Baghonwali (Uttar Pradesh)/Kochi: Sipping tea, Mohammad Anwar, 50, stretches out on a string cot in the morning sun, overseeing construction of his new house in this Muslim village surrounded by lush sugar cane fields. As neighbours gather in his front yard, he orders for more chairs to be brought out as the conversation veers from the season’s cane harvest to a topic they never tire of chatting on—migrating to West Asia.
Two months ago, Anwar returned home to this village, 96km east of New Delhi, after working for five years as a painter in Saudi Arabia. He saved enough money to buy land, on which he grows wheat and sugar cane.
“Life was so difficult. We could not buy vegetables. We ate only roti and tea,” Anwar, father of four, recalls about the days he tended to his father’s small farm, which barely provided him with enough to feed his family of 10, before he moved to West Asia to seek his fortune.
Greener pastures: Migrant worker Mohammad Anwar in Baghonwali. Working in Saudi Arabia, Anwar saved enough to buy his own land. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Since the mid-1970s, when rising oil prices led to an explosion of wealth in West Asia, and created a huge demand for workers to build everything from refineries to bridges, young men from impoverished villages of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state, have been flocking to the region to find work.
The Union government reports the number of emigrants from the state has been soaring. In 2009, despite the global slowdown and financial troubles looming in places such as Dubai, UP sent 125,783 workers—beating Kerala’s record for the first time. In the same year, Kerala sent 119,384 workers, the ministry of overseas Indian affairs says.
The exodus of men from UP is because workers from north India are willing to endure hard jobs while those from Kerala, who entered the migration cycle much earlier, are less willing to do so now, reasons Binod Khadria, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s International Migration Studies Project. “We see a trend of replacement migration. Where jobs are getting filled by workers from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.”
Around 70% families in this village of 15,000 have a member working in West Asia, a bulk of them in Saudi Arabia, sometimes two or three members from the same family. On average, they earn between Rs11,000 and Rs16,000 per month. And signs of prosperity are visible today, in contrast with the situation a decade ago, says Muzamil Husain.
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“Here, we always had the problem of more people and less land. People had to work as daily labourers in others’ farms. They lived in small huts then. Now everyone has good homes,” says Husain, a village leader whose relatives were among the first to head out to Saudi Arabia.
At a conservative calculation, Husain estimates, workers send home around 50,000 riyals every month, which works out to Rs72 lakh a year. This estimate was backed by Ahmad Kasmi, a resident of the village who recently found a job as a teacher in Ghaziabad. “At least Rs6 lakh come to the local bank every month. We know it because we keep going there,” said Kasmi, adding that workers earn anywhere between Rs11,000 and Rs25,000 a month, depending on the job and length of work experience.
Punjab National Bank, Muzaffarnagar’s leading bank, does not keep separate data on foreign deposits, according to Avtar Singh, its assistant general manager. Sarva Uttar Pradesh Gramin Bank, which operates a branch in the village, declined to comment.
Concrete houses with decorative iron grills have sprung up in Baghonwali’s narrow winding streets. Some returnees are also snapping up new properties, turning them into ghairs, or outhouses, where men entertain their guests. Land prices have doubled in five years, washing machines have arrived in a few households and rumours float of an elevator being installed in the village.
But the place is still, like many Muslim villages surrounding this area, woefully short of civic amenities. It has one government-run primary school, but no hospitals, requiring villagers to trudge to Muzaffarnagar, a thriving commercial city several kilometres away. Many students attend private schools in the village.
State officials say the movement from UP, which has one of the country’s lowest per capita incomes at Rs1,517 a month, has been rising steadily over the last three years.
From Rampur town, an hour away from Baghonwali, Faiz Khan sends at least 50 workers out to West Asia every month. A middleman, or a sub-agent, Faiz puts workers in touch with recruiting firms in New Delhi. He says most of the boys come from poor Muslim families. “They save while they work there and they also fulfil their dream of visiting Mecca,” he says, referring to the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad in Saudi Arabia.
From Lucknow, the state capital, at least nine flights head to destinations in West Asia every week. The city’s regional passport office made 359,000 new cards in 2009, an 8% increase over the previous year, according to J.P. Singh, regional passport officer.
Experts believe the number of unskilled workers leaving the country is higher than the figure captured by the emigration department, going by passport records. While the ministry of overseas Indian affairs tracks workers who’ve not cleared their final school exams for class X, the passport office, which is under the external affairs ministry, is mandated to issue passports to anyone with a Permanent Account Number, issued by the income-tax department. Workers who’ve spent a few years overseas do not require emigration clearance.
Elsewhere in Kerala, workers such as K.N. Prashant, an electrician, who lived in Dubai for half a decade, but lost his job last year, returning was not an option. “Since companies are aware we have left Dubai and we’d want a job, they offered wages that are 25% lower,” says Prashant, who now takes up small contracts in his hometown of Palakkad in central Kerala.
Low salaries, agrees Chacko T. Varghese, general secretary of the Kerala Manpower Exporters’ Association, which has 110 recruiting agencies as members, discourage workers to migrate. Flow of remittances to the state was Rs37,019 crore last year, accounting for 20% of the state economy.
Meanwhile, in UP, the concerns are different. “Industries are languishing. With few opportunities to keep the workforce employable here, workers are looking for greener pastures,” says Jayant Krishna, principal consultant with Tata Consultancy Services Ltd and vice-chairman of Confederation of Indian Industry’s state council.
But not everyone has been able to chase the dream of riches. Last year, Mohammad Syed, a wood polisher in Baghonwali, paid Rs90,000 to a sub-agent to get a job. When he arrived in Dubai, he found that the job did not fit his skills. The company required a marble polisher. He was sent back. “I don’t know how I am going to repay the loans,” repents Syed, who has borrowed the money from a relative.
With residents making Saudi Arabia their second base, complaints are also common about brushes with that country’s rigid laws. For example, one of Anwar’s four sons, 22-year-old Mehtab, could not return home when authorities confiscated his passport for a traffic violation. “Embassy officials do nothing to help,” complains Anwar. Mehtab, who had since returned, is planning to go to Saudi Arabia this month again.
As a deterrent to rising number of swindling cases, the ministry of Indian overseas affairs had recently raised security bonds to Rs20 lakh—a licence for manpower companies to operate.
Many hope that the recent visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia would draw attention to these issues. Speaking to an Indian audience on 1 March, Singh said: “I am aware of some of the difficulties you face here... Our embassy and our consulate in Jeddah are working proactively to respond sympathetically to the concerns of the community, particularly the most vulnerable. Complaints received from workers are taken up with sponsors, and, whenever necessary, with Saudi authorities.”
This news should bring consolation to Anwar’s family, which has two other sons, Shaizad, 24, an electrician who has been away from home for five years, and 18-year-old Zaved, a carpenter, in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia.
“I worry about them. Both the boys left when they were young,” says Shamshana, Anwar’s 35-year-old wife.
Anwar, who plans to leave in June, says he regrets he could not educate any of his children because someone had to tend to the farm while he toiled away in West Asia. “Now, with the money my two boys bring in, I am going to get them married and they will live in the new house, and I want to see my grandchildren in school.”
Asit Ranjan Mishra contributed to this story.
The second and final part of the series, “The flight to West Asia”, will appear in Wednesday’s edition.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint