For the first time since the pioneers set sail for the Gulf countries in the 1960s, emigration from Kerala shows signs of decline.

The Kerala Migration Survey 2016, conducted by Professor Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies, shows that 22.4 lakh migrants from Kerala live in different parts of the world today, down from 24 lakh in 2014.

The decline may continue in the coming years, socio-economically affecting Kerala, which depends heavily on remittances from the expatriates.

The state had 13.6 lakh emigrants when the first Kerala Migration Survey was conducted in 1998. The figure rose to 18.3 lakh in 2003, 21.9 lakh in 2008, 22.8 lakh in 2011 and 24 lakh in 2014.

Of Kerala’s 14 districts, Thrissur has seen the steepest decline of 75,335 migrants, followed by Ernakulam with 71,740.

The Gulf region is the favourite destination for migrants from Kerala, with nearly 90% living in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries – 40.3% in the United Arab Emirates, 23.9% in Saudi Arabia, 8.6% in Qatar, 7.7% in Oman, 4.9% in Kuwait, 3.7% in Bahrain.

Outside of the Gulf, the migrants are mostly scattered in the United States (4.2%), the United Kingdom (1.6%), Canada (1.2%), Australia (0.7%) and Singapore (0.5%).

Decoding the decline

Rajan said the “root cause” of the decline in emigration was the birth control measures implemented in Kerala during the 1980s and 1990s. Kerala has had the lowest birth rate of any Indian state for years now. “People between the ages of 20 and 34 prefer migration,” Rajan explained. “We call it migration-prone age group. This group is shrinking in Kerala thanks to the low child birth rates. The majority of the parents in Kerala had opted for the two-children policy by the late 1990s. It has caused a human resource shortage. The results are there to see now.”

According to the Sample Registration System Survey of 2013, conducted by the Registrar General of India, the Crude Birth Rate in India was 21.4. Among the states, Bihar had the highest Crude Birth Rate of 27.4 and Kerala the lowest of 14.7.

Given the state’s lower birth rate, Rajan said, the decline in migration from Kerala will continue for some time. “But the number of expatriates will not come down below 20 lakh,” he added. “The reason being that Malayalis are addicted to migration. It is in their DNA.”

Another reason for the decline is that the wages being offered in the Gulf are no longer quite attractive. Migrant workers from Kerala used to earn handsomely until just a few years ago. But the influx of labourers from other Indian states and countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal into the region led to a surfeit of cheap labour and brought down the wages.

To make matters worse, many employers resorted to heavy cost-cutting after the slump in crude oil prices, the chief source of income for most Gulf countries, in 2015.

According to statistics released by India’s External Affairs Ministry, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab and Rajasthan sent the most people to the Gulf in 2015 and 2016. Kerala now occupies seventh position in this list.

Losing money 

The decline in emigration will reduce remittances, the backbone of Kerala’s economy. The survey shows that remittances come down to Rs 63,289 in 2016 from Rs 71,142 crore in 2014. “It must be seen how low remittances will affect Kerala as the state has been heavily depending on it for quite some time now,” Rajan said.

The Kerala Migration Survey 2016, the seventh in the series of studies on international and internal migration from Kerala undertaken by the Centre for Development Studies as an on-going project since 1998, is based on primary data collected from randomly chosen 13, 247 households across 63 taluks of the state.

“The survey provides the government the most comprehensive report on migration,” Rajan said.

The next survey is due in 2018.