A perplexed-looking Krishnan wandered outside the railway station in Aluva in Ernakulam district, moving from person to person. The old man had arrived in the town from a remote village in Kollam district and wanted to take a bus to nearby Perumbavoor. Everybody he asked replied in Hindi, a language Krishnan couldn’t understand. Eventually he found this correspondent: “Are you a Malayali?”

Many people in Kerala have started learning Hindi as the workforce in the state gets replaced by people from North and North Eastern states. Thirty lakh migrants have found jobs here, filling a gap created by the exodus of unskilled and semi-skilled Keralites to foreign nations, particularly the Gulf, and the disinclination of educated Keralites to settle for anything but white-collar jobs at home.

According to the Kerala Economic Review 2014, the state recorded a growth rate of 6.49% in the last fiscal, which is above the national average of 4.04% and the second highest in South India. Its literacy rate is as high as 93.9%.

This success and literacy has created a deep paradox. A vast majority of those on the live registers of the employment exchanges are educated youth who are averse to manual jobs. They prefer either a government job, even if in lower grades, or in the Persian Gulf nations.

Last Sunday, 5.2 lakh people appeared for a Public Service Commission test for 1,500 positions of assistants in the state secretariat. The applicants included many professional degree holders, postgraduates, MPhil holders and doctoral researchers.

Different standards

At home, educated Malayalis want a government job. But they are ready to do even manual jobs under extreme weather outside the country. The flow to the Gulf that started in the 1970s following the oil boom is still continuing. The number of expat Malayalis has been estimated by various agencies to be above 30 lakh, but a door-to-door survey conducted by the Bureau of Economics and Statistics in 2013 revealed that the actual number was 16.25 lakh.

With the out-migration showing no sign of abating, the job market in Kerala will soon be dominated by migrant labourers from other Indian states. A recent study by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Gulati Institute of Taxation estimates that the size of the migrant workforce could go up to 48 lakhs in the next 10 years. This is based on the local demand, especially in the construction sector which now employs 60% of the migrants.

The demographic transition taking the state to zero population growth in the next few years may also lead to further labour influx. The working age population (15-59 years) has been witnessing a steady decline. According to the Centre for Development Studies, the growth in this category dropped from 9% in 1961 to 7% in 1991 and is projected to hit 4% by 2021.

West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa account for about 75% of the migrant workers in the state. Besides the construction sector, they find work in hotels and restaurants, manufacturing units, trade, and agriculture sectors. A majority of them are single males between 18 and 35 years old.

Remittances and wages

According to the study by the Gulati Institute, the outward remittance flow from the state is Rs 17,500 crore a year. This is based on an average daily wage of Rs 300 per worker. However, the wage has been rising steadily as there is acute shortage of workers in many sectors. The wages in the construction sector have already crossed Rs 600 a day.

Though the outflow of money from the state is only a fraction of the remittance flow to the state, which is inching close to Rs 1 lakh crore a year, a vast majority of the migrants, especially in the Gulf countries, earn less than their counterparts get in the state.

Satheeshan, a mason who went to Dhammam in Saudi Arabia after spending more than Rs 1 lakh for the visa and the airfare, was shattered when he found that the wage was half of what he earned back home. Though he was offered 800 Saudi Riyals (Rs 12,800 at the current rate), the company deducted 200 Riyals towards food and accommodation.

Satheeshan quit the job and returned to Kerala after three months. Now he is daily earning Rs 600 to Rs 700 from his mason work and Rs 500 from the three cows he bought from the savings he made in Saudi. Apart from this, he is also earning substantial income from the fruit and vegetable cultivation he started on a leased land in partnership with two friends.

“In Saudi, I worked like a slave in scorching heat, lived in congested labour camps without adequate toilets and bathrooms,” he said. “Back in Kerala, I am leading a happy life with my wife and children. I am sure all my friends, who are toiling in Gulf, can have a similar life in Kerala by doing half the job they do there.”

Unfortunately, a majority of the unskilled and semi-skilled Keralites who earn less than Rs 10,000 a month in most Gulf countries are not ready to return. This is mainly because of higher social acceptability that their life abroad brings to their families in the state.

Migration and marriage

There was a time when Gulf Keralites enjoyed high ratings in the marriage market. But the situation is fast changing. Educated women refuse to marry Gulf Keralites and live without conjugal relation since the men get to go home only for a month in a year or two. Though much has been reported about the positive impacts of migration, including empowerment of Gulf wives, no serious attempt has been made to study the sexual issues triggered by it.

Kerala already tops the country in divorces and alcoholism. Divorces, which have increased by 350% over the last decade, are found to be high among the migrants.

Though the migration to Kerala has led to their economic upliftment, the migrant labourers from other states face the same predicament of Gulf Keralites. Like lakhs of Keralites working in the Gulf, they also leave their wives and children behind. But a major difference is that they don’t have to worry about exorbitant airfares to spend time with their families.

The easy rail accessibility from most of parts of Kerala to their hometowns makes life easier for the migrant labourers. Most railway stations, as Krishnan found at Aluva are, therefore, crowded with non-Malayalis when trains to and from North and North Eastern states arrive.