Migrating Malayalis give Kerala lakhs of locked houses, millions in banks

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DECEMBER 23, 2023

There is this evergreen joke. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the Moon, there was a Malayali (a person from Kerala) welcoming him there.

The migrating Malayalis are creating mini Keralas across the world, but the impact of the migration is being felt back home.

Keralites are currently working in 182 of the world’s 195 countries, according to a report released by Norka Roots of the Kerala government. That’s 93% of the world’s nations.

Approximately 21 lakh (2.1 million) Malayalis have migrated worldwide, according to the 2018 Kerala Migration Survey. And this, according to some, isn’t even half the picture.

With the migration of Keralites, many Keralas have sprung up across the world. Alan Regi Varghese is a Malayali of one such mini-Kerala.

The 33-year-old digital marketing professional migrated to Canada two years ago and is based in Vancouver.

Alan and his wife, Roshni Jacob, are living the Canadian dream. They often go camping in their campervan in the serene countryside with their Malayali friends.

There are several community videos, including of Onam celebrations, on social media depicting how Malayalis have taken a part of Kerala with them to Canada, just like they have to dozens of other countries across the world.

“Migration has become a part of Malayali’s lifestyle,” Norka Roots CEO Harikrishnan Namboothiri tells IndiaToday.In. “With this, the concept of ‘Global Keralam’ has evolved,” he adds.

The global movement of the Malayalis is cutting Kerala both ways. If it is helping the economy with the remittances sent from abroad, there is also the outflow of funds when it comes to students going abroad to study.

Then there is another sad truth – the lakhs of locked houses and vacant college seats.

BUT WHY LEAVE ‘GOD’S OWN COUNTRY’?

Kerala is blessed with nature’s bounty and has done relatively well in socio-economic parameters. Why are then people from Kerala migrating to other countries?

“I shifted to Canada because of the job opportunities with higher salaries, better work-life balance, good infrastructure, better standard of living and greater individual freedom,” Alan tells IndiaToday.In from Canada.

Gulf countries are a preferred destination for jobs of the NRKs or non-resident Keralites as they are popularly called. UAE, for instance, has almost two lakh Keralites working there. That is followed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“In developed countries, Keralites are often identified as Indians, rather than specifically as Malayalis. However, in Gulf countries, Malayalis maintain a distinct identity, being referred to as ‘Malabaris’ by the local Arabs,” says Alan.

Not just the Gulf countries or the West, even conflict-ridden places aren’t off-bounds for Malayalis. They are employed in warzones like Palestine, Syria, and Ukraine, as well as countries like Somalia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, which are facing governance challenges.

Malayalis are present in the entire spectrum of countries. They contribute their skills in countries like Turkmenistan, which has dictatorial leadership, Myanmar that is ruled by military junta and in both the oldest country, Iran, and the newest country, South Sudan. They are in Russia, the world’s largest country, and the Vatican, the world’s smallest.

Not just jobs, Malayalis are moving out of Kerala for education too.

Keralites are pursuing education in 54 countries across the world, including in places like Jamaica, Curacao, Bangladesh and the Isle of Man.

However, the two countries where there is a total absence of the Malayali diasporas are Pakistan and North Korea.

These numbers are based on the information from Pravasi IDs issued by Kerala government’s Norka department. The data is from 2018 and 2022. The data excludes those who haven’t registered with Norka and individuals with students’ visas who have transitioned to work permits, permanent residency or citizenship.

Alan and Roshni, for example, are Keralites who moved to Canada two years ago but aren’t registered with Norka.

That is why several experts say that the numbers of Malayalis working across the globe is many times more than the official projection.

THE TWO STREAMS OF KERALA MIGRANTS

Amid this large-scale movement, it is noticeable that there are two major migratory pathways for those leaving Kerala in search of employment.

The first set are those heading to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and are mostly unskilled labourers.

Though unskilled, they are the pillars of Kerala’s economy and return to their home state after working abroad and sending back money for years. This trend of working in the Gulf countries started after the oil-fuelled boom of the 1970s.

The other stream of Keralites, the better-skilled and educated, migrate to western developed countries.

Malayalis have migrated to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other European countries. Many in this group get permanent residency or citizenship, and their likelihood of returning to Kerala is minimal.

“Earlier, unskilled workers were the ones who went abroad from Kerala, but today, skilled, semi-skilled and super-skilled workers are also migrating,” Norka Roots CEO Harikrishnan Namboothiri tells IndiaToday.In. This actually hints at the brain drain from Kerala.

THE OUTFLOW OF FUNDS FROM KERALA 

The migration story has two sides to it. If it is helping with the remittances, it is also aiding the outflow of funds. In addition, it is emptying out Kerala villages and leaving college classrooms empty.

The estimated total remittances to Kerala by those working abroad were Rs 85,092 crore as per KMS 2018. Kerala’s economy has long been blamed for being dependent on wired money from abroad.

But the flow of funds isn’t unidirectional.

According to an IIM Kozhikode report, Malayalis typically finance their overseas migration through family savings, bank loans, and loans from friends, with the amount ranging from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh.

When individuals migrate to developed nations, leveraging properties and taking loans, money flows out of the state.

Then there are students taking education loans and going abroad, which too aids in the outflow of funds.

KERALA’S LOCKED HOUSES, EMPTY COLLEGES

One notable consequence of this migration wave is the significant number of vacant seats in arts and science colleges across four major universities in Kerala. The situation is so dire that some institutions are struggling to survive.

A staggering 82,230 seats are reported to be vacant, indicating a shift in the trajectory of how higher education is pursued in Kerala.

Unlike in the past, when students typically pursued diploma and postgraduate courses abroad after completing their degrees in Kerala, the current trend sees students opting for opportunities abroad just after completing their higher secondary education.

One private agency in Kerala, which assists students with their plans of studying abroad, arranged visas for 11,636 students in 2023 alone. This is just one agency we are talking about.

It’s not just about empty colleges, it’s about empty houses too. There are villages after villages in Kerala with locked houses.

About 60% of the 12 lakh closed houses in Kerala belonged to non-resident Keralites who have settled abroad, according to the 2011 Census. Since the 12 years when the Census was conducted, the issue must have grown manifold.

Ghost villages and villages with just elderly people are also a phenomenon in Punjab, where there’s a craze among the youth to migrate abroad. Other than Kerala, Punjab, Gujarat and the two Telugu states have a huge expat population.

The Malayalis in Gulf countries will have to return as the governments there don’t have a policy of giving citizenship, but those who have migrated to western countries might never return.

“Most of the migrants in the developed countries don’t have a plan to return to Kerala. Maybe some might like to spend their retirement days in Kerala but for most it’s a one-way ticket,” says Alan.

The migration saga of the Malayalis, however, might see a change as several western countries are tightening their visa norms over economic and national security. Amendments in visa policies will likely make migration more challenging for unskilled Malayalis.

Also, factors like cost of living, inflation, and unemployment rates in host countries might force many who might have made it abroad.  Many of them might have loans to pay off and lost years abroad. The government will have to plan for the returnees and take care of their financial, mental, and physical well-being.

But till then, the number of locked houses and vacant college seats might keep growing even as millions accumulate in banks.


Courtesy: India Today / PTI