until the Kuwait war), saw mass migrations to the Gulf, USA, Germany and other countries in Europe and elsewhere. This was due to increased incomes earned from high oil prices in the 1970s, and the shortage of skilled labour required for construction and infrastructure development in an oil-based economy. Those who economically transformed Kerala are people with ITI and nursing education. The increasing demand for nurses in the health sector prompted a chain of migration to the US, Germany, etc. One nurse was possibly responsible for the migration of an average of 20 people!

The fifth wave of migration (1993 onwards) had two or three streams. These included: a) the relatively large migration of semi-skilled and unskilled labour from northern parts of Kerala, particularly Malappuram and Kannur; b) immigration of highly qualified professionals (engineers, doctors, IT experts, academics) to various parts of Europe, US, and other parts of the world; c) increasing emigration to the US by the family networks of nurses who migrated to the US and Europe during the fourth wave of migration in the 1980s.

There were indeed caste and community connotations for the migrations. People from the Christian community migrated relatively early, partly due to access to early education and less stigma associated with skilled work and professions like nursing. Also, many Christians were marginal farmers. A growing population in the first half of the 20th century altered the land-to-people ratio, hence people were forced to migrate within Kerala in search of land, or outside Kerala in search of work. Many of them could have been quasi-economic refugees who had little stake in the feudal system or the ruling elite of a princely kingdom largely controlled by the Brahmin-Nair axis.

The fourth wave of migration included significant numbers of Muslims, Ezhavas and people from other communities. While the second generation of the first and second wave of migrants became professionals (doctors, engineers, etc), the fourth wave of migrants belonged to the lower middle class. While the first three waves of migration were confined to a few areas of Kerala (Palghat, central Travancore, some parts of Malabar, and Kochi), the fourth wave of migration was much more widespread across caste, communities and regions. It is this fourth wave that had the greatest impact on social and political relations and the cultural landscape, and had major economic consequences.

The fifth wave of migration, 1995 onwards, incorporated three layers -- the upper elites consisting of skilled professionals across the world; b) middle class skilled and semi-skilled workers; c) lots of unskilled labour in the second half of the 1990s.

These patterns of migration and their consequences influenced every aspect of society: land relationships, decline of agriculture, growth of consumer and service sectors, rise of education as an industry (capitation fees, self-financing, etc), and a relatively less skilled and knowledge-based young leadership pool for political parties. This had a deep impact also in terms of the structure and leadership of political parties. Communities with a relatively greater stake in the power structure of Kerala (Nair-Namboothiri), that were economically well-off through access to land and feudal relationships, got into leadership positions in political parties.

Kerala’s political leadership therefore witnessed a high prevalence of people from a few communities. There were also fewer Muslims in the political elite of Kerala until the 1970s. By the end-1990s, however, the economic status, educational profile and land relationship status among Muslims changed significantly, resulting in a new understanding and assertion of the political process. This politicisation and revival of identity has had a direct connection with migration patterns. The response included a strange mix of mainstream reformist politics and a more radical politics that combined a critique of imperialism and the assertion of a new pan-Islamist politics.

Christians, who were part of the first three waves of migration, had better access to information, money and network resources. So the next generation of these migrants moved into the upper middle class elite sections of society. And since many of the relatively more educated and skilled (largely nurses) among them migrated to the US and other European countries, their politics too was partly shaped by this. This section of people was less politically conscious (largely non-left) and inadvertently promoted painkilivalkaram -- a new, popular titillating consumer culture that began in central Travancore and spread across Kerala.

Different patterns of migration from various communities also shaped the political sociology and sociology of political leaders. It influenced the film industry too as remittance money and Gulf-based businessmen began investing in films. The painkilivalkaram, or popularisation, can also be seen as the dissolution of feudal relationships in Kerala, a relationship that was significantly challenged by the fourth wave of migration and patterns of remittance. But though feudal relationships changed, the feudal mindset did not. This, along with the consumerist status-quo and the vanities of the neo-rich, created a conducive environment for painkilivalkaram,which can partly be seen in the popularisation and democratisation of literature from high-class ‘culture’ to products of mass consumption.

Infochange News & Features, January 2011