Kerala, the most educated state, tops jobless charts as expats head home

Photo: PTI
The heat before the monsoon arrives in Kerala is particularly cruel, capable of drying up six-foot deep canals. So when Bincy Johny hands out a glass of fresh guava juice at her home in Kothamangalam, Ernakulam, it is accepted gratefully. The heat doesn’t keep anyone from doing what they must, though. A post-lunch routine followed across the state, Bincy’s husband is out gathering bales of grass for their cattle.

The Johny family home could pass for a fruit orchard, with the rows of mangosteen, mango, gooseberry and guava trees that the family planted during annual vacations. The Johnys, along with their children Delna and Dervin, have lived here for only about two years. They were in Saudi Arabia for 10 before that, Johny with a trading services company and Bincy a nurse.

“We didn’t take a single penny from our share of parental property. Every brick in this house came from the money we earned in Saudi,” says Bincy proudly. Her claim rings across the state. Only the provenance of the money changes. Saudi Arabia becomes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, any of the West Asian countries popularly and collectively known as “Gulf” in Kerala.

The family moved back because prospects for higher education for their children were limited. Now they are living off the land and savings. Getting a job here is just not worth it, they feel. “If a nurse gets Rs 20,000 in a private hospital in Kerala, they'd get at least Rs 60,000 in Saudi. Plus, we’d have to travel long distances here," says Bincy. 

In 1998, Kerala had 1.36 million emigrants. After rising to a high of 2.4 million in 2014, the figure fell to 2.12 million in 2018
Not far from their home lives 24-year-old Jenu Jose. “There aren’t enough jobs for the number of graduates Kerala is churning out,” he says, referring to the state’s historical problem of the job economy. “If you want to stay here and work, there’s a good chance you’d have to change your line,” continues Jose. Many of his friends who studied engineering now work on the business side at Thiruvananthapuram’s technopark. 

So when he saw an opportunity to put his own degree to use as part of a construction team in Saudi Arabia two years ago, Jose took it up. He returned last December after his employers could no longer afford the fees they needed to pay for each of their non-native employees. First levied in 2013, the Saudi government has steadily raised it, from SAR 2,400 in 2013 to 7,200 per employee currently. Jose is now waiting for his visa to Canada.

Kerala has had a deep and abiding relationship with West Asia. The dream was to work through the extreme temperatures and then come home to clear debts, stock up on gold, buy land and build mansions. Any Malayali will tell you that the answer to “Cherkan Gulf il aano? (Does the boy work in the Gulf)” would once have been the deciding factor for matrimonial matches. No longer.

A combination of factors sent the West Asian economies into a tailspin, and by extension Kerala’s. Oil prices dropping in 2014 created a global crisis that affected every sector, including construction, and these countries then began a variety of austerity drives. Some of these included policies that protected jobs for natives. 

 “The long history of emigration from Kerala to the Gulf is in its last phase,” says S Irudaya Rajan of Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS). When the Centre conducted the first of eight Kerala Migration Surveys in 1998, the state had 1.36 million emigrants. After rising to a high of 2.4 million in 2014, the figure fell to 2.12 million in 2018. The surveys also report that while the number of those who returned from West Asia in 1998 amounted to 739,000, the number rose to nearly 1.3 million in 2018.

There are hundreds of Indians in jail in Kuwait who, like me, have no access to legal help --- John Peter, Kothamangalam resident
Even as Kerala witnesses the influx of its people from West Asia, a report from the National Sample Survey Office says that unemployment in India is at its worst in 45 years. Eleven states have unemployment rates higher than the national average of 6.1 per cent. And Kerala has the dubious honour of topping that list with 11.4 per cent.

It takes Rajan a few long seconds to stop laughing when these statistics are recounted to him. “If Malayalis are not employed, it’s either because they don’t want to work or they are waiting for something better,” he says. “How can there be a dearth of jobs in Kerala when the state provides employment to close to three million migrant workers?” The migrants, typically from Odisha, Bengal and Bihar, come to Kerala as manual labour. 

“The assessment criteria that’s adopted for across India is off the mark when directly applied to Kerala,” agrees Prasanth Nair, managing director at the Kerala Shipping & Inland Navigation Corporation and former collector of Kozhikode district. “Kerala’s labour economy is completely integrated with the international market. The aspiration levels of the people here are decided more by Dubai’s economy than their neighbours in Tamil Nadu,” he continues.  

Visit the smallest of towns and you’ll find palatial homes next to rubber plantations-turned-pineapple groves. There’s no stable source of income, but the lights are on and there’s fried fish and moru (buttermilk) curry on the table because people still have land to live off.

In the context of employment, Kerala’s story is too nuanced to be tied neatly to a statistical figure. Malayalis returning to a land where they don’t find handsomely paying jobs has resulted in them not taking up jobs at all. “People aren’t going hungry and this isn’t unemployment,” says Rajan. 
“Unemployment is when you can’t get a job even if you try. But here people are not even attempting to find a job because they are figuring out where to go next.” Others agree with that assessment, and quote instances of people who remain deliberately “unemployed” while they wait for their overseas plans to work out. 

What’s available in the job market may not make you much money --- Sajeer Cholakkal, Kottakkal resident
People across the state agree that the number of jobs available isn’t the problem, but salary expectations and benefits are.  “I have nine years of experience, but in Kerala everyone wants to hire freshers so that they don’t have to pay higher salaries,” says Sinoy Mathew, a graphic designer who returned from Qatar after he was handed a pink slip. “What’s available in the job market may not make you much money,” agrees Sajeer Cholakkal, 34. He’s a native of Malappuram, a district that saw the highest number of emigrant returns in 2018 (309,881). 

Cholakkal left for Saudi when he was 21 to return a good 12 years later after the oil price crisis forced him to shut shop. He has now managed to launch an e-portal service to help pravasis (non-resident Indians) with documentation work but has had to cut back on his family’s quality of life. His monthly income of nearly Rs 1 lakh in Medina has reduced to about Rs 20,000 today. Still, Cholakkal is one of the luckier ones.

“I’ll take any job I can get,” says John Peter, 54. To reach Peter’s place in Kothamangalam, one can take a two-wheeler halfway up a mountain. The other half is a hike. Once one reaches the top, where human-sized cacti grow, locating Peter’s pukka house is easy. It’s less easy listening to his story. After three well-paying years of driving for a family in Kuwait, Peter spent the next 10 in jail on what he maintains were fabricated charges. “As an Indian in Kuwait, I had no rights. There continue to be hundreds of Indians in that jail who, like me, have no access to legal help. I had no help from the Indian government,” he says. “My father and sister passed away, and now I need a job that can help me pay for my wife’s cancer treatment.” 

Help is in fact at hand, but Peter doesn’t know it. He has not heard of all the pravasi associations that have come up to help returnees restart their lives. Nor has he heard of Norka (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs), a department of the Kerala government which since 1996 has helped rehabilitate returnees and provided financial assistance for medical expenses and even weddings (a modest Rs 15,000 for the last).

It is against this changing context that, throughout the state, politicians, bureaucrats and other stakeholders in Kerala’s economy seem to be moving in and out of conferences and seminars that feature “New Kerala” somewhere in the titles.

New Kerala, says Nair, is about correcting past mistakes. Last year’s floods were a wake-up call for the state. “We don’t want to rebuild Kerala just as it was before. We are debating how to make sociological corrections besides becoming more ecologically sensitive.” Under the New Kerala vision, the government is also emphasising “curated investments to ensure responsible development”. This, feels Nair, might help Malayalis get jobs that match their aspirations.

Thus, the government is welcoming new industries: carmaker Nissan came to Thiruvananthapuram last year, followed by Tech Mahindra and Boston-based real estate company Taurus Investment Holdings. (Shashi Tharoor’s French and the fish curry at the chief minister's residence reportedly helped seal the Nissan deal.) Japanese firms such as Hitachi and Fujitsu are also said to be in talks with the government, as is Microsoft. 

Kerala Tourism Secretary Rani George has also announced that by 2021, tourism will offer 500,000 more jobs. One such new opportunity is the Nefertiti luxury cruise which sets sail from Kochi for a five-hour voyage, and which is being seen as the next big MICE destination as well. The Malandu Cruise project also specifically aims to boost tourism in Malabar by linking eight rivers and backwaters in Kannur and Kasargod. 

But it’s hard to keep the Malayali home. The legendarily peripatetic lot is setting its sights farther than West Asia ever since that region let them down. “If skilled Malayalis go to the Gulf now, it’s only to use that as a stepping stone to places that offer permanent residency,” says Rajan. “It is Kerala to Dublin or Toronto or Canberra — but via Dubai.”

So even as Jose waits for his Canada visa, a country where close to 20 of his friends have already got jobs, Dervin Johny, who has just finished Class XII, has his eye on New Zealand. “If everything works out, his sister Delna could follow him too,” says their mother Bincy. Clearly, the Gulf Dream was Old Kerala’s dream. New Kerala wants to conquer the New World.

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